Projet Sage Nu

While I wait excitedly for next week’s photo shoot with my first volunteer model, words that encapsulate this new project continue to formulate in my head:

THE NUDE has been admired, studied, and discussed for over two millennia, having made its noble debut in sculpture in Ancient Greece. During the Renaissance and later, painters took up the subject with fervour, but in 1838 the invention of photography enabled artistic explorations that had never before been possible.

In recent times, attitudes about the female body have been shaped by the overt sexualization [objectification] of women and girls in advertising, media, and the entertainment industry. Consequently, women have internalized unhealthy societal constructs regarding beauty and desirability, leaving no room for flaws, wrinkles, or aging.LaRiviere_Nude-11

The reality is that natural signs of aging have been consistently maligned [especially for women] since the advent of corporate advertising in the 1950s and 60s, with its endless brands of facial creams, hair dyes, and other age-defying products. Cosmetic surgery and photoshopped images in glossy magazines underscore our obsession with maintaining the outward appearance of youthful immortality. As a consequence, we are deeper in denial, more insecure, and more dysfunctional than ever as a society.

My intent with this project is to challenge contemporary notions of feminine beauty and the fallacy that it is the sole domain of the young and nubile. My subjects are mature women – mothers and grandmothers – with no experience in front of a camera. The poses are seated, and all compositions are from the neck down with special attention paid to the placement and character of the hands (which are closest to the camera’s lens). The body therefore becomes secondary, offering only partial views of itself with a softness resulting from the shallow depth of field. By not photographing their faces, the women are more relaxed and able to be themselves. Their humanity, strengths, and frailties are communicated through their hands.

In creating and editing my images, I explore shape, texture, and composition as a vehicle to a meaningful narrative. There is no shame in aging because the experience and wisdom that accompany it are truly wondrous and beautiful gifts. Besides, we are so much more than our outer shells.

In viewing the body at its barest and most honest, we are given a mirror with which to contemplate our own vulnerabilities, and ultimately the impermanence and mortality that we all share. My approach to the nude is considered and modest. It does not push the boundaries, nor does it demand to be “in your face.” It is quiet and meditative. It transcends the carnal and hints at deeper ponderings.

Mother and Child Relief Sculpture

Completed "Mother and Child" with final bronze patina.
“Mother and Child,” cement fondue, 36 x 48 inches (approx.)

Mother and Child is a relief sculpture that I made while studying at the University of Guelph. The assignment was to design an abstract relief sculpture for the lobby of a hospice, but I was having difficulty because the anniversary of my own child’s death was approaching. My professor, the Canadian sculptor John Fillion, was critical of my preliminary sketches (because they were too “soft and round” apparently), but after learning my story he spoke at length about the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz, and the depth of her work around death, dying, and loss. To my surprise, he suggested that I do a figurative piece. I don’t remember if it was him or me who selected Kollwitz’s 1903 etching, Mother and Dead Child… somehow I think it was him. In any case, I used models, including my son, a friend, and myself in order to render and personalize the figures.

Kathe Kollwitz, "Mother and Dead Child," Etching, 1903
Kathe Kollwitz, “Mother and Dead Child,” Etching, 1903

Mother and Child did hang on my wall for a few years, but it has been in storage up north since 2001 when I took a teaching contract in Mexico. This August 2nd, I’ll be attending my niece’s wedding and will be picking it up, which is why I’m writing this now. Although I initially thought I would never be able to part with this very personal piece, the truth is that it’s time to let it go. I don’t want it anymore and am hoping that someone local might be interested in purchasing it. I’ll be putting the word out via social media, but if you’re reading this and would like more information, please feel free to contact me.

For hanging, cable was embedded in the cement during fabrication. The piece weighs over fifty pounds, and a couple of bolts screwed into the wall studs will safely support its weight. (I patched and painted the walls when I moved, and everything was left pristine.)

About the process:  Working in sculpture using the casting technique is a long and very involved process, and “Mother and Child” took two months to complete. Below are photos that were taken during several stages of work. Missing are steps 4 (submerging the entire cast in a cold bath overnight while the plaster cures), 5 (removing the clay and washing the cast),  7 (returning the cast to a cold bath while the cement fondue cures), 8 (carefully chipping the plaster cast off the cement fondue sculpture with a chisel and wooden mallet), 10 (applying a thinned enamel wash to the sculpture and buffing it), and finally 11 (lightly painting the sculpture with several different metallic spray paints to achieve a bronze look).