Fort Collins artist Haley Hasler didn’t set out to focus on self-portraits.
“It really started as a practical decision, where I needed a model, and as a young art student I had an available body in myself and the mirror,” said Hasler while walking around her latest exhibit, “Haley Hasler,” at the Museum of Art Fort Collins. “My work might start with just a little idea, like I’m going to have the female character. I don’t think of it as me. I do think of it as just a female character.”
But Hasler is that character. For more than 15 years, the self-portrait has been a hallmark of her work, which also features a revolving cast that includes her husband, three children and occasionally their family pets.
Inspired by iconic works from the great masters, Hasler’s works showcase a love for art history - as well as a frustration with it.
“We have millions of paintings throughout history of ‘girl, interrupted,’” she said. “The girl is doing something, and someone is watching her and painting her.”
But Hasler’s self-portraits are most certainly not a girl interrupted. In each piece she’s looking right out of the frame, almost in a searching way -- questioning, observing -- rather than just being, as Hasler put it, “a receptacle to be observed.”
That goes back to the idea that throughout history, women haven’t told their story enough, she said. Never before have female voices held as much power as they do right now.
“And it turns out those stories are different, and they need to be told, and how can I tell it from any other point of view but my own?” Hasler said. “It’ll be nice when one day we don’t have to say this is the woman’s point of view, this is a human point of view instead of it being a default male point of view.”
For Hasler, the most intriguing images are those of a mother and child, like the piece “Mother and Child with Snakes and Ribbons.” The inspiration came from Caravaggio's “Madonna and Child with Saint Anne.”
“It’s quite a startling image of the mother holding her naked child who is probably a toddler and the two of them are putting their feet on the head of a really frightening looking serpent,” Hasler said.
For Hasler, it’s a reflection of a mother teaching her child about the evil in the world, but also the dangers of life and childhood. In the painting, her son is playing with the snake -- albeit a rubber one.
To create these characters, she uses a display mannequin that she dresses in elaborate costumes and surrounds with still-life props in her studio. A full-length mirror allows her to paint herself into the picture. For her children she relies on photos. Her kids have come to expect that they will appear in mom’s works.
“I think they just think this is what moms do,” she said.
Many of the works feature Hasler with an ambivalent look on her face. Hasler said it’s a deliberate attempt to convey her torn feelings about the competing roles of mother and artist.
“One is so self-centered and really demanding of time and energy all for one’s own thoughts and explorations and questions,” she said. “And the other one, as the mother, is really about sacrificing yourself to another person’s needs.”
That struggle is showcased in her painting based on Tintoretto’s “Origin of the Milky Way.”
“In the original painting Zeus is holding up the baby Hercules to the goddess Juno and she’s actually unwilling to nurse him, but he is kind of forcing this child on her breast because he would like the child to be a god,” Hasler said.
In the painting, she is nursing her youngest son while two other babies fly around her. Just past her shoulder, her husband awaits with yet another baby. Milk sprays out like pearls.
“It’s so powerful it is going to turn a baby into a god,” she said. “And we do have this - mystical feeling about breast milk, today. It’s so important and also kind of scary. And we’ve had these battles about women nursing in public and such strong feelings about breasts and nursing and babies and here I am doing it and feeling like my life revolves around doing it.”
Because while the characters in the portraits are “characters,” the story they tell is still Hasler’s.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in “Portrait with Young Hens.” It’s in stark contrast to most of her work. It’s just Hasler standing with her breasts and 9-month pregnant belly exposed, holding two baby chickens.
“I was tired when I made that painting,” she said, staring at the portrait. “I was close to having the child and it has a less finished surface than many of my paintings. I had to just finish it in that time period. I knew I wasn’t going to last much longer and I couldn’t stand on my feet for too many hours and yet I really wanted to have this last chance to paint the body, my body, in that state, which is just fascinating to have your body -- especially if you’re a self-portrait figure painter -- to have your body become such a different body.”
Now as her children get older, Hasler is exploring other elements of life, but she said she’ll still come back to motherhood.
“Those things will all come into the paintings” she said. “I just can’t help it, they just pop in -- what I tend to be thinking about and stewing over comes into the work.”
Such as in Hasler’s work “Tooth Fairy II.”
Instead of being based on a Madonna or a character from art history, Hasler’s character is based on the contemporary character, one typically inhabited by mothers. Hasler stands holding a baby tooth in a red velvet box as baby teeth rain down on her head. There’s a slight, knowing smile on her face. It’s a look of awareness.
“You used to be the child - not that long ago - believing in this magical world and now (…) you get to be the tooth fairy,” she said. “And for your children you inhabit this role of being -- kind of perfection, you’re the mother, you can do no wrong. At the same time, you are occupying this fantasy world for them and playing the role yourself and really relishing it. It’s just a kind of exciting part of being a parent -- all the roles you have to play, and how you feel about them. And there’s always (a mix of) ambivalence and joy.”
The exhibit “Haley Hasler” will be at the Museum of Art Fort Collins through Oct. 14, 2018