First Lady Love
Sarah Ferguson's Infatuation with Hillary Clinton
It all started with a dream. “I was in a small library, and she opened the door. She put her file folders down and pinned me to the wall, kissing me,” recalls painter Sarah Ferguson. “She was so, so forthright. I found it very refreshing.”
The woman in the dream was Hillary Clinton. From that day in 2007 forward, the former presidential candidate has been the primary focus of Ferguson’s work. In addition to oil portraits, Ferguson has also created numerous photo collages, some of which can be seen on her website and in a self-published book, Hillary and I. Her obsession with the politician seems one part feminist, three parts erotic.
“Hillary is portrayed in the media as cold and calculated, but I see her as sexual,” states Ferguson unequivocally, and she’s on a mission to get others to recognize Hillary’s sensuous side. “When I read Maureen Dowd, the Hillary she concocted in her head was so different than the one in my head. In a 100 years, people might look back at Dowd’s writing and form an idea of what Hillary was like. With these paintings, I’m trying to document my viewpoint.”
In Ferguson’s East Village studio, Hillarys abound. There’s a close-up of a pissed-off looking Hillary titled “Pink Hillary,” the first of the series. “I love the expression. Those eyes! She’s so sensitive, so prickly!” Ferguson coos. A portrait of Hillary pondering a lizard shows the viewer a softer, more private side of the public figure. Yet another canvas places Ferguson in the foreground, sitting in a chair with a microphone between her legs, while Hill looks on from the background, microphone held horizontally in both hands. Ferguson painted that one shortly after the Democratic Convention. “I’m holding the microphone in my lap, away from my mouth, because my voice has been denied.”
Among these many moods of Hillary, an eight-foot-tall portrait stands out. Hillary’s face is molded in a familiar expression — lips tight, chin slightly raised, her demeanor serious and authoritative. To her detractors, this “don’t fuck with me, fellas” look might epitomize what they dislike about her. The twist here is she’s buck naked, staring you down as if to say, “What are you looking at?” Her aging flesh and sagging breasts are painted in loving detail. “I could have made her more erotic, but this is the beauty of the real. There’s no artifice. She’s stripped bare,” Ferguson explains.
On Christmas Day 2007, she posted an image of Naked Hillary on Flickr.com. “I was so involved in political blogging, and I wanted to talk about things that weren’t being discussed, like the sexism [that Hillary provoked]. Within a week, I had 500 hits.” Things continued at that pace until Flickr tagged the image at the end of February. But Ferguson was happy with the results of her experiment. “The only way to find it was by typing ‘hillary naked’ in the search, so at that moment, there were a lot of people who wanted to see Hillary naked! I really tapped into something.”
Until about six years ago, Ferguson, 43, was pursuing a career as a math professor. But shortly after she was awarded tenure at Wayne State University in Detroit, Ferguson asked for a leave of absence and moved to New York in 2002 to paint full time. She enrolled in an MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in 2006, and graduated this past spring. “Both math and painting are a search for truth, and both are a battle. I would end up with a big pile of scratch paper, trying to figure out a formula, and I must have painted over Naked Hillary five times, trying to get it right.”
Interestingly, Ferguson had one of her biggest breakthroughs working on a 7′ x 8′ canvas entitled Hardball, that depicts Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann jerking each other off. “Since I don’t care about them like I do Hillary, I was free to make mistakes.” The violet blue tones of the canvas make it clear that the couple is watching television. “Porn?” I ask. “No, they’re watching Hillary!” Ferguson replies. Silly me.
With Hillary’s bid fading into history, Ferguson intends to continue painting her muse. In her most recent work, Ferguson put Hillary’s head on a doll’s body. “It’s a little surreal. There’s some detachment. It’s less personal. A dealer who looked at my previous work said most artists don’t work from complete identification. But I had to go through that living with her, talking to her, having her as an imaginary friend.” Ferguson sees this new Hillary as a universal mother to us all. “She’s looking down and her head is like the size of your mother’s head when you were getting your ass wiped. It’s like she is there to take care and provide and clean things up. And the heavens are there, and the sky. It’s death and rebirth. I think her role as senator will be much larger now,” says Ferguson, with a hopeful, lusty glint in her eye. ■