Vulvas ~ an exploration
I was 24 years old, and my best friend had just moved to Germany, leaving a gigantic hole in my social life. Since I had moved back to the countryside the previous year, I was losing my connection with the city. Wanting to engage with art and gain more independence, I booked a private Air b’n’b in Fitzroy. On my way there, I went to the art store and bought a large piece of paper, some markers, paint, ink, and glitter. Settling on the floor of the studio apartment, I unpacked the bag of goodies tentatively, I knew what I wanted to do but I wasn’t sure how to start. I think I felt a little embarrassed. Intimately, I unwrapped each marker, brush, container and package, turning them over in my fingers. Unscrewing the pink paint tube first and squeezing the cylinder lightly, watching as the mouth oozed a bubble of paint. I smelt it. The waft of acrylic paint didn’t smell like the high of oils, rather, more like baby poo.
Much like the first time I looked at her and then the first time I touched her, I wasn’t sure if it was allowed. Would I get told off for this? It felt so right, I was finally ready to explore this symbolism. Somehow accepting her and giving voice to the connection I had with her through the action of painting. I couldn’t stop myself anymore, the flood gates were jammed open.
I used my fingers again, playing with the outline, the wavy lips, circling, gathering it all together. Perfection. Every movement felt like pure rebellion, like the first time you get off. Scary, cold, and fantastic. I was warming up the media just like I warmed up my fingers, ready for the erotic actions taking place. I couldn’t stop, one turned into two, turned into 10, turned into needing more surfaces. This action became obsession, and I could understand now, why you saw penis’ drawn on every surface a boy could reach, its liberating.
Why are we so confronted by our own genitals?
I went to visit my best friend later that year in Amsterdam for Christmas. On this trip, our relationship transformed, and we finally started dating, realizing the funny tingly feelings inside each other were symbiotic. We visited art galleries during the day and laughed and had sex at night, going headfirst into the new us.
On one of these days, we added some embroidery to a gigantic collaborative artwork in the Stedelijk Museum. I, of course, sewed a red and yellow vulva adorned with a little black tuft of pubes on top. The 10-year-old boy next to me wasn’t really sure what he would add to the artwork and decided to copy me.
When we don’t make a big deal about something, when we model behaviors that dismantle prejudice and shame, we allow new stories to be written.
Often, I have reoccurring dreams of artworks before I physicalize them. Returning to Australia and leaving my girlfriend in Europe to complete her semester abroad, a giant painting emerged. The chaos of vulva stencils, airbrushed plants and painted womxn who were stamped with native Australian flowers.
I worked on the project for the remainder of the summer holidays. I constructed the frame in my brother’s house without considering the size of the door frames. It became eternally built into his house, unable to be removed.
This portrait sparked my next series. I used connector pens to render pencil drawings of friends that I admired. They were based off pictures they had sent me, of when they were feeling their most Boss.
Each artwork included house plants, a snake or two and a standard wallpaper of vulvas. I sent them to each friend along with a card and personalized note of thanks to them for being unashamedly them, every day.
A few of the drawings were included in the Teacher as Practitioner research project exhibition that year, and later alongside my students work at their end of year exhibition. It was the first time that I put vulvas into a public space, other than Instagram, and I was nervous. Why?
Vulvas are political
As a teacher, I always felt like drawing vulvas was against a moral or ethical code. It took me a while to realize that I felt like that because of my own internalized sexism, denoting vagina/vulva, and womxn’s bodies more generally, with sex. The moment I became freed from this idea was when I was teaching portraiture to Year 8 students. We were learning how to draw each part of the body, step by step. Some smart-ass kid came up to the board thinking he was going to be the class hero that day, and he drew a penis while looking me directly in the eyes; he had his style and technique down pat. My experience of this so far had been teachers getting angry and forcing boys to stay behind after class and remove all the graffiti off the tables. But in this instance, I did something apparently more shocking to my class, I just silently added a vulva, thanked the boy for his drawing and asked who was next. The silence was palpable.
The development of my vulva motif was subtle, pools of ink started to be surrounded by pointed oval outlines before more lines and shapes detailed pubes and the clitoris. Eventually though, it became standard. It would appear here and there in doodles I did while students were working in class.
Then, during painting projects I would create abstract designs that had vulvas camouflaged within the color palette. And later, I carved them into lino to make literal vulva stamps and applied them to large A1 canvas’.
The students would rarely question what these little shapes were, they knew what was going on. After class had ended one day, a Year 9 girl came up to me nonchalantly, “I like the vagina you were drawing today Miss,” said as if she was simply handing her homework in.
Drawing vulva’s keeps me in touch with my queerness while others see me as ‘straight’ just because I am currently seeing men.
My girlfriend returned in March, just in time for my birthday weekend. It was earlier than I had expected and when she arrived at my parents’ house, I broke down into tears. Unfortunately for us, these tears were only the beginning of what was to come. It is not my place to tell that story, although the relationship was ours, the details will always be hers. On the last day we were together, later that year in December, we started a painting. It was big, bold, and full of pain. When I left, having loaded the painting into my car for us to work on later, I think we both knew that we weren’t going to finish it. I mean officially we had broken up days earlier, but we were still faking false hope for a future friendship. I unloaded it when I got home, and it stayed, facing the wall for over a year.
I spent the summer holidays on our family’s property with Dad, in the shed. The same one which had had a walkie talkie set up like a baby monitor in it when I was little. Dad worked from home as a carpenter, and he would talk or listen to me while I played in my bedroom.
We had worked in there together since I was able to walk and talk, making countless school projects, art works and other projects. Each new idea concocted and realised. The breakup was harrowing and although we didn’t really talk about it, this was the process that helped me grieve.
I used my hands to sand back the old paint and rust from the tip bike he got me, all the way through to custom painting and fitting out new gear for it. I couldn’t fix her, us, our friendship or relationship; but I could renew this bike.
And so, I continued.
I wasn’t satisfied with the stamp form of the vulva anymore. I wanted it to be tangible, to touch, feel, sculpt and be, within it. Yet another school holiday period came, and I was back in Melbourne, staying in Thornbury. There was an exhibition around the corner dedicated to vulvas and vaginas. I saw so many different representations of the motif in every 2D and 3D way imaginable. Later that night, sitting on the couch, I played with some velvet material I had purchased. Folding it over and under my fingers, pinching, twisting, wrapping it sensually and instinctually. The next day I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria which had a pear theme and that was that. The birth of my first 3D vulva.
A year after bike restoration summer, I was finally ready to deal with the unfinished painting. I intended to finish it, but as soon as I flipped it over, I was frozen, not feeling the same desire to complete the imagery as I once had. I decided the best thing was for me to use it as an opportunity to start a new work. So, on its back side I started to draw the snake I had been dreaming and drawing on my iPad repetitively. For me, the snake would represent a new beginning, shedding its rainbow protection and revealing its rawest self. The scales would be vulvas and the painting on this canvas was just practice for a larger work I had in mind. I didn’t end up finishing this artwork in that sitting either, it would come to spend another year half-finished on both sides.
Why are old men so obsessed with orchids?
I had applied for a few exhibitions in the following year when I took a year of unpaid leave from work in 2018. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the year, but I knew that it could be a good opportunity to have an exhibition. I was gagging to get back into my own practice properly after spending so much time teaching high school students. I was sitting in a hostel dormitory near my favourite lake in New Zealand when I received the email, inviting me to exhibit in 6 weeks’ time. I was shocked and excited, unsure of exactly what I was going to do. Back in Australia a week later, I had a plan, and a lot of work ahead of me. The exhibition focused on realising some other dreams I had been having and some older ones.
The snake transformed from the smaller painting to a large textile/spray painted piece, my digital drawings started to take form and I created a gigantic installation using mirrored sheeting to display textile sculptures of orchids combined with different genitals. Nothing was fully realised, and I was still literally framing work only hours before the exhibition opened, but for me, it was a great step forward, putting myself out there and watching real people give real feedback outside of the institution of art school.
Straight after the exhibition ended, I flew overseas. Travelling around Japan, visiting a friend in Dubai and then moving on to Europe. The plan had never been to stay in Europe, I wanted to get to the UK and then the US as well, but I got side-tracked by Turkey. You can read more about the trip here. While I was travelling, I had my iPad and photographs of the ‘Cunt Coloring in Book’ by Tee Corinne. So, I spent a lot of time drawing and thinking about my life, my practice, my queerness, and what on earth I was going to do next. Interestingly, but maybe not surprising to everyone else, I didn’t really return to Australia. I mean, I went back for a few months to pick up what I needed and do a short course in English Language teaching, but then I left again and started my new adventure in Istanbul.
On my trip I got a tattoo, classic, I know. I designed it, using the vulva shape, and mixing in an eye, queer love, and mountains. It was a promise to myself to travel, own my queerness and keep an eye out for myself. Also, at this time, I met a girl from the US. She was queer and dating a Turkish girl, trying to find a way to live in Istanbul as well. We moved there around the same time and kept in contact during my hiatus back in Australia and the pandemic. I hadn’t realised what it was that drew me to her, at first. I mean we had similar interests and world views, but there was always something else going on behind the scenes. It was only when saying goodbye to her late in 2020 that I realised she was a doppelgänger of my ex. I had unknowingly been making peace with that relationship through her.
So here I am, the journey hasn’t ended and thankfully, it never does. I hope this has helped you to frame why my work is littered in vulvas. I’m learning, and I am addicted to critiquing everything I think and do. I haven’t got everything right along the way, and I hope to continue making mistakes so I can grow. If you want to continue reading and thinking about your relationship with yourself, with women, to the vulva/vagina, intersectional values, ideas, and perspectives, then please, STOP listening to me and start reading elsewhere! Below is a list of the reading I have done in the last 2 years or so that continue to help me shape and place myself within the feminist field. Usually with a good working highlighter and a notebook. I don’t agree with all of it, but it has shaped my critical thinking and understanding of who I am and how I relate to being a woman.
Links are to reviews, video’s and blogs about the books