She is fascinated by sport and art. Her paintings often allude to works of old masters. She borrows their classical methods and techniques, but deliberately sets herself apart from them in expression and overall impression. How can one use the classic artistic genre of realistic portrait to form a healthy self-image of women? The paintings of female athletes by the American Kim Ferrell give a convincing answer to this question.
Woman as a passive object of sexual desire
The history of art presents the female body as an object of aesthetic evaluation. As pointed out mainly by the feminist reading of the women representation in art, the female body has become an object of sexual desire, to be looked at by others (men) and served as a means of strengthening patriarchal power. In opposition to the active, moving male principle, a woman was considered to be a passive being that doesn't produce cultural values and nor participates in public life. What should a woman be like according to, for example, Friedrich Schiller – a poet, playwright and author of aesthetic writings? Above all, she should be charming. In his 1793 essay "On Grace and Dignity," Schiller speaks of a "beautiful soul" whose charm stems from the lightness of movements and is reflected in a tenderly smiling facial expression imbued with emotion.
Portrait as the embodiment of strength, determination and integrity awareness
Schiller's concept of "beautiful souls" can serve as an interesting prologue to portraits of young sportswomen by Kim Ferrell. These portraits are in fact not charming in the spirit of Schiller's definition; the women aren't smiling, their expressions in the midst of intense concentration preceding a sports performance leave a rather frowning or somewhat illegible impression. Looking at them, we are not able to identify exactly what emotions run through their minds. Yet the women Ferrell portrays are authentically beautiful. They embody strength, determination, and pride – not only of themselves, but also of the sport they pursue. And because Ferrell has actively engaged in sports since her childhood (she used to play water polo and swim; in high school, she joined the boys' water polo team because there wasn't one for girls), she sees it as an integral part of her personal identity. Thanks to sports, the painter gained strength and a healthy, confident attitude to life. Yet, before she started doing sports, she had been a weak and unambitious child, according to her own words. The portraits of the young female athletes have their origin in her recognizing the empowering and liberating power of sport. This personal standpoint plays a vital role in the way the painter gives voice to the personality of the portrayed women and captures the beauty of female shapes. "I think women tend to dismiss their abilities,” says Kim Ferrell. “We as women are struggling to find our voice and feel valuable, and so that’s why I’m focusing so much on them… when these girls look at their paintings of them, I want them to feel really empowered by it. It’s sort of introducing these girls to a part of themselves that they didn’t know they possessed.”
Looking at a portrait and seeing oneself "from the outside"
Author's words can be directly compared with the reactions of the portrayed girls themselves who participated at the exhibition Courageous held in Santa Cruz, California in 2017. One of the girls regarding her own portrait said: "Seeing yourself in painting form is an out of body experience. It makes you appreciate your body and your strength, something that is hard to come by today when looking in the mirror. Modern culture says beauty comes in skinny, but this collection shows that beauty comes in strength. I see strength and power in myself when looking at this painting, and it is important for others to see women portrayed as such.” Vivienne, a girl who swam competitively for 7 years and who is very serious about her physical health, shares a similar attitude: "The media portrayal of women is very selective when it comes to female athletes, so being able to see real life representations of various female athletes is empowering. I think it is important to share these images with girls of all ages (especially young girls) to show that one specific body type is not the ‘right body type.'"
Among the athletes who Kim Ferrell portrayed in her project is also her own daughter Jamie, who commented on her painting with the words: "Never had I envisioned that I could portray such implicit strength, especially in a time of extreme vulnerability."
In this regard, it is important that Ferrell doesn't portray famous sport icons, but rather – as she puts it herself – ordinary women, such every girl can identify with. The paintings of women then highlight certain qualities and positive behavior patterns and give other women confidence in their own abilities and personal growth.
Kim Ferrell is a painter, graphic designer and illustrator. Her portraits mostly make use of oil on canvas. She lives and works in Santa Cruz, California, which is also her most frequent exhibition location. Since she was a child, she's been doing various sports, including cycling.