Talking About Women: An Interview with Natalia Fabia
WM: One focus in your painting is women’s bodies, and you’ve been doing this for years. Is this interest feminism or figure painting or fashion or what?
NF: All of the above. I have been drawn to women since I was a child. I would ask my father to draw “girls” for me since the time I was three years old. So I’ve always been interested in women’s faces, features, bodies. And I have always loved fashion magazines and enjoyed fashion design. When I was younger, I’d do make-overs on friends, complete hair and make-up and wardrobe and that early interest was a kind of preparation for my current complex photoshoots, where I create reference images for paintings.
WM: The word that comes to mind in your paintings of women is “fearless.” Your women are naked or tattooed or playful or mysterious or magical. They have permission to do whatever they want with their bodies. Is that your political message?
NF: There’s a fearlessness in not worrying too much about what other people are thinking about you. And also owning and freeing the part of yourself that you find beautiful or exciting. There are all kinds of female archetypes — like the virgin and the whore — that don’t match up to the reality of actual roles women can hold. It’s a very male way of thinking to shame women for being open with their sexuality. Some people think that to be respected or esteemed you have to hide your sexuality and femininity, including some women that call themselves feminists but deride anything overly feminine. I think when women are open and unafraid they are inspiring. And sometimes my painting is about making beauty from female insecurities. Women recognize this. They connect with my art because it’s often how they feel inside, or want to feel. Not what society is always telling them to be. There’s no shame. My women are vulnerable and yet predators at the same time, they are the freedom to choose.
WM: Can you expand on that? You mean women are normally repressed by culture and your work is revealing another way for women to see themselves?
NF: It reminds me, my good friend and muse (Strawberry) was raised in a Mormon patriarchy where she was taught her virginity was like a gift for her future husband. If she gave that gift (sex) away beforehand, then she could only give her husband a bad present that had been used already. She was taught to not show her shoulders and knees because men, if they saw them, were supposedly incapable of controlling themselves. She was told her place was in the home and that is all. I feel my art is like a big fuck-you to all of that patriarchal control. Reject that and say yes, to freedom! The political idea is this: if you free a woman from repressive societal constructs then she is less willing to be dominated or held back from anything she wants to do. It’s just about freedom.
WM: Should a viewer of your work, male or female, see the women as sexual?
NF: I am interested by the idea of voyeurism. But the women I paint are “sexy,” which is not quite the same thing as sexual. I am intrigued by the controversy sex creates but I don’t really think about trying to make my work “more” sexy than feels right to me. My art work shifted in recent years to focus on broader personal life-experiences, like being a mother and losing my brother. But I continue to explore themes related to women and sexuality. My women are unapologetically sexy because I don’t think that the female form, or the nude female form needs to hide her sexuality. Neither one is an open invitation for sex. It’s just the body. Women can own their own sexuality for their own sake and enjoyment. I always tell my models they don’t have “to be” sexy. Because they already are sexy. That thought is really empowering and liberating.
WM: Some of your paintings are nature scenes of women together in environments like the forest, etc. Are these tribal “girl power” gatherings? How should we interpret them?
NF: What I appreciate about nature is it feels timeless, spiritual and magical. Nature offers the best color, atmosphere, harmony, mood. You can’t ever fake or manufacture what nature gives you freely. So yes, it’s tribal in showing things greater than yourself and the connection of all things. Tribal in the fact that we should bond and support one another. Defend and help each other. I feel that we are all women of different environments, representing different things like the historical myths of water nymphs, forest nymphs, etc. We are all from different modern environments and have lost some of that Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf schools) idea of nature as a place for free play. Belief in things greater than yourself and the connection of all things, that idea can help you find more energy in your art work.
WM: What is the influence of old-school classical oil painting on your work? A lot of those historical painters were men, what aspect of femininity do you think they missed?
NF: When I started painting, I wanted to be just like those historical male painters. It’s funny, but it didn’t even faze me that they were men and I was not. I love the model-painter relationship, and I had a romanticized idea of those old masters (Toulouse-Lautrec) painting and having relationships with their models. Historically, the high-art muse was often a lowly actress, performer, or prostitute. In college I made many of my male friends jealous because I could easily go up to girls at bars and ask for their phone numbers to model for me. They’d pose for me (for free) and we would have fun, sometimes even become great friends.
WM: Are you painting some aspect of the feminine psychology that men are not?
NF: Even the most empathetic man trying to paint a woman still has no idea what it’s like to be a woman and all of the things we go through. Women are labyrinthine. A woman will notice things about another woman that a man would totally miss. I have been told I capture women more accurately because of that. Also because I bring out their fun wildness. One of my oldest friends who is a model says: “People always get so excited to be a part of Natalia’s thing because it’s so fun to be viewed through her lens.” I have my own ideas. I’d imagine a man painting a woman would be totally from the male perspective of capturing sexual desire or love or maybe a Freudian memory of their own mother. I don’t know a man’s mind but I am completely different in coming from a female point of view and understanding life as a woman. Maybe it’s like this: what I am trying to do is get at women from the inside — what if one of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s women were to paint herself? What would that look like?
WM: You can be a delicate colorist as in “I’m OK” or blast out hot-rod color as in “East Village Sparklers.” What’s your design thinking about color, especially when it comes to painting women?
NF: I am obsessed with color and light. I can intentionally go overboard with it. I keep some restraint but usually can’t help but give into color. I use a lot of color, but try to control it. Still, when it comes to the women, I want to keep women soft and natural; keep them true rather than force effects.
WM: You’re not afraid to break the rules, inject stardust and move away from realism to magical realism or fantasy. Are your women real or imaginary creatures?
NF: My work is on the thin line that exists between our reality and a fantasy. The women are real to me, but I also make them something more. Not just capturing ordinary reality. And they are also whatever the viewer makes of them. I want to create possible worlds and many times the models are just a way to help create that vision. Fortunately, my models understand and vibe with my concept.
WM: What about works like your painting “Nap” (2009?) It feels like a modern reboot of traditional men’s pin-ups, like what Gil Elvgren did in the 1950’s.
NF: I am heavily influenced by pinups. I love vintage Gil Elvgren and Zoë Mozert, Alberto Vargas, George Petty, Earl Moran. If you aren’t careful, that pin-up influence can lead you to make your models look like a deer caught in the head lights. But way back in high school I did paintings of Betty Page and later, my “master copies” were of Gil Elvgren. I made my school friends dress up in my garage and took disposable camera photos. There is fun to that, the fashion and performance that feels sexy, powerful and freeing. It’s different with a girl shooting women because it’s not about the desire of the male spectator. My intention was completely generous. I got off on making my friends and models feel good and have fun, being beautiful and strong and confident. Later, I would be so excited to show the model the result (a finished painting.) Eventually, I saw this as a problem, because I couldn’t worry about pleasing the model rather than creating the painting that needed to be made. I need to do what the “painting needed.”
WM: You’re not afraid to live large and if you want something, you do it. I see this in your art as well, but where do you draw the line? What do you censor — or think “I won’t paint that.”
NF: I don’t think there is anything I won’t paint. Oh, I won’t paint big teeth or smiles because that anatomy always looks bad. But seriously, it can be hardest to paint things that are too emotional. Like things that scare me or things that make me sad. Sometimes people I truly love I have a hard time painting, like even my dad. There’s too much emotion involved.
WM: You have a great relationship with your young daughter. How has that affected your thinking about women, mothers and daughters, and putting the female universe together in art?
NF: My daughter, when I stop and listen and look through her eyes, I see more. I realize the beauty in simple things by sharing them with her. Going through pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding and all of that awesome craziness it definitely changed the way I viewed myself and women and gave me so much respect for how powerful and strong we are. We can handle so much. And now watching our daughters and wanting them to have positive views of themselves and their place in the world, I hope they can feel free and strong and fearless in who they are and what they want to create. My last show was about expressing those ideas.
WM: What do you think is the biggest challenge in painting women, as a subject in 2017?
NF: There’s no special challenges, but if you over-think it as subject matter it might be a problem. Over-done femininity can be cheesy. Also, at this moment there’s too much focus on social media. Having said that, I also think women as a subject for art can be reinvented over and over, and will have a wide audience which relates to the subject of women until the end of time.