Home » A Female Perspective: Catherine Toews

A Female Perspective: Catherine Toews

I quite like these drawings by Victoria, B.C. artist Catherine Toews. They have a classic elegance to them, with a modern attitude and a hint of sadness. They are very well done, and I’m sure they’ll resonate with lots of ladies. Most of all I think they’d make wonderful, very affordable gifts. Some of the more fashion-y ones are available as prints (They’re not expensive!) HERE on Society6.com.

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Catherine Toews, Study #26. All images courtesy Catherine Toews.

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Catherine Toews, Study #36.

I asked Catherine to tell me about her work, and this is some of what she had to say:

Why did you decide to make this series of women? Why women?
I’ve experimented with direct self-portraiture in the past and have never been satisfied with the results. I don’t feel compelled to draw pictures of myself, but I do have a need to process my daily experiences as a woman through drawing. Looking and drawing has always been a diaristic act for me. When I think back to my teenage years I spent so much formative time looking at other women – my classmates, family members, teachers, mentors, and of course images in fashion magazines and on television.

I think it’s easy to speak negatively about the impact fashion images have on young women. I recognize and experienced firsthand the troubling impact popular culture can have on self-esteem and body image. But my time spent observing other women – both strangers and acquaintances – provides a really valuable site of reflection for me to imagine the feminine experience of others while processing my own experiences. I’m interested in why women adorn themselves the way they do, and how that adornment influences their interactions with others.

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Ingrid Superstar sits for her Screen Test (Photo: Billy Name) Image: warholstars.com

What inspires you?
My primary source materials are fashion images, both contemporary and archival, from magazine editorials, style blogs, backstage images from fashion shows, vintage “naughty” postcards, and publicity shots or screen tests of film stars and showgirls. I’m interested in the relationship between the posed figure and the person capturing their image. Andy Warhol’s screen tests had a big impact on me. There’s a level of emotional manipulation to them but also a sweetness – a genuine desire for human connection.

If I’m being completely honest, I watch a lot of “Next Top Model” episodes from around the world. Those shows are a bit ridiculous, but with my interest in performance, expectation, and presentation I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being both fascinated and bothered by them. There’s an awkwardness and vulnerability to most of the images I collect. I’ve become more confident as I’ve aged, but there are still daily moments where I feel gawky or uncomfortable in my own skin, and where my confidence falters. I don’t fear those moments as much as I used to, but they’re the moments that I want to explore in my work.

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Catherine Toews, Society Portraits, 2006-2007, Mixed media on paper or canvas.

How do you make the work? What is your process?
I always draw from multiple images at a time. I’m not sure if I could make an accurate drawn representation of a photograph even if I tried, but that’s not my intent. I focus a lot on clothing details and how clothes conceal and reveal the female form. I’m interested in the interplay between protection and seduction, and the finished drawings often end up as exaggerated representations of the faces, bodies, and clothes that I’ve been looking at.

A good friend and fellow artist once suggested to me that it can be helpful to set “rules” for art making. For instance, by limiting your available materials. For a while I was doing a lot of collage work on top of my drawings. I was layering up everything from sequins to cake sprinkles. When it worked, it was really satisfying, but… I’ve ruined so many drawings by overworking them. I find that I work better when I keep some type of structure in mind.

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Catherine Toews, Cameo #6.

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Catherine Toews, Cameo #11.

What are these images about, for you?
They’re about my own feminine experience, and my attempt to relate to the experiences of other women. I also recognize that I’m often imagining the experiences of women I’ve never met or spoken to, and I can only really know them through an image. There’s a loneliness to many of the drawings. To simplify my point, I guess I could say that I’m projecting my own feelings onto strangers, but, if I think of it more positively, it’s about trying to find connections with other women.

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Catherine Toews, Study #19.

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Catherine Toews, Study #20.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I do. The artist Lucy McKenzie said something that really resonated with me in an issue of The Gentlewoman, a magazine I absolutely love. It is in some ways an antidote to much of what I take issue with in other fashion magazines. Anyway, McKenzie expressed some of my feelings about the importance of feminism more eloquently than I feel I could: “For me, trying to be happy on my own terms is part of being a feminist. Women are constantly under attack. Whether it’s with awful shoes or the idea that we shouldn’t aim too high. We should all aim for absolute, sovereign happiness, always.” That sense of being “under attack” is a huge motivator for my work. No matter what life decisions you make or what clothes you wear, there will always be someone out there ready to make you feel less than you know you are. Revealing and confronting my own insecurities and trying to find reassurance, common ground, and connection with other women… and perhaps even a hint of that “sovereign happiness” is reason enough for me to keep working.

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