Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is not what you would call strident—an obnoxious word too often (smirklingly) associated with women who care about gender equality. The artist responsible for the Stop Telling Women to Smile project is polite and soft-spoken, and she also happens to be wearing a t-shirt that proudly reads, “Feminist as Fuck.”
The STWTS project is an eloquent protest against gendered street harassment: a portrait series of ordinary women who have experienced threatening, degrading comments on the street. Fazlalizadeh sketches each woman, composes a chunk of text (either a direct quote or a summary) and puts image and words together in a poster, reams of which she then wheat-pastes across the urban environments from which this harassment comes. The project has garnered a lot of publicity and taken Fazlalizadeh across the country—but she has never exhibited the original drawings for the series. She’ll be showing them for the first time this weekend, when she opens her home studio to the public as part of Bushwick Open Studios.
The artist and illustrator admits that her natural shyness is part of the reason why STWTS has been so rewarding for her. “I’m reserved and quiet, so it’s nice to feel close to women who have similar experiences to mine—to connect to them in this way,” she says. Fazlalizadeh started off as an illustrator but then branched out into painting—and STWTS has drastically altered the way she approaches her work.
“It’s made me change the way I look at who I paint and what I paint,” she says. Whereas before her art was more about observing other people’s stories, now she wants to use her own experience—combining the personal and the political—to inform her work. “It’s about expressing myself and who I am through other people,” she says. “I see myself in these women that I’m painting. The work means a lot to me and to the subject.She’s immensely proud of the reaction to the public art project. “I was surprised at how overwhelming the response was from women all over,” she says. “Well, not surprised. But just shocked at the scale of it.” Although the irony that her quickly sketched drawings have gotten far more attention than her more labor-intensive oil paintings is not lost on her, she doesn’t begrudge the imbalance. “I’ve been able to take a small idea and put it in front of so many people who relate to it,” she says. “As an artist you want people to have some sort of emotional response. So to achieve that has been super awesome.”
Next, she hopes to fuse the two threads of her work: combining the politicized power and text-heavy quality of the wheat-pastes with the enduring appeal of the oil paintings, for a series of portraits of unorthodox but unabashed feminists. “I feel like feminism is being regulated these days,” she says. “I listen to music that is not at all feminist. I do all sorts of things people might feel isn’t feminist. And I think there are lots of women like that, who still consider themselves feminist, just not in the conventional way.” She cites Molly Crabapple, Audre Lorde, and Little Kim as potential muses. Maya Angelou’s recent death inspired a small, exquisite sketch on wood.On Sunday, Fazlalizadeh will open her studio doors to allow the community a glimpse at new artworks—most of them part of the STWTS project. She’ll be showing some original drawings, as well as limited edition lithographs and some of her striking oil paintings. STWTS merchandise will be available. And the open studio affords the visitor a sneak peak into a Bushwick artist loft that is actually still an artist loft—complete with an insane, territorial feline called Apollo and plenty of fairy lights.
Fazlalizadeh’s been living in her bohemian “treehouse” room in Bushwick for six months now, and is pleased to report a marked drop in street harassment from her last place in Bed-Stuy. Top marks, Bushwick gentlemen.