Julia Dzikiewicz was one of the first artists to move into a studio at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Va. in 2008. While in her studio one day, the political painter noticed tour groups going past the facility, which used to be a prison. Her research revealed that the jail housed the 1917 suffragists who blocked the sidewalk in front of The White House demanding the right to vote.
“I discovered a part of women’s history that I never knew,” she said. “As I learned about the women who were beaten and put on hunger strikes here, it called out to be told in paint.”
Some of the pieces from her feminism series are on view through Feb. 4 at BlackRock Center for the Arts’ Kay Gallery in Germantown. “Protest to Power” features six encaustic paintings portraying women–including Ida B. Wells, Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai– who have worked hard for their beliefs.
BlackRock gallery director Anne Burton recalled receiving Dzikiewicz’s exhibition proposal last year in response to the BlackRock’s call for submissions. “It was obvious that Julia has a unique technical process in her use of encaustic, but it was also impressive to learn that she chose as subjects women who have historically significant stories that are truly inspiring,” Burton said. “Julia’s intensely colored encaustic artworks are filled with texture, and most also contain elements of relief sculpture.
“She is not just using the ancient method of painting layers of melted wax onto a wood panel, but also adds a modern twist by adorning the surface with sculpted wax shapes which range from water droplets to spiked flames and ruffled-edge flowers to radiant sun forms.”
All the works were created between 2008 and 2016, although it is particularly timely in view of the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. “With a president(-elect) who openly brags about groping women and calling them various names and with reproductive rights under attack, …there is never a more important time in history to learn what happened in the past and learn ways of peaceful protest to try to affect the future,” Dzikiewicz said.
The portrait of Clinton shows her during her time as Secretary of State. She is tired, standing on a runway. “I wanted to show that, even (for) modern women, that the struggle is not over,” she said. “(Clinton) struck me as someone who just works very hard and never stops. I don’t know her personally, but I know what it is like to work hard for something you believe in. That’s why I depicted her as on her way traveling to yet another country.” The painting also features Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat who famously thwarted tightening the state’s abortion laws with an 11-hour filibuster in 2013.
Dzikiewicz had planned a second Clinton painting of her winning the presidency as the finale for the series. “This was going to be my triumph painting, so things don’t always go as you plan,” she said.
One of the artist’s favorites is “The Story of the Ham” inspired by “Jailed for Freedom” author Doris Stevens. The book tells of the poor conditions at the jail where the suffragists were held after their protest. The women said they were unfairly arrested, not paying a fee, and if they were not released, they would go on a hunger strike. The warden tried to break the women by having several chefs cook ham in front of them during the strike. “Because he swore no woman could resist the smell of ham,” Dzikiewicz learned in her research. “No woman broke for a piece of ham. The ridiculousness of that story! That they would give up their ideals and their beliefs and their struggle for a small measure of equality in voting rights, I found ridiculous.” The painting portrays a suffragette lying on the bottom with three floating guardian angels using video game characters to blow up the ham slices.
While Dzikiewicz was growing up, her mother was heavily involved in politics. She ran campaigns for various Democratic candidates and was a Virginia delegate in the 1972 election. “I would spend a lot of time helping her silkscreen people’s names to put up on telephone poles,” the artist recalled. From early childhood, she liked to draw, sketching pencil portraits of her cat. “It was a way of expressing myself and my world and my emotions in a safe way.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, Dzikiewicz married and became a stay-at-home mom. She constantly worked on her art including painting an hour a night, taking classes and getting her work into shows across the country.
“I think I have a dark sense of humor,” she admitted. “I like pulling people into the work with the colors and the glitter and the crystals and having people find something slightly humorous. …I am a storyteller. I love to be able to tell people stories in paint with an emotional charge. It’s something they will stop and look at–and learn the story.”
“Protest to Power” is on view through Feb. 4 at BlackRock Center for the Arts‘ Kay Gallery, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Dzikiewicz will be at the gallery at 2 p.m. Feb. 4 for an artist talk and gallery tour. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.