Creating Feminist Art to Empower and Inspire

Bold brushwork. Striking colors. And above all, soulful, passionate eyes. Artist Andreina Bates' latest series, Her Stories, is a deeply personal portrait series of some of the most impactful female muses in history. Andreina's unconventional path (3 years ago, she wasn't even a painter!) and emotional connection to these works deepen the story behind each painting, while she honors women who have shaped the world we live in today. 

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Can you share the story of how you came to be a painter?

I have always been enchanted by the creative process, which is funny considering I’m actually an engineer.  When my twin boys were born I started craving an outlet to express myself and tried a few different things…photography, digital illustration, sewing, amongst others.  About three years ago one of my friends gave me a watercolor painting of my house.  I gasped and started crying as soon as I saw it.  The emotion she was able to convey with paint left me breathless.  It was probably one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  Once I got over the emotions of such a beautiful gift I started asking her….YOU paint? ADULTS are allowed to paint? Out of all the things I had tried I didn’t really consider painting.  I had been curious in the past but always thought that was more something kids do (I know, I know…talk about being wrong!).  Soon after receiving that gift I got myself a sketchbook and the rest, as they say, is history.

How does this series differ from what you usually paint?

This series has been a departure for me.  Not only because of the subject, but even in my process. I love painting the human figure but I always leaned towards a more abstract representation.  To be completely honest, I was always a bit terrified of painting a more realistic face.  After all, I’m the girl that just grabbed a brush a few years ago and faces are for “real artists.”  While I always put a lot of heart in my work, there is something different about painting someone you admire.  I studied all of these women’s stories before and during painting them.  Their stories stirred my own and it became a dance of paint and words.

How did the series start? What prompted you to begin painting these ladies?

Despite the fear of painting portraits, I had a tiny voice leading me in that direction.  I tried to push it aside, thinking to myself that voice is simply crazy…I am *not* a portrait artist I would tell myself.  One day the voice became a scream and I gave in.  I painted a small portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite writers.  The process captivated my heart.  It was a small painting but the emotion I felt during the process was something I couldn’t describe.  I decided to keep that painting in my personal collection and within a  couple of days ordered six birchwood panels as the idea of the series began brewing in my head.  

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You begin each portrait by painting the eyes. Why? How does this inspire the rest of the painting?

The eyes instantly humanize the painting for me and I needed to feel that connection as soon as I started.  The composition of these portraits is leading you to the eyes first because I want the viewers to feel the same connection I do.  I want their stories to also stir the viewers stories.  I believe our stories are important and they matter.  In a way, knowing your story helps you reclaim yourself.  You take away the power from the parts of the story that aren’t serving you, inviting healing into that space, while discovering the person you were created to become.  

You’ve painted Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, Harriet Tubman, Emily Dickinson, Audrey Hepburn, and Amelia Earhart. How and why did you choose each of these women?

I have a long (very long) list of amazing women.  I read and studied a lot of them before deciding to start with these six.  I asked friends and family for their input….who would they paint and why? I loved hearing their ideas and my list grew longer.  I am certain I will keep painting more women from my list, but needed to keep the list small for the first release.  As I mentioned, this process has been very emotional so I feel like I need a little break and need to sit with the stories of the six I painted.  Some of the six were “no brainers” for me because it’s women I have long admired, while others I chose after learning more about them.

How do you weave your own personal story and experiences into each piece you create for this series?

I love this question and hope I can put it into words that make sense.  I am very different from each of these women but I feel like parts of their stories are my own or they are trying to tell me something.  In particular, Harriet Tubman was a very emotional painting for me.  Every year, I choose a word that I carry with me as my personal mantra.  This year I had chosen “Brave.”  Being an artist requires courage because you open yourself up to the world.  Not everyone loves what you do and that is ok, but you do feel extremely vulnerable when showing the world the thing “you made.”  Harriet was brave in ways I can’t even being to describe.  She was brave, kind and fearless.  The entire time I was painting her I kept feeling her eyes on me saying ‘you are brave.’  No, not brave like SHE was brave because I am blessed to not have lived the terrible things she did….But brave in my own world as a mom, wife, sister, daughter, artist, professional, etc.  

The last step when I complete the portrait is the bold watery stroke that goes over their eyes. This part is so scary…after all, the painting is nearly done at that point and you can really mess it all up right there!  Part of her painting included marks to represent the “underground railroads” so I had been thinking of rail road tracks, trains, etc.  Right before I did the final stroke I told my “Alexa” player to “play.”  I didn’t say what to play, I simply said play and Alexa cheerly said she picked a station “I might like.” A song by “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” called “The Dead Flag Blues” started playing.  I did a little video for my instagram stories right as I finished adding the watery stroke with this song playing in the back with my arms full of goosebumps.  I had so many emotions, I was finished with my first portrait release but also there was just something about Harriet that was so enchanting.  The song then stops in the middle and a very clear train starts coming through the speakers.  This, I learned, was part of the song….But in the moment I wasn’t even sure what was happening.  I sat on my chair starring at her, listening to this train and just crying.  I have never experienced anything like this before.

How has this series affected or changed you personally?

This series has made me grow tremendously as an artist but also as a woman.  I feel so empowered by the trailblazers that have come before me.  I feel incredibly grateful for each one of the, and all the others ones in my long list, that have paved the way for us today.  They have made it possible for women to stand up for what they believe in, to use their talents, to fight for what is right and to never let anyone tell them they can’t do it.  I pushed through my own fear and tried to let my heart lead the way.  I haven’t painted since I finished them a few weeks ago.  I am just not sure what comes next, I feel like I need to sit in this space for a while and let the answer come to me.

How have people responded to these portraits?

I have had a great response from this series.  I have had people reach out to me to share their own stories.  I have shared a bit of my own story while I painted these and I believe people connected with that.  As humans we are made for connection…and sharing our stories is a powerful way to empower and connect with each other.  If all this series ever did was encourage ONE woman to look in, figure out their story and embark on a journey of self discovery then I am forever grateful.

See all the works and buy your own piece of Andreina's Her Stories here