Meet Via Boley, whose work "captures how my generation feels an overwhelming anxiety and anger at what’s happening in the world and our inability to change it." Her paintings aim to combat the way women have been depicted throughout art history, and instead reveal the raw, emotional, and psychological reality of being a woman in our culture. In other words, Boley does not shy away from the hard subjects. In this in-depth interview, we discuss how the artist's architect parents encouraged and inspired her to pursue art, sexism in the field, and how important it is to her to depict women with strong ‘unidealized’ emotion in her paintings. Plus, Boley offers us a short reading list of books that center women artists!

Artist Statement:

Women have always been diminished in the Western Art world, historically being portrayed as objects of desire and made to conform to male painter’s definitions of beauty. Today, our bodies are demeaned socially, politically, and legally. My paintings feature women in abnormal strenuous poses, rejecting sexualization and instead highlighting the reality of having a body constantly under attack.

To further subvert standard images of women, I have used fracturing, netting, and lines in my pieces. As viewers engage with my work, they will encounter subjects that oscillate between feeling hidden behind each symbol or trapped by them. My paintings strive to give voice to a generation of female-identifying individuals who are losing bodily autonomy because they do not fit in the current mold of patriarchal representation.

Instagram: @viaboley

Image description: Via Boley, We talked about our day instead of our rage, 2023. Acrylic on Canvas, 24"x30".
Via Boley, We talked about our day instead of our rage, 2023. Acrylic on Canvas, 24"x30".

What initially drove you to pursue art as a career and what keeps you going today?

I have always had a huge passion to be in the art world. My mother (an architect) took me to museums and galleries at a very young age, and we would go with our sketchbooks almost every month and draw whatever we could find. She is an amazing artist - I remember watching her draw the ancient Egyptian collection and think that if I practiced enough I would be able to make drawings as beautiful as hers. My dad (an architect too) also pushed me to continue pursuing art. When I cried that I should have picked a career with a corporate ladder, he explained that just because our culture doesn’t value art as much as it should, doesn’t mean that I should regret my choice. My parents were clear with me that it would be hard, but that just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn't do it.

I think what actually keeps me going is the belief that art is what I was meant to do and I cannot imagine being anything other than an artist. Second to that is everyone’s support and their belief in me. That shouldn’t be the only reason, however, it does make my heart double in size knowing that when I don’t believe in myself someone else does.

Every bad experience that I have comes with a good one. When I met with my professor to discuss a double major after receiving pressure about job security, he expressed that he believed I could make a living solely on painting. At my final review that year I was devastated to hear a male professor exclaim that I should stick to ‘just painting’ instead of painting about sexual assault. But to my surprise another female professor fought with him, and later asked me to be her teaching assistant. I often hear these back and forth conversations even now, and the positive reinforcement is what drives me to paint.

Fast forward almost six years later and I’m painting full time, which was an incredibly hard choice. But even with how tough of a business it is, I wouldn’t take any of it back - I still don’t have the same passion for anything else.

I love how emotionally charged your paintings are. Can you talk about the more psychological elements of your work?

One day I looked around and saw that the majority of art I was seeing lacked female emotion. It wasn’t until I really looked that I found art without the male gaze.

Ask yourself, if you had a book of all of the well-known paintings of women in history, how many of those would show women with strong ‘unidealized’ emotion? I would say 10-15 percent, and that's being generous. Then take away the paintings of women being put in a negative light because of their emotions: Maybe five percent are left. I like to ask myself the question, if this figure didn’t have features which adhered to our beauty standard, and/or was not naked, would it still be as revered?

I want to paint women with emotion, and more specifically, how it feels to be a woman in a society that only values them for their likeness. I don’t want to get rid of the other pieces, but I do believe that it is crucial to bridge the gap in female-identifying representation.

Image description: Via Boley, I won't apologize for feeling anymore, 2023. Acrylic on Canvas, 30"x40".
Via Boley, I won't apologize for feeling anymore, 2023. Acrylic on Canvas, 30"x40".

Have you always gravitated towards the figure, or perhaps more specifically, the female figure? What is one thing about your process that people may not know about?

During my senior year of my BFA, I was grappling with being diagnosed with ADHD. I began to make paintings about architecture, specifically how our memory can shift our perception of architecture. Painting architecture felt easier than the figure; it didn't feel as personal. I could talk about the work more calmly than I ever could before. Yet, given the freedom to choose the subject of my paintings for the first time after graduating, I returned to figurative work - and I am so glad that I did.

I realized that the reason I couldn’t talk about my figurative work as calmly as the architectural pieces was because there is so much sexism in this field. I felt it so much in academia and I could see it in art history. I began to seriously research why that was, how women are depicted in art, and how themes of ownership and the male gaze are entrenched in the western canon of art. It makes me even more determined to continue figurative painting.

Most people don’t realize that when I paint the female figure I have a lot of rules! For example, no porcelain skin. I do this because historically, white marble-like skin has been used to show purity. It also was used in depictions of Venus to show that she was not born from the ‘dirtiness’ of a mother, but rather from the offshoots of a man (Zeus). I refuse to have my work fall into tropes of the virgin.

Another rule of thumb for me is to exclude ecstasy poses. These are poses of women (mostly laying down) which make the subject seem thinner, more desirable, and it portrays them as ‘open for taking’. A lot of people also ask me why I don’t paint faces anymore in my pieces. This is because I want the viewer to identify with the figure rather than see it as someone else, and I believe that the act of looking can often be hijacked into ‘the woman looking at her owner, most often the owner of the painting’. Even with all these rules, my depictions of women aren’t usually everything that I want them to be - they just have to be better than my last painting.

Via Boley, Giving is not the same as loving. Acrylic on Panel, 16"x16".

Where did you learn your incredible skill in painting? What was the most challenging part of this experience?

One of my professors once told me that in order to break rules in painting you have to first know the rules. With that, in order to break technique in painting it is important to know the techniques you want to break.

I was fortunate to have artistic parents who felt that art classes were essential to growing up, but I also drew and painted non-stop. Plus, drawing came somewhat naturally to me. However, I still needed to learn ways of measuring the figure and other classical techniques.

When I was about 16 I learned the basics of oil painting and figure drawing, and then at 19 I learned the specifics of color theory, perspective, and composition. Unfortunately when Covid hit I was halfway through my BFA and I had to stop oil painting completely. This meant that I was forced to use acrylic and adapt to its very fast drying time.

It probably took me three years to understand how to use acrylics for figure painting! For those who don’t know, oil painting should be done layering dark to light while acrylic should be done light to dark. Acrylic dries darker when mixed, and does not stay as saturated as oils. Luckily, with enough trial and error I was able to find which acrylic mediums work for me.

I would rather stay in my room, but my phone relays news. My friends discuss the latest disaster, and another right is taken away. So, I sit here, rage growing from my fingertips, spreading to the bed, the pillows, the room. © Via Boley

Who are some of your biggest influences, whether it be other artists or people in your life?

This question is tough because I have so many! I am a huge advocate for painting outside of a vacuum, meaning, getting inspiration from other artists, art history, or even your friends. Off the top of my head I would say Kathe Kollwitz, Solomon Kammer, Colleen Barry, and Titus Kaphar.

A little piece about each artist :
- Kathe Kollwitz not only has stunning line work, but the way she shows emotion is unparalleled. I’m not yet able to show emotion the way that she does but if I had one wish it would be to get there eventually.
- Solomon Kammer is a disabled artist who makes work about lacking bodily autonomy, specifically as a woman. Her compositions are so powerful and raw, plus her way of painting skin works very well alongside her artist statement.
- Colleen Barry’s work is unapologetic - she paints women and children in their own world, somehow removing any signs of ownership from the viewer.
- Lastly, Titus Kaphar is not only an amazing painter but he is also an amazing public speaker. He confronts the racism of the western canon of art in order to bring Black stories to the forefront. In his ted talk, he explains that he doesn’t want to erase art history but rather add to it so that one doesn’t get shown more than the other.

In order to fully nerd-out, I wrote a reading list of the books that have influenced me the most:
- Women in the Picture: Women, Art, and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack
- The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel
- Truth Bomb, Inspiration from the Mouths and Minds of Women Artists by Abigail Crompton

What have you been working on this summer? Do you have anything coming up you’d like to share?

A lot of painting! Every few months I rethink and re-strategize how I’m depicting the female figure. This summer I’m gravitating towards intense contrast, and very fractured bodies. Lately, I’ve felt the need to paint figures other than myself. It’s a challenge to paint myself because I have so many subconscious ways I want to be portrayed based on the societal influences I’ve experienced. To combat this I’m beginning to make paintings of my mother in the same poses that I would place myself in. It’s been challenging to place someone else in such emotional poses and still give them agency in their image - but that’s what makes painting interesting and engaging.

In short - keep an eye out on my instagram, @viaboley, and my website for new pieces!

© Via Boley