Reprinted from WestVirginiaVille.com
VIDEO: “100 Days of Badass Women”
ARTICLE: At her easel, Sassa Wilkes took Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s measure. Then, she kept on painting 99 more portraits
By Connie Kinsey | WestVirginiaVille.com | feb3.3021
I’ve written about Sassa Wilkes before. That last story was not about what she was doing in her studio, but what she was growing outside of it this past Summer. Technically, a visual artist, I nevertheless consider the Barboursville WV resident a Renaissance Woman—an artist, teacher, author, musician, and now a visual biographer. The depth of her knowledge and skills is readily apparent in her latest project, “100 Badass Women.”
The project began on September 23, 2020, following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Witnessing the mourning led Sassa to want to know more about RBG. Listening to news coverage and watching YouTube videos about her, Sassa painted her portrait, complete with Justice Ginsburg’s trademark lace collar. She stayed up all night to do it.
The result is a life-like, captivating representation of the legendary justice, complete with gold leaf on the earrings and necklace she is depicted wearing. On the morning she finished, Sassa looked at the calendar and realized there were 100 days left in 2020. She decided to paint a portrait a day of strong, notable women through to the end of the year.
Did she really paint these portraits in one day or did she go back and tweak them? She really did paint paint each one over the course of a day, she said. One hundred 11×14 oil paintings with some acrylic colors mixed in.
The project features a wide spectrum of women with divergent lives —Mother Jones to Lizzo, Dolly Parton to Kamala Harris. She is quick to add that there is no ranking in the succession of portraits. Women were selected based on Sassa’s curiosity. They are presented in no particular order.
What may be as remarkable as the series itself is that Sassa has only been painting since 2016. She will note she has been drawing “forever.” She also paints really fast, which helps if you set a goal of 100 portraits in 100 days.
“Because I was on a really short timeline of one day, those paintings are technically painted in an alla prima style, which is Italian—it just basically means that you’re painting them all at one time, and there are no layers,” she said.
These portraits are definitely not in the style of Renaissance paintings, she explained, which will have “a ton of layers and you’ll let them dry before you go put glazes.”
“100 Badass Women” can also be seen as something of a commentary on the depiction of women in art.
Sassa cited the penchant of male artists to produce images which depict disembodied parts of women. The male gaze in art, culture, and advertising often reduces women to body parts, she said. A hip, a thigh, a breast. Many a movie poster has a vantage point of peering between a woman’s legs, her head missing entirely from the scene.
“Pictorially speaking they’re the painting equivalent of an upskirt photo, and they make me sick. I’m tired of looking at paintings of women like that. I want to paint women the way women deserve to be not only painted, but looked at.”
Obviously, not all men objectify the female body in such a manner, said Sassa. “But there is a very obvious male gaze on just about everything that we read and learn and see. And in movies things are shot through a lens that has a very stereotypical male gaze much of the time.”
“We have their heads, just their heads because they need their faces to be looked at. They need to be looked in the eye.”
She ponders the impact on young girls of seeing the female body turned into spectacle. She envisions herself as a girl, seeing men gawking at something seemingly as benign as a movie poster depicting a women’s open legs, minus any evidence of her head.
“What did that teach me about myself? When I was younger? What did that tell me about my role my place in the world.?”
Enter a very badass art project.
“So, now we have ‘100 Badass Women’ heads,” said Sassa. “We have their heads, just their heads because they need their faces to be looked at. They need to be looked in the eye. They need to be respected and seen in a respectful and honorable light.”
Few people will know everyone—or even a large part—of all 100 women seen in the series. They range from well-known artists, writers, and politicians, to activists and figures from non-Western cultures such as Pakistani activist and the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai.
There’s a portrait of Maud Wagner, a circus performer born in 1877, who went on to become the first known female tattoo artist in America. There’s Mary Harris Jones—better known as Mother Jones—the most famous female labor activist of the nineteenth century. And Wilma Mankiller, an American Cherokee activist who became the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
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Famous performers of different eras—Josephine Baker, Hedy Lamarr, Tracy Chapman, Lady Gaga—give way to famous adventurers and scientists—Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and young Indian-American scientist and inventor, Gitanjali Rao.
It’s certain that many names will send viewers to Google or the encyclopedia, which is certainly part of the point of introducing her viewers to badass folk they may never have met—yet.
Because of a popular book and movie, most people now know the essential role West Virginia native Katherine Johnson played in the American space program. But do you know the rich backstory or even the name of Katalin Karikó? Research by this Hungarian immigrant to America has been key to one of the most important technological developments in vaccine research for battling COVID-19 and she has been talked about as a Nobel Prize candidate.
Sassa’s project features Helen Zia, a Chinese-American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights and Rosemary Ketchum, the first openly transgender elected official in West Virginia. Famous folk such as poet Maya Angelou and rocker Joan Jett are joined by area figures of renown, such as Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, featured in the acclaimed Oscar-nominated documentary “Heroin(e).”
Sassa herself picked the women based on which person or name on her list of candidates spoke to her, often choosing a woman whose story she did not know—and whom she came to know as she researched them.
“I learned a lot,” she said.
Sassa’s 100 faces share a common feature—penetrating gazes. The last portrait she completed is significant for the power of her visage. The figure represented is the only mythological one in the project—Medusa, who doubles as a self-portrait of Sassa.
As she chronicled her project on Facebook and elsewhere on social media, folks clamored for her to do a self-portrait. Initially, she was not fond of the idea, thinking it pretentious. As she painted herself toward the conclusion of “100 Badass Women,” Sassa said she pondered a half-finished self-portrait that had been sitting in her studio.
“Later, when I decided to paint myself as Medusa, it was like she had been sitting back there that whole time just—looking at me.”
She had started the self-portrait and then let it sit, propped on a shelf. “It felt a little bit empty on the left side, like it needed something more—like perhaps snakes.”
The final painting in the series of 100 needed to be just right, she felt. “This last woman needs to be a woman that everyone can identify with it.”
In Greek myth, Medusa is the tale of a woman seduced by a god. She is subsequently punished by a goddess who turns her hair into snakes. Medusa is banished to a deserted island and cursed, so that any man who gazes upon her will be rendered a statue.
“We don’t have to buy the stories about women. We don’t have to buy the stories we’re told about ourselves.”
Sassa suggests a different reading of the myth. With her headset of snakes, the goddess is protecting Medusa from the male gaze, which so constantly seeks to nab and grab the female form for its own uses.
“We don’t have to buy it. We don’t have to buy the stories about women. We don’t have to buy the stories we’re told about ourselves,” said the artist.
She also means that literally—women don’t have to buy into the multi-billion-dollar industry that hawks expensive beauty regimens and alterations to make a woman “better” than she is at the moment.
“We don’t have to buy. And we don’t have to literally buy products to change ourselves. We can just repackage it and retell it the way we want to retell it. And that is so powerful.”
Sassa sends a shout-out to everyone who encouraged and pleaded with her to add a self-portrait to her “100 Badass Women” project. “I’m so happy that people told me to paint myself because I really never would have.”
The Sassa/Medusa painting was the only painting that wasn’t done all at once. When I interviewed Sassa this past summer for a WestVirginiaVille story about her ambitious garden, we toured her studio. I noticed the self-portrait. Sassa told me then that it was unfinished. She didn’t know what it needed, but that it needed something, she said. The portrait hadn’t ripened.
As she painted her way through the different faces and gazes of her “100 Badass Women,” she hung the paintings in front of the unfinished self-portrait, so that Sassa’s visage peered over the variegated women whose portraits she had completed.
This is a fitting metaphor. The portraits in “100 Badass Women” are Sassa’s gaze—a woman’s gaze, the female gaze, as depicted via the eyes of 100 notable women from across the world and throughout history.
Sassa hopes to exhibit the paintings once the COVID-19 crisis is over. She has turned down offers to buy the original pieces because she wants to keep the collection intact until it can be exhibited.
She is selling prints of the paintings through her website, Iamsassa.com, as well as some t-shirts and even a coffee cup. She laughed about the “Medusa Mug” she had made. That image might be a notable thing to see in offices and homes, as some woman—or some man—somewhere in the world lifts a morning cup of coffee to their lips.
“I want to put things out into the world that show women the way I think they need to be seen and looked at.”
Douglas John Imbrogno contributed to this report.
Connie Kinsey is Minister of Paragraphs for WestVirginiaVille and a published author and memoirist. See more of her writing here.
CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden: aug20.2020: Sassa Wilkes paints every day. Now, she is painting in a different fashion, using the Earth as a palette. A portrait of a West Virginia artist growing things in a big way for the first time, thanks to Covid-19.