Image/ing Gender: An Evening of Inspiration and Artistic Collaboration

By Laura Durnell

In 2013 I attended and blogged about Professor Bibiana Suárez’s first “Image/ing Gender” collaborative art event. Since that time, I have applied Professor Suárez’s  lessons to my life and work, the main one being that art has the power to critique and criticize society as well as stimulate change. I have utilized her wisdom in my short fiction and essays, and in my novel that I began working on last year. Before I attended the first “Image/ing Gender”, I attempted three other novels that I abandoned (or more accurately the novels “imploded”) just as quickly as I began them. The main reason they did not succeed was because I failed to infuse them with a significant purpose. However, my current project has the purpose that was missing in my previous attempts because of Professor Suárez’s 2013 lessons. But I forgot one of her major lessons that I believe is the most important.

With her third “Image/ing Gender”, Professor Suárez reminded me of art’s ultimate purpose. It is something I am confident the other participants were struck by as well.

Before I address how the 2015 “Image/ing Gender” ended with Professor Suárez’s profound observation, I must provide background and context. Professor Suárez was enthusiastic when all of us entered her art studio. In addition to her energetic welcome, she set out her business cards and the promotional-informational booklets from her 2011-2012 exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center entitled “Memoria/Memory.” DWN’s Director of Programming Gwen Bailey Knorr set out cheese, sausage, crackers, and wine for nourishment and refreshment. Diversity seasoned the event with a range of DePaul women attending and collaborating—from professors to staff of different life, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, there would be many voices and perspectives creating and sharing during the Friday evening. When she began, Professor Suárez told everyone that she “thinks about her teaching as an orchestration” with her being the conductor while all of us “bring the instruments.”

She then showed us pieces from “Memoria/Memory” in her slide show along with the art of Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, and Hector Duarte to emphasize and teach how art represents the collective individual, asks questions, and educates. In her own work, she utilized the card format from the Milton Bradley game Memory to provoke dialogue about the Latin influence on the United States that began when The Puritans arrived from England. For Charles and Marshall, they commented on how African Americans are portrayed and viewed by the privileged majority and ignorant. Charles utilized the pickaninny caricature in his painting of an NBA player to point out that African Americans remain exploited no matter their celebrity and income. But unlike Charles, Marshall’s painting “Our Town” showed African Americans in a positive depiction with a boy riding a bike with a girl running alongside him. His painting’s background was a tranquil 1950s setting because, as Professor Suárez noted, Marshall was “…compelled to make positive images of his community” and chose to utilize the friendly and wholesome artwork of the Dick and Jane early childhood readers. As for Duarte, his mural “Gulliver in Wonderland” painted on the exterior of his Pilsen studio features a bound Mexican immigrant.

“Our individual and collective identities are interconnected, and they are in part mediated by art,” said Professor Suárez. “Even the clothes we innocently wear absorb these ideas.”

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After her presentation and lesson, we were broken up into groups to work on our collaborative art where the participants referred to a handout that provided a glossary for visual art terms and index cards to prompt each artist what to draw on our group’s individual canvases with charcoal, pencils, pastels, and erasers.

After Professor Suárez ended our timed collaborative work, the groups presented and received feedback from the other participants as well as Professor Suárez. With my group and the others, I was struck by how we not only incorporated common themes of women breaking from prescribed roles, female stereotypes, and women being limited by society and sexism but also the year’s dominant news events of gun violence and terrorism. Professor Suárez noted this as well and ended with what I think was the evening’s most important comment:

“Everyone noted what’s wrong,” she said, “but you didn’t address how it can be changed.”

As a literary artist, her insight as a fellow artist impacted me. I realized that while I am working to educate and represent several communities in my novel, I must address how to solve the problem as well as educate and provoke questions and dialogue from my future readers. My novel addresses a taboo and unspoken subject. From my research, I know the topic remains in the shadows. Because of this, the subject has not received mainstream attention, leading to lack of research, support, and activism. This in turn negatively impacts one of the communities I am representing who state in the peer-review studies I have read that they feel unheard and stigmatized.

When I attended “Image/ing Gender” in 2013, I noted in my DWN blog post “…after a hectic academic term, ‘Image/ing Gender’ refreshed and educated me. …. Most importantly though, I had fun.” This time I left inspired and motivated with a greater sense of responsibility to not only my art but to society, culture, and a voiceless and too-often shamed community. Regardless if one is a practicing artist or not, “Image/ing Gender” not only allowed everyone to embrace the artist we all have within us (and abandon after childhood as Gwen Bailey Knorr noted) but to view the world and society, and our part in both, a lot closer.

Laura Durnell is a member of DWN’s Marketing and Communication team and a part-time faculty member in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse at DePaul University. Along with first year writing, she also teaches a focal point on Anne Sexton and will teach another one in the spring entitled “Women’s Confessions.” She tutors at Wilbur Wright College in addition to her teaching at DePaul and has an upcoming essay in Trivia: Voices of Feminism entitled “The Social, Cultural, and Political Necessity of Anne Sexton.”