My Birthday/ MLK Day - FAQ #2 Diversity in my work
"Guardian," 2018 by Lea K. Tawd
Yesterday was my birthday (yay!), but more importantly it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So it seems like an appropriate time to talk about one of the most commonly asked questions about my work, "What ethnicity are these women?"
Truthfully, this question is not always asked in such a respectful way. The question is never overtly racist, but I just want to take a moment to remind other white people that it is your job to educate yourself and use respectful language when talking about people. If you are not sure about what the most respectful terminology is, look it up. In fact, look it up anyway in case you don’t even know that you don’t know.
As a matter of fact, the women in my paintings are not intended to be any specific race or ethnicity most of the time. It is my goal for people to connect to my paintings. I realize that the experiences of those of us who call ourselves women are extremely diverse and I can never include everyone. But if someone feels connected to my work on an aesthetic, emotional, and/or spiritual level I sincerely hope that they do not feel left out based on their skin color.
I frequently paint on wood, and I love to leave the wood grain showing as the skin tone. This creates a racially ambiguous skin tone that can range from white to brown depending on the person viewing it and their own background, biases, and feelings. Based on the comments that I hear in my booth at shows, this is often interpreted as Asian, Latina, and Native, although to me they often still have very white features.
It has always bothered me that this ambiguity does not include dark-skinned people. So recently I have been staining the wood of some paintings with a darker tone either before I start painting or when I get to the figure's skin, and adding more diverse facial features. Adding more diversity to my work is an ongoing process that is always on my mind.
As a white woman, I am very sensitive at this point to being inclusive rather than stereotyping different features. Honestly, this paragraph is a little uncomfortable for me to type but I have been working on letting myself be uncomfortable and doing something anyway. Especially in this situation, I am realizing that avoiding my own discomfort is a huge privilege that people of color often don't have. Also as a white woman and an artist, I feel it is both my desire and my responsibility to represent a wider range of people whenever I can.
All of these thoughts have been coming up for me more and more often lately. As I struggle to teach my 4 year old who Martin Luther King was and why his work was so important--while answering her questions as best as I can, like, "Mama, why they shot that man?"--as racial tensions grow in our country, as I learn more about the ways in which I am privileged, as I realize how few people of color have been a close part my life. I think of my mother's family, who are Jewish, and how not so long ago I would not have been considered white. How my family tree on that side has been decimated by history.
Where does all of this fit in with my work, my peaceful, pensive, spiritual paintings of women connecting with the inner best part of themselves? My work is plainly not about race, specifically. I am trying to capture the best part of our collective feminine nature. In showing a range of skin tones, I hope that I can show that the Divine Feminine resides in us all in some form, regardless of our race.