Jacqueline Secor on Diversity of Nature Series: “Painting Vulvae is an Act of Resistance”

Aldous Huxley once said that “perhaps it’s good for one to suffer – can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything?”. Ergo, only by going through trauma an artist can really express himself. There’s no surprise there. Not anymore. As we’re going to find out in the interview Jacqueline Secor kindly gave us, art can be both a personal, intimate coping mechanism, as well as a sort of act of resistance, a guide, based on empirical evidence, for others in similar situation. Life does not come with instructions, that’s an unfortunate fact. But we’re sure as hell there are some hacks we can rely on.

Jacqueline Secor is an American mixed media feminist artist, currently based out of Salt Lake City. Her former membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the causes she ended up battling Body Dysmorphia (a disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with imaginary defects in their appearance). As she says, there’s a “widespread unspoken rule [inside this church] that women should conform to this really narrow definition of perfection”. As a consequence, she left the Mormon community and started focusing on art, as a way of healing.

Influenced by her own vision of beauty and by primitive art/prehistoric cave paintings (she spent her childhood at the base of Sierra Nevada Mountains), Jacqueline succeeded in becoming a loud voice for women all around the world. “Diversity of Nature” is no longer a personal safe place for her only, but a forum where women can celebrate their individuality.

Jacqueline Secor, via Instagram

“When I look at my series, I see beauty in every painting, but I also see power. I see a history of suffering and the ability to overcome that pain”

CULTARTES: I once met a young local artist who would simply apply acrylics on her vagina and then sit on paper. She’s got hundreds of those pieces (probably more now). No gallery would exhibit or promote her, and last time I remember she wanted to relocate to Finland, in order to pursue her artistic career. What would be your advices for a young artist in this situation? I’m sure you encountered similar reactions at some point.

JACQUELINE SECOR: The Diversity of Nature Series has been denied from most galleries in the conservative state of Utah; where I currently reside.  My other work has been accepted into shows. Luckily, with social media, I have been able to reach more audiences and galleries where my work is welcomed.  The negative responses have done more to motivate me to continue working on this series.

This negativity highlights that women’s bodies are a site of conflict.  I encourage all artists to experiment, explore and be vulnerable.  Trust yourself and what feels authentic to you, for your personal experiences will lead to growth and the ideals that bring your art to life. People tend criticize what they don’t understand, which says more about those individuals than you or your work.

If I’m not mistaken, Diversity of Nature can be considered a self-developed healing technique as well as a feminist movement. How do these two aspects complete each other and which one of them is most important, if the case?

Initially, I never intended to make this project public or political. The Diversity of Nature series began after I was in a very unhealthy relationship and environment which caused me to become extremely self-critical.  I had turned to art as a way to help myself heal.  I felt that if I could help other women to love and to accept their bodies by making the series public, then it would be worth my effort. Feminist art can positively influence cultural attitudes to transform the way they see the female body – mostly the taboos surrounding genitalia. When I look at my series, I see beauty in every painting, but I also see power. I see a history of suffering and the ability to overcome that pain. I see hope for equality.

How do you think your project affects individuals’ opinions about mental disorders? Did you, let’s say, encounter situations when skeptics turned to get a better understanding of BDD? Did anyone in a similar condition, that you know of, learn how to use your project for their “healing”?

There is such a negative stigma surrounding mental health issues and female genitalia and these topics were the catalyst for my “Diversity of Nature” series.  In reality 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health condition in a given year.  When I first went public with my series, I published it on my Instagram page with some deeply personal anecdotes about my struggle with Body Dysmorphia – essentially aspects of me that weren’t “perfect” – facts that most people choose to hide from the social media version of their lives.

After sharing a few early paintings with my close friends and family, they responded by sending me photos of their own bodies to reimagine in my art. Their responses encouraged me to make the project public – they said that seeing their most intimate body parts represented on canvas helped them deal with their own secret insecurities. Now, I have women from all around the world: friends, family members, casual acquaintances, and total strangers contribute as models for my work. I’ve had many men and women contact me, some publicly and some privately, expressing gratitude for the way this series helped them to see beauty in each body.

“Despite the prevalence of female nudes in art museums, despite the accessibility to pornography, there is still tremendous pressure on women to hide themselves, to be ashamed”

Genitals are still considered taboo in art, even to this day. And I’m not talking about erotica – I’m talking here about 3.5 ft canvases illustrating vulvae. It surely made some people curl. What do you think is the reason of any negative reactions? What does it take to get to the point when art consumers would accept genitals in art without the “we’re-not-supposed-to-show-this/talk-about this” voice in the back of their heads?

Even today, despite the prevalence of female nudes in art museums, despite the accessibility to pornography, there is still tremendous pressure on women to hide themselves, to be ashamed of whatever doesn’t conform to societal standards of beauty and propriety.  Labiaplasty is a perfect example of how women try to achieve the mystic ideal. A few years ago, I was shocked to learn that in Australia, any visible sign of the labia minora is “offensive” and has to be edited out to be deemed “appropriate” enough for soft porn. 

If men and women only see this one specific version of female genitalia, then they start thinking that there’s something wrong with anything that doesn’t conform to that. Painting vulvae and focusing on details of women’s bodies, even the parts that are “supposed” to be hidden, feels like a small act of resistance. My work is a way of saying that women don’t need to hide, that we deserve a place, not just in the art world, but in every sector.  Titling my series “Diversity of Nature” pushes back against the photoshopped ideal of beauty.

I’m coming from a different culture, so I can’t say that I’m familiar with any of the Mormon Church’s traditions. How did your affiliation to this social group influenced your current art development?

In Utah, there is still a widespread, unspoken rule that women should conform to a narrow definition of idealism. This is all based in the desperate quest for an arbitrary version of “perfection”,  which has a lot to do with our value on superficial beauty in a patriarchal society. I felt some of that pressure to conform when I moved here from Northern California and painting has helped me overcome this impulse.

Art process, as any other form of therapy, is a long-term, no expiration date kind of thing. But when do you think is safe to say that Diversity of Nature would have served its purpose? And once you get there, what are the next steps?

I hope this series will be ongoing. I feel there will always be room for women to have a way to celebrate their individuality. The Diversity of Nature Series is a forum where this can take place. I have another series that I continue to work on titled Defying Extinction.

Follow Jacqueline on Instagram, Facebook and Etsy for more.

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Romanian self-taught writer, based in Cyprus, interested in contemporary art, unconventional culture and gonzo journalism. Writing for almost a decade, he is agnostic, supports a censorship-free society and reads way less than he wants.

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