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Free Not $Free: In conversation with Virginia Townsend

Virginia Townsend has practiced at Interact since April of 2019. Since then, she has continued two bodies of work. The first — a series of small landscape paintings  illuminates rivers, mountains, and open fields, all undisturbed by humans. In the second, Townsend dives into her former decade-long tenure as a sex worker, creating vibrant marker drawings of women to investigate the dynamics of power as it relates to sexuality.

This summer, Townsend met with Gallery Director Brittany Kieler over the course of multiple video sessions to discuss her artistic process. What follows are a few excerpts from their conversations. You can find more work by Virginia here.


BK: Can you talk about these recent figure drawings?

VT: I'm interested in exploring the male gaze that exists in the world. I'm interested in it because of — there's, like, this power that men hold in the world, and it's really interesting to me to see where their weaknesses are, and to see whose weaknesses can be exploited for the purpose of leveling the playing field.

BK: What do you mean by 'leveling the playing field?'

VT: I like to draw women who are kind of unabashedly sexual or sensual, and it's not confidence that I'm trying to show with it, it's not comfort in their body. It's comfort in their power over people, especially men. I'm trying to show that they have control over people — men, especially — and that they own it and they know it.



BK: You draw a line over some of the figures. Can you talk about that decision?

VT: The line kind of represents how we are separated — how women are separated. When people see women, it's like, 'She has nice hair, long legs, pretty eyes.' Everything is broken down. With men, it's less like that. It's like, 'Okay, he's handsome.' But what does handsome mean? There's two or three ways you can break it down. But with women, it's everything. There's a fatigue that that brings, of just being broken down. 

BK: That's really interesting. First, I read the line as censorship, but then, it doesn't...

VT: It doesn't censor anything. It just divides the person.

BK: Yea, the parts of women that are often objectified aren't necessarily censored out, so then it becomes more about measurement.

VT: It's not just men who do it. It's women, too. I posted one of my drawings on social media, and I wrote, 'I really love this face.' And then I was like, 'Wait a second, I just did what my whole thing is about.' I isolated her face. And took it away from her body. I was like 'Look at this face, this face is beautiful.' And I just took it away from her. I did the same thing that men do. 'She's got a good face and not a good body.'

BK: Yea, it's complicated. There's also just such a long history of depicting women in art, especially by male painters. It feels like, by bringing your own experiences in sex work to the series, you give that tradition new meaning.

BK: What do you hope people might think about when they see this work?

VT: I want them to let the women around them talk about it. I want the conversation to be woman-led. And I want any moral feelings, any morality that's put on sex, to be put on hold. 

BK: Can you talk about how you see the dynamics of power playing out in your drawings?

VT: My women represent power, and power is the ultimate envy. It's easily torn away by words and actions, so a woman showing power is also showing vulnerability. My work is about displaying power and defending it.



Virginia Townsend works primarily in painting and drawing. She has presented work in recent Interact group exhibitions, including We Are Not Disposable (2020), Groundswell at Artspace Jackson Flats (2019), and Saint Paul Art Crawl (2019). You can find more of her work here

Image descriptions: (1) Free Not $Free: a nude figure stands with her back to the viewer, stretching one arm over her head and another to the left. A blue bar runs across her waist. (2) Crusher: A figure poses with one hand on her waist and one hand behind her head. She gazes up, but not at the viewer. (3) Get The Shot: A figure in a red teddy bends over with her rear facing the viewer. (4) Free Not $Free. (5) Arch Your Back: A figure sits in a chair reading a book. She wears black lingerie and thigh highs. (6) Here We Go: A figure stands facing the viewer, holding a ribbon around her waist. (7) Marketing / Get the Shot #2: A figure stands in a long blue dress, its skirt billowing up around her knees. (8) Girlfriend: A figure stands with a hip cocked to the side. 


Since 1996, Interact artists and performers have been creating art that challenges perceptions of disability. To support us in this work, you can donate here.