Imagine a Western with no men - where cowboys became cowgirls, and a shift away from the usual meditation on masculinity brings a refreshing touch centuries after the Western genre began. American painter Felice House has created a feminist take on famous Western characters in her latest series Re-Western, exhibiting at Leeds College of Art this month.
The series includes oil canvas portraits of “female cowboys”, replacing iconic characters from major Western films with female faces. Felice is an accomplished figurative painter based in Texas, who has a passion for drawing women as they see themselves such as in her previous series War Women and Narrative. As a self-confessed fan of Westerns herself, Felice created this series to counter the representation of females from historical and traditional art.
We spoke to Felice about why she created Re-Western and the creative process, her message of gender equality, her passion for painting women who are not ‘consumable’ and how it’s the responsibility of both men and women to redefine what is acceptable images of women.
Image: Virginia Banderas by Felice House, Re-Western
Miriam Harris: Why did you create the Re-Western series?
Felice House: "My goal is to make people aware, even for a second of what they are seeing and how it is affecting them. For centuries men have painted images of women for men. Now that women have access to education and training, women are painting women as we see ourselves. For the Re-Western series, I used my ‘female voice’ to create female heroes because societies, and women in particular, need to have access to relatable heroic representations to be empowered by. By using the visual gender flip I am highlighting the gender/power disparity in culture. This idea of revisiting historic art forms to inject the female perspective is a strategy of the feminist art movement."
Image: Liakesha Cooper high-noon by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: What message are you hoping to convey through the illustrations?
FH: "This Baha’i quote has shaped my views about gender equality - 'The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men, not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.'"
Image: Virginia Eastwood by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: How did you come to choose Western as the genre to convey this message?
FH: "I live in Texas and love the western genre; the music, the outfits. It is so mythologised, so accepted that it spans the globe. At the same time the roles for non-white males are unacceptable. So, instead of writing it off, I decided to use it to start a conversation.
"And that conversation goes something like: What if the power handed to icons like John Wayne and James Dean were handed to a woman? What would society be like, how would education be different? What would our priorities be in society?"
Image: Krimmie Wayne Searches by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: How did you decide which cowboys to transform into women?
FH: "I tried to find the most iconic, most recognisable cowboys from Western movies. In order for the series to be a commentary on gender and power in culture it’s important that the audience understands that the images are 'gender flipped'."
Image: Julia Dean Giant by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: How does this series offer a different insight to your other series, such as War Women and Narrative?
FH: "In my series War Women I took vague or undefined, mostly black and white images of World War II women workers found on the Library of Congress website and inserted contemporary women into them. This series was my way of visually acknowledging how the courage of that generation of women (my grandmother’s) changed the access I have to the workplace today. I really felt like I was onto something with the idea of recasting, but I felt that in order to speak directly to the notion of gender and power I needed to recast in a pointed way, hence Re-Western and the utilisation of the gender flip."
Image: Stasha Dean Giant by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: Talk us through your creative process.
FH: "I am an oil on canvas painter. Most of the work I do is sourced from photographs that I shoot, or work with a photographer to shoot. After a photoshoot, I digitally manipulate the images using Photoshop to create a sketch for my paintings. In many cases, I create a small painted sketch before heading to the large canvas. For this series I took paint handling cues from pulp illustrations. At times, the color schemes of the paintings had a deeper message. For example, Liakesha Dean in Giant referenced the first cover of Life magazine to feature an African American woman."
Image: Liakesha Dean Giant by Felice House, Re-Western
FH: "Prior to the Re-Western series, I had used friends and studio neighbours as models. But, friends, like family, tend to give more feedback than is solicited. For Re-Western I didn’t want any preconceived notions about the models, or any feedback. I needed them to embody their cowboy counterparts in my mind.
My husband, sculptor Dana Younger, was the one who initially suggested putting an ad in Craigslist (the online classifieds) to find models. At first I balked at the idea. But since I didn’t have a better one, I figured I would give it a try. Craigslist talent ads tend to be really creepy, so I tried to be clear that I was a female painter looking for clothed female models for a Post-Modern Cowgirl photoshoot. Amazingly, I got a flood of responses. One of the most exciting and creative parts of the whole process of creating Re-Western was the collaboration with the models."
Image: Rebekah Wanye in true grit by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: When did you start to find a passion for painting women?
FH: "Since I started drawing in high school I made images of women as I saw them. In high school I copied Margaret Bourke White’s depression era images of women, and faces of women participating in women’s marches in the 1960’s. In undergrad at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I had a solo called Putting It On and Taking It Off; a series of self-portraits of applying makeup and monotype prints of removing the makeup along with the expectations that went along with it."
Image: Krimmie Crowe by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: How can young illustrators create a change of representation of women in art?
FH: "I am an assistant professor in the Visualization Department at Texas A&M and feel incredibly lucky to teach and work with bright, thoughtful, supportive and creative men and women.
I believe it’s the responsibility of both men and women to redefine what is acceptable in relation to images of women. Images cater to the market. In order for change to occur both men and women must own the equality of women.
I recently met a male gallery owner in Denver, Colorado who said he has a hard time showing figurative painters because he simply refuses to show over sexualised, powerless, images of women. The way in which this man was using his power and influence to own the equality of women filled me with a great sense of hope."
Image: Julia Dean portrait by Felice House, Re-Western
MH: What projects have you got lined up?
FH: "Curator Sharon Bainbridge and I are currently collaborating on a Re-Western spin off photo series that will focus on the performance aspects of embodying the facial expressions and assertive posturing of the western film stars. Bainbridge, a milliner, will be making hats for the models that will serve as the symbol of the female hero (the new cowboy), and of resistance and empowerment. Women are trained to make convey coy, approachable, facial expressions, by subverting that in these photo shoots awareness will be raised."
Image: Karan and Nanc in open range by Felice House, Re-Western
FH: "I am currently in the group exhibition Sight Unseen at Abend Gallery in Denver, curated by one of the founders of the Women Painting Women movement. A number of the Re-Western paintings have been juried into the group exhibition, Women as Warrior, curated by Didi Menendez of PoetsArtists magazine at the Zhou B art center in Chicago."
Image: Virginia Wayne portrait by Felice House, Re-Western