Jenni Bee on Feminity, Mental Health, and Sexuality
I started drawing at a young age. I watched the “Learn to Draw with Uncle Fred” tape religiously. I still draw my cartoon cats the way that Uncle Fred taught me. In high school, it occurred to me that I could draw anything that I put my mind to. But rather than focus on myself or my emotions in my artwork, I focused on “perfect” things: fashion and celebrities.
I was overly concerned with my image in high school. As a girl, I felt I had to be a certain way. Girls are supposed to have perfect hair, perfect makeup, and perfect bodies. I’d wake up almost 3 hours before school every single day in an attempt to make myself look perfect. Naturally, this exhausted me to the point where my health was affected, but I did what was expected of me: earn all A’s and look fabulous. I graduated highest honors with distinction, had a GPA of 4.1, and won best dressed in the yearbook, as if those things matter now. For the longest time, I thought the worst thing a person could be was “unattractive.” As a kid I was told “you’re a young lady. Sit pretty and be quiet.” I love it when people tell me what a lady “should be.” Looking back, I wish I would’ve focused on my own strengths in my art, rather than the photoshopped qualities of others.
When I attended the University of PIttsburgh (Pitt), I took studio art classes in which I was introduced to new techniques and new mediums. I loved mastering new mediums and creating things other than celebrities. However, I was the most depressed I had ever been and started having panic attacks. I was a complete and total wreck while still managing to get good grades and have clear skin. It’s acceptable to be depressed, but I’d be damned if I got a zit. This is when I first started seeing a therapist. Although she wasn’t a trained Art Therapist, she introduced me to the concept of Art Therapy. I’d been using art as therapy for most of my life, but I never realized it. Art Therapy was a thing. It was a thing I wanted to do.
When I was coming out of my dark period at Pitt, I started creating more and more self-portraits, something I previously shied away from. I wasn’t a celebrity, so why would I paint myself, right? When I did create portraits and self-portraits, they still demonstrated my idealist qualities. God forbid I let my pores show or have one hair out of place on my head. Creating my image this way, I still wasn’t really looking at myself honestly. I was still trying to be perfect.
In elementary school, I was made fun of for being chubby. I was also made fun of for my mother’s weight. The first time I was honest with myself when creating a self-portrait, I focused on something I struggled with on a daily basis: body image. In the art, I depicted two deadly sins: vanity and gluttony. Part of the subject matter was food. Food is amazing, especially donuts and cheese fries. I’ve eaten my feelings my whole life, and I still do. I felt guilty for eating almost every meal, which I now know is absurd. It is extremely hard to feel “fat” yet handle it by eating your feelings. It makes no sense. This emotional paradox inspired my piece “Vanity vs Gluttony.”
The one portrait depicts eating in a “cute” manner, as if I’d ever eat in another way besides cute in public. The other portrait depicts the aftermath of giving in to negative feelings and undoing all of the “damage” I just did. I love this art piece. It is detailed, messy, and honest. Something I wouldn’t allow myself to be before. I was honest, and it wasn’t pretty. However, not a single person asked me “what are you feeling in these pictures?” or simply “are you okay?” Now as an Art Therapist, I make sure to ask people about their artwork and their feelings.
After graduating with my Bachelors, I continued to do artwork and use art to cope. After my mother passed away and my long term relationship was falling apart, my artwork became bloodier, gorier, and creepier. People accused my artwork (and me) of being really angry, but anger is a secondary emotion. The real emotions behind a lot of my artwork are hurt and sadness. It is much easier to show anger than to feel the deep down hurt and sadness associated with grief, loss, trauma, and self-hatred.
“Creepy” comes naturally to me because I’ve always loved horror movies. I love the over-the-top dramatic scenarios and the gratuitous sex and nudity. I’m a sexual person, and I always have been. It was ingrained into my head at a young age that girls need to look pretty and be attractive at all times so you can get asked out. Because that is the purpose of life, apparently. My brain translated this into “you’re a sex object,” and it has been in the back of my mind since I was a kid. Years of catcalling, my family’s comments, and society’s expectations helped me reach that conclusion. So when the person I was with for years didn’t want to have sex with me, I decided to paint sex and try to work through some of the questions and insecurities I was experiencing. I got a lot of criticism and unnecessary comments from people who never even asked me what was going on in the paintings. I was told “you’re a sinner” and “that’s not ladylike” by a few different people. It was disheartening how no one acknowledged my awesome technical skill. As an Art Therapist, I make sure to ask clients to explain their art from their point of view, as well as their feelings and experiences.
Just like most people, I have had my heart broken. I just recently had my heart broken in a cruel way, which spurred my latest artworks. Being treated cruelly by someone you trusted can really damage self-esteem. Rather than spending time questioning “what’s wrong with me?” which is what I’ve done in the past, I decided to express my feelings through artwork. I tried to highlight my beauty, strength, and power as a woman, as well as my hurt. This latest artwork allowed me to be vulnerable AND strong at the same time.
I am grateful for art. Art has allowed me to express myself and keep myself sane. Through art, I have been able to save my self-esteem and self-worth. I am very proud of my journey into becoming an Art Therapist and my journey into my recent artworks. Grief, loss, and hurt started the journeys, and I have learned a lot about myself along the way. I am glad I was able to make lemonade with my lemons, especially since now I can help others make their own lemonade. I decided to get my Masters to become a therapist after my mother died. I hope that she would be proud of my journey becoming an Art Therapist. Although deep down in my gut, I know she would have been more proud if I would have gone to the prom.
Jennifer Barker, MA AT is an artist and art therapist from Pittsburgh, PA, who is seeking to earn her LPC and ATR-BC. Her artwork has themes of femininity, sexuality, blood, and horror. Jennifer is part of RAW Artists Pittsburgh and will be in their September 15th VERVE show. Her artist name is Jenni Bee. Website: www.JenArtistBarker.com. Instagram: jennibee.artist