Written by Neil Greenaway
Adrienne Norris is not inspired by well behaved role models, and it shows. Her latest series of portraits feature scientists and doctors, but also protesters, revolutionaries, and warriors. Documenting the women who have changed the world and the way that we live in it, the project - titled Women Behaving Badly - has been gaining recognition through convention appearances and gallery showings (like her recent exhibit at the GLBT Center of Denver). I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ms. Norris at the Denver Public Library Mini Comic-Con in December, and I walked away with a better understanding of her art and how it is influenced by society at large.
Neil Greenaway: So I guess really to start us out, could you introduce yourself and give us just a brief background on what you are doing with the Women Behaving Badly project?
Adrienne Norris: Yeah, so my name is Adrienne Norris and I am the creator of the Women Behaving Badly series. I named it that because there is quote that says "Well behaved women seldom make history," and so I wanted to play with that concept. The series is made up of women in history who I believe should all be common knowledge - but really who are not. So what I do is I do research, then I create these paintings - they are on these boards that I make. They are all irregularly shaped which you should totally check out on my website. They are mixed media. I chose mixed media because I wanted to be able to tell stories with my series without having to - I don’t know... There is just something about a photo that really brings out nostalgia or whatever different emotion is needed for that particular piece. Drawings can do it as well but photos work and also they are quicker. So I use collage, I use acrylics, I use texture, I use toys, bullet shell casings, whatever it is that will tell the story of that woman’s life. Then I use watercolor to create an actual portrait of her face so that you get a really good sense of who she is. Then when I hang the originals on the wall they are actually paired with a card that answers 3 questions- Who is she? What did she do? Why does she matter? I felt that last part was essential because when I was a kid learning history in school I didn’t care. I didn’t know why I should care. I couldn’t see how any of these events were relevant to my life. So that Why does she matter part was incredibly essential to me. If for no other reason - if you read nothing else on that card - you get that and you’re like "Oh, this is what that person did for me, this is what my life is like because this person existed".
NG: You have said that in the scope of this project you have 20 of these ladies that you wanted to get done. How many have you finished so far?
AN: So far I have done 16 and I am almost at 18 because I started 3 simultaneously recently. And it’s interesting, especially with the backgrounds because they are so abstract even though there are the story telling elements. I wanted each background to suit the personality of the person that I’m painting. So I decided to just do the next 3 at the same time almost so the backgrounds are done back to back, the paintings are laid out then the paintings are done back to back. Also it’s a speed thing.
NG: When you set these out, because they are collaged, mixed media - and I suppose specifically because you are working on 3 at the same time - do you find that you get to a point where you don’t know where you want to go and you move to the next? Or when you start one do you have a pretty full picture of what you want it to be in your head?
AN: It’s always Christmas. I never know exactly what it is going to look like. I do know what key elements I want it to contain. So say it’s a civil rights activist, I would want to have elements of the civil rights movement involved in the piece. Say it is somebody who is a writer and wrote something particularly poignant, then I want to have aspects of what she was writing about but also of things that were going on at the time. So if you look at all of my pieces it feels like there is a bunch of different kinds of information that I am putting out depending on the story.
NG: Having looked at your pieces, they are in odd shapes. A lot of them have different heights & widths incorporated into one piece. Is there a reason behind that?
AN: Yeah, 2 reasons. One, I have been painting on rectangles my whole life and I wanted to see what happened if I didn’t. But really reason number two is most important. When I create a portrait I have a tendency to want to fill the space with the face which works really well if it is just about the portrait. But for this particular series it was equally about the story, and if I fill a rectangle with a face then I lose space for the story. So what I decided to do was to create these irregular shapes where I could fill portions of the shape and feel satisfied that the face was large enough and yet still have plenty of room to play with so I could still have these textural elements, these story telling elements. So it just kind of adds this extra power to it. But also because it’s these unusual shapes its unique particularly when you see them on the wall. The shadows will drop differently than if it’s on a rectangle. You just feel it differently.
NG: When we spoke earlier you had said that you had broken down the portraits of these women into categories and you had done them in batches. Can you tell me more about that?
AN: Absolutely. So when I did the first round, the first 11 paintings, I basically - I call it buckshot. I just picked a bunch of women that I thought were interesting. Then I thought, "Ok I sort of followed a certain trend", and I asked my Facebook audience who were they fascinated by? And that helped me diversify. With the next set of paintings I focused on women who had won the Nobel Prize, partly because I met somebody who worked with these women and I thought, oh this is a great idea. Also partly because I realized that breaking these women down into sections it made it a lot easier for me to be diverse but in not so broad a context. It was easier for me like looking at Nobel Prize winning women; ok that is a select set so to choose individuals from on that select set was much easier than to choose from the broad scope of all the women in the world ever.
NG: Are these mostly women that you had a knowledge of or are these women that you are discovering as you go?
AN: I intentionally chose women who I did not know a great deal about who maybe I knew by name, sometimes I knew by face, sometimes I knew not at all. Particularly with the Nobel Prize winners I was looking at accomplishments and I was thinking, whoa this person won the Nobel Prize, I didn’t even know - or won the Nobel Prize for this, I didn’t even know this was a thing - or didn’t realize how things factored into my life. So especially with the first round I intentionally chose either unknowns or lesser well knowns because what I wanted to do was to point out that women’s history is this dark thing in our country. We don’t pay attention to it. So to bring it out into the light, I could have done Rosa Parks, I could have done Harriet Tubman, but everybody kind of knows who they are. So for me to select individuals who nobody knew at all made people that much more interested in the project.
NG: As you move down the line in this, is there a definitive endpoint or will you eventually get to women like Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman?
AN: I probably will. Really the endpoint is whenever I can’t do it anymore for whatever reason. I have given myself a minimum of 5 years to work on this project because I feel it takes that, it’s going to take at least that to do it any justice. But to be honest I could probably feasibly do this project for the rest of my life and still not hit everybody.
NG: You are doing these as individual art pieces. Is there a plan to collect them and have an art book maybe?
AN: Absolutely. I definitely do want to collect in a book the 20 - that number you mentioned earlier was kind of my critical mass that I’ve given myself. It’s very arbitrary, there is nothing really behind it. So it could be that when I do put a book out there could be fewer individuals represented in it. But really the thing that I want to do is I have seen a number of compilation books where - here’s a picture, here’s a woman’s story, here’s a picture, here’s a woman’s story. I want to do something that is a bit more narrative than that. One of the things I am discovering as I am doing the series is not only that here are these amazing women, and here are the things they are doing, but also recognizing the context in which they are doing these things - and the places in which they overlap. So you can talk about Josephine Baker but you drill down into her life far enough you will run into Frida Kahlo, you drill down into her life you are going to hit all these different people whose lives are intertwined and that’s where I want to be. I want to find those places where that intertwining happens, where this individual inspired this individual who spent time with this individual and so on and so forth. So this narrative isn’t just piecemeal but actually creating a tapestry, a full story.
NG: That is very cool. Now it is obvious that the societal aspect of this appeals to you. I mean I can’t imagine you would take on a project like this if it didn’t. Was the societal aspect of bringing women’s stories forward something that was important to you before you did this or is this a passion that you have grown through this project?
AN: I would say that it is a little of both. Being a woman I am naturally pro-women, but it’s this whole idea of role models. So growing up I was kind of a tomboy, and I didn’t see many female role models who were into sports. When I finally did it was like the Women’s World Cup. I was a soccer player. I was thought, oh my god - there are my role models. Then I decided that I really loved art and I wanted to pursue being an artist. As far as looking for women role models - who were not only artists but who were famous in their lifetime and made money, those women were fewer are far between. You have Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe and really how many other names can you come up with naturally.
NG: That is true enough.
AN: Right, so that kind of thing has been on my mind since I was little kid. Leading up to this series I started hearing (just through podcasts), about different things that we do in our lives - you know, refrigeration and transport ships and how they changed the food industry and stuff like that - and I found out there was a woman who came up with refrigerated ships. I thought that was amazing. Why didn’t I know that. There were so many other instances of that. It is amazing, why didn’t I know that and especially why didn’t I know that it was a woman who was responsible for that. So that is what led me to doing this project and looking into the stories of women and their contributions - to society, to technology, to policy. Seeing where I and everybody around me has been benefiting from the efforts of the individuals who are completely nameless and faceless to us. In starting this project I have definitely learned a lot about different individuals and it has opened my eyes to just the way the world could work, does work, and should work.
NG: Another question on the Women Behaving Badly series, and this might be a difficult question to answer, but what justifies greatness? When I was flipping through your pictures I saw revolutionaries, I saw doctors, I saw artists - and once again we might be talking down the road - but is there a place in the series for women who broke barriers in sports or celebrity?
AN: Oh yeah, absolutely. I actually already have a painting of Billie Jean King and so I fully intend to do a sports set as I drill down into these subsections. Sports are definitely going to be one of them, medicine is going to be one of them, and politics is definitely going to be one of them. When I think about greatness - honestly in beginning this series I had wanted to start with pillars. You know, individuals who are beyond reproach in a way or at least little enough is known about them that we can’t be bothered to reproach. But as I move forward I want to move into figures that are more controversial, figures that have done things that we would not necessarily think of as groundbreaking until you put them in a social context.
NG: Can you give me an example?
AN: Well a controversial figure that I definitely want to draw down the line that is going to raise a lot of hackles is Margaret Sanger. She is the woman who is basically responsible for the birth control movement in this country and created Planned Parenthood. I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, it was Birth Control something and actually sanitized down to being called Planned Parenthood. There are those who think she is into the genocide of poor and black people. She did believe in eugenics but, again context. There were different forms of the eugenics movements, it wasn’t purely what the Nazi’s were doing. But the fact remains that without her efforts the idea of women having fewer than six children in a lifetime, even fewer than twelve, was unheard of. Something like twelve live births and sixteen pregnancies was the norm in her time, and that is insane. It’s detrimental to an individual, it’s really hard on family structure, it’s hard on societal structure - particularly if you are poor and you cannot support all of these people. So to me she is a positive figure but there are a lot of people who do not like her.
NG: That leads me to another question. Earlier, you showed me a portrait of three ladies who helped with the women’s suffrage movement. You had mentioned at that point that one of them had taken a racist turn and got a back alley out of the movement. As a person of color, as a creator, as a person who is trying to support these women in history - is it difficult to say that this woman should be acknowledged for her contribution, but she was also an active racist? I assume that when you are dealing in the past that has to come up a lot.
AN: That is absolutely true. But here’s the thing: We are all humans and we are all full of greatness and we are all full of very bad faults, and to choose to acknowledge one aspect of a person over another aspect of a person is to do them an injustice. And it’s to do ourselves an injustice because we are putting blinders on ourselves, right? So for a figure like Elizabeth Katie Stanton who absolutely believed in equality for women and in the beginning absolutely believed in equality for African Americans especially those who were enslaved. Those things are all true. But she was also a white woman in a time when black people were thought of as less than, so any things that she felt in that area were also true. Going back to podcasts I listen to, I listened to a great interview where this trans man was talking to his grandmother and asking her about how she felt about this whole idea of trans people. About gay rights, about civil rights - and this woman is 98 years old and lived in the south. She has always been an advocate of civil rights ever since she knew what it was. When gay rights became a big thing she was an advocate for the gay rights movement, and advocate for the women’s rights movement, all of these things. But in this conversation with her she will openly admit that although she wants to be on the right side of history, she has a difficult time with these concepts. She was like "I absolutely believe that politically people should be able to love anyone they want, I just don’t understand it". And that to me was the epitome of that humanization. That human-ness, and so for me to say I am only going to pick saints is for me to do a disservice to women everywhere. Because we are not saints.
NG: In this modern time, when it seems that everything has gone crazy, do you see it being a climate for more women of that caliber to come forward?
AN: Yes, absolutely. Here is my take on this climate and it has to do with astrology - which I am not super into - but it was fascinating because someone explained it to me this way. Because of the way the stars are aligned and Pluto is in retrograde or some such thing (I couldn’t tell you the specifics, but the concept interested me) this is a time in which light is being cast on places which are accustomed to being shadowed. So if we look at the way things have been coming out, all the shootings of African Americans by white cops, all of the sexual abuse of women, the racism that is like the undercurrent, all of this stuff, these things have always been there. They didn’t stop in the 60’s with the civil rights movement, they didn’t stop with the women’s rights movement. None of this stuff has gone away completely, it has just been hiding in the shadows and now light has been cast on it. And because of that people are getting angry, and when you are angry you do something about it. Up until this point we have been like, "Oh no, that has been taken care of!", and ignoring all the signs. You can’t ignore the signs anymore - which means now everybody has to take action in some way, shape or form and because of that I feel like now we are in a position of growth because action is being taken on multiple levels.
NG: Do you think things are getting better?
AN: I wouldn’t say getting better, I would say things are being done. Things are being done and conversations are being had that we have not been having. Among people who have not been talking to one another. And so because of that we are in this place that - with as much vitriol as there is - people are actively seeking understanding. Rather than just saying "That guy is an asshole, I’m out", people are starting to ask "why do you believe this? I don’t understand what you believe". To take the time to ask that question and listen to the answer is going to get us to a very different place than "That guy is an asshole and I’m out".
NG: For the final question, if people want to see more of you if they want to follow you or know what you are doing, where can we find you online?
AN: So you can go to my website, afrotriangledesigns.com. On Facebook and Instagram I am also @AfroTriangle. I also have a Facebook page specifically for the series Women Behaving Badly so if you go there you can find me as well.