Whitney Turetzky is a self-taught visual artist whose mixed media work combines vintage photography, textiles and other ephemera with color block painting. Her pieces evoke powerful emotional responses, while honoring common women of past and present. In this interview, she shares what makes this feminist work and how her art helps her pass on strong views of womanhood to her young daughter.
Kathryn: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming an artist (and claiming that title, which can often be hard for people)?
Whitney: I have always been a maker, but I didn’t always call myself an artist. About 3 years ago, I painted some Victorian era cabinet cards. I showed them to a few friends, and they said, “Oh, Whitney. This is art!” I thought to myself, “No way. I’m just making things.” It was around that same time that my husband got a job offer in Austin. We decided to take it, and he encouraged me to pursue art as a career once we moved.
Austin has a vibrant art scene. I am continuously blown away at the amount of artistic talent this city has! There is always some sort of event happening. There are nice galleries but I especially love well-curated local pop up shows. The guests are social art lovers, and the crowd is always great. The community really supports local artists and being an artist in Austin is a dream come true.
Kathryn: So now you’re able to call yourself an artist?
Whitney: Proclaiming myself as an artist is something that is still surreal. Every time I have a show and friends come out to see me, I think, “Is this really my work? Is this really my life?” I experience nervous anxiety anytime I share new work. I worry that people won’t relate or that the emotions that I feel in connection to the work won’t translate to the viewer. I’m learning to trust my gut more, though, and just put it out there. I’m learning that the people who do connect with my work feel a strong connection to it. That makes the vulnerability of putting my work out there so worthwhile.
Kathryn: One reason people relate to it is surely because of the photographs of women that you incorporate into your pieces. Who are they?
Whitney: I love working with vintage photography, especially portraits of women. With my work I look to honor common women from the past. I search antique stores, flea markets, and estate sales for forgotten photos of people. It’s always bittersweet when I find a good batch of photos. I know the photos are there because no one knows who the people are in those photos, but someone once knew that person very well. The woman in the photograph was someone’s mother, sister, daughter, or friend. So it is sad to think that now no one even knows the name of the woman in the photo, and yet, conversely, I am happy that I found them, because I know that through my work, they will be honored and appreciated for many more years to come.
Kathryn: Would you consider your work feminist art?
Whitney: I do consider my work to be feminist work, even though most of it doesn’t involve extreme activism. Most of my work includes repeating symbolism. The large color blocking, serving as a veil, symbolizes many things, varying by color. The warm colors of reds, pinks, and magentas give a feeling of warmth, love, and admiration, for example. The veil also symbolizes barriers that women have crossed and continue to fight. The way the veil breaks right above the nose but below the eyes also symbolizes an old Southern saying, “I’ve had it up to here”, referencing women who “have had it up to here” in their struggles.
The golden halo is an iconic symbol of sainthood; this is another way I honor womanhood and the woman in the photo. I also add nested circles of backstitch embroidery around the golden halo. These stitches are so symbolic for me. My grandmother made beautiful embroidery pieces. I never learned from her, but I’m channeling this pastime that she so enjoyed. Backstitches themselves are symbolic. With backstitches, you have to stitch forward before stitching back to complete the stitch. This is so symbolic of progress and our journey in life taking one step forward and two steps back. These circles are layered and nested to symbolize connection, life cycles, and relationships.
Connecting the past and the present is a theme of most of my work. All of the pieces I make start with the vintage photo. Several of the issues women faced in the past are ones that we still are fighting now. Drawing this comparison with vintage women portraiture is impactful.
Kathryn: What social / political issues concern you most at this time?
Whitney: I am very passionate about humanity and connection. I believe in the invisible connections that we share with strangers. I believe that personal relationships cause the world to change. I believe that traditions give way to memories and memories give way to beliefs. If we reshape the way that we think about connection, we can reshape our beliefs about others, and about humanity.
Human existence depends on us realizing our connections. The role we play in humanity is about more than just being nice to others. It’s reaching out in authentic ways. It’s building relationships with past, present, and future generations. It’s the will to face hard things and ask hard questions. It’s daring to be the force that heals wounds instead of bandaging them. It’s daring to learn where you came from and exploring where you can go. I personally believe that this is how we change the world.
To more directly answer your question though, I’m most passionate about women’s rights, the issue of systemic racism, equal educational rights for all people, the refugee crisis, and immigration. Basically, if it impacts humans and human connection, I’m fighting for it.
Kathryn: For you, how is art a tool for bridging divisions?
Whitney: Art is a way to express feelings and emotions without words. Emotions are difficult to explain verbally, because they are something that we feel. If I can create art that evokes certain feelings in the viewer, it might shape the way they think about a certain issue. By reshaping our thinking about humanity in this way, using emotions, we are able to bridge connections.
Kathryn: You mentioned authenticity. What does it mean to you to be authentic in your art?
Whitney: Being authentic in my art means telling the story that I really want to tell and not telling the “safe version”. I’ve learned that when I speak from my heart, or create art from my heart, and build a strong connection with it, others are able to feel that connection also. Just as I want to live authentically day to day, I believe that the more authentic I’m able to be in the art and storytelling of my art, the more beautiful my relationships with others can be.
Kathryn: How does being a mother influence your art – whether in terms of content or process or just the logistics of balancing the two roles?
Whitney: Whew. Being a mother and an artist is a challenge. Being a mother is a challenge no matter what you are doing. Logistically, I feel like balancing anything with my art practice is difficult because I’m so passionate about it and the stories I’m sharing though it. When someone is passionate about something, it’s easy for that thing to consume every bit of her life. I find, though, that when I’m more present with my daughter, our relationship grows, so I carve out time each day to just spend with her when she gets home from preschool. My family is always my priority.
My daughter is very supportive of my artwork. It’s almost humorous now, because when I’m working on a piece, a photograph of a woman, my daughter asks me, “Who is she?” When I tell her that I don’t know her name, she says, “Well, just tell me about her.” So I do. I tell her how the woman in the photo is strong and special. She can do anything that she wants to do. She has control over her body and the story that is told about her. I’m not sure that my daughter understands how important this all is (she’s only four), but now she tells me things like, “Mom, I’m strong.” When I get frustrated about not being able to fix something around the house, for example, she says, “Mom, remember, you can do anything you want to do.”
I hope that she can carry these beliefs with her as she gets older. I hope that she learns that life is about taking risks and learning lessons. I hope that she realizes that people are all equally the same. I hope that she looks back on my life as her mother and sees a woman who was strong and wrote her own story.
Kathryn: That is so special and so important. And what a great way that to honor those perhaps-forgotten women in the photos in another way! In addition to the photos, you incorporate textiles in your work, right?
Whitney: Almost all of my art pieces include embroidery stitching. I paint and stitch vintage black and white photos. Recently, I have been experimenting with incorporating pieces of highly damaged antique quilts into large tapestry work that I’m making.
Kathryn: What does your studio space look / feel like?
Whitney: My studio is the third bedroom in our home. It’s really nice to be able to walk down the hallway and work on a piece. If an idea strikes me late at night, I can go into the studio and work for a while and still be available at home with my family. I love this space because it’s mine. I have a large table where I do most of my work. I love to paint flat on the table instead of on an easel. When I’m working on the stitching portion of a piece, if it is small, sometimes I work on my couch while I watch TV with my husband at night. There’s something meditative about the stitching process, so sometimes I sit outside on my back-porch swing and don’t work in my studio, even though it has amazing windows and get the best natural light in our house.
Kathryn: Sounds like a great place. Before we wrap up, who are a few artists / people that really inspire you right now?
Whitney: I’m greatly inspired by a few good woman friends right now. They are nasty woman and are keen on changing the gender norm. Also, Jean-Pierre Verdijo is a local Austin mixed-media artist and a dear friend. His work also carries themes of greater humanity. I’m also inspired by the work of Dave McClinton. Look him up. His work will stop you dead in your tracks. Finally, I’m always inspired by the colors in the famous portraits by Andy Warhol.