I met Suzy Gonzalez at the 2012 International Women’s Day celebration in San Antonio, TX this past March 8th. One of her paintings was the image used for the year’s t-shirts, which seemed to be a boost of empowerment and strength for everyone! I got to go to Suzy’s thesis art exhibition at Texas State in San Marcos. That was the point I realized I wanted to interview her about her work. Since then I have gotten to see even more of what she does for feminism and art in the communities she moves in and out of and it’s pretty fabulous. So, check out her website for more of her art and information and enjoy my interview with Suzy Gonzalez:
Liza Wolff-Francis: Can you first speak to who you are and about what kinds of feminist activism you do, which is really grass roots activism, so I want to hear about how that’s all unfolding.
Suzy Gonzalez: Well, I was born in Austin, but I grew up in Houston and then went to Texas State in San Marcos and just moved to San Antonio, so I feel like I’m totally representing Texas. I’m okay with just being from all over Texas, like when people ask where are you from? I’ll answer: Texas (laughs).
Me and a friend of mine, Elle, we met each other in college. We were both really into feminist issues and we both took a women’s studies class together and in October of last year, we decided to start a feminist zine (Yes Ma’am)
We had seen zines around and felt like we could do it. Elle is a biology major and I was an art major, so we come from different places with school but we still have a lot of things we can relate about. We bring different things to the table as far as the zine. We knew some people at the 21st Street Co-op in Austin who did Austin Free Skool. Also someone I went to highschool with has been with that co-op for years. So we decided to do a DIY feminism class. We wanted it to be discussion because I think that’s how these topics need to be, there’s no right or wrong a lot of the times, there’s no answers really, so we need to get some discussion started, you know.
We’ve had a few classes and it’s been going really well and we’ve had a lot of fun. I think teaching is a really great way to learn things as well and I think we’re learning a lot because we have to do a lot of research. We’ve also been doing a book club for a little over a year. Elle started a blog, it’s feministbookclub.org. She would write about different things she read and I would write about different female musicians, that was my contribution.
I first I wanted to go to school to be a journalist to write about music and stuff, but it wasn’t subjective enough. It was this bland kind of writing that you learn how to do in journalism and so with Yes Ma’am, there are no rules and we can say whatever you want and it’s meant to be opinionated. We want everyone to be able to have that freedom, so we take contributions from people. And artwork too, definitely.
Liza: And you just graduated from college, in art?
Suzy: Yeah, studio art and my emphasis was painting. I took seven painting classes. I took a lot and I feel good about it. I’m going to apply to different places for next fall to get a Masters. I’m kind of hoping New York, that’d be cool. I’m in San Antonio for a year and we’ll see what happens after that. I really don’t know yet. I graduated in May.
Liza: That’s so exciting. And that leads to my next question. I’ve seen your art, so I have ideas about how feminism influences you, but want to know: how do you think feminism influences your art?
Suzy: I think with artwork, you can’t just be interested in art. It’s good to have something else. It’s not just technical. It’s not like: I can be a good painter, it really is like: what are you painting and the concept that goes into it that makes you who you are as an artist. It’s not just, “I’m good at blending or I’m a good drawer. You have to have something that is your own. Some artists are into philosophy or different animal rights or border laws. You need to have something else you’re interested in. It helps when you think about: what are other possible things I could have majored in? What else am I interested in? And paint about that because that’s what you like. So, if I’m interested in Women’s Studies, it feels natural that I’m going to paint about that.
Liza: How did you get interested in Women’s Studies and feminism? How did you find it?
Suzy: Yeah, that’s hard. I guess the last few years. The first paintings I had done, that related to it, I’ve only done three, but I want to go back to that series. It’s taking different feminist rallies and protests over time, like going back to the 20’s, and all these different eras, like the waves (of feminism) and finding images of women doing things, like holding signs, and marching for things like ‘Right to Vote’ or ‘We should be able to have abortions’ and replacing the women with men, so these men are holding these signs and it’s just like a weird juxtaposition and I think it makes you think about how men never had to do this stuff or fight for these things the way that women had to. You’d never see a man holding a sign wanting to vote, or at least like a white man. I think we also have to think about intersectionalities.
Those were the first ones I was doing and I strayed to more anatomical stuff and after that I was like, how can I combine these? And then I was really interested in anatomy. Sometimes, I think: How can I put all these things I’m interested in and put them all in one painting? That was advice I had from a painting teacher one time. And it was like, I can’t put that many things in there, but maybe like a couple. I found ways to sort of combine my interests.
I don’t know how it sprouted, but my friend Elle was starting to blog and we would have different conversations, like after school and it grew. We became interested together. It’s easier when you have someone to discuss with. A lot of time you feel like people don’t know much about it and you’re like the teacher role, but when you’re in it at the same level as someone else, like learning together, teaching together, it helps. The friendship was really helpful in coming to see, ‘Oh yeah, I guess we’re feminists.’ It’s something you felt your whole life, but you never identified as that, but there was a point that I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this!’ Like, excited about it. Like, let’s do something about this. It’s like you find something to fight for.
Liza: Do you have anything to say as far as your art- how has feminism come out in your paintings? Like, do you want to maybe mention a couple themes.
Suzy: I guess I could talk about my thesis work. I titled it “Objects of Desire” and I was looking at the way it has become popular to refer to human beings, it seems like mostly women, using language of animalization and objectification, words like “hooters” or heaadlights for breasts, for example.
And how it comes off as humorous, so it’s like okay, but I think it’s hard for people to look beyond that humor and see the seriousness behind it- that these words make it a lot easier for you to look at people as objects when they’re slang terms of body parts of people. It’s sad that they’ve been used so much it’s like acceptable and it’s not. You know PC terms, how those come to be. These are offensive terms, but no one’s looking at them in that way. They shouldn’t be correct. They shouldn’t be okay. The hard part is getting people to see that. You aren’t being respectful to people, you know, but they don’t see it like that necessarily. Just because it doesn’t offend someone, doesn’t mean it’s okay to see women as objects. In a way, that’s what’s happening.
Also how language was generally created by men, so there are so many terms where you see men as the default, like mankind. That always comes first. There was this one article we read for book club- about the language of the egg and the sperm and how in most text books since whenever the sperm is always this dominant charging for the egg and the egg is submissive and is waiting there for the sperm, like damsel in distress kind of thing, when in actuality, the egg is covered in this mucus that the sperm can’t escape once it sticks to it. It’s like this mutual thing. That’s the way it should be, when it’s really been turned into this feminine- masculine language just to describe biology. Reading those text books and learning about that, I think whether people realize it or not, it gets into their heads about how they should see men and women and the sexes over all. I think the way language has evolved, I think we need to do something about it.
Liza: Agreed. Ok, so this is my last question: How do you hope your art influences people? How do you hope they receive it? Or do you hope they receive it in a certain way?
Suzy: I think whether or not their reaction is good or bad, I think as long as there is some kind of reaction, that’s a good thing. I try to think positively. The thing with the object language- with that series is that I’m trying to use humor to reel people in. I can’t control their brains, but it would be nice if they could think about it a little more and see that underlying seriousness.
I think a lot of people can look at a funny painting and say “Ha ha,” I get it and then move on. So the hard part for any artist is, how can I keep them there a little longer? I think the average time that someone looks at a painting in a museum is supposed to be like 7 seconds, so it’s like…
Sit there, read the statement. I guess it depends on how into the artwork they are. I definitely don’t want to just paint a pretty picture. I want someone to walk away thinking something they hadn’t thought about before and in a way try and change their mind about things. I know it’s a hard thing to do, but images are really powerful. Television captures people every day. I think we’re getting farther away from text, so imagery can be really strong.
Liza: I definitely think art can be world changing. And it has been. It’s always that “Life imitates art, art imitates life.” What comes first? I think your art definitely pushes people to be thinking about the content. So, here we are headed toward the end, what else would you like to say about what you’re doing or thinking.
Suzy: Something else that I want to be doing is: The nude in art has been used since art began, (laughs), at least the Renaissance times, finding the perfect body type, sculpting it, painting it, learning what the figure looks like. Oftentimes it’s a nude figure and it’s a female figure, and she’s in a suggestive kind of pose. That still is happening and I’m not seeing how people aren’t bored with it. Something I really want to do is critique it and do something new with it. I think it’s hard to talk about without painting the nude, but I want to talk about that without painting figures anymore. I like figure painting a lot, but I’m willing to get rid of it if I can critique it. That’s what I was trying to do. I’ve been working with a lot of collaging objects. Objects that pertain to gender roles or objects that we’re supposed to be associated with as women, as men, or as children and sort of combining those into a silhouette, like some other kind of way to use the figure, instead of sexualizing it. I’m definitely interested in critiquing art history.
Liza: Wow! Those are amazing ways of seeing it. Thank you for that and for the interview!
Suzy: Thank you.