“We’re humans. We are undeniable.”
That is the statement Kristi Hager wants to make with her large-scale painted fabric portraits of women on display at the Missoula Art Museum. The local artist’s exhibition, “Equal: A Work in Progress,” takes viewers through a generational journey of the faces of women who populate Hager’s life. The show is meant to bring attention to the Equal Rights Amendment, which has yet to be ratified despite approval by the Senate 47 years ago, and the ongoing fight for women’s equality.
“I thought it would be further along in my lifetime,” Hager said of that battle she and the women in the portraits have faced their entire lives. “But I see progress.”
When you enter the gallery, you’re greeted by a chorus of faces, young and old, eyes staring directly back at you. The black and white paintings are keenly human, based on photographs or charcoal sketches Hager did of women family and friends.
“You don’t encounter them individually as much as collectively,” said MAM curator Brandon Reintjes. “When you’re at the door looking in, it’s a crowd.”
The portraits are as close to real life as possible, matching the photos and sketches they’re based on almost exactly.
“I wanted to make them unequivocal portraits, by which I mean they were clear and unambiguous as the equality that is our birthright,” Hager said.
The large fabric images seem anti-patriarchal in presentation, frameless and flowing freely, hung from the ceiling in the open space of the gallery as opposed to on the walls. There’s almost a physical connection to them as you walk through; no matter where you are, the women are looking at you.
“I wanted to say, 'We are humans. Guess what? We’re here, and we’re not going away,'” Hager said.
She started the project, which as the title implies is ongoing, after the Women’s March in January 2017.
“I decided I really wanted to commit my artistic energies to what was most important to me, and I realized that women’s equality was something that has been important to me, well, since I became an adult.”
The women in her life became her subjects, as she worked to create her own female version of “The Dude Wall” — the section of hallway at universities and institutions across the country that acts as a portrait shrine to the esteemed men who’ve been at the helm for decades.
“It isn’t aspirational for people who don’t look like that,” she said.
She first painted a close friend, then did her great-grandmother, a German immigrant who spoke no English and likely never voted in the United States. The collection also includes her mother, goddaughter, fellow Missoula artist Beth Lo, women leaders of the University of Montana Pacific Islanders Club, which Hager joined to practice Hula dance, and an undeniably powerful portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only face of any “celebrity” in the bunch.
Hager painted Ginsburg, who passed away on Sept. 18, more than a year ago, and despite worrying the national icon wouldn’t fit with the rest, did the piece anyways.
“When I decided to do Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was resisting doing any of my heroes, because I didn’t really want it to be about that, but something compelled me,” she said, adding it’s the only person in the show she hasn’t met besides her great-grandmother.
The collection is meant to show the humanity and heroism of regular, everyday women rather than big names in the history of women’s rights, but something was telling Hager to make an exception.
“My reverence for RBG is that she was such a visionary in seeing how systematically and incrementally you need to work to achieve lasting change,” she said. “And she never quit, so I guess at times when I feel discouraged, I have to remind myself that she and a lot of other women never quit.”
When her friends or family see the portraits Hager’s done of them, they’re usually a bit overwhelmed.
“It has a powerful impact — the impact of seeing themselves larger than life and rendered with such care and precision is transformative,” Reintjes said.
“They’ve never seen themselves sort of at a heroic scale,” Hager said. “And that’s the point in a way, that we are our own heroes.”