The VOWVAS project

voices of women vulnerability and strength

In March 2023 I put a call out to people identifying as women to have a conversation with me about how strength and vulnerability played out through their body. As part of the artwork, I would sketch them while we talked. The women could choose to be clothed, or in underwear or swimwear. They also could choose if I filmed them, audio-recorded their conversation and photographed them alongside the sketching. I had no set questions – I asked them why they chose to be part of the topic and then let them talk. We are very used to seeing images of women in art history and the media. It was extremely important from the outset that these women had the agency to be presented how they wanted and their stories to be the focus.

These women are amazing. Our conversations included experiences of shame, illness, surgery, abuse, miscarriage, ageing, eating habits, internal thoughts, sexual taunting, exercise, death and celebration.

Following the conversations, I created a film in collaboration with my daughter Etty Stanley, who listened to the recordings and edited the work. The film was shared with the women and adjustments made if they were not comfortable with it. 

The drawings took place at the time of the sittings. Some have been slightly reworked back in the studio, some were left untouched.  The paintings on canvas were a further reflection of the conversations reworked over time.

The project was shown at Parnella House Arts Space in Devizes in March 2024. The titles of the pieces on the walls were quotes from our conversations. 

In the film, the words spoken do not match the women displayed in the images. They are deliberately mixed to present a collective experience.

I chose this exploration because we all live within these vessels we call our body. One of the women said, ‘our bodies are working hard all the time’ and we often forget how amazing they are. We are bombarded with messages which influence our awareness of how we feel we should be. In our society, conversations around this have begun. My aim is to provoke wider conversations – reflections – how do we treat ourselves and others in relation to our bodies?

I approach this subject from a feminist concept of care. What does that mean? I believe feminism is about imagining a world that is fairer for all – where sexism does not inhibit people’s feelings and freedoms. Our relationship to our bodies is not particular to women – it is for us all to reflect on our body relationships, our nudity, our perceptions of ourselves and others despite our genders. Feminist care is about fostering a kinder environment for us all to feel good.

This project focused on the female experience - that is what I, and these women live. It shines a lens on the particular nature of what is involved in the daily lives of women.

link to film: https://youtu.be/mfIqvuu-llg

List of works (quotes from the women)

I just want to be me and be seen as me and that be enough

make me look like Kate Winslet

people think they have a right to comment on my body

most of the time I end up holding it all inside me

you’re never happy with your body are you

I think we can be very critical of ourselves thinking - it’s not good enough - but I think I’ve got to a point where I think – well this is how it’s going to be

am I this shape or this shape – no – this is who I am

this is a challenge for me

I’ve always struggled and I’ve always found it difficult

I have become stronger – I know I can rise from utter despair

they don’t know how hurtful that is when they say things – it’s a running joke that I’m bony, I’m skinny

I’m hoping that somehow by seeing a series of paintings of people being vulnerable someone will look and think, my god, I wish I could do that

I don’t think you appreciate it when you’re young

it becomes really hard to find where your body is supposed to be because you’ve had so many years of somebody telling you that you don’t look quite right or that you’re not good enough

I’m passionate about women having a voice…to be strong in their vulnerability

I’ve been through so much change that you try and work out who you are – your identity

I wish I’d felt confident with it – I didn’t make enough of it when I was younger

that’s what I thought was going to make me happy in the long run – to be as small as possible

I’ve survived that – I actually don’t have to put up with any crap from anyone now

I’ve always been quite comfortable

I suppose it’s deeply rooted

my body doesn’t make me feel less worthy but it makes me feel less confident

it’s helpful when you have people around you and you say ‘I haven’t shaved my legs’ and they say ‘so’ – it makes you go well if you don’t care why do I care? most of the time you’re doing all those things for somebody else