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It’s okay to go natural: Q&A with Esther Simmonds-MacAdam

By Diane Bond on March 21, 2013

It’s been about a year since Esther Simmonds-MacAdam has shown work in Ottawa. She’s returning today, to install her latest paintings at La Petite Mort Gallery, which opens tomorrow night. If you missed seeing her show last year, it would be well-worth your time to stop by an introduce yourself – she will be at the vernissage (from 7-10pm).

Her latest series, it is natural, marks a dramatic shift in terms of how and what she paints. Maintaining a realistic aesthetic, the oil paintings reference specific periods of time and deconstruct notions of female identity, gender, and ideal versus natural beauty.

Esther took time this week to answer a few questions over email about this new artistic direction, of the challenges she set for herself by limiting her palette, of what it was like growing up with Jewish hair – and how it made its’ way into her painting practice.

Apt613: There has been a shift in your painting practice since your last series at La Petite Mort Gallery (Men at Work). How has it evolved over the last year, specifically with the work in it is natural?

Esther Simmonds-MacAdam: The last year has been the most transformative time in my practice. At times, it has felt like I should organize a one-woman group show, the work has been so different. While it was distressing and mysterious in the beginning, I am now trying to become more comfortable with it.

I began using a reduced palette after a residency last year at The Banff Centre. It felt necessary to create some material or technical limits to work against, in order to push me forward in terms of subject matter. This year has been about trying to get away from directly painting the photograph. I am less interested in translating an image from photo to paint, and more into reacting to photos/paintings, and then building from or on top of them.

Where do the photos and paintings that you are responding to come from?

The material for this series comes from a range of sources: Photojournalistic images from Harper’s magazine, a book on motorcycle gangs from Brooklyn, as well as prints of paintings from a series of outdated textbooks on the ‘Masters’. The end result suggests to me that I was looking for a way to insert myself more directly into my work.

What elements of “white western womanhood” (from La Petite Mort’s website) are you concerned with deconstructing or critiquing in it is natural?

With this new work, I wanted to represent the other parts of myself – the parts that have to do with my external life: How society interacts [with] the surface of me.  I always hated photo day at school because my hair and ears would never behave – my Jewish hair always interrupted my attempt to pass as a ‘natural’ white girl.

The title of the show actually has more to do with the reclaiming of this hair issue. As a young person I always tied my hair back tight and prevented it from curling. When I finally had to start wearing it out, people would constantly ask if it was ‘natural’ (I think as a complement, but it never felt that way). I had so much fun Jewifying the portraits of society ladies in this show.

How did you select the source images for the hair portraits (for example, Ms Cicely and Me or Lady Meux)?

The women from the hair portraits were selected in their capacity as elite women who had their portraits painted. It is the process of having a portrait made that resonated with me: The act of preparing your self, or hiding your secrets, in order to facilitate a good/fictional record of who you are; the performance of ‘normalcy’ in the form of taming ones’ hair, covering blemishes, dressing in a frilly girl dress – it is this performative part of the portrait process that I am interested in.

What’s the story behind White Stripes (or Only White Girls Get Noticed)

The seventeen magazine from the ‘70s was a real find because to me it involves the same processes as portrait painting – the creation of an ideal version of the feminine self to put forward.

The White Stripes advertisement is just the best – I can’t believe how well the language basically offers instructions on how to stay white. It is really about preventing acne – but it is too good. In my middle school there was a huge racial spectrum, and the ‘cool girls’ were the ones who nullified their ethnicity the most by dressing ‘white’, straightening their hair, wearing pastel-coloured clothes from the Gap, etcetera. It was almost funny. With this piece I tried to reverse the process – tried to suggest that the ‘whiteness’ is what should get peeled off, so that the ethnic self can be revealed/valued/loved.

Join Esther Simmonds-MacAdam at La Petite Mort Gallery for the vernissage on Friday, March 22 (7-10pm). The exhibition continues until Thursday, March 28.