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John Steinbeck once said: "We do not take a trip; a trip takes us." Throughout the years in which I have been a professional artist, I have found that every painting is a "trip," and that each artistic endeavor is an exodus to new realms of understanding, delight, challenge, and opportunity.
Pencil study for Lydia (2003) by Elspeth Young
Today commemorates the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Women of the Bible Project—a collection of oil paintings celebrating women of the Old and New Testaments. Among the many things I've discovered on this particular artistic journey is how much of the extraordinary can be found in the every-day.
One of the most delightful parts of each painting is the hunt for the perfect model. While Vogue and Cover Girl search for models whose perfection lies in an unattainable airbrushed and digital flawlessness, my search for perfection has been a search for the soul within. At the outset of this project, I decided that I wanted to paint ordinary women from all walks of life and circumstances—not surreal figments of my imagination. At the time, I even wrote that the object of my search was to find "real people with real flaws and defects that, I think, make them all the more beautiful . . . real people with real struggles and real heroism." In casting a painting, I search for beauty both at and under the surface; a countenance bright with the luminescence of that which is inherently divine in everyone.
I spent countless happy hours hidden away on the 5th floor of a university library, surrounded by copious volumes and skinny paperbacks filled with insights into the manners and customs of Biblical peoples. With field sketchbook in hand, I carefully copied everything I could find and began creating a collection of notes, sketches, and musings. I pored over face after face among the brilliant photo essays to be found in National Geographic — a gallery rich in stories of the kind of real-life courage I wanted to portray in my paintings. My hope was to learn enough from arm-chair travel to prepare me for the daunting task of finding the same story etched in the faces of people who lived nearby.
My first model resulted from a visit with Dr. Camille Fronk Olson, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and the mentor who, along with my parents, first encouraged me to paint women in the scriptures. As we looked through the student photographs among her class rolls for that semester, we came upon an ethnically-featured, dark-eyed freshman named Amy.
She was surprised at my request when Dr. Olson asked her about modeling for a painting, but was wonderfully willing to accept the part of Shiphrah—the Hebrew midwife who partnered with Puah in saving infant Hebrew males from Pharoah's decreed genocide. As it turned out, I could not have asked for a better model.
On February 1, 2003, with camera and inexperience in hand, I snapped 74 pictures of Amy, draped in costume and "playing pretend"—as she put it. She was not only generous with her time, but with her own insights into the subject. Since that first photo shoot, I have learned that as models step into the story they not only express their empathy and understanding by their countenance, but by their actions, which, of course, lends an indispensable realism to the way the figure(s) are posed.
Study for Shiphrah (2003)
Many pencil and oil sketches, pastel drawings, and conceptualization-hours later, I commenced and then completed my first oil painting in the project—The Protector—only the fifth oil painting I had ever painted.
As part of this commemoration of the anniversary of the Women of the Bible Collection, I recently interviewed Amy—now a university graduate, wonderful wife, and capable mother of two—regarding her experience as a model nine years ago, and how her involvement in the painting might have influenced her perceptions of herself and the scriptures, as well as any other impact on her life's experiences.
Perhaps more remarkable to me than anything else was the influence of Shiprah and Puah's story on Amy's own experiences in childbearing. Inspired by these noble, God-fearing midwives, Amy chose midwives to deliver her own little ones. "I think," she said, "that I became more convinced of the love that women can show for each other in that especially difficult time because of this story from scripture." She also said she was "amazed at the strength of these women, and their loving compassion for the Hebrew mothers; all the while they needed to take care of their own needs and protect themselves from the hand of Pharaoh. I love to think of all that we can accomplish if the Lord is on our side."
Another influence on Amy's life has been those times when people have recognized her as the model for the painting. "I've been told my whole life," she said, "that I look Middle Eastern,but I didn't expect my professor to pull me aside, and say that's how I looked, and, ‘Oh, would I like to model for some paintings?' It sure took me by surprise that day!"
Amy also said that "after the book [Women of the Old Testament (2009), featuring The Protector] was published, my women's church organization held an evening meeting to talk about a few of the women mentioned in the book. Shiphrah was one of the featured segments. I blushed, and quietly leaned over to the woman seated next to me and whispered, ‘That's me.'"
Unsure of Amy's meaning, the woman supposed that Amy felt a particular affinity for Shiphrah's character. "No," said Amy, "that's really me." A closer look at Amy, and the painting, and the woman's hand shot up and she exclaimed, "We have the model right here!"
Amy was only the first of many to be surprised by my request that they model for a painting. "Are you sure you want me?" has been a strangely typical response because very few people realize just how extraordinary they really are. I have truly found that, "We have the model right here!" in the humble, devoted women we meet every day.