Art in the City: Caralena Peterson Talks Feminist Art and Books

by Catherine Douglas Moran

Fierce female empowerment messages from the #MeToo movement drive her art and writing.

“The Wave” was featured in the New York Times (Photo Courtesy of Caralena Peterson).

“The personal is political,” Caralena Peterson said standing in front of her piece “The Wave,” which the New York Times featured in a roundup of #MeToo movement-inspired art. Collaged magazine photos of women’s faces create the wave’s swirls, popping against a pale sea green wall in her bedroom-turned-art-studio.

“At first, you don’t realize that there are women in it,” she said. “It’s slivers of women all coming together. It’s women as a collective force.”

Peterson, 26, is a self-proclaimed feminist artist and writer who creates fierce female empowerment messages through magazine collage pieces and the written word. Her artwork, which she has used to raise money for charities, is part of Bloombars’ imPRINT art exhibition, which began April 12. She recently signed a literary agent for her upcoming book for female college students and has another book – one focused on her art – coming out soon. Feminism connects her art and writing: “I get to be a double threat.”

On defining feminism, Peterson said she likes Bell Hooks’ interpretation. “A lot of time when you make pro-female statements, you get labelled as anti-men. I like how [Hooks] touches on the fact that we all see a lot of internalized sexism,” Peterson said. “So feminism is a movement to eradicate our own sexist thoughts and feelings we don’t even realize we have and extends to very intersectional ways of thinking about it. Feminism needs to work for all women and experiences of womanhood.”

Bell Hooks’ definition of feminism in a piece by Peterson (Photo Courtesy of Caralena Peterson).

Peterson works on her art and book at night in her room overlooking 19th Street after coming home from her day job as a substitute teacher. She initially moved to D.C. to pursue policy, but now wants to do grassroots work with high school- and college-aged students.

She recently signed an agent for her book called “The Effortless Perfection Myth,” written from a peer to peer perspective about gender issues millennial women face in college. The book’s title comes from the term “effortless perfection” coined at her alma mater, Duke University, in 2003 to describe the notion that “you have to have perfect grades, a perfect social life, a perfect body, but not appear like it takes any effort,” she said.

While she said the term affects both men and women, it affects women more academically and socially. “It tends to make an environment where it seems like everyone has everything together all the time,” she said. “So many of us are experiencing these things in a community, but are experiencing them alone.” With chapters on assertiveness, self-love and rape culture, the book aims to share mentorship to encourage college women not to hide their vulnerabilities, she said.

“Beyonce” (Photo Courtesy of Caralena Peterson).

Peterson is a recent college graduate herself. She graduated from Duke University in 2015 with a double major in public policy and gender studies. While she noted her youth could be a potential drawback entering the literary world, Peterson said her age better connects her to the book’s college audience.

For the book, Peterson wanted to represent women of all races, sexual preferences, socio-economics and college majors. To do so, she spoke with women across the country at higher education institutions including Georgetown University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Wake Forest University, University of Alabama, New York University and University of California, San Diego.

Art also expresses her feminism, she said. “My pieces have very intentional political statements behind them,” she said. Her Badass Quotes by Badass Women series gives a visual voice to the 50 female portraits. A book on the series comes later this spring at Politics and Prose.

Selling art is not her main source of income, and most of the proceeds from her artwork go to charity, she said. Her Badass Quotes installation at Baked & Wired last spring raised more than $5,000 for N Street Village, a local women’s shelter.

Peterson said she uses magazines for collages because of the glossiness and vibrancy of the colors. Up next, she wants to tackle buttons for a collage of Frida Kahlo. “Art immersed in a sense of female empowerment makes me feel good,” Peterson said.

“Rosie” (Photo Courtesy of Caralena Peterson).

Bloombars’ imPRINT exhibition runs until May 5 at the gallery at Bloombars in Columbia Heights.

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