Portraits of global struggle

Portraits of global struggle

‘Roots To Resistance’ exhibit at Gallery in The Woods honors 12 women who fought for human rights

BRATTLEBORO — Last September, Massachusetts-based artist Denise Beaudet completed a portrait of the recently slain Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres.

This was the final painting in a series of 12 large portraits that Beaudet has been working on for the past 10 years, titled The Roots To Resistance. The goal of the project is to inspire by sharing these women's heroic struggles against corruption, exploitation, and oppression.

While individual portraits from this groundbreaking work about women who have dedicated their lives to fighting for social justice have often been shown in galleries and at community events during the last decade, never has the complete series been on display in a single space until now.

Opening on Friday, Nov. 3, with a reception with Beaudet, and continuing through January, all 12 8-foot-tall portraits of women activists painted by Beaudet will be on display at Gallery in the Woods.

“These are paintings that really need to be seen in person,” Beaudet says. “One thing is their size, which is enormous. The other is that they are three-dimensional; 60 percent are 3-D collage on top of paint on wood.”

While the paintings themselves aren't for sale, visitors to the show can buy related objects like reproductions and calendars, with proceeds from sales going to local nonprofits working on women's issues and to BRAC, an organization aiding Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma into Bangladesh.

Gallery in the Woods, an eclectic art gallery that began in 1998, has generously given Beaudet a public space to show this monumental work free of charge.

“We have a large downstairs space that we considered worth opening for a show if the work is good,” says Gallery in the Woods co-owner Suzanne Corsano. “And we know Denise is good! Although hers may not be the most commercial art out there, it makes such an impact that we think people should see it, without considering any profit for ourselves.”

Corsano says Beaudet's project seeks to inspire further activism. “You need a way to get the word out to people on important issues. Not everyone reads or listens to NPR. To understand this exhibition, a person can walk in cold and be affected by it. You don't need a libretto for this opera.”

A fertile imagination

Beaudet grew up in Agawam, Mass., and now lives “a half-hour up the road” in Northampton. She has been painting for almost 30 years, but she didn't set out to be a painter.

As she writes in a news release, “My mom was actually very creative and did a lot of arts-and-crafts things with [her children]. I think she recognized that I needed a creative outlet for my very fertile imagination, and so she put me in lots of painting and drawing classes.”

Beaudet became a printmaking major at Greenfield Community College in the late 1980s, which became “a pivotal experience in my becoming an artist,” she says.

“I went to college in my early 20s and it was there that all of the magic happened, the roots of who I am today,” she writes. “It wasn't so much the formal training, though that was important as well. It was learning the skill of pulling my insides out and transforming them into art. It was gaining the confidence and support to know that there were no limits.”

Later, Beaudet continued her studies in printmaking at Hartford Art School, but when she found it difficult to access printmaking material, she switched to painting.

“I became a prolific mad painter,” she confesses with a laugh. “I got hooked on these crazy projects,”

Before The Roots To Resistance, Beaudet's last big project was to paint a portrait of a person from every country and territory in the world. “I ended up creating 234 portraits, which of course were much, much smaller than the ones in the current project,” she says.

This earlier project was shown at Gallery in the Woods in 2005.

“So many faces from everywhere, great, great installation,” Corsano says.

This project led Beaudet into exploring the politics of the different regions of the globe, and exhorted her to begin thinking politically and making contracts with activists all around the world.

“I have not always been interested in social justice,” Beaudet writes. “My family was not at all political and I was not introduced to ideas of politics and social justice until I hit my 30s.

“Before that time my art was really a reflection and purge of some earlier and more difficult times, therapy so to speak. I began to become close to people who were activists and I was completely blown out of the water by these new ideas, completely hooked, enraptured, and amazed by how deeply pushed into the sand my head was.”

Painting Estemirova back to life

The Roots To Resistance did not start out to be a large project about women activists around the world.

“I merely was making a portrait of a female activist from Chechnya, Natalya Estemirova, who during the wars of the 80s became a journalist, perhaps the last in that war-torn country,” Beaudet says. “Ultimately Estemirova was abducted and killed. I was moved by her story and work, and decided to do a life-size portrait of her. At that time, I did not think of it as a project. I just wanted to paint Estemirova back to life.”

Beaudet began showing her large portrait around, at venues like the Northampton Farmers' Market.

“People started telling me of other women like her,” Beaudet says. “This led to me to discovering many women alive doing this kind of work.”

In the end, Beaudet chose 11 more activists from around the globe to paint.

“To be connected to women, activists, and communities in Serbia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chechnya, Mexico, and Fiji lifts my spirits and makes me profoundly hopeful,” she says. “When I feel myself getting discouraged about politics here and in the world I just remind myself that it is people I believe in, not politics”

To spread the message of these activists, Beaudet created The Global Postcard and Street Postering campaigns.

”This is a way that we take each of the 12 women activists and bring their stories and voices to the wider global community,” Beaudet writes. “So, for example,we painted the 8-foot-high portrait of Afghan peace and women's rights activist Malalai Joya, and it lives for now in the Western Massachusetts community, but is not experienced by a wider audience.

Postcards to President Obama

“So we created postcards and street posters with the message of Malalai Joya countering the Western claims of bringing peace and freedom to Afghan women, and stating instead that the U.S. is in fact responsible for bringing more violence to women and girls in Afghanistan. The postcards [were] addressed to President Obama and they asked him to end this war now and save the lives of untold amounts of Afghan civilians and American soldiers.

“The postcards are shipped to our more than 75 partner organizations across the planet, and are then brought to local communities where people are encouraged to use their own voices by signing and mailing them on to their final destinations.

“The street posters are sent with a different intention. They are meant to be put up in homes, schools, and communities and to connect the voices of the women activists to those putting up the posters and encountering them.

“The postcards and posters are meant to engage people in the world and not the virtual world but the real world that they work in, their homes, and the streets they are walking in. Their purpose is to share the amazing voices and work of the twelve activists and more importantly to give a voice to global communities who support their work and their message.”

Now that The Roots To Resistance series has been completed, Beaudet is seeking a platform to auction off all 12 portraits, preferably together, but if necessary, individually.

“I am just an artist and can not do this political fundraising forever,” Beaudet says. “I want to hand this off to someone who has the resources to continue the work.”

At least 60 percent of the funds raised by the sale will go to the women activists painted or to the organizations they founded.

“We want to put the money raised into the hands of these amazing and earthshaking women so they can decide how to turn the funds into justice for their communities and for our planet,” Beaudet writes.

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