When Felice House moved to Texas from Massachusetts, she quickly fell in love with “Western” culture.
House, a painter and artist, moved to Austin to study for her master’s degree before becoming an assistant professor of painting at Texas A&M University.
At first, the culture shock was fun. House says she quickly became infatuated with the Western genre: the outfits, the cowboy boots, the music.
“But when I actually got around to watching Western movies,” she adds, “I was horrified by the roles for … anybody except white men basically.”
The stoic renegades played by John Wayne, James Dean, and Clint Eastwood stood in stark contrast to the helpless damsels they shared the screen with. The empowered and the powerless.
House had spent much of her career painting women in ways that clashed with media representations, so she decided to tackle the male-dominated Western genre.
She put out a call for models and was quickly overwhelmed with women who wanted to participate.
House says many of the models already knew which iconic cowboy they wanted to portray.
Virginia Schmidt became “Virginia Eastwood.”
Then there was “Liakesha Dean.”
And “Rebekah Wayne.”
House first photographed the models in Western getups, then painted from the images she captured.
She also says practicing the facial expressions and body language was the hardest part for the models.
“Women are kind of trained to make coy, approachable facial expressions,” she says.
Turning these women into iconic and powerful heroes meant stripping away any remnants of the “sexy cowgirl” trope.
The paintings themselves are larger than life. Roughly 1.25 times larger, to be specific.
“When you see them in person, people are surprised by the scale.” People aren’t used to women towering over them, House says.
And that’s exactly the point. House wanted to start a conversation about who is assigned power and how we view it.
In that sense, the timing couldn’t have been better. “Issues with gender and power in the U.S. are kind of in the forefront of people’s minds, ” she says.
In the very beginning of the project, House says she simply digitally clipped one of the models heads and put it on John Wayne’s body.
“It looked ridiculous,” she says with a laugh. “But then I thought, what if I could find a way to give this same sense of power [that iconic male heroes have] to women?”
With a brush and a few massive canvases, she managed to do just that, and she hopes it’ll make a few people think differently about how we define who can be a hero.
In the meantime, and despite her criticisms of the films of yesteryear, House says pop culture is getting better at representing women. Projects like this one definitely help.
After all, it was John Wayne himself who once said, “Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.”