Loud Colors

the art of cory jaeger-kenat

Men Series, 2001

"Everyone has a life story, and these paintings--punches in the face made with paint--are mine. When I came back to Christ after nearly twenty years I have to admit that I felt more than a bit ambivalent about these paintings. Quite honestly, I felt ashamed. Ashamed that these works had gotten extensive museum exposure, ashamed that blinded by the need to express what was deep inside, I had succumbed to shock value. These works were tremendously supported by radical feminists, and I didn't understand at the time that even though I myself claimed the same title, my view of feminism was about honoring traditional femininity, embracing the privilege of being a woman, and the contributions the strong homemaker had made to the world. I had no desire to compete with--much less 'obliterate'--the masculine 'oppressor', in fact, most of my so-called oppressors had been abusive, domineering women in my childhood. I also thought that men, toiling on steel girders and in coal mines, slain by the thousands on battlefields, had a far more difficult life to live than any woman 'confined' to a kitchen. I still care deeply about the ardent feminists I knew back then, but boy, oh boy, did we misunderstand each other, and unfortunately, the rift in our perceptions is deep.

But then I started to reconsider these works. I realized that they are all about truth, awkward truths, perhaps, but truths nonetheless. They can never be called pretty lies. They are works that say so much, about bad choices made when it seemed there was no choice. They are about honoring and exposing my agonized girlhood--and maybe yours, too. But most importantly, they are about celebrating the fact that we can move forward and with His grace--these can be works about what we learned and let go of, along the way.

The paintings come from my years as a very young woman. Those years have the feel of a bad Lifetime movie, filled with unbelievable--but absolutely true--trauma. I was raped and left for dead at 15, pregnant and married at 17, and widowed, raising two sons, by the age of 24. A dizzying array of relationships wound themselves throughout my life, the typical crushes and bullies of grade school, an alcoholic husband, wild-eyed musicians, and angst-ridden artists who put me on pedestals in order to better tear me apart.

Jesus understood women like me, and we are depicted in one of my favorite stories in the Bible, the story of the woman at the well. This is the type of woman who still fantasizes about her high-school love, who knows what it's like to be in a fever over a "bad boy" in a bar at closing time--she has known what it is to share wedding cake and later divide up the furniture. She probably grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and maybe even bought groceries with food stamps. This kind of woman comes to a well where Jesus is sitting. He asks her for a drink of water, and she is shocked, because in her society, she is considered unclean ('a bad girl') and should not have physical contact with him, a respected leader and rabbi. But his eyes softly lock onto hers, and in their depths she can see her beauty and worth, things she thought she'd lost long before she ever knew she had them. He tells her gently that he knows about her many scandalous relationships, her many husbands, and even her current live-in lover. She ends up leaving their conversation in wide-eyed, delirious ecstasy, telling the townspeople, "He knows me!" She knows she is loved and accepted by something so much bigger than her own condemnations. And in a way, maybe these paintings were all about exposing my darkest secrets in order to learn that my value was so much more than that. Ironically, the series, although abandoned, was never completed. There were far more stories, and far more paintings, but somewhere along the line I lost the desire to reveal more.

So, I think I am past being embarrassed by being known for works that highlight so many of my flaws. Instead, I see that the texture of my life may be coarse, my life may be crudely drawn, but it is indeed filled with 'loud colors'...and when I consider the value of the lessons learned, I am so grateful for a God who makes even the shameful things a springboard for redemption."
--Cory Jaeger-Kenat