What Does it Mean to Be a Woman?

Nevada City-based Artist Ruth Chase is part anthropologist, part visual artist. She makes paintings, public art, and films that are inspired by interviews with people. In her latest project, Chase interviewed almost 30 people, mostly women but some men, on the topic of “What does it mean to be a woman?” The often surprising, and always diverse, answers are part of the exhibit “Blur: Unraveling The Feminine, Masculine, And Everything In-Between,” on display at The Granucci Gallery at Grass Valley’s Center for the Arts through September 11. (The opening reception is August 20th.) The show features Chase’s video interviews, as well as a series of large, gray-scale figurative paintings that explore themes as diverse as loneliness, body image, and the female orgasm. There is also an interactive component, in which viewers are invited to share their own thoughts on the topic. We sat down with Chase to find out more about her unique process and current show.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

“Blur”, at The Center for the Arts Gallery

What inspired this project?

A few years ago, I was working with the Nevada County and California Arts Councils, on a project called, “I’m in HERe” with the emphasis on her. I found that I had this annoyance with All Things Women. It was kind of like, the more it was womanly, the more I felt this agitation to go in the other direction. So after that project, I realized I probably needed to explore that. 

Is it typical for you to do a bunch of interviewing to inspire visual art?

Yes, I like the dialogue of unpredictable responses, not so much to conclude anything but more to explore a conversation around something. I pick topics that I struggle with, so that I can come to understand myself better. 

Your paintings have a very washy quality, and are very gray scale. Can you talk about your technique? 

I use slow drying acrylics, and I mostly work in lots of very thin washes. I paint in very low lighting where I can’t entirely see what I’m looking at. I do this because I can be an extremely realistic painter, and the more the materials are outside of my control, the more I get away from that super rigid, tight painting. You can lose the mood or the emotion of a piece if it’s so highly technical. 

What was one of the most memorable things somebody said to you in the interviews for this project? 

One thing that changed me personally was when my first interviewee said that she figured out that her deepest jealousy towards other women was inspired by the fact that she was actually attracted to them, and she didn’t realize she could have that experience because she’s heterosexual. It started to open the conversation about the relationship between sexuality and gender identity.

Can you talk about a specific painting in the show that explores these themes?

One is “The With/Without” painting. It  was inspired by a photo collage made by a Brazilian artist named Luciano Moto. You’re looking at what seems like a traditional man in a suit, then you have an outline for a face, but it doesn’t really show that it’s a man or a woman. Then you have the image of women, children, grandmother, repeated. So is the character thinking about their relationship to women in their lives? Are they wishing for more connection to the feminine? Or is there a conflict between their inner and outer identity? I like artwork to be open so that it’s not my interpretation.

Chase’s painting, “The With/Without”

What’s the interactive component to the exhibit?

I took a week and I found objects around my house that were very tied to my gender. Things like lipstick. There’s a poster with pictures of these objects with prompting questions, and little cards that go with it. The cards invite the viewer to take them home or find somebody in the gallery and have a conversation about these kinds of topics. The topics are things like how we use clothing and makeup to construct our gender identity, dealing with reproductive issues, and also body responsibility, hormones and emotions. If they want to share their thoughts publicly, there’s a hashtag. 

Where did the title of the show, Blur, come from? 

Previous to this project, I equated being a woman with femininity, which was probably the thing that tripped me up the most. Because I don’t feel very feminine. When I started interviewing men as well as people who identify differently, I encountered people who are male-bodied who would probably be considered far more “feminine” than me. [I also discovered] other women who were not only more feminine, but also maybe more masculine in some ways. So, the project kind of morphed into this thing about the blurry lines between the way we identify, this spectrum of masculine and feminine. Hence the name “Blur.”

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