How a Santa Cruz artist is empowering female athletes
‘Title IX Daughters’ presents young women as commanding and fierce
Kim Ferrell is an artist living in Santa Cruz, California. She is also a talented athlete, a self-employed graphic designer, and my mom.
She specializes in an especially difficult and detail-oriented style of painting called classical figure portraiture, which is unique for its traditionalism. Currently, she is working on a series of paintings called “Title IX Daughters,” depicting young women in powerful, strong poses in order to celebrate the female form in sport. She strives to challenge the demure, luxurious portraits of women that the classical style is known for, while still honoring and maintaining the artistic techniques of the old masters.
Classicism manifests itself in modern art forms by encompassing new concepts while retaining traditional ideals. Ana Carden-Coynes, a history professor at the University of Manchester, describes modern classicism as an “[infusion of] corporeality with the vibrant gesture of reconstruction.” A style of painting that arises from the need to establish visual schema through bodies, it’s a quintessential part of my mom’s work to celebrate a nontraditional female body ideal.
With this in mind, my mom began the “Title IX Daughters” series as a way to honor her own empowerment through the world of sports. A self-proclaimed weak, unassuming child, she found swimming and water polo to be the ultimate validation, even joining the boys’ water polo team in high school because there was not yet a girls’ one. Her subsequent motivation for athletics has persisted throughout her life and is the main influence for the series.
“Everything aligned at this point in time and the fire got lit,” she says about the project. “I almost felt like I couldn’t not do it.” Each painting, three feet by three feet square, is a process that takes between forty and sixty hours. Her work ethic is fueled by a self-inflicted moral duty both to herself and to the subjects of her paintings.
The models in her paintings are mostly local athletes and family friends from around Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. Every single model experiences a strong sense of identity and empowerment upon seeing her finished painting.
Vivienne Frear, a junior at UC Santa Cruz, is one such model. Having grown up in the vibrant athletic community of Aptos, California, she swam competitively for seven years and takes her physical health seriously. She said: “The media portrayal of women is very selective when it comes to female athletes, so being able to see real life representations of various female athletes is empowering. I think it is important to share these images with girls of all ages (especially young girls) to show that one specific body type is not the ‘right body type.'”
Vivienne, who posed with a surfboard for the project, found the experience to be empowering in its own right.
She said: “Being able to be a part of this project was an honor.
“My friends and family were very impressed by all the paintings. We don’t look like the stereotypical models that are seen in all the advertisements, we are real people who represent a healthy, motivated, and positive lifestyle.”
Ilish Gedestad, a UC Berkeley junior from San Diego, California, eels the same way.
“Seeing yourself in painting form is an out of body experience,” she says. “It makes you appreciate your body and your strength, something that is hard to come by today when looking in the mirror. Modern culture says beauty comes in skinny, but this collection shows that beauty comes in strength. I see strength and power in myself when looking at this painting, and it is important for others to see women portrayed as such.”
USC junior and Division 1 Beach Volleyball player Jenna Belton found the painting to be validating, both for herself and her sport.
She said: “This painting made me feel powerful.
“I have never been captured like this before and it was amazing to see the intensity and passion portrayed. It renewed my faith in my sport and reminded me what made me start playing in the first place – my love for what I do.”
As someone who was a model for one of these paintings, I can also personally testify the extent to which this is true. Like many young women, I suffer from a good amount of body insecurity, and the process of having my picture taken while wearing only a bathing suit was nothing short of debilitating.
I felt like a terrible model, attempting fruitlessly to heed instructions about where to look, where to turn, and how to hold the awkwardly shaped board and paddle I was posing with.
Eventually, my mom procured an image of me in a strong pose with intense facial expression—imagine my surprise! Throughout the painting process, I could not help feeling honored to be encapsulated so painstakingly in oil paint form. Never had I envisioned that I could portray such implicit strength, especially in a time of extreme vulnerability.
In my mom’s words, the young women in her paintings are special because, “they’re regular people, but they’re remarkable for their regularity.” Her choice of regular people serves a personal mission to validate those who, like herself, flew under the radar and thus felt unacknowledged or invisible. As for why she has not included men in her project, “I think women tend to dismiss their abilities,” she says. “We as women are struggling to find our voice and feel valuable, and so that’s why I’m focusing so much on them… when these girls look at their paintings of them, I want them to feel really empowered by it. It’s sort of introducing these girls to a part of themselves that they didn’t know they possessed.”