“When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on for so long in the first place,” reads the inscription under a busted satin bra centered by a dove of hope and circled by pill bottles of indeterminate origin. With a broken strap folded into a pink ribbon, the little bra that could belong to Natalie, a breast cancer survivor and the theoretical woman behind one of many photo collages in Jacqueline Baerwald’s recent EmBRAce series.
“Who am I? Why do I feel so awkward? Do I really love myself?,” the Michigan artist wondered after seeing a chance photograph of her unoccupied bra surrounded by dead leaves. “Something struck me the day I laid eyes on that simple snapshot…there was something about perceiving that void between those two nurturing symbols of femininity. Somewhere underneath the glossy exterior hid a heart, invisible, buried deep, safely kept away from the light of day and my awareness.” Accustomed to list-making, rule-writing, and scads of preparatory research, Jacqueline switched tack for the EmBRAce Project, assembling each set with a sense of burgeoning intuition. “Growing up, I was inadvertently taught that my heart could only lead me astray, to listen to it was dangerous,” she says, asking, “Could I embrace this part of myself, so long stifled?”
Created over a period of several years, the EmBRAce Project captures the outlines of imagined women whose hearts carry the intimate history of a life lived. “Gwendoline” wears a sky blue bra and reads romance novels, while “Mirabelle” plays bridge in a pale pink, full-coverage number. Encased in bespoke frames, each assemblage reflects the tender passions and deeply held beliefs of the women Jacqueline imagines. “Each of these portraits capture a feminine self image and what lies close to her heart,” she says. “They depict a snapshot of her journey to embrace and process all the parts of herself that are hidden, unexplored, guarded, discarded, or privately held dear—the good, bad, and the ugly.”
A deeply personal series, The EmBRAce Project languished on Jacqueline’s hard drive for the better part of two years before she found the courage to show the series publicly. “It’s personal and unpredictable to open my heart, find myself, and just be,” she says, explaining that her newfound insight into the feminine heart was only possible through vulnerability. “Many layers of baggage and damage had to surface up out of my heart,” she says. “Not all of it is pretty—some pitiful, some painful, some passionate—but all is pertinent. If I was to find my own voice, first I had to allow my heart to speak.”
“Somewhere underneath the glossy exterior hid a heart, invisible, buried deep, safely kept away from the light of day and my awareness.” — Jacqueline Baerwald
All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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