Monsters and Maidens
The following is adapted from an artist statement prepared for Juice 14, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing journal, to accompany a few illustrations. The link at the bottom of this post will take you to a collection of drawings that I have kept online for the past several years, though many of these drawings I have given away or sold. The Whiffenpoof (the name of the site) refers to the name of a bedtime story my grandfather told my siblings and I, as well as my mother and her siblings, when we were children.
These drawings are inspired by fairytales I read as a child that were brimming with big-nosed monsters (such as Rumplestiltskin, goblins, beasts, and wolves) who threaten to harm skinny girls with long lustrous hair. I was always more interested in the monsters than the princesses. Over the years I transformed the monsters into more endearing and vulnerable creatures, almost pets, and made the princesses more sinister and complicated than they appear in fairytales.
When I was younger I would stay with my dad during the weekends and, because he did not have a television, I would sit across from him on one side of his drafting table where for hours we would listen to the CBC and he would make wax jewelry carvings while I drew pictures copied from books of fairytales and Archie Comics. I still listen to the radio and draw, but now the characters I draw are chimeras of different gendered traits and ideals; the scary monsters are often small and dejected, the girls are powerful and mysterious, their exaggerated “perfection” uncanny. I am still inspired by a variety of graphic narratives such as Charles Burns’s satire of gendered nuclear family ideals found in 1950’s romance/ sci fi comics, and Dame Darcy’s feminine kitsch aesthetic, undercurrent in her uncanny gothic fairytales in Meat Cake. Dame Darcy draws her comics in a dainty feminine Victorian aesthetic, but her characters are loud, unrestrained, and grotesque. Fairytales inspire me to play with mythologized gender roles, ideologies of “good” and “evil”, and other Victorian ideals echoed in contemporary culture.
These drawings are also inspired by literature, such as Angela Carter’s book of retold fairytales The Bloody Chamber. There are no secret princes within these monsters, but the beauties still except them, and the beauties are monsters too. The exaggerated perfection of the beauties is disturbing, like Carter’s mechanical maid in “The Tiger’s Bride”; their necks are too long and swan-like, eyes too large, and clothing constraining and decorative, which occurs sometimes with the costumes of masculinity and femininity. The pretty dresses, bows, ribbons, crowns, mermaids, princesses, and angels can look strange and unnatural in dark black or faded blue ink, or a melted rainbow ice cream mess of colours, but sometimes they are weapons of power and sources of comfort. The characters in these drawings are also sometimes unhappy, because it is okay to be sad, and there is a power in sadness, in revealing that part of yourself. You do not owe the world sweetness and smiles, just because you are a girl.
In these drawings, monsters become fantasies of girls who are not as simple or virtuous as they appear; the monsters are also lonely creatures, and the girls control them; but sometimes they are part of the girls and represent their darker less “ideal” characteristics. “Masculine” and “feminine” creatures blend together, becoming extensions of each other, suggesting the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and universality of darker feelings such as anger, jealousy, and loneliness.
In fairytales, nature and culture are often binaries, nature associated with goodness and purity and culture with evil and corruption, but in these drawings women and monsters are immersed in both nature and culture, surrounded by trees and flowers but also windows, clocks, and magic eight balls. I would like to visually deconstruct essentialist ideologies of gender and culture as Angela Carter does through her humanist retellings of fairytales. Fairytales inspire me to play with gender roles and ideologies of good and evil, images of innocence cohabit the page with monsters such as mustached birdmen and devil-like creatures.
I often draw to watch what appears, and then think about why a certain thing has appeared out of my imagination. From a young age, when I drew a man he was connected to a dozen things that are completely constructed by society, and the same when I drew a woman. Now I try to be conscious of the imposition of these gender ideologies on self-identity. For me drawing is a perfect medium to playfully and often unconsciously make visible these roles or “norms” that have pressured me, as a woman, to project a certain image of sweetness and submission.