Interview with visual artist and purple feminist warrior, Jess Hazell!
Today we’re speaking with Jess Hazell, a visual artist and ‘purple feminist warrior’ who is putting women squarely at the centre of her work in an effort to normalise normal bodies, whilst simultaneously spreading self love and empowerment. We discuss how her art is raw, honest and unapologetic, and Jess also looks back on her own body positivity journey.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Jess! You began sharing your artwork with your Instagram followers back in 2016, and it didn’t take long for your focus to become primarily on female nudes in your quest to express body positivity, femininity and self-love! What was it that led you to the nudes, and why is the colour purple so significant for you?
Jess: Hello! I was always interested in the way nature connected to the body and the soul, so when I began painting I often included figures in my work to comment on this relationship as I started out painting a lot of landscapes and surrealistic nature scenes. I found I really enjoyed portraying the body and illustrating multiple narratives. So this just progressed quite naturally.
When I moved to London in 2017 I really got into the female figure, and I guess it's because I finally saw myself as a strong, independent woman as I moved half way across the world away from my family to go on an adventure. I was on my own journey to self love and mental health recovery, so connecting to that side of myself became a really powerful tool. I was inspired by the women I met, and learning about myself, I just felt this instantaneous pull that I needed to focus on – it felt really important and special. I focused on the nude because I wanted something raw, honest and unapologetic.
As for the colour purple, a lot of people ask me about this and I try to delve deep and figure out why; but a big part of me really has no idea and I never set out with an intention to paint like this. In a way, taking out those fleshy tones gave the figures a tangible aura, something not so human that spoke to their soul, emotions, mind, thoughts and sexuality.
I think I wanted my colour palette to take the paintings to a higher level of consciousness where the viewer could gain a deeper sense of the figures’ self. I like to think of purple as the colour of my soul, not because it's my favourite colour (it's actually yellow) but because when I close my eyes and try to imagine what I would look like without a body, that's all I could see. I now just feel so comfortable using the palette I do, I don't think I could change it up too much.
Britain Uncovered: You’ve described your nude paintings as being non-sexual and empowering, and they also serve as a reminder that we should all appreciate every inch of ourselves. How important is it for you to convey this message via your art, and how specifically do you go about expressing this concept?
Jess: With painting the female nude always comes the idea that I'm an erotic artist and the paintings are tools for arousal. I've had many many responses like this, and it sends me into rage mode a little.
My intention is completely opposite. Female bodies are not inherently sexual – we exist, just like men, just like trees, just like penguins – but they're never categorised as sexual beings like we are. De-sexualising the female body is imperative in the fight for body autonomy and acceptance to love ourselves because we are taught from the moment we can walk and talk that we probably aren't good enough and that we should change things about ourselves to fit a society standard.
I like to portray my figures as empowering, owning your nakedness, being unapologetically unique and proud of the body you're in. That appreciation for our bodies is such a hard journey, one that I will be on for the rest of my life as will most other women. If my art can help them through that, then I've done my job.
Britain Uncovered: Looking back on your own body positivity journey over the years, you referenced in a recent post that there were times when you thought you hated your body – but this is a mindset that you’ve since been able to overcome. How were you able to change your outlook in this regard, and has your nude artwork been instrumental in helping to generate a more body positive attitude?
Jess: I don't think I'll ever fully overcome that perspective, because I still think it's normal for us to not love our bodies all the time – that will never go away. That's like saying you'll never be sad ever again, which is unrealistic. But my mindset has completely shifted in regards to how I now react to these thoughts. I have my bad days, I have my good days, and they're both me and both important to give attention to.
With the body positivity movement I think those bad days are still treated as toxic and dangerous, when in reality they're just normal. The guilt that comes with hating our bodies is the problem. Accepting your body for what it is, what it does for you, what it allows you to do is such a magic power, and since realising that instead of focusing on loving my body every day, I've actually been more comfortable and more forgiving of myself.
With positive thoughts comes high expectations for those thoughts, so in order to achieve that love, sometimes you want to look a certain way, or wish you had something else, and that isn't coming from a caring place. That's saying to yourself, 'You'll be worthy of love when you deserve it', but you already deserve it.
My work has helped so much with my journey to self love. It's taken a while, but I feel like I'm getting there. Representing different bodies and having the safe space for those people to feel powerful and loved in has become my favourite thing in the world. I accept the body I'm in, and I love her, even though she annoys me sometimes!
Britain Uncovered: You also noted that ‘comparison is hard’ and that it can be exhausting to punish yourself for not looking like someone else. How can social media and art help us celebrate the fact that all bodies are normal and beautiful, and in what other ways can we help promote this important notion? Would you have any advice for those struggling with self-perception issues at present?
Jess: Oh comparison is my greatest foe. I think it's a social construct that's forced on us quite young to make us more driven and competitive. It's a yukky thing, and it's basically jealousy in disguise. Social media is a tricky thing with this because it can either help you feel safe and part of a community, or it can be the thing that's fuelling your habit of comparison. It's so important to identify the environments you're surrounding yourself in, and if it really isn't sitting right, remove yourself, remove them, just get out, run! You don't need that in your life. And until you can create a relationship with yourself that's respectful and accepting, don't get back into that space because you'll most likely fall into the same pattern.
In saying that, I feel so blessed that I've found such a loving community through social media. They inspire me every day and they educate me so I'm equipped with the right knowledge to speak and create work. It takes a while to curate a positive space, but by understanding your own needs, you'll know what to look for and what to keep away. I deal with body dysmorphia quite badly, and if others are in the same boat, I strongly suggest seeing a professional. They'll give you the right tools to shift your perspective and make you feel safe being confronted with negativity. Never be scared to ask for help! It's also just so important to not be hard on yourself and not give into the guilt of feeling unhappy with your body. Give yourself time, rest and nutrients.
Other ways we can promote body neutrality is by changing our language. There's still fatphobia, transphobia and racism littered in the way we speak we might not even realise it. If you're saying 'All bodies are beautiful' that MUST include fat bodies, trans people, and POC. Language like 'I feel fat', 'grow some balls', 'at least I don't look like...' is not body inclusive. It's saying you're not beautiful if you're outside the societal norm. Calling people out for this language is the best way to perpetuate body acceptance!
Britain Uncovered: In addition to your nudes, lingerie is also featured prominently throughout your work – and you’re seeking to dispel the notion that this type of clothing should only be used to look sexy for your partner. With this in mind, can wearing lingerie purely for yourself be a beneficial act of self-love, and what other messages does your lingerie series convey?
Jess: YES! I loved this series – it happened by accident when I was sketching one day and I just ended up creating a whole bunch of paintings. Woops!
I guess through marketing we are shown a certain type of body that looks sexy in lingerie, and it excludes an immense percentage of other bodies that can be left feeling unworthy and vulnerable to experience that. We're told to dress up in the bedroom for our partners which is super fun obviously, but when talking about self love, why can't we just do this for ourselves to experience sexiness alone?
Reclaiming feminine sexuality is a big part of this series because it's taboo for women to be sexual without the presence of a man. The female orgasm is something of a myth and masturbation isn't really spoken about. Women are sexual, but we do not owe that sexuality to anyone. I wanted this series to allow women to resurface their sexuality just for themselves and explore that through simple acts such as wearing your favourite lingerie and dancing around the house.
Britain Uncovered: Commissions are also an important part of your work, and we’ve really enjoyed glancing through some of your past projects that you’ve worked on for your clients! How much do you enjoy creating these, and do you think you have a stronger connection with these pieces compared to your other works? What kind of feedback have you had from those you’ve featured in your work?
Jess: Thank you! I LOVE doing commissions, they definitely have a different energy about them and I adore the connection I have to them. It's really amazing speaking to my clients about their journey and what they want a piece to remind them of. I feel so special when people trust me to create work for them, it makes me feel like I'm doing something right!
I've had some really great feedback, and I can never put into words how happy it makes me when people respond positively to the work. It can get a bit stressful when I'm fully booked with commissions because I don't have time for my personal work, but I'm always so grateful to just paint for people.
Britain Uncovered: Your recent piece, Pillow Talk and Sweet Nothings, really caught our eye and it’s already received some really great feedback (and deservedly so)! Could you please tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind this one, along with the overall feeling you were seeking to portray with this work?
Jess: Oh thanks so much, I Ioved creating this work! I hope I can explain it right – I always have a clear idea in my mind of what each piece means and as soon as I share it, it just comes out as rubbish!
I wanted to illustrate the relationship we have with our inner self. I attempted to bring to life that voice in our head that speaks to us in times of hurt, anger, loneliness, unworthiness, ecstasy... everything really. The voice of reason and unreason. It can sometimes be the voice that we suppress because we are in battle with it and don't want to connect to it. By turning this voice into a tangible figure who is caressing her conscious counterpart, the relationship between our bodies and our subconscious self is fused, giving way to a more understanding and loving connection to ourselves.
Through my own journey and dealing with mental health issues and eating disorders, I've always been at war with myself, punishing bad behaviour, rewarding even worse behaviour, getting stuck in unhealthy habits and ignoring my inherent need to feel free and detach from external expectations that always left me feeling exhausted. Since mending this relationship with myself, I feel stronger and more in tune with my own needs and boundaries. It's made me more accepting of my body changing, my mind expanding and my life changing. We work together now, not against one another.
Britain Uncovered: With your ongoing desire to experiment with ideas, coupled with your ability of finding new ways to express inclusive femininity, body positivity and self-love, what are some of your artistic plans for the remainder of the year – and are there any other messages or themes you would like to be able to convey through your work?
Jess: I always have too many ideas and not enough space, time or funds to actually do them. But I have just started a new work that's secret for now but looks closely at our relationship with nutrition and food. It's something I've wanted to talk about for a long time but never felt ready or strong enough. Depending on how that goes, I might turn it into a series.
My big plan for this year is to organise an exhibition with female artists once lockdown is lifted and it's safe to go forward, so hopefully that will happen! I've loved connecting to artists over lockdown through social media, so it would be so magical getting them all together as a powerhouse showcase!
Ultimately, I want to keep going with my current body of work. I don't think I'm quite done with it yet, and as I grow my paintings usually grow and absorb new meanings. So I'm excited to see what form that takes.