Subverting the “Girlie” Calendar: May

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Sadie Lee, “La Butch en Chemise” (1992)

Ms. May

 

The life they tell of May is a mistake.
They simply wanted her to love a man
she didn’t. Skewed her voice to fit their plan.
Left May alone with her peculiar ache.

A “girlie calendar” makes one think of men’s lockers, walls of auto repair shops or a military barracks: They’re typically collections of nude or scantily dressed women in provocative poses, designed for the male heterosexual gaze.

But what if a girlie calendar is designed with a lesbian gaze in mind? That sort of subversion is what lesbian poet Mary Meriam has in mind with the title of her poetry collection, Girlie Calendar, and for the Ms. Blog she is excerpting from the book a poem-of-the-month (she began in October and continued in November, December, January, FebruaryMarch and April). Meriam is also selecting accompanying artwork for each month from both historical and contemporary lesbian-related images.

This month’s artist, Sadie Lee, lives and works in London. Her realistic paintings often focus on gender, aging and the representation of women in art. She has had solo exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, Manchester City Gallery and Schwules Museum in Berlin.
Here’s what Sadie says about “La Butch En Chemise,” taken from an essay she wrote for the book Outlooks—Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures, edited by Peter Horne and Reina Lewis.

I am very aware of the relationship between the painted woman and the viewer and try to set up a narrative in which both play a part. Sometimes I attempt to convey a mood or feeling about a woman using direct eye-contact, certain color techniques, stance and size of the figure. In the painting ‘La Butch En Chemise’ my reasons for asking the woman to pose for me were very personal.

I had seen a woman in clubs and secretly watched her over a period that lasted about four years. Because of the nature of London women’s clubs, it was quite possible for us to move in the same circles, have mutual friends, turn up at the same time and yet never speak to each other. Had I attempted to talk to her it would have meant that I fancied her. Although this was true, I didn’t really want to shatter the illusion I had invented by actually getting to know her. Apart from this I have always been terrified of rejection and have rarely approached anyone unless completely intoxicated. Based on my observations I imagined her to be both hunter and hunted. Cruising about in the clubs she looked like a predator but she still retained an air of vulnerability. Nervously (and drunkenly) I managed to approach her and asked her to model for me.

Of course she was nothing like my fantasy of her and although she is recognizable in the portrait I exaggerated her features and coloring to give more of a sense of how I perceived her. The portrait is large and fairly daunting. I am fascinated by the women that I paint but often find it hard to talk to them, and when I do we are usually uncomfortable in each other’s presence. I have always tended to make people nervous as I have difficulty relaxing with people I don’t know very well and therefore make it unlikely that they should want to get to know me any better. I try to convey all this in my paintings of them and allow other people to feel as uncomfortable in front of the painted woman as I do in front of the models themselves. The electric blue background draws attention to the nerve-jangling coldness of the woman, as I perceived her, in this particular painting.

The title came quite some time after the painting was finished and I saw a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period called ‘La Femme en Chemise’. The painting is of a woman shown from the waist up, in a sleeveless vest against a rough dark blue background. Although the two paintings are completely different, these similarities made me want to draw a connection between them. ‘La Femme en Chemise’ means the woman in the chemise, but as ‘femme’ also means a ‘Feminine Lesbian’ in dyke-speak, as in ‘butch and femme Couple’, I called this painting ‘La Butch En Chemise’, meaning ‘the masculine lesbian in the chemise’.’

Painting reproduced by permission of the artist.

MaryM

 

Poet Mary Meriam is the founder of Lavender Review, cofounder of Headmistress Press and author of The Countess of FlatbrokeThe Poet’s Zodiac, Word Hot, Conjuring My Leafy Muse and Girlie Calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

About

Mary Meriam advocates for the right of women to love each other in their poetry and art, and strives to give their work a place at the table. She writes about and publishes such work in the journal she founded, Lavender Review, at the press she cofounded, Headmistress Press, and at Ms. magazine, The Critical Flame, and The Gay & Lesbian Review. Her poetry collections, The Countess of Flatbroke, The Poet's Zodiac, The Lillian Trilogy, and Lady of the Moon, honor a cosmos of strong, creative women. Her latest collection, My Girl's Green Jacket, was published in 2018, and her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Prelude, Subtropics, and The Poetry Review.