Maren Conrad – the Grid’s Most Controversial Artist?

By Rachel Smith and Laura Braden

How did a 33 year-old, single mother and local artist become a lighting rod over artistic expression, censorship, double standards, gender roles and feminism?

Here’s what happened:

  • Friday, June 7 – The Capitol Morning Report included a blurb on the opening of Vanguard 1415 – and Maren’s art … “works of art created by Sacramento artist Maren Conrad with the theme lovers, mistresses, and muses of California governors that includes artsy portraits of former CA First Ladies Maria Shriver and Nancy Reagan, along with singer Linda Ronstadt, a former girlfriend of Gov. Jerry Brown.”
  • Sometime between June 7-10 – According to the Sacramento Press, a female lobbyist named Donne Brownsey reads the CMR blurb and fires an email to Vanguard 1415, which led to the decision on Monday to not display the commissioned art. The process to that decision is subject to a lot of rumors and hearsay, none of which will receive further oxygen on GOTG.
    • Let’s take this moment and put the Sacramento Airport on notice. We hate, HATE that giant red bunny. The color red is sexual and demonic, and we’d like the installation removed ASAP. That is all. Thank you.
  • Tuesday, June 11 (morning) – Sacramento Press publishes a story that lays out every detail. Ironically enough, the Sacramento Bee also prints their story about the nightclub’s opening and includes a photo of the paintings above their FRONT PAGE MASTHEAD, while the Sacramento Press simultaneously prints their article about the art being removed. There was not one single mention about the potential controversy in the Bee, but thanks to the Sacramento Press, this story got told.
  • Tuesday, June 11 (afternoon) – By 2:00pm, our Facebook newsfeeds had officially blown up with comments almost exclusively in support of Maren’s art. By around 3:30pm, we found out that Glenda Corcoran had purchased all ten of the paintings – leaving us to hope that prints of the originals are on Etsy.com by the end of the week.
    • And we’re not kidding – Glenda is a bad ass, and we can’t wait to meet her. Her quote when asked why she purchased the art? “The collection is amazing. It was about women, made by a woman and now purchased by a woman, I can’t wait to install it.”

Now let’s all take two minutes and read Maren’s official description of the art…(long but worth the read)

Politically Vulnerable

“We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.”
–Margaret Atwood, poet, author of Power Politics

Behind the scenes of politics, where “great men” rise to power by carefully protecting themselves from the vulnerabilities of their personal identities and histories, these ten women–wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of California governors–reveal their personal power by revealing their stories. Taken together, they represent the strength of baring one’s identity, telling one’s history, and facing one’s vulnerabilities, a strength often denied in the image-crafted world of politics and debased in the tabloid world of entertainment that finds its home in California. Though they are united by their shared connection to powerful politicians in the state, these women are celebrated for possessing their own personal puissance.

Six of the women on display are Hollywood actresses, one is a world-famous singer, and one is an award-winning television journalist and activist. The intersection of such celebrities with California politics, home to two movie star governors, is hardly surprising. What is most remarkable is the vitality these ten women exhibit through their vulnerability. First Lady of California Virginia Knight, whose first husband was killed in action during World War 2, was dubbed the “Viola Queen” by the Purple Heart Association for her long-time dedication to veteran’s causes in his honor. Linda Ronstadt, one-time girlfriend of Jerry Brown, enjoyed popularity with songs of emotional hurt like, “When Will I Be Loved,” “You’re No Good,” and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You).” Celebrated actress Piper Laurie, who lost her virginity at the age of 18 to her very first co-star Ronald Reagan, playing the role of her father in the film, demonstrated the courage to expose the painful episode in her memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud. Actress Nancy Davis, who endured Ronald Reagan’s love affair with actress Christine Larson, among others, while she was pregnant with his child, would later become known as “Mrs. President,” the real power behind the throne in the White House, and allegedly maintained her own affair with Frank Sinatra. Actresses Bridgitte Nielsen and Gigi Goyette both revealed their affairs with Arnold Schwarzenegger while he sought to keep them concealed. Maria Shriver, who defended her husband against charges of groping women during his campaign for governor, earned great admiration for speaking openly later about the difficult transition of divorce, publicly soliciting advice from her supporters on YouTube about what “enabled you to get through your transition.” Shriver, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist born into one of America’s most potent political dynasties, has been a prominent activist for women’s empowerment, bringing prestige to the California Women’s Conference and conceiving the Minerva Awards, named after the Roman goddess of war and wisdom who adorns the California state seal, to honor “remarkable women who are both warriors and peacemakers.”

The portraits of these ten women suggest this essentially feminine paradox of strength in vulnerability. The white feather, symbol of both pacifism and courage, of innocence, unburdening, and renewal, is quintessentially a symbol of the power of lightness–it is at once associated with the enlightened drafting of political treatises like the Declaration of Independence and with the lighthearted unveiling of women’s bare bodies in burlesque shows. Gold, silver, and bronze leafing, used to embellish grand political edifices and holy portraits of the Virgin Mary alike, exalt the vivacity of these women by bringing their background into bright relief. A multi-layered application of paint sealed in resin suggests the layers of experience that construct identity, and the depth of histories that can provide vivid multidimensionality to one’s character, or remain concealed beneath the surface. The meticulous process of pointillism and stippling evokes the dot printing process of the magazines, newspapers, and tabloids that have brought the personal stories of these women to the public, and illustrates the curious nature of translation and distortion that are inherent in the representation of such histories through these media.

Now that we have the facts clear, let’s move into our commentary and analysis…

The artwork in question is comprised of ten paintings depicting strong women in California that are/were affiliated with political men. They aren’t nude – they aren’t even suggestive. They are facial portraits without labels, captions, nametags or descriptions. These paintings were meant to strike conversation – to get patrons to wonder who they were/what they stood for and want to learn more.

Source: SacBee.com
Source: SacBee.com

Controversial? Meh. We’re just not seeing it.

According to the artist profile, these pieces were made to evoke conversation, though most people would probably just see them and think, “Wow, those are really well done paintings of pretty ladies.”

Therefore, it seems like they’re not censoring the paintings – they’re censoring the story of the painting’s subjects.

Listen, we’re not art aficionados. In fact, we’re pretty sure that we both failed our coloring class in elementary school.

Laura walks around museums saying, “This is art?” (And the “art” is always said while making air quotes.) Admittedly, Rachel is incapable of being able to fully appreciate the beauty and storytelling behind a Picasso, probably because she can’t even make out what the painting is. Don’t lie … neither can you.

All we know is that it looks damn cool, and that’s what matters to us. However, for others, a Picasso or the like can bring up a wave of emotion – which is very special. That’s the beauty of art – interpretation is in the eyes of the beholder. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting or dancing – art is made for the world to take in as they please, but it has to be seen first.

So why are these paintings considered controversial? Is it a generational conflict over views of feminism? The fact they included mistresses alongside wives? Double standards on gender roles? Censorship due to opposition? Is it the mere fact that we’re discussing these women as a backdrop to the men they were associated with? Did politicos warn the owners there would be economic backlash if they didn’t remove the art?

The concept of feminism has been around since the 1700’s, but it’s generally accepted that we’ve entered the “fourth wave” of modern philosophical and political feminist thought. Hell, some argue that we’re in our fifth wave, but regardless, that means that feminist thought has shifted roughly every generation.

In other words, how your grandmother defines feminism, and how you define feminism, are likely to be vastly different.

And let’s even cut out the word feminism because it brings it’s own baggage of interpretations and connotations. Let’s call it “what you believe women should be allowed to do and how/why they should be allowed to do it.”

Brownsey herself stated (in an phone conversation to the Sacramento Press), “this is no comment on the artist and her work. I just think it was an unfortunate choice of a theme. I think it’s obvious – when you read something describing a new commercial establishment like a new club, that has a theme like mistresses, lovers and muses of California governors.”

Is the fact that mistresses were included alongside wives that was considered so offensive? As if mistresses have no story worth telling and belong in the shadows of shame and secrets?

If that were true than why aren’t people tearing down portraits of Governor Schwarzenegger and President Bill Clinton and President Franklin Roosevelt and President George H.W. Bush and Governor Mark Sanford and Senator John Edwards and…ok, we’re exhausted. You get the point. It’s important to remember that these women weren’t just “girlfriends” or “mistresses” – they were progressives with full and rich lives (see artist profile).

Why does one get glory while the other receives scorn … when both are equally guilty of the same act in question?

Remember, part of what Maren was trying to convey was that, “the portraits of these ten women suggest this essentially feminine paradox of strength in vulnerability.”

Laura thought that meant that to lead an “authentic life” – just like Maria Shriver encourages – is to find the courage to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want. Rachel went further and thought it meant that you get to be sexually confident and a CEO. We can be independent and vulnerable. We can want a husband and not kids. We can be smart and hot. We can have just as much fun as the men have – and still be taken seriously. (Ok, so we realize this is idealistic … the realists should substitute “should be able to” for “can.”)

And the best part? You can interpret her statement (and her art) to mean something vastly different. We think that’s the other major point of art – discussion over contrasting views of interpretation. We’re all looking/reading/hearing the same thing – and have vastly different opinions. And that’s a good thing because (rational and passionate) debate moves humanity forward.

Here’s the deal – every owner has the right to make their own decisions about what to put in their business. We’re not here to point fingers or blame anyone (including Brownsey), but as people who work in public relations, we could have told you three days ago (hell, at any point at anytime) that censoring works of art by a local, single mother completely outweighs the risk of leaving it up. Especially when said art is intended to evoke conversation … or at the very least serve as nice eye candy while sipping on a vodka soda. BTW – another ironic twist? Brownsey’s firm lobbies for ACLU-Northern California and Planned Parenthood. For realz, we can’t make this stuff up.

Have we reached the end of this article yet? Man, don’t we women just LOVE to ramble on and on? Lessons learned…

  • Don’t judge art before you see it.
  • Women should support each other – and recognize that everyone has a story worth sharing.
  • Art is supposed to inspire passionate discussion – so thanks to Conrad, Brownsey and Vanguard 1415 for doing just that. (There’s always a silver lining, folks.)
  • Midtown should support art, even (and maybe especially) when it’s deemed controversial. Mad props to those in the community who all voiced their support, loudly and quickly.
  • Maren’s art is getting more press now than she would have gotten from actually having the pieces hanging – so kudos to her. (Silver lining, #2).
  • There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Here’s one more silver lining … that rockstar we mentioned earlier – Glenda Corcoran? Well, she and Maren will be exhibiting the artwork at Exhibit S Studio at the Downtown Plaza on June 27 from 6:00 – 9:00pm. More details here.

We’ll be there when the doors open.

Glenda Corcoran with the collection (Maren Conrad and Sacramento Press)
Glenda Corcoran with the collection (Maren Conrad and Sacramento Press)

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EDITOR’s NOTE: We’re pretty vanilla here at GOTG. We spend 95% of the time cheerleading the city, women around town and discussing our pets, kids and work-life balance. But we remain bossy, loudmouth, opinionated women who sometimes can’t resist voicing their views on important issues facing our community. Crime/public safety is one example – today’s article is another. We sent this article ahead of time to our other GOTG writers to have them weigh in – especially if they disagreed. Chelsea’s take is below, and we hope you’ll send us your thoughts (girlsonthegrid@gmail.com) so we can include them in the discussion.

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Chelsea Irvine: I have such a hard time with my feelings about this issue. I love that the women in these pictures are getting to shine and be the ones to discuss, but part of me still thinks, ‘Why are we discussing them as a backdrop to the men they were associated with?’ Yes, that’s not the sole reason, but that is where the conversation will inevitably start. If we talk about Maria Shriver and her work as CA’s First Lady solely because she was the First Lady, what about her work before (and after?) being Mrs Arnold? Linda Rondstat was a talented singer with a career of her own. Is she most recognizable because of her affiliation with a CA politico? I love that strong women are the focus of this display and I hope that in the future strong women are the focus of many displays of beautiful art, but why wives, mistresses and muses? And when will the theme be women who are political leaders and ground breakers and trail blazers? I’d love to see this art, but I see the problem. If we have these women as focal points, maybe include their male counterparts?  If you think powerful women behind powerful men get overshadowed, how about the men behind our state’s greatest women?  If that is your theme, why not highlight both? I get it. Thankfully these women’s paths took them to a place of recognition, but let us remember their lives that weren’t lived solely as ‘Mrs. Somebody.’ As a woman myself, am I thrilled that my boyfriend is successful.  I am proud of his accomplishments.  But I never want to be known for his triumphs over my own.  Yes, we are a team.  But I stand on my own. Oh, and you bet your ass I will be there to celebrate the showing of this art at the gallery they’ve been sequestered to. No matter the story, a strong woman will always have me in their corner.

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