Some of the most interesting women in town have disrobed for artist and activist Susan Singer.
Her "Not Barbie," a series of more than 50 drawings and paintings, reveals the bodies of typical women in straightforward poses. "I do this so we have other images to combat our inner voices," Singer says. "People who see my artwork see naked women of all ages and sizes. They're going to see bellies, age spots, moles, scars. Real women. Then they've got a wider range of what's normal."
Her subjects include females from all races and walks of life, including survivors of trauma. One woman commissioned a portrait by Singer after being shot by her husband and left for dead, the scar still livid red across her belly in the painting of her in her husband's white shirt.
Karen Morris, a board certified massage therapist and eating disorder activist, commissioned a Singer portrait celebrating recovery from a 30-year battle with anorexia and bulimia. "I had to really debate with myself over whether this was the right fit for me," Morris has written. "I am, after all, a mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and professional who lives in this crazy judgmental society."
She found the process of being photographed and then painted by Singer transformative. "Never again will I judge myself so harshly," she writes.
The most surprising thing to the artist is the resistance she faces when trying to show her work. "There are a lot of places in Richmond that won't show nudes," she says. "I tried to get my catalog printed for a show and a week or 10 days later they got back to me and said we don't print porn."
Jenni Kirby, owner of Crossroads Art Center, says she's lost bookings for receptions and banquets as a result of the "Not Barbie" exhibit. "When we tell them the show in there is all nudes, they ask if we can take them down," Kirby says. "I tell them no, the show has to hang. It's been quite interesting to see that response when I didn't even think anything about it."
When Singer's portrait, "Woman in Hat," showed at Crossroads previously, it got more feedback than any piece of art ever shown in the space. "There were many people who were hotly offended," the artist recounts. Her painting features a frontal view of a curvy woman in nothing but a large hat that dips down over her face.
Kirby, who's also posed for Singer, hasn't backed down. "My running line with people who don't like it is please make sure you don't go to the Louvre because you're going to see a lot of nudes in there."
A former Fulbright scholar and a high-school tutor for 23 years, Singer is concurrently organizing "Beyond Barbie: Piecing Together Today's Woman," a series of talks and performances at Crossroads starting Sept. 22 (This writer will be participating in a Nov. 3 event, "Women's Stories Uncovered.") The inspiration came when Singer realized how many of her models were fellow artists and community leaders. "So many of my models are talented," she says, "and I thought it would be cool to showcase them."
Subjects for the series include surviving abuse, eating disorders and dance, to name a few. A dance night, set for Sept. 22, will include a performance by 91-year-old Frances Wessells, founder of VCU Dance, who sat for the artist at age 89. "The Blues: Liberation, Empowerment, and Joy!" scheduled for Oct. 6, is an evening of music featuring a performance by singer Gaye Adegbalola, founding member of Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women.
Singer, who struggled with her own body image while she entered middle age, ended up painting her own body, feeling it was only right to go through the process so bravely faced by her models. "We all do art to heal ourselves," Singer says. "So of course it's very, very personal. Many of my models have had the experience of shifting how they feel about themselves through modeling for me. That's pretty significant." S
"Not Barbie" opens Sept. 16 at Crossroads Art Center, 2016 Staples Mill Road, with an artist's talk at 5:30 p.m. For information on "Beyond Barbie," the series of lectures and events, call 278-8950 or go to susansinger.com.
(This article has been corrected from the print edition.)