Artist, educator and curator Rachel Trusty might be based in Lawrence, Kansas, but she doesn't let her roots in Jayhawk territory interfere with spreading her art to Columbia: Her show, "Friends and Lovers," is currently on view at Resident Arts in the North Village Arts District.
As a student pursuing her doctorate in women's, gender and sexuality studies, Trusty frequently centers her work around concepts of femininity and female relationships. "Friends and Lovers," in particular, focuses on female same-sex couples, which Trusty feels are not adequately explored in contemporary art and culture.
Vox sat down with Trusty to learn more about the motivation behind her work, her painting and embroidering processes, and the struggles of navigating the male gaze.
What is the focus of your show at Resident Arts?
The title of the show is also the title of the series, which focuses on female same-sex couples because I really wanted to highlight these relationships that we don’t normally see.
So often, female relationships have just been called “friendly,” and they haven’t really been labeled as people being in formal relationships. So it was important for me to leave some ambiguity about what is happening in the images because I feel like it fits the historic nature of these relationships. That’s why I called it "Friends and Lovers."
What inspired you to create this series?
I’ve always loved doing portraiture, and about two years ago I really started looking into the history of queer art and lesbian art, specifically. The series I did last was loose ink paintings of women, of, like, their nudes; sometimes there are two women together.
Those were a little bit more erotic, so I guess I wanted to do something more narrative that addressed what I considered to be missing in this representational history.
How do you create the paintings in this show?
I use anonymous photographs that I find online as references. Making them more realistic than abstracted is important because representation for these kinds of relationships is needed and can be powerful.
I also wanted to make sure the images were more tender or caring than erotic. Historically, lesbian imagery has gotten kind of mixed up with pornographic imagery, so I wanted to avoid that.
How do you work around or supersede the male gaze in these works?
There’s no way to completely get around the male gaze. Men will look at the images. I’ve had male friends comment to me, “Hey, what’s up with these images? Tell me about those.” I just kind of tell them exactly what I’m telling you. I try to tone it down; I’m not making the paintings for them. They’re for women who want to see their histories acknowledged in different ways.
Have you run into any criticism or anything people have found problematic?
Well, I’m from Arkansas. I put these images on Instagram, but I don’t post very many of them on Facebook because more of my conservative friends and family are on Facebook, so I have to carefully navigate where I post them. Nobody from Arkansas wants to talk about it directly because we’re all polite, we’re all Southern, and we don’t want to be like, “Hey — those paintings.”
The people in my life are very subtle in the ways they support me, or they just don’t say anything at all if they’re upset by it. We’re not a confrontational bunch. But no, I haven’t had any huge kickback.
I’m also really wondering about your works with fibers and embroidery. What drew you to working with those materials, and how do those projects connect to your understanding of femininity and traditionally feminine crafts?
Oh, I love fibers. You can paint an image of something, or you can use a material that has context, that has inherent meaning, that has subtleties. When I was little, my mother would make a lot of my clothes — and she would make her clothes to match. So we would have a lot of matching jumper sets. She would make all the Halloween costumes. She would sew my toys.
So I grew up learning how to hand-sew things, crochet, knit — I mean, you name it. I spent many hours sitting on the floor of her sewing room and also sewing. I used to take my knitting projects to church because I’m an old lady on the inside. So I’ve always been attracted to fibers. They are something that’s comforting. They’re something that’s familiar. They’re a common material that we all interact with every day.
What types of fiber projects have you made as an adult?
I was making a series of portraits in embroidery of influential women, such as Malala [Yousafzai], Katherine Hepburn and Audre Lorde. Those were really popular; I think I’ve sold all of them but one.
Is your current series of paintings meant to be a move away from fiber projects?
I’ve wanted to really return to fiber soon. The problem is that doctoral work is incredibly tedious. It’s really hard for me to sit down then with a tedious embroidery project for like four hours when I’ve already been sitting for four hours reading a book or something.
However, last year I made a large, 24-by-24-inch embroidery of two women on the beach. It was in the style of my old portraits, but it was anonymous like my current paintings, so it was really a tie over between the two series.