Kia ora. It’s a pleasure to discuss my practice with you today, reflecting on the work I’ve made and the learning I’ve been engaged with over the last 18 months.
To share these ideas, I have structured my talk into six parts. In the first four, I will introduce key concepts driving my work. Part 1 focuses on relationships through the work of Rebecca Solnit; in part 2, I look at materiality, drawing from Sally O’Reilly’s writing on the materiality of the body in contemporary art; in part 3, I consider Elizabeth Grosz’s feminist ideas about the corporeal body and attempt to unpack how the processes of social inscription of the body’s surface construct a psychological interior; and in part 4, I look at art historian Isabelle Graw, who describes ‘aliveness’ as being fostered by the effect of painting.
Having laid out this conceptual background, in part 5 I will look into the works of other figurative painters such as Jenny Saville, Michelangelo, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Jennifer Mason who have guided some of my decision making through the painting process.
Finally, in part 6, I bring this all together to shed further light on my own practice today.
The first theorist who has influenced my work is the writer Rebecca Solnit, especially her text The Faraway Nearby. Solnit has offered me a context and a framework to analyse the intention behind my current practice.
Solnit asks, “Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud.” Solnit addresses the concept of articulating one’s voice; in my case, through my practice and paintings. This resonates with me as my work explores the problematic space of being unable to use my voice, or a reluctance to voice my needs or my opinion, as conveyed in this work Self-portrait Study.
The idea of projecting your voice through art is beautifully elucidated by Solnit, who goes on to hypothesise that “writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.” I believe this is also what painting allows me: to offer conversation without inhibition. And that is the problematic space that I’m trying to explore through painting, as in the work above, titled Pathos.
Solnit writes that, “For mothers, some mothers, my mother, daughters are division, that reduce them, fracture them and take from them.” Solnit has also influenced me by offering ways to consider female agency, mother and daughter relationships and feminism through creative practice. Like Solnit, I was a timid child, whose relationship with my mother was complicated.
I feel this work No Words relates to Solnit’s theory of communication, where she analyses the concept of the voice in direct reference to her own voice, and how this translated into writing books from a young age. As a child, Solnit hardly spoke, saying she “was in fear of being mocked, punished or exposed”. There is a strong parallel here for me. I never developed my voice as a child, due to my loud, outspoken, very Dutch mother. I believe I am a painter because I have learnt that I can speak through my paintings, materialising my voice into my work, without fear of direct confrontation.
Solnit also writes that “You freeze up in childhood, you go numb, because you cannot change your circumstances and to recognise, name and feel the emotions and their cruel causes would be unbearable, and so you wait.” I think this is a very good account of how it feels to be a child who loses the ability to speak and so consequently has little agency within the structure of their own family dynamics. I understand that this is precisely why Solnit became a writer: it gave her a dialogical space for communicative reason, and this is how she subconsciously crafted her voice, depicted in this work Red Hoodie.
For me, this even goes a little deeper. Because I am interested in understanding the underlying psychology behind my history of female agency, I did more research to help me understand. Reading psychology articles about identity, I discovered that low self-worth often starts in childhood and that identity formation is most accute during adolescence. Your self-esteem is a precious psychological resource. Low self-worth produces someone who needs to seek approval and is a people pleaser, someone who is afraid of conflict and can’t voice their needs or opinions.
This can typically lead to a need to surround yourself with what you perceive to be power or strength. In my case, this led to marriage at quite a young age, which was quickly followed by three children under the age of four. This is a photo of me with three of my kids piled on top of me, as a young mother. I understand that as a result of my upbringing, my internal self-definition was shaped in relation to others: a wife and a mother who had never discovered my own voice independent of the relationships in my life.
Reflecting on my experience and through research around my own identity, as shown here, I had the realisation that I was conditioned to defer my opinion to others. To not ‘own’ my ‘own position’.
As a wife and a mother, I am always looking after everybody else, and I automatically say ‘we are going to do this’ or ‘weare going to do that’. We want to include everyone and as a result, in our own minds we become a ‘we’ and not an ‘I’.
Life does this to us. Society is set up to operate in this way. Women—mothers—are expected to always be there for the whole family, to always present a face of composure, to appear fully functional and happy, despite exhaustion or lack of support. My emerging feminist position, which I’ll return to in part 3, leads me to question this and reflect on my experienceThe Faraway Nearby. Solnit has offered me a context and a framework to analyse the intention behind my current pracThe Faraway Nearby. Solnit has offered me a context and a framework to analyse the intention behind my current practic
The second concept that has influenced my practice is that of materiality. Here, I have drawn on art historian Sally O’Reilly’s survey of The Body in Contemporary Art. In this text, O’Reilly makes a very clear distinction between the body used as spectacle rather than contemplation. For me, this idea offers a critical point of awareness about the relationship between my work and wider ideas.
In her survey, O’Reilly also points out how the important body-oriented work of 1970s feminists was followed by a “retreat to Post-Modern irony”, which rendered the vulnerable body irrelevant or even embarrassing; however, after a time, the readmittance of the human form into art validated the body’s appearance once more. This is an essential aspect of figurative painting for me, as I attempt a clear distinction between a body that requires wider consideration and one just seen as a figure. By this I mean that the visceral and vulnerable body is a potent signifier of lived experience, “acknowledged as a social, emotional, fallible entity rather than a formal focus or token of utopian ideologies”.
This links with O’Reilly’s observations about contemporary art practice, where she suggests… ‘the body is more likely to be considered the place where rationalism, psychological disarray, natural functionality and cultured desires converge and proposes that it is possible to view the body along cultural, social, emotional and intellectual lines at the same time—to view it as a formal entity to its many contexts.’
In this way, I find myself using the female body, which I can identify with, to communicate the complexity of what’s going on in the mind as you can see in this painting from my series Pathos. I seek to depict psychologically charged figurative subjectivity, even when it is unapologetically nude, to evoke the vulnerability and tenderness of the interior mind.
As I’ve hinted at, these ideas suggest a new-found relationship with feminism, which brings me to the third influence on my practice. The key writer for me here has been the feminist scholar Elizabeth Grosz. In Feminist Theory and the Body, she explores the gendered body, familial structures and the shape of the psyche. Grosz has reshaped our ideas of how women and men understand what the body is. She introduces the concept of the ‘body politic’ as an artificial construct that replaces the primacy of the natural body. Despite this, she has reservations about such a model, which, while claiming it models itself on the human body, uses the male to represent the human.
Grosz describes the notion of corporality in a way that is relevant to my practice when I attempt to translate the complexities of the interior mind by giving a psychological reading through the physicality of the female body. For Grosz, the subject’s exterior is psychically constructed and, conversely, the processes of social inscription on the body’s surface construct a psychical interior: that is, looking at the outside of the body from the point of view of the inside, and vice versa. Grosz writes the body doesn’t become a ‘human body’ that coincides with the ‘shape’ and space of a psyche, until the intervention of inscription and coding.
Grosz also says that the family is one of the key structuring principles. This has a meaningful connection to my work as I attempt to depict the effect of familial structure on the interior mind; that is, relating to or occurring in a family, to a son or a daughter, on the shape of the psyche but through the social inscription on the body’s surface.
Through my research, I have recently realised that many women from my generation have a reluctance to identify as feminists and a tendancy to perceive feminists less positively. Maybe I am a feminist, even though I thought I never wanted to be. I feel this is depicted in my painting Fight or Flight.
I am starting to understand that feminist perspectives are diverse. From within this, one definition of feminism that does resonate with me is ‘cultural feminism’. I understand this as valuing traditional gender roles but equally valuing women’s and men’s contributions. It’s supportive of traditional gender role attitudes but not sexism.
I am still trying to navigate this idea through my role as an artist by investigating my path of motherhood and womanhood to enable the development of my feminist voice.
The fourth writer whose theories have resonated with me is Isabelle Graw. In The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, she describes ‘aliveness’ as being fostered by the effect of painting. She describes paint as having the ability to produce a feeling of liveliness. She also observes that this is connected to the painter or the painter’s life in particular. Graw’s ideas have encouraged me to develop more specificity in my painterly language as a means to trace the interrelationships and interconnections between my mind and my body.
For me, this painting from my series Body Language is a good example of where I have tried to incorporate ‘liveliness’ into my work.
Graw also proposes that painters are often projected onto their paintings, creating the ‘phantasmatic impression’ of their presence, that then turns out to be an absence. I understand this to mean that the painting is saturated with the life of the artist, both through the work’s chosen subjectivity and through the work’s physicality, leaving the physical trace of the artist’s presence and gesture in the work. You can see this here, where the raw ground is left exposed underneath the shorts and I’ve made brush mark choices around this.
Having now outlined these four concepts—relationships, materiality, feminism and liveliness—I can begin to cover artists whose works reflect these ideas. However, just as my own work brings these four concepts together, it’s important not to think of each of these artists as representing just one of these ideas. Rather, I’d like to start with what interests me about each artist, before talking through some of the points of intersection with the concepts I’ve just identified.
A painter who works with the psychology of the female form is Jenny Saville. She is best known for her self-portraits of the fat female form, but she has also painted about motherhood after having her two children, who are shown in this painting, The Mothers. I am interested in the way Saville has painted this work, with various drawings, one upon the other, communicating her feelings about regeneration, having experienced the transformation of childbirth, the formation of flesh and limbs within the body. I believe this shows what Grosz means when she writes about the way the body’s exterior is psychically constructed and how the inscription and coding of familial structure affect the interior mind.
Madonna and Child. Figurative painting, including that of a Renaissance master like Michelangelo, is such well-trodden ground that it is important for me to understand its expansive history to inform my own contemporary position.
The aspect of Michelangelo’s work that I find particularly relevant lies in his sixteenth-century working drawings, which reveal his method of sketching. I find these unfinished or trial-and-error working drawings to be more interesting than his completed paintings. I see them as using the power of ‘suggestion’ to offer a composition that never provides the viewer with an explicit or fixed singular narrative.
This point brings me back to Saville’s technique; in this example, the slippage in perception between one body and another is seamless. Here I see Saville as connecting not just with Grosz, but with O’Reilly’s idea that the figure requires wider consideration than just a formal focus.
Saville’s work is also embroiled in the feminism I identified in part 3. As an artist she likes to paint large-scale, expansive works inspired by Old Masters like Pieter Paul Rubens. This example, his famous The Three Graces, is over two metres tall. By working on this scale, Saville assumes a feminist position, as historically woman have painted on a smaller domestic scale when compared to men.
Another artist whose work has influenced my own is local artist Jennifer Mason. This oil painting, Triple Figure, is a good example of her work in her recent exhibition Wholeness, Harmony and Radiance. Like my work, it depicts the nude female body, but more importantly, I particularly relate to it with regards to the sensitivity around female sexuality. This was described in a recent Eye Contact article written by the editor, artist and curator John Hurrell. Hurrell describes the work with the word ‘wholesomeness’ and contrasts it with work in a current exhibition in New York, Memorial by John Currin, which also features nude female figures, but ones that could be described as perverse.
The final artist I want to mention is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who I feel uses Graw’s ‘liveliness’. I am particularly drawn to this work, Some Distance from Now, because of the looseness of her style, the unfinished or unpainted edges throughout the work and the freeing-up of her hand to allow the ground to show through. Sensory experience is felt through the materiality of the paint itself. I am also interested in the way she has composed her subjectivity. Leaving the context open to the viewer’s interpretation, the power of suggestion is compelling—just like Michelangelo’s working drawings.
Finally, in this last part I’d like to show three of my most recent paintings from the series Body Language. I’d like to discusss how they bring together the ideas of relationships, materiality, feminism and liveliness to convey my emerging subjectivity and position as a painter.
In Body Language III I have depicted the naked body of my daughter—contorting and tumbling—in an attempt to convey the dance that I perform with the body and the mind acting out different identities, whether they be intellectual, emotional, powerful or submissive, speaking to the different roles required by women today.
Inspired by Solnit, I have also considered my collaboration with the use of my eldest daughter and how this directly connects to my own familal relationships. As a mother, and as a daughter myself, when watching my daughter grow up I see different versions of myself in her, portraying the dance that women perform to fill the roles they have within society.
It was also interesting to note that my daughter interpreted the depictions of her form as reading ‘strong and beautiful’, as here in Body Language I. She felt they boosted her confidence and feels it is a reflection of how I see her: it’s the best version of herself. She also said people see you as stronger than you feel. I understand this to be a direct transfer depicting my own lack of self-esteem; that is, a means to convey that we are often our own harshest judges. Through this conversation, it felt like I was undoing or repairing some of my relationship with my mother, like Solnit.
The intention of this work, Body Language II, was to to talk about strength, finding the strength, having the strength, to be powerful. To have a backbone, within all the different roles I am required to fulfill, but at the same time holding onto the feeling of subordination as well as remaining somewhat disguised, out of fear of confrontation—hence the turning away of the gaze.
My research to date has enabled me to unlock a language to articulate my own personal journey of self-discovery. With the realisation that I have spent most of my life in survival mode, I am now coming out of the fog and I have the ability to choose to be what I want to be. I have realised that I need to honour myself and be able to navigate the world in that way. Watching my daughter do this has given me space to recognise these things in myself.
The internalisation of my identity as a wife and a mother, as well as the relationship with my daughter, speaks to a critical feminist perspective as I position my work in a feminist framework. Nevertheless, it’s uncomfortable as the conversations are still evolving. As a contemporary feminist, my painting practice is seeking to be more dialogical, collaborative and potentially uncomfortable as a subtle political act in my own life.
My work is about exploring the problematic space of being unable to use my voice. As I set out to reflect the internalisation of my own identity, within a framework offered by the four concepts I’ve detailed here, I am attempting to translate the complexities of the interior mind by giving a psychological reading, through the physicality of the female body.
The four concepts I’ve outlined are key to this realisation. Rebecca Solnit has had a huge influence and has enabled me to gain more specificity to strenghten the contextualisation of my overarching practice. Sally O’Reilly has helped me view the body along cultural, social, emotional and intellectual lines from a feminist perspective. Elizabeth Grosz has extended my thinking by mutually defining the relations between the body and the mind and the way in which culture constructs the biological order in its own image. I am endeavouring to capture the emotive resonance of my own consciousness through my use of paint attaining a feeling of liveliness, as described by Isabelle Graw.
Finally, by looking closely at Jenny Saville, Michelangelo, Jennifer Mason and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, I am working hard to take the necessary steps to progress my use of paint as a medium to speak through its own materiality.
I use the female form to help me invoke my female perspective of lived experience, asking for re-consideration in the social constructions of motherhood to disrupt some of the conventions in my field of figurative painting. I am beginning to carve out my own space to speak about female agency, in an effort to raise awareness of my experiences and challenges as a woman today.
 Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (London: Granta Publications, 2013), 64.
 Solnit, Faraway Nearby, 64.
 Solnit, Faraway Nearby, 21.
 Solnit, Faraway Nearby, 63.
 Solnit, Faraway Nearby, 25.
 Psychology Today, ‘Identity’, Psychology Today, accessed 12 July 2022,
 Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 7.
 O’Reilly, Body in Contemporary Art, 8.
 O’Reilly, Body in Contemporary Art, 18.
 O’Reilly, Body in Contemporary Art, 8.
 Elizabeth Grosz, Feminist Theory and the Body (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 383.
 Grosz, Feminist Theory, 381.
 Grosz, Feminist Theory, 382.
 Shirley Matile Ogletree, Paulette Diaz, and Vincent Padilla, ‘What Is Feminism? College Students’ Definitions and Correlates’, Current Psychology 38, no. 6 (2019): 1576–89.
 Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 34.
 Graw, Love of Painting, 20.
 John Hurrell, ‘Pondering Mason’s Prone, Supine & Recumbent Nudes’, Eye Contact, 12 August 2022.
Graw, Isabelle. The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium. Berlin: Sternberg
Grosz, Elizabeth. Feminist Theory and the Body. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Hurrell, John. ‘Pondering Mason’s Prone, Supine & Recumbent Nudes’. Eye Contact, 12 August 2022.https://eyecontactmagazine.com/2022/08/pondering-mason.
O’Reilly, Sally. The Body in Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.
Ogletree, Shirley Matile, Paulette Diaz, and Vincent Padilla. ‘What Is Feminism? College Students’ Definitions and Correlates’. Current Psychology 38, no. 6 (2019): 1576–89. https://doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9718-1.
Psychology Today. ‘Identity’. Psychology Today. Accessed 12 July 2022,
Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. London: Granta Publications, 2013.
1. Sharon Duymel, Body Language I, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1080 mm x 900 mm.
2. Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, 2013.
3. Sharon Duymel, Self-portrait Study, 2021. Oil on Belgian linen, 880 cm x 710 cm.
4. Sharon Duymel, Pathos, 2021. Oil on Belgian linen, 650 mm x 770 mm.
5. Sharon Duymel, No Words, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 800 mm x 700 mm.
6. Sharon Duymel, Red Hoodie, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 800 mm x 700 mm.
7. Family photo of Sharon, Josh, Tatjana, Natasja from 2001.
8. Sharon Duymel, Self-portrait II: Where Do I Come From, 2021. Oil on Belgian linen, 770
mm x 650 mm.
9. Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art, 2009.
10. Sharon Duymel, Pathos (Nude), 2021. Oil on Belgian linen, 1250 mm x 1080 mm.
11. Elizabeth Grosz, Feminist Theory and The Body, 1999.
12. Sharon Duymel, Fight or Flight, 2021. Oil on Belgian linen, 650 cm x 770 cm.
13. Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, 2018.
14. Sharon Duymel, Floor, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1000 mm x 1200 mm.
15. Jenny Saville, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Michelangelo, Jennifer Mason.
16. Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011. Oil on charcoal and canvas, 270 cm x 220 cm, Gagosia
Gallery, New York, accessed 22 June 2022, https://gagosian.com/artists/jenny-saville/.
17. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Unfinished cartoon for a Madonna and Child Drawing, 1525–
30. Black and red chalk, white gouache, brush and brown wash, sheet 21 5/16 inches x 15
9/16 inches. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
18. Jenny Saville, Reproduction Drawing IV (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2010. Charcoal on
paper, 194 cm x 145 cm, Gagosian Gallery, New York, accessed 22 June 2022,
19. Pieter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635. Oil on canvas, 221 cm x 181 cm, Museo Del
20. Jennifer Mason, Triple Figure, 2022. Oil on board in plaster frame, 1170 mm x 1730 mm,
Melanie Roger Gallery, Auckland.
21. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Some Distance from Now, 2013. Oil on canvas, 140 cm x 120
cm, Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London & Jack Shainman Gallery,
New York, accessed 5 June 2022, https://www.meer.com/en/15277-lynette-yiadom-
22. Sharon Duymel, Body Language III, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1190 mm x 1080 mm,
23. Sharon Duymel, Body Language I, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1080 mm x 800 mm.
24. Sharon Duymel, Body Language II, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1090 mm x 790 mm.
25. Sharon Duymel, Body Language I, 2022. Oil on Belgian linen, 1080 mm x 900 mm.
I,1080mm x 900mm, oil on Belgian linen, 2022.