As a lesbian woman, artist Clarity Haynes is aware that her “contributions to culture are likely to be erased as I am doubly marginalized”. However, her paintings of torsos and altars, which play a cathartic role both on her, the people who model for her, and the audience, will go down in history. With the aim to promote peace, empower the marginalized and fight the patriarchy, her beautifully honest, raw and truthful artworks serve ulterior purposes of healing, self-acceptance and love. Currently exhibiting at New York City’s Denny Dimin gallery, we sit down with the artist to talk about gender identity, sexuality, censorship, beauty and the healing properties of art.
You define yourself as a female queer artist. How important are your gender and sexuality in your work?
Being female and queer affects my life, how safe I feel in public space, how people treat me, how I feel in my body, how I feel about other people’s bodies, how I define masculinity and femininity for myself… This all affects my work. My queer community has always been full of trans and non-binary people and we have always had to fight for our rights, initiate our healing, redefine concepts of family and create, record and archive our culture.
You started The Breast Portrait Project in 1997 and haven’t stopped since. You painted a self-portrait of your torso “in order to confront my own traumas”, as you state on your website. Do you understand your art as a cathartic practice?
Actually, I have taken long breaks from the project throughout the years to focus on other things; it hasn’t been a constant focus for me. But one way or another, the project always seemed to find me again. Maybe because it is so solidly about something real and positive. It is cathartic – for me, for people who model for me, and for the viewer.
The project evolved over time. In these last two decades, you portrayed torsos of your friends and then of other women who wanted to participate. Even though the project started as something personal, do you feel it more of a collective effort now? What does The Breast Portrait Project say about community?
It’s important to note that the participants have never been just women-identified people. And it became a collective effort right from the very beginning. It’s always been collective and personal at the same time.
While doing the project, you started documenting the process. The women you portrayed were photographed together with the paintings of themselves and were asked to write a few lines about how they felt about the artwork and their body. People aren’t usually that open to show their vulnerability. Why did you want to do so in the first place, and how do you feel these women’s opinions/feelings contribute to the project itself?
Because people (again, not just women) were often commissioning their portraits and would take the portrait with them afterward, I took pictures of them with their portraits so that I would have a record of what the portrait looked like. I asked them to write because I was curious about their experience with their bodies. I was so uncomfortable in my body that I needed the stories of others to help me feel less alone. People who contributed writing got to read the words of others. When they sat down to write, they knew exactly what community they were addressing. But creating this written record also meant that the project was recorded, not ephemeral. As a lesbian, I’m aware that my contributions to culture are likely to be erased as I am doubly marginalized as a woman and a queer person. So I feel a responsibility to document and archive my work and history.
Could you tell us one or two remarkable texts that touched you deep down? Any experience/story that stood out from the rest?
I have been thinking a lot lately about Janie Martinez, who passed away last year from ovarian cancer. Janie was in her forties, an artist, actress and body positivity activist. She wrote in the book several times through the long three-year process of her portrait’s creation. What she wrote was off-the-cuff, a poem of sorts. It’s haunting to read it now:
Ephemeral body, fleeting moments
Captured ghosts of our psyche
I was here.
I was alive.
I took up space.
I was somebody.
You say: “I think of the surface of the body, and the painting, as a landscape or map. Moles, veins, scars, wrinkles and stretch marks, so often photoshopped away in our contemporary culture, are to me the exciting landmarks and tributaries that inspire my process.” These past years, movements related to body positivity, diversity and inclusivity have arisen all over the media – social media and mass media. Do you feel you artwork is perceived differently now than when you started? What’s your take on these movements?
I’m really happy that people can find empowerment and break free of isolation through social media body positivity movements. It’s all to the good!
However, social media still censors women’s bodies and queer art. You’ve talked about the issue several times, expressing your anger and frustration about the issue. How are you currently navigating this censorship and what do you feel should be done to finally finish it?
I deal with censorship by not addressing it in isolation. Every time someone I know is censored on social media, I speak up. I report it as a mistake to the platform and ask others to do the same. If enough people complain, they tend to correct their mistake. I also wrote an article in the art blog Hyperallergic about my experience as an artist who is constantly censored. Speaking up is key. That’s all we can do, is to not participate in self-censorship.
You’re currently exhibiting your work at New York’s Denny Dimin Gallery. The Altar-ed Bodies title refers to the way you approach bodies and painting: as altars. What relationship do you draw between these religious/spiritual structures and the bodies?
I think of the body as an altar. In many major religions, the body – especially the female body – is seen as unclean and not spiritual. But in the pagan tradition I am a part of, which honors the divine feminine, the body is sacred, the Earth is sacred, sexuality is sacred. People’s creative choices to adorn, tattoo, alter, or simply accept their bodies can be very powerful. Many of the necklaces worn by the models in my paintings also appear in the altars. Jewelry is highly symbolic and expressive for people. For this reason, it has always played a huge role in portraiture.
The show at Denny Dimin is presented by Benjamin Tischer of New Discretions, a nomadic curatorial project. Benjamin is a visionary curator who has championed my work and introduced it to the marketplace at times when it has been risky to do so. I feel very fortunate to be working with him.
Art is a powerful tool for change. How do you want yours to change the world our your immediate environment?
I want my work to bring joy and warmth to the world. I want it to promote peace. I want it to empower the marginalized. I want it to celebrate those who choose to create their own spirituality, culture and power structures outside of the patriarchy. I want my work to be an antidote to the toxic masculinity that surrounds us in our world today.
The year has just started, what plans do you have for the next months? Any projects, exhibitions or publications you’re working on right now?
I’m currently working with Benjamin Tischer on creating a chapbook for the Altar-ed Bodies show, which will contain images of my work along with writings by a variety of poets, artists and thinkers. I’m very excited about this as it is more interesting than the traditional catalogue with art essays. The poets in the chapbook all talk about issues that have to do with my work, but in very different, surprising and rich ways. The volume will be dedicated to the pioneering body-centric artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who posed for one of the large-scale portraits in the show, and whose writing is featured in the chapbook.
Portrait and photos of the artworks