Somewhere in the existential fog of my teenage years, I remember being introduced to the work of Columbian artist Fernando Botero. Full disclosure, up to this point I had been obsessed with Barbie dolls. I had the Barbie condo, the pink Barbie jeep, the Barbie horse, the Barbie boyfriend and the Barbie outfits complete with Barbie high heels. Everything I saw in popular culture growing up in Italy reinforced the Barbie doll image: women were thin, wore heels, lived glamorous lives and never defied those expectations if they wanted to be considered "beautiful." I believed it. I aspired to it.
Add to this that my mother worked for a fashion designer in one of the world's fashion capitals, Milan. I remember an event at the Krizia showroom that combined a runway show with a performance by Sting, no less. My mother snuck me in and I remember how important I felt witnessing such a glamorous showing of beautiful people...
The music, the lights, the clothing, the impossibly tall, thin, young models, the spectacle of it all...the underlying message was clear: the trends were branded and beautifully packaged and the pressure to conform to that predetermined ideal by the powers that be was everywhere you looked.
Fernando Botero was born in Colombia in the 1930s. Known for his portraits of large female and male forms, he defied most definitions of 20th century portraiture. At least, all the ones I had been exposed to in my youth. He played with the proportions of the human body in an exaggerated way that was impossible to ignore. But it wasn't just about the people, it was the animals, the leaves on the plants, the round hills and landscapes, the food in a still-life. Everything was pudgy. There was humor in it.
In contrast, fashion and beauty were serious business where I grew up. No room to question what defines beauty. Botero did. He questioned, he defied. Some critics called his art silly and cartoonish but he defended his work by claiming "“What I paint are volumes.…I am interested in volume, the sensuality of form.” In other words, the feeling of freedom, excitement and fun you get from a form that invites you to reconsider -- and perhaps escape -- rigid bounds of convention.
But I always felt conforming was safe. Conforming was acceptance. I knew that no matter what the day had in store I could go back to my dozen Barbies with their heels neatly arranged for their impossibly small feet, and they would always and forever all look exactly the same. And perfect.
And here were colorful, unapologetically large figures staring back from the canvas that barely seemed to contain them. I admired their self-assured, audacious poses and wondered who these women were. I stored those images away in my brain and went about my life for the next few decades... I moved across an ocean and went through a few creative reinventions.
When I started Kiki's Yarn Works, one of my first designs was a chunky wool necklace made of several knit cords braided together and adorned with large colorful wooden beads. I enjoyed the playfulness involved in making them; the textures, the unlikely color combinations, the sheer size of them.
And that's when Botero's women came back to me... The necklaces brought me joy and made me feel well... beautiful! I had created something that was an expression of how I felt at the time and it allowed me to walk through the world with a rather unconventional statement about my idea of beauty. I was comfortable in that persona. It felt authentic. It didn't seem to matter so much that most women my age had grown children, that I was perhaps a little young to have a full head of silver hair. or that I had traded a linear career path for a life of disparate artistic endeavors, some successful, some less so. What mattered was where I was now, like Botero's women, looking out at the world in all their volume, taking up all the space they needed.
Botero taught me that beauty is confidence and it emanates from a place deep inside that is untouched by branding and what others judge to be worthy. Beauty is true to itself and defines itself.
Once in a while I think back to my Barbies and wonder where they ended up. I think if they were with me now I'd dust them off and knit up a tiny pair of warm cozy socks for those tired feet. I think they might appreciate a break from the endless pursuit of perfection.