Thursday, March 01, 2012

Artist paints holy lesbians and other women: Interview with Angela Yarber

“Shulamite” by Angela Yarber

Holy women icons, including some lesbians, are painted in a lively contemporary style by the multi-talented Angela Yarber: artist, scholar, dancer and minister based in North Carolina.

“It is long overdue for LGBT persons to be affirmed and told their lives, bodies, and beings are holy and beloved,” she explains.

Voluptuous, vibrantly alive and life-giving women dance through her paintings. She sees her art as a “redemptive act” because it highlights people whose stories are rarely heard and affirms their alternative forms of holiness.

Yarber is the pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. She has a PhD in art and religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World's Religions. Yarber has been a professional dancer, artist, and clergywoman since 1999.

(UPDATE: Yarber's book "Holy Women Icons" was published in spring 2016 with nearly 50 color images of her folk feminist icons, along with accompanying articles about the women portrayed. “Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book” was published in 2016.)

In 2010 she began painting an ongoing series titled “Holy Women: Icons.” It includes lesbians such as Sappho, Mary Daly and the Shulamite -- plus a wide variety of historical, Biblical, literary and mythological women. Most are uncanonized by the church, but Yarber’s paintbrush consecrates them to become unconventional saints whose lives inspire people with new models of holiness.

Her artistic style combines swirling patterns reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” with scintillating dots and hearts. Like Sister Corita Kent, she uses text as a visual element to reinforce her artistic statement.

Yarber discusses her life and work in the following interview with Kittredge Cherry, art historian and author of the Jesus in Love Blog.

Kittredge Cherry: Why did you decide to do the “Holy Women: Icons” series?

Angela Yarber
Angela Yarber: I was serving as Associate Pastor of Arts and Education at Shell Ridge Community Church in Walnut Creek, CA (2006-2010) while I was finishing my PhD in Berkeley. One of my responsibilities was curating our gallery space. I rotated shows between individual artists and group projects so that the entire congregation could be involved. Our 2010 Lenten theme was “The Many Faces of Jesus” and the gallery was going to host an array of triptychs. I was commissioned to create one triptych and opted to paint Sophia on three canvases. As I worked on the painting, I was also contemplating what I would personally do during Lent (give up chocolate, take on a new piece of choreography, etc). As I created Sophia as a triptych icon, I decided to take on painting more holy women as icons as a Lenten discipline. So, I brainstormed a list of women, created templates, and chose 6 of them to paint during the Lenten season (one each week). After that I was hooked and couldn’t stop creating icons. For my first exhibition of these icons (summer 2010), I opted to name the show “Holy Women: Icons.” I still have many more women I want to create, so I see it as a life-long project.

“Sophia” by Angela Yarber

(Text: “Because she looked into the eyes of fragile humanity and saw the face of Jesus, her heart shattered at the sight of oppression and injustice…so she committed herself to a lifetime of picking up the broken pieces by standing for peace and dancing for justice…And now when she looks into the mirror, she sees the face of Jesus once again.”

KC: How did you choose the particular women in the series?

AY: Some of them are women in my life that are particularly important to me, such as my partner, my mother, or my aunt. Others are women, dancers, scholars, artists, and historical, mythical, or biblical figures whose lives or stories have been influential in my life. A few are commissioned works for friends, students, and colleagues during special life events, such as an ordination, calling, or graduation. All of them would be considered feminists in some way or another.

KC: I read news reports about you with headlines such as “Historic NC Baptist Church Calls Lesbian Pastor.” How does being a lesbian inform and influence your art?

AY: As a sexual minority, I live in world where some of my rights are denied. Whether it is LGBT youth who are not protected from bullying, couples who cannot file for joint adoption, students who are not permitted to learn about their own LGBT history in school, couples who are not afforded the thousands of government privileges of straight married couples, or individuals who risk being fired from their jobs simply because of their sexual orientation, there are countless LGBT voices that are not being heard.

I am a strong believer in the sentiment: “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” It is for this reason that I am a preacher. It is for this reason that I earned a PhD. It is for this reason that I paint. I do these things because of the myriad LGBT persons who have never seen a preacher who was one of them, a scholar who was one of them, or a painting that depicted them.

Also, as a scholar and artist I think it is past time for feminist and queer theory to work together. My art is one way I put these theories into practice. It is my way of giving voice to persons and communities whose stories are rarely heard. In Saved From Silence Finding Women's Voice in Preaching, Mary Donovan Turner and Mary Lin Hudson propose that “When a person who has been oppressed and silenced stands and speaks, that person experiences redemption.” By painting these women—many of whom are lesbian or queer—and calling them “holy,” it is my hope that I am contributing to their redemption and to the redemption of the LGBT community. In these ways, I see my paintings, much like my preaching, as a redemptive act.

KC: Who is the Shulamite (pictured above) and what does she have to do with queer sexuality?

AY: The Shulamite is a dancer in Song of Songs 7, which says in part, “How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter. The curves of your (quivering) thighs like jewels crafted by artist hands.”  I first discovered her when a dance historian mentioned her dance as a form of bellydance. This passing reference led me to translate, exegete, and publish an article about the Shulamite’s bellydance called “Undulating the Holy.” Since bellydance is historically a dance performed by women in the context women, men were rarely permitted to witness bellydance. In other words, it would be an anachronism to propose that the lover doting upon the Shulamite was male. Additionally, many of the women in all female harems performed bellydance and engaged in same-sex relations with other women in the harems. Consequently, the queer history of bellydance, combined with the absence of male pronouns in the poem describing the Shulamite in Song of Songs 7 led me to conclude that the Shulamite’s lover was likely another female.

What is more, the idea of homo and heterosexuality are not transhistorical essences, but instead are relatively recent socio-historical constructs. To say that there were strict sexual binaries in the ancient world in which the Shulamite lived would also be an anachronism. Sexuality was much more fluid. This dance and the poem describing the Shulamite are also very affirming of the female body. In these ways, the Shulamite is holy and empowering not just for women in general, but also for lesbians in particular.

“Sappho” by Angela Yarber

KC: It’s a delightful surprise to see lesbian poet Sappho among your “Holy Women.” She’s not usually known for her holiness, so why did you choose to include her?

AY: I created a Sappho icon for the same reasons I mentioned earlier: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. It is long overdue for LGBT persons to be affirmed and told their lives, bodies, and beings are holy and beloved. Painting Sappho, in all her beautiful and bodily wisdom, was my way of affirming and redeeming the love and life she represents. There are many ways to be holy. Her life and poetry is an example of this.

“Mary Daly” by Angela Yarber

KC: Feminist philosopher Mary Daly is an especially unusual and inspired choice for an icon. How did your Mary Daly icon come into being? Daly wanted to replace the “masochistic martyrs of sadospiritual religion” in traditional hagiography with “Hag-ography” -- writing/living the real history of women. How does your “Holy Women” series relate to her vision of Hag-ography?

AY: I have a very distinct memory of my first encounter with Mary Daly. I’d learned about her in college and at first I just wasn’t ready for her radical philosophy; it scared me. The more I learned and grew in my understanding of feminism, however, the more I grew to love Mary Daly. Her Amazon Grace, The Church and the Second Sex, and Beyond God the Father were pivotal in my own formation as a scholar, activist, and preacher.

But I first encountered Daly when I attended the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia in 2005. She was wearing green sweat pants and what looked like house slippers; she took one look at the table for panelists and the rows of chairs and scoffed. She announced that she and the panel wouldn’t use the table and we would put all the chairs in a circle for a more egalitarian discussion. It was both hilarious and meaningful at the same time.

I know that her work is not without its faults. She has a tendency to essentialize and sometimes ignores or sweeps over the voices of women of color. Because I created her as an icon does not mean I think she’s perfect or that I agree with everything she’s ever said or done. But she passed away at the beginning of 2010 when I started the Holy Women Icons project and her influence on my work kept coming to the forefront of my mind. So, I decided that she was a holy woman and deserved a painting in her honor.

There are other radical feminist and womanist scholars that I hope to create in the future. One example is Marcella Althaus-Reid.

KC: The historical Jesus was male, so why did you create a female Christ figure in your triptych “Sophia”?

AY: In Jacquelyn Grant’s White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus, she states, “It is my claim that there is a direct relationship between our perception of Jesus Christ and our perception of ourselves.” Many feminist and womanist theologians speak of how Jesus was male, but that the Christ could be female. Jesus was born into a particular socio-historical context. That context was patriarchal and androcentric; a woman’s voice was not valued. The message of Christ—inclusion, justice, peace, welcome, liberation, compassion, love—would not have been heard if it was proclaimed by a female during that time.

Since Sophia is the feminine Greek word for wisdom and often ascribed to the Christ by feminist and womanist theologians, I felt that painting Sophia-Christ-Wisdom was an appropriate embodiment of the theme, “The Many Faces of Jesus” that began this project. Additionally, the church has used the maleness of Jesus to oppress and silence women for centuries. Looking at an image of Christ and seeing yourself in that image (both as a woman and in the broken pieces of mirror that bear your reflection) is empowering. It emboldens us to be the presence of Christ in the world.

KC: How do viewers respond to your “Holy Women: Icons”? Was there any controversy or censorship?

AY: To my knowledge there has not been any major controversy or censorship. That is probably because of the supportive galleries where it was shown, though. My next showing will be at Gaia, a local shop in Winston-Salem, NC starting in April. Since Gaia is the name of the Earth Goddess and it’s a feminist and earth-friendly store, I’m not too worried about controversy there.

Viewers have responded in a myriad of ways. The primary response from people who do not know me is that they ask the gallery owners, “Is the artist an older black woman?” I absolutely love this! I’m actually a 30-something white woman. But I desire so much to be an anti-racist ally and to constantly be aware of my own white privilege. Many of my icons are women of color. Many are also biblical or mythological figures that are traditionally depicted as white in Renaissance paintings, but I find this likely inaccurate due to their historical locations. If our perception of these holy women impacts our perception of ourselves, it’s important for the holy women to portray that beautiful rainbow of diversity of our world. Holy women come in every color, shape, size, and from a diversity of religions. They aren’t just straight, white Christians.

Another common response is to ask about the hearts and the hair of the icons. The heart of each holy woman is essential. The idea of the giant hearts came from the sermon preached by Baby Suggs, holy, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She admonishes hearers to love their flesh and all their inside parts, but “more than these, love your heart,” she told them, “for this is the prize.” And the wild hair comes from the idea of Dionysian and Bacchanalian abandon where women are so filled with enthusiasm (literally meaning “having God within oneself” in Greek) that they wave their hair in wild abandon.

KC: Your website describes you as “unapologetically Baptist and unabashedly feminist.” It’s rare to find openly lesbian ministers in the Baptist church (or any church!). Were you raised Baptist? Why is it important for you to be in the Baptist church?

AY: I was not raised Baptist or in any particular religious tradition. I learned about Baptists in a church history course during college. The more I learned about historic Baptist principles—separation of church and state, the priesthood of all persons, local church autonomy, soul freedom—the more I realized that the core Baptist distinctives aligned with feminism. Baptists do not ascribe to any form of hierarchal structure that dictates beliefs or practices. Each individual is free to discern what to believe. And each local church is free to determine where they stand. It is for this reason that we see such extreme versions of Baptists in the media.

With churches like Westboro Baptist Church engaging in the most homophobic, anti-Christian, bigoted behavior, one would wonder why anyone would want to be Baptist! But their “church” isn’t affiliated with any Baptist organization. Because of Baptist polity, no hierarchy can tell them, “stop calling yourself Baptists; you’re giving us a bad reputation and you’re acting like jerks!” In the same way, no hierarchy can tell Wake Forest Baptist Church (where I am pastor) not to be the only Baptist church in the country with two lesbians as head pastors. We are each autonomous.

Wake Forest Baptist Church and I are affiliated with three welcoming and affirming Baptist organizations: the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

Historically, Baptists were complete radicals. They were inclusive. They challenged the status quo. I’m proud to be a part of this radical and inclusive tradition along with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Alvin Ailey, Peter Gomes, and Jimmy Carter.

KC: Have you done any other paintings of special interest to LGBT people?

AY: In addition to the Holy Women you’ve displayed here (Sappho, Sophia, Mary Daly, and the Shulamite), I’ve also painted others that are LGBT. Isadora Duncan had female lovers and she is one of my icons. I’ve also been commissioned to paint other icons for some of my LGBT friends or colleagues for their ordinations.

And I’m hoping to continue and expand this Holy Women Icons project by painting the icons on old doors. One side of the door would be the icon as I currently have them on canvas and the other side of the door would include more written information about the particular woman. Ideally, I’d like door frames to hold each icon so that viewers can physically walk through the door, a metaphorical doorway to divinity, if you will. Doing this is a big (and likely expensive) project though! I’ll probably need to research and find a grant in order to complete it.

KC: Female Christ figures are close to my heart and I wrote about them in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.” Your Sophia moves me deeply with Her heart made of broken mirrors and your powerful text. How do the words connect to your own life, art and ministry?

AY: Yes, I love your book Art That Dares! The words certainly connect to my own life, art, and ministry. Since Sophia was my first official icon the text was much longer than on the rest, but I still find it fitting. When it was in the Lenten triptych show I had a couple in the congregation approach me and tell me that when they saw Sophia they saw me and all that I stand for. That was probably one of the greatest compliments I’ve received in my art and ministry!

The texts on all the icons embody who I want to be, but more than any of them Sophia is an embodiment of my calling as a woman, lesbian, artist, scholar, and preacher. It’s not descriptive so much as it is constructive. The words are constructing who I want to be in this world; painting and writing them is one step in the process of fulfilling and actualizing them.

(UPDATE in 2013: Yarber's book "The Gendered Pulpit" was published in spring 2013. t is divided into four sections—gender, sexuality, dance, and disorder—and the author’s entry point is personal narrative. She uses her experience as a lesbian Baptist minister, artist and scholar to provide theological reflections and practical methods for including women and LGBTQ people in worship and preaching.)

Related links:
Artist Angela Yarber paints portrait of Kittredge Cherry, lesbian Christian author (Jesus in Love)

For more on Angela Yarber, watch the video below and visit her website People can purchase or commission her paintings by contacting her through her website.

This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.

March is Women's History Month, so women will be especially highlighted this month at the Jesus in Love Blog.


Trudie said...

This is a very beautiful and meaningful blot to begin Women's History Month. Angela's icons are beautiful, her dancing in the video clip exquisite, and your interview is as always lively and thought provoking.

Xochitl said...

What an amazing post - I had not before encountered Angela Yerber's work, but am now so glad you introduced her to us. The work is colorful and a bit whimsical, but it is still powerful and empowering. I of course love the inclusion of Mary Daly! And I too saw Mary for the first time at that same AAR session - I almost thought I was in the wrong room at first since I didn't see anyone on the raised panel platform. She literally took my breath away that day...anyway, thank you both for the beauty and power of art that you share with us all.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for your affirmations, Trudie and Xochitl. I'm glad that you took time to appreciate the video. That must have been an amazing event with Mary Daly making such an impression on both Xochitl and Angela!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed both the artwork and the video. Thanks

spiritedcrone said...

Oh just glorious - thank you!

Jane R said...

Just read this and am bookmarking to share with others in the future! I remember Angela's name from my time at the GTU. We were contemporaries but in different divisions. What a creative person she is. And I liked the way you interviewed her! Thanks very much. Sorry to be behind on my blog reading...

Kittredge Cherry said...

Jane, I’m glad you share my enthusiasm for Angela Yarber’s art. Her creativity has recently blossomed into a new book: “The Gendered Pulpit.” She uses her experience as a lesbian Baptist minister, artist and scholar to provide practical methods for including women and LGBTQ people in worship and preaching. Her theological reflections will inspire justice-loving spiritual communities. It is divided into four sections—gender, sexuality, dance, and disorder—and the author’s entry point is personal narrative. Your comment reminds me to add this to the body of this post.

After we did this interview, Angela honored me by painting my portrait! You can see it and learn more about it at this link:

alysdexia said...

"Because she looked into the eyes of fragile humanity and saw the face of Jesus, her heart shattered at the sight of oppression and injustice…so she committed herself to a lifetime of picking up the broken pieces by standing for peace and dancing for justice…"
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.
"But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be their king, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!’” (under moderation)