Provincetown artist Jo Hay captures the essence of strong, unforgettable women in her portrait series, Persisters.
Artists and the art they create are often polarizing, uncomfortable, and evocative. Think Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or even Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile, and slightly amused direct gaze.
Consideration of the collection of portraits Jo Hay has created for Persisters, renders equal parts awe and frustration. Awe because the subjects of these portraits are brave women who have stood up during these tumultuous times and not backed down. Frustration because with all the advances women have made, it is still one step forward, two steps back.
Hay paints the Persisters straight on. Their eyes look directly into the viewers’ eyes, their souls. Unflinching and serious. Some with no smile, some with a bemused smile. They have reason to be serious. It is a contemplative time for women now, as always. It is the direct gaze that affects most. Each of these women refuse to be ignored.
The colors Hay uses are bright and feminine—pinks and baby blues, whites and yellows—yet the collective result portrays strength. The colors reflect “the high vibrancy of those women,” Hay explains. Though contemplative, they all have a sense of calm, with their faces exuding a beautiful inner glow. Hay’s penchant for faces traces back to early childhood. She remembers being with her mother in a toy store looking intently at a collection of “Jelly Monsters.” Her mother, ready to leave, didn’t understand why her daughter was so transfixed with the collection. The young girl replied to her mother’s exasperated question that she “was looking for the one with the nice face.”
Born in northeast England, Hay’s desire to start painting began with a monthly magazine that featured a different artist in each issue. She would pore over the glossy pages and feel an affinity for the images. “When I tried to do it myself, I was enormously frustrated because it didn’t just flow out of me as it appeared to in these beautiful magazines. So, I spent many years being infuriated, not knowing as a child that I had to practice, I thought it just came out naturally.” So, she threw herself into practicing her art.
Her college in London did not offer art as a major, prompting Hay to study the next best thing—graphic design, and upon graduating moved to New York City to work as an art director. The new city resident spent all her free time in museums and at The Art Students League drawing and getting a good grounding in painting figuratively. Acrylics and house paint were all the fledging artist could afford. Eventually, she was able to transition to oil paint as she developed her unique style.
After a short period, Hay quit her art director job to become a full-time artist. “I remember the first day standing in my living room in my apartment with two blank canvases on the floor thinking ‘Where is everyone to watch me do this?’ because I was so used to having an art department and people around. It felt very odd to be completely alone with no structure, but I got right into it.”
In her early work, Hay found she was mostly interested in the head, the face and the expressions. “I was always drawn to heads and faces, I didn’t consider it portraiture, I always thought I was painting heads. I knew it was something to do with expression and the minute shifts that can occur in faces and expression that changes everything. I knew there was something really magnetic about faces all of my life. In the beginning, I painted these funny little figures that were basically a head with a tiny body in it. You could see I was really just interested in the head and not the body,” she recalls with a laugh.
After 15 years in New York City, Hay discovered Provincetown. “I loved New York and never wanted to leave. I was asked to come to Provincetown for two weeks, and I remember being miserable all the way up, and feeling under duress, but once we pulled off Route 6 and onto Snail Road and I saw that sweep of Provincetown, I was absolutely smitten.” Hay relocated. Only briefly returning to New York City to complete the master’s program at the New York Academy of Art.
Eighteen years later, Hay is happily settled with her wife Carolyn, owner of Carolyn Kramer Gallery. The gallery served an invaluable purpose in fostering Hay’s artistic journey. She could walk into the gallery on any given day and hear people talk about her work. “It was an incredible honor to have that feedback constantly and that was very helpful to me. It was a real gift to always be able to interact with viewers,” she explains.
Hay says her portrait project, Persisters, was created out of fear and anxiety. “It came after the 2016 election. I felt for the first time as a privileged white woman, fear that I didn’t understand where it was coming from, because there was nothing tangible. What I did fear was somebody I didn’t think should have them, had the nuclear codes. I would wake in the morning with anxiety and had to find a way to both express it and relieve it. The immediate solution appeared to be to understand more of what was happening.
Rachel Maddow was already on the case of explaining the bigger picture. I felt if I painted her, I absorbed some of her strength, understanding, and knowledge of what was happening and that would give me solace in this great period of anxiety.” Once she painted Maddow, she moved on to Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her painting began to parallel what was happening in the news. Different women were painted for different reasons and in response to the never-ending news cycles.
“There were moments that were occurring that I needed to record. As the series grew, I realized women were feeling supported in seeing these paintings together. We had six or seven in the gallery in the beginning and women would come to the gallery and cry in front of these women, and I knew that they were not crying over gorgeous paint work. They know these women, and recognize them, and there is a strength in seeing the women together, and with other women being in the room. They have a whole different power when they are together.”
Having all these women together could never happen in real life, but Hay was able to create a special environment by putting the women all together in one space. “I painted them specifically face-on, so you’ve got that full blast of attention from the painting, and the viewer and the painting are giving each other an equal amount of attention.
“There is nothing like looking in somebody’s eyes, that’s where you see everything. We read each other’s eyes all the time. Being forced to look in the eyes of the painting was part of the strength.” Over time, the collection grew as events were unfolding around the world. “I managed to capture a good reminder of that time period with the different women I painted,” Hay adds.
Many viewers came back to see the same painting over again and again. One painting stood out though. Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) was painted when she was still alive, and her portrait was often prominently hung in the gallery window.
“Sometimes she was in the window, and when she wasn’t there they would say ‘Where has she gone, she is not in the window?!’ They had this relationship with the painting, and it meant something to them when she was gone. If you can move people to that degree with your work, what an honor to feel that my work has been seen in this way. The most important thing to me is that the work is seen by the people on the street. Regular people see the paintings and talk about them with each other, and what these women mean, and what they have done for the country,” Hay expresses.
Seeing the paintings with the actual women portrayed was an unexpected bonus. Rachel Maddow visited the gallery one day giving Hay a chance to personally meet her. They stood side-by-side looking at the portrait together and Hay was intrigued when Rachel remarked that it was like looking into a mirror reflecting within itself and seeing herself in many different ways. Multifaceted. Currently, six Persisters paintings are on view year round at Womencrafts in Provincetown located at 376 Commercial Street.
As far as what is next goes, Hay would love her work to be shown in more places or as a traveling show, but she feels strongly that the portraits should be kept together. Together, they are a statement of the power of persistence. In 2022, Jo Hay was chosen as the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s Inaugural Artist of the Year, clearly a trailblazer herself. She also persists and we are all better for it.
Valerie Gates is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.