Classic art with a feminist twist

Sometimes it pays to listen to your big brother. During his Junior year at Colorado Academy, Nick Bain ‘16 participated in a pilot program that influenced what would become REDI Lab. The REDI (Research, Entrepreneurship, Design, Inquiry) Lab is a chance for Juniors to self-direct some of their learning during the spring while also completing a project of personal interest. Nick spent spring trimester examining the process of how he learned. “He said it was incredible,” his younger sister Ellie says. “I remember that he said it was life-changing in the way he viewed school.”

Inspired by her brother, Senior Ellie Bain enrolled in REDI Lab her Junior year. She didn’t have a clear vision of what project she would pursue, but she knew she had always enjoyed painting, and in particular, she enjoyed replicating classic paintings.

By the time she finished her project, she had painted 227 hours, researched multiple eras in Western art history, and produced a series of replicas of classic paintings all with a feminist twist—a project she called “Painting Herstory.”

In Villers’ “Young Woman Drawing,” the canvas has been replaced by J. Howard Miller’s iconic World War II “We can do it!” poster.

In Villers’ “Young Woman Drawing,” the canvas has been replaced by J. Howard Miller’s iconic World War II “We can do it!” poster.

Men painting women

When she started looking for an idea to pursue in REDI Lab, Bain had already done a replica of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and thought it would be fun to do more. “I love looking at the classics and the different styles painters use,” she says. “When I replicate and try out different styles, I learn and it helps me develop my style.”

She started her REDI Lab project by delving into the Renaissance and replicating Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, “Lady with an Ermine.” But as she worked, she also studied art history through the ages looking for additional paintings to replicate. “I noticed that many of the classic paintings were by male artists and their subjects were all women,” she says. “These women were seen through the eyes of men and created to be what men thought they should be.”

With that realization, Bain decide to tweak her project. In each replica, she would introduce a feminist twist of her own. So when her version of “Lady with an Ermine” was finished, the ermine had vanished and the lady was now holding a new prop—Princess Leia’s pistol, known as a Defender Sporting Blaster in the original Star Wars films.

“I realized that the women in these paintings didn’t have much of a voice in the time period in which they were living,” Bain says. “I wanted to give them a voice modeled after strong modern women, and Carrie Fisher playing Princess Leia seemed like a good model.”

“I think that what really drives Ellie is a moral sensibility that is fueled by a rich inner life,” says REDI Lab Coordinator Paul Kim. “Ellie has the capacity and aptitude to understand complex ideas and the ability to create demonstrations of learning that are both creative and artistic.”

Inspired by the Women’s March

Bain also had another example of women’s voices on her mind. She was working on her paintings not long after the January 2017 Women’s March, which has been described as “the largest single-day protest in United States history.” With the march fresh in her memory, Bain set out to replicate more paintings.

In Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” Bain replaced the maid’s white linen cap with a headpiece made famous by the 2017 Women's March.

In Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” Bain replaced the maid’s white linen cap with a headpiece made famous by the 2017 Women’s March.

Studying the Baroque period, Bain chose to replicate Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” In her painting, however, the maid’s white linen cap has disappeared, and in its place, Bain painted a headpiece she delicately refers to as “the Women’s March hat.”

In her study of Neoclassical painting, Bain chose Villers’ “Young Woman Drawing,” but the canvas the young woman is painting now has been replaced by artist J. Howard Miller’s iconic World War II “We can do it!” poster.

Bain created a replica of Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol" where the woman now is wearing a sash that says, “Votes for Women.”

Bain created a replica of Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol” where the woman now is wearing a sash that says, “Votes for Women.”

In her study of Impressionism, Bain chose Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol,” but in her version, the woman now is wearing a sash that says, “Votes for Women.”

“Because she was wearing white, I decided to make her into a suffragist,” Bain says.

In her study of Romanticism, Bain chose Courbet’s self-portrait, “The Desperate Man,” but in her painting, the man morphs into a woman painted in a style adopted from Shepard Fairey’s Women’s March poster, “We the people defend dignity.”

“It was incredible watching Ellie’s project come together, as she pushed herself out of her comfort zone,” says Upper School Art Instructor Katy Hills. “She wanted to paint like a master, but she also made a personal and relevant statement by integrating an issue that is important to her.”

In Bain's version, Courbet’s self-portrait, “The Desperate Man" becomes a woman painted in a style adopted from Shepard Fairey’s Women’s March poster, “We the people defend dignity.”

In Bain’s version, Courbet’s self-portrait, “The Desperate Man” becomes a woman painted in a style adopted from Shepard Fairey’s Women’s March poster, “We the people defend dignity.”

 

‘I hope the women would have approved’

Bain loved that REDI Lab gave her the opportunity to have long stretches of time to paint. That also meant learning how to organize her time effectively. She says she found that imitating different styles was harder than she expected. “It forced me to think more about my personal style,” she says. “Art is a different way of making a statement. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it as long as you like it.”

“Selfishly, a highlight of my day last year during REDI Lab was seeing what Ellie produced from the day before,” says REDI Lab Coordinator Tom Thorpe. “It was amazing to see her enjoyment and confidence in making decisions grow the more she painted.”

By the end of her project, Bain confesses, she had experienced a revelation. Was it possible that just like the male painters before her, she was imposing her own views on the women subjects in the paintings? “It made me feel just a bit guilty,” she says. “I hope the women would have approved of what I did.”

Was her REDI Lab experience life-changing like her brother, Nick’s? You be the judge of that. For an encore, Ellie Bain put down her paintbrush and proved “She can do it” by hiking the Colorado Trail over summer vacation—much of it by herself.