By Sara Bruskin
Nude figures have been featured in artistic works since the Stone Age, yet depictions of naked bodies are still controversial. Social media sites ban nudity, most stores won’t stock items that portray it, and many people argue that it’s crude or obscene. When an artist’s subject matter adds so many challenges to their career, what compels them to stick with it? We asked two local artists to share the motivation behind their themes.
Steffie Notion’s attitude toward nudity includes both loving reverence and simple practicality. “I do think bodies are temples and are precious, but they’re also just the tool we’ve been given for existing in this world,” she says. “It’s the one thing we all have in common, so it’s surprising to me how taboo nakedness is.”
Notion is a Longmont-based embroidery artist whose work often depicts people or body parts with little to no clothing on. She ventured into risqué embroidery after her divorce as a form of art therapy, and many of her earlier pieces are self-portraits. Choosing that vulnerability of nakedness on her own terms was empowering for Notion.
She also found that portraying her body as art discouraged the self-doubt and internal criticism we often face when looking at ourselves in the mirror. “When you look at art, there’s not that judgment of, ‘Is this body right or wrong?’ It’s more of, ‘Why did the artist choose to portray this body?’” Notion says. “That shift from seeing yourself in a mirror to seeing yourself as art is a huge change in self-perception.”
While she receives a lot of positive feedback on her work, Notion has run into some difficulty promoting it. Instagram shut down her account soon after she began posting photos in 2018, but she got it back after the account had been reviewed. Notion figures that she doesn’t get censored as much as other artists depicting nudity because fabric and thread don’t come across as especially graphic. Some of her posts still get flagged though, and she’ll often post a content-warning image preceding her more explicit pieces.
While she’s had trouble finding stores that will display her art, Notion does get invited to craft shows by organizers who know and love her work. She tries to curate her selection to be considerate of the public context, but she ran into some uncomfortable moments at a show which she anticipated being more adult-oriented but ended up attracting a lot of families instead.
Kids would come over to her table and their parents would get flustered, unsure of how to discuss the content their kids were seeing. Notion says, “It was awkward, but I also feel like that’s a challenge to our society: How do we want to raise our kids? Do we want them to feel ashamed and embarrassed when they see bodies, or do we want to explain that they’re strong and beautiful?”
Kyra Coates has a lot of practice discussing topics like this with young people. Her daughters and stepdaughters have been growing up around her nude artwork that hangs on the walls of their home. When she and her partner first moved in together, Coates says one of her stepdaughters (who was five at the time) walked into their bedroom one day and looked at a painting hanging over the bed. She crossed her arms in a huff and said, “This is very inappropriate. You need to paint them at least with underwear!”
Laughing at the memory, Coates says, “It’s been beautiful to watch that evolution because now she’s very comfortable with it.” That process of familiarization with her daughters included discussions about sexuality, consent, when it’s okay to be naked around other people and when it’s not. Coates wants them—and all women—to have healthy relationships with their own bodies.
“There’s so much shame and stigma in this society around nudity in the female form,” she says. “It’s either hyper-sexualized or it’s shamed, or both at the same time. I wanted to create something that was about embracing it and awakening to it.”
Many women have certainly embraced her art, and Coates says some have broken into tears upon seeing it. Social media sites, however, have been less enthused. Facebook consistently rejected advertisements she tried to post, even those where the body angle showed no more than one would see of a person wearing a bikini. “It’s extremely frustrating,” Coates says. “I’ve given up on trying to market my artwork through social media.”
Like Notion, Coates has found warm appreciation for her work among art show organizers and the people who attend those shows in Boulder County. In more conservative areas like Arizona and some Colorado mountain towns, the art show attendees have more mixed reactions. Coates says, “People will walk by and go, ‘Well I guess we know where the porn is!’ And I’m like, there’s nothing sexual in this image. But the immediate response to female nudity is sex.”
The spectrum of responses to Coates’ art has been extreme, with a gallery owner in North Carolina loving her work so much that he had some shipped across the country and put one painting in pride of place in his front window. But the downtown council demanded that he remove it, and the ensuing fight eventually led to the gallery closing.
Coates is determined to change that narrative around the female form being inappropriate or offensive. “There are so many social constructs and ideas around what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be nude, and what it means to have a body and what it means to be sexual—and we can shatter all of that. We can just let that go. We can be the authors of this.”