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Shana Wilson’s portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Courtesy of the artist.

An Interview with Artist Shana Wilson

Canada-based artist Shana Wilson wears many hats. She holds a Certification in Trans-National Business from the University of Hawaii and a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, and has enjoyed a lengthy career in the retail, advertising and software industry. Wilson has also worked as Executive Producer and Producer of the movie “Diablo”, starring Danny Glover, Scott Eastwood and Walton Goggins.

Over the last 20 years, Wilson has worked as a portrait artist, exhibiting work in a series of group and solo exhibitions. Recently, she was selected and commissioned by TIME magazine to paint portraits of Jackie Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the highly respected associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who died in September. The paintings Wilson created were used as two separate front covers for the magazine’s monumental “100 Women of the Year Special Edition”, which was published earlier this year and is now in worldwide circulation.

Following Ginsburg’s death, Wilson told Canadian news outlet CBC News that “the most important thing we can do right now is to use our voices and our actions to carry her torch”.

Intrigued to learn more, The Net Gallery had the opportunity to talk to Shana Wilson about her work, the TIME magazine portraits, and her plans for the future.

Wilson working on the portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her studio. Courtesy of the artist.

The Net Gallery: How did you come to paint Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s portrait for TIME magazine?

Shana Wilson: I launched an exhibition titled For Women Who Roar in October, 2019. It was 15 large portraits (5 feet tall) of trailblazing, inspirational women that ranged from Gloria Steinem to Buffy Sainte Marie. It received a lot of attention in the ‘real’ world and online. When TIME went searching for the right artist to paint a cover for their “100 Women of the Year” edition, they came upon my exhibition.

The most thrilling words I have ever heard were when D.W. Pine, the Creative Director of TIME, contacted me and said, “We saw your work and you went to the top of our list.” That still gives me chills.

TNG: What was your original aspiration for For Women Who Roar?

SW: I created the For Women Who Roar exhibition with the hope that it would travel to galleries or events around the world, inspiring girls and women everywhere. The large scale portraits, coupled with the stories of each woman, are such a powerful experience for the viewer. The women range from the very well known like Gloria, to the unknown like Golden Drake who proudly shows her double mastectomy scars in order to create acceptance for breast cancer survivors.

Unfortunately, COVID brought this vision to a screeching halt, but I hope a digital version may be available.

TNG: How did it feel to be commissioned to paint such an iconic figure for such a major publication?

SW: I am frankly still incredulous at being selected. Once I found out I would be painting Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it was surreal on every level. Ruth is an icon of mine. I have long been a feminist and raised my son and daughter to respect equality and social justice for all. It occured to me while painting the piece that without Ruth’s efforts to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, a woman would not be painting the front cover of TIME. That was a heavy moment.

TNG: How did you find the process of working with the magazine?

SW: Working for TIME magazine was simply fantastic. Their creative team was more supportive than I can even express. They are kind, attentive, open to ideas…truly very special people. There is a reason TIME is a beloved publication that offers leadership in times of disruption and despair.

TNG: When it came to painting Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did her achievements have an impact on the way you approached the piece?

SW: The importance of Ruth’s achievements were critical in how I approached the painting, however, not how you would think. It was assumed that I would paint Ruth in her robes, as a Supreme Court justice. However, after a night of reflection, I requested that I paint Ruth “just” as a woman. For a woman to reach the highest professional stature, she has had to balance so much more than a heavy workload.

She has endured pregnancy and childbirth, raised children, managed a household, supported children, friends and siblings in crisis, supported elderly or ailing parents, dealt with menstruation symptoms every month for 35 years and then menopause for 10 more, and so much more. I wanted the world to see Ruth in her totality as a reminder of everything a woman is.

TNG: How do you think artists can honour the memories of trailblazing women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the fight for equality?

SW: I have a grave concern that the walls of our major historical museums and galleries are overflowing with imagery of women that range from nude/titillating to subservient. They are also grossly whitewashed. I understand that art history has a place in education, but I think it is time for historical art to take a back seat and allow the work of current artists to move to the front.

Our school children visit these institutions as an important part of their education, and the imagery is oppressive. I would prefer a young child, of any color or gender identification, leave a museum feeling empowered… seeing images that look like them (of every color and shape), of women (and men) that are changing the world for the better.

My artistic goal is to continue to empower women on canvas. A picture says a thousand words, and I have a lot to say.

TNG: What’s next for you? Are you working on any particular projects right now?

SW: I did just finish two special pieces that I hope to bring to the public’s attention with MT Art Agency. I am thrilled to be working with them and I know they have some exciting ideas up their sleeve for my work and my messages of equality and social justice.

Wilson sitting next to her portrait of Ginsburg. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Toby Buckley for The Net Gallery.

More of Wilson’s work can be found on her website, shanawilsonartist.com, and Instagram (@shanawilsonartist). Shana Wilson is represented in London and Paris by MT Art Agency.

Read the story behind TIME magazine’s 100 Women of the Year, here.

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