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Honoring the women warriors

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When visiting the site of the Terracotta Army statues in China, Sharon Bartel Clements turned to her husband and asked him, where are all the women?

The couple was visiting Xi’an and went to the mausoleum where there are rows of thousands of life-size clay sculptures of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s male warriors. The statues, buried around the emperor for protection, were discovered in 1974.

“It’s like my natural instinct to look for women warriors, but of course they didn’t have any,” said Bartel Clements.

Upon her return home, the Tesuque-based artist felt called to create a project that showed women as warriors. The result was 30 plaster molds of torsos made from the bodies of real women, all of whom, according Bartel Clements, have overcome some kind of adversity in their lives.

She’s arranged the torsos in rows, resembling how the Terracotta statues are lined up in the pits of Xi’an.

The “Warrior Women Torso Project” will be shown for the first time in its entirety at the Center for Contemporary Arts starting next Friday, Feb. 1.

Bartel Clements has been working on the project for about six years, with female friends or friends of friends willing to let her wrap their torsos and allow the plaster to dry over a several-hour process.

The front and back pieces are held together by rivets and the plaster wraps are covered in sewing patterns, something Bartel Clements said she added to represent the patterns people create in their lives. She also made spines for most of the torsos out of additional plaster, a symbol of the “great strength” associated with that body part.

To Bartel Clements, women are the “real warriors.” While the statues in China were meant to represent physical strength, which is most commonly associated with men, she said a woman’s strength often comes from within. That’s why almost all of the women who participated in her project wrote passages about hardships in their lives. The anonymous stories are collected in a book along with images of the plastered torsos.

“This is (the) Warrior Project, so through their own perseverance, strength and so on, they overcame their adversity,” said Bartel Clements. “Some have had cancer, some verbal or physical abuse, so on. The stories are quite compelling.”

In the book, which is expected to be ready for the CCA show, the women also write about how their loved ones – like their mothers and daughters – were warriors themselves.

One woman describes her daughter, who was diagnosed with ADHD and auditory processing disorders at birth, but was able to graduate from college with honors, become a teacher and have a family of her own. Another portrays herself as the “product” of warrior women, being the granddaughter of a Polish immigrant who raised five kids with a sometimes abusive husband and the daughter of a woman who was present in her family members’ lives despite severe health issues.

All of the women who participated are left anonymous, Bartel Clements explained, “because they represent all women, not just the ones that are here.”

Though the Chinese Terracotta statues represent the full body, Bartel Clements says she intentionally veered away from that to create a more “universal” representation. Something that was important to her, she added, was that her subjects represent not just different life experiences, but also different body types.

These women are not Venus de Milo,” she said. “They are not perfect beings, which they’re not supposed to be because nobody’s perfect, and we’re all different shapes and sizes.”

During a walk-through of the installation at her Tesuque home studio, Bartel Clements pointed out that some of her models were in various stages of pregnancy. Another had gone through a mastectomy. The stands for the torsos were made so each mold matches the height of the particular woman it was made from.

Over the plaster and sewing patterns, Bartel Clements added adornments to give the torsos a pop of color and make them more aesthetically pleasing. In some cases, she used pieces that reflected a little more of the women’s stories. Along the bottom of one the last torso molds, made from a woman who was eight months pregnant, she added maps from various cities in Spain, where the woman had made a monthslong trek. An image of a cathedral is on the right shoulder. While the woman was in Spain, according to Bartel Clements, she visited a fertility clinic due to difficulties she had getting pregnant.

For another mold, the artist incorporated sheet music for “Ballade Pour Adeline,” a 1976 instrumental composition written by French musicians. Bartel Clements said the woman whose torso is portrayed brought along the music for the casting. The woman had recently overcome a serious injury from a ski accident that left her “very incapacitated” for more than a year, but Bartel Clements didn’t pry into why she came with sheet music.

One or two torsos have previously been shown in exhibitions at Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, the Harlem School for the Arts and the Art Design Consultants Gallery in Cincinnati. But Bartel Clements said the entire concept doesn’t come across with just one. The torsos and the stories they represent, she said, are more powerful together.

“It’s like a collective consciousness kind of feeling when you have them all together,” she explained. “There’s more strength.”

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