Arts

Ishmael and female

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Portraitist Carolyn Campbell puts modern women’s faces on Renaissance bodies

Right in the heart of the University of Alberta, the large windows of the
FAB Gallery look out onto busy bus terminals. Usually, students pay little
attention to the paintings displayed within them as they dash by on their way
to class, but this week the work in the windows is hard to ignore. The giant
portraits of women dressed in Renaissance clothing by Carolyn Campbell (part
of a show entitled To Call Me Ishmael) look down at the bustling crowd with
such quiet intensity, such everlasting feminine strength, that they stop many
students dead in their tracks. They made me pause too—“Who are
these timeless women?” I wondered, and decided to meet the artist and
get to the bottom of the matter.

Vue Weekly: I am so intrigued by the way your portraits seem to take
contemporary women and place them in some other time, some other culture,
some other place. Am I wrong?

Carolyn Campbell: You are absolutely right. The women who are modeling in
these paintings are artists. They are artists that I know and respect. I
admire their work. I also thought that they had faces that would really fit
with the Renaissance bodies that I was putting on them. I wanted to make
pictures that show a contemporary person shouldering the past. They are
wearing on their shoulders this weight of history.

VW: Could you tell me more about the people that you drew? What was it
about them that was so special, that inspired you?

CC: Partly it came down to the artwork that they were doing. I felt that
as women and artists they have a legacy. It’s a part of the
responsibility of women. In a lot of these pieces, [the faces] are very
responsible. It’s who I am too. It comes back to your whole life. These
women have a solid sense of responsibility to their art.

VW: Do you think that women have a greater sense of responsibility?

CC: Oh, no—I don’t mean that at all. Not at all. I am just
saying that these women have a real solid sense of responsibility to their
art and working through their art.

VW: And yet as a mom, I do find that my life is one of constant balancing
of equal responsibilities. It’s not that my husband doesn’t
work—he certainly does. But he is mainly responsible for his job,
whereas I am equally responsible for my job and for my children, and if
somebody comes over to our house, they’re not going to say that he is a
messy housekeeper.

CC: [Laughs.] I know, It’s so true. And who is picking up the kids?
Who’s leaving at three o’clock today to pick them up? It’s
those kinds of things. So in my life, ever since I was about three years old,
I was troubled by an overwrought sense of responsibility. It’s been a
part of who I am…. But there was something about the work that [the women
artists in the portraits] were doing. I love all three of them. I love their
work. I find it quiet and peaceful, quite sophisticated…. At the same time
they have very beautiful, very particular faces.

VW: They are very serious faces.

CC: They are intelligent faces. There is so much going on in their eyes.
That’s what I love. These faces reflect a complexity and substantiality
to their lives. I thought that they could hold up a Holbein or Manet
body.

VW: That’s what struck me when I first saw them: contemporary life
is filled with images with stuff, with visual and auditory noise. And when I
look at your work, there is this incredible Renaissance sense of quietude.
The fact that you have made the figures stand against such a blank background
makes the faces very real. It’s a different way of relating to people.
It’s not like passing somebody by on the street. You force us to
confront the person. And the people you help us to see fully are women who
seemed so antithetical to the way we are seen in mass media. I couldn’t
figure out what was so different about these women, and I think that
you’ve finally put a word on it for me. It’s that overwhelming
sense of responsibility; there is almost a religious quality to it.

CC: I see timelessness in people… and all of these people, if one were
to know the women who modeled, they hold back a little bit when they are in a
public situation. They have a very quiet power about them. But they all have
it. They all have it. And it shows in their faces. V

To Call Me Ishmael
By Carolyn Campbell • FAB Gallery •
To May 29

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