Interview with Artist Cheryl-Ann Webster

Cheryl-Ann Webster has been an artist for most of her life. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario and is in the throes of a project of interest to all women of all shapes, sizes and ages everywhere: The Beautiful Women Project (BWP). I had the opportunity to meet Cheryl-Ann and learn about her project this fall. Even in the short amount of time I spent with her it was obvious how friendly, gracious and loving she is. Just the traits necessary for this type of venture.

Artist and activist, Cheryl-Ann Webster.Moe: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Cheryl-Ann Webster: I was born and raised near London, England. When I first quit High School I became a florist in a busy store that gave me a great foundation in design and creativity. After a few bad choices and being mis-guided I found myself, homeless and a birth mum at the age of 18years old. What was next?

Moe: What was the drive behind you becoming an artist?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: A wonderful women who I refer to as ‘mum’ took me under her wing. She encouraged me to enroll into art school and with her love I began to pull my life back together. I had remembered a little something about my farther apprenticing with Bernard Leech, the most famous potter in England. So in good confused logic I chose to walk in my fathers footprints in the remote hopes of approval. I didn’t get the approval but I did find an outlet for my inner pain and emotions. Art became therapy for me. As a side line, my ‘mum’ also encouraged and guided me to regain my high school diploma, and that led on to a BA Hons in Culture and Communications at Lancaster University.

Moe: Did you have supportive women in your life?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: Once I accepted the love and support that was being offered to me more came! The lady I call ‘mum’ was the first to break down my defensive wall and since then I have been gifted with love and support of many powerful and beautiful women. I only wish I could have dropped my defenses when I was younger and so very much in need of such love.

The Beautiful Women Project has greatly multiplied the number of supportive women in my life. Literally over 200 new women have walked into my life in the past 12 months and have offered me places to stay, food to eat, a shoulder to cry on, a laugh to share, ideas and venues for promotion, and money from their pockets. Most importantly all these women have believed in me and their belief in me will prop me when I feel too small to complete such a mammoth task.

The unfinished casts from Cheryl's studio.Moe: For those who don’t know, in a nutshell can you tell us about the BWP and the process.

Cheryl-Ann Webster: I hope the following makes sense, remember I am a visual artist, I visually represent what I am feeling and thinking. Words are difficult for me.

The Beautiful Women Project was born out of frustration that young girls who are still developing are fixating on their physical appearance, and that they will do anything to alter their young bodies to try to resemble the glossy images in magazines. Youngsters are purging their last meal, 8 year olds suck in their tummies, 13 year olds save for breast implants. Last year over 12,000 girls under 18years of age had breast implants in USA. I set out to show these girls that what they see in the mags are not a good example of natural beauty or a realistic goal to be achieved. My dream was to capture 100 natural women of any age and shape, and pull together an exhibition to counter the media bombardment of what is Beautiful. However, the project expanded almost immediately. I never had to advertise for volunteers, by word of mouth I have cast 125 women across Canada, and I still turn away willing casting volunteers today. I have cast in plaster from neck to hip line (front torso) 125 women aged 19 to 91 years old. The women range in size, shape, scarring, and backgrounds as they do in personalities yet the one thing they have in common is they are all naturally beautiful women, we all are!

The plaster casts will be turned into permanent clay sculptures and be exhibited across Canada accompanied by discussion panels and lectures on body image. No longer is my focus audience teenage girls but much broader, my target audience will be women of all ages because we all have something to say about how our physical appearance is linked to who we are and what we are worth!

The project has shown me time and time again that society has ingrained our perception of self-worth and self-identity with our physical self. For example a woman who has lost a breast, or had a hysterectomy questions her identity as a woman. A woman deemed by the medical service as obese is thought to be of lower intelligence, lazy and is numb by the ignorant remarks thrown at her daily. Girls whose mirror image does not reflect the glossy air brushed photo in the teen magazines feels unworthy of certain goals and accomplishments.

A chest cast decorated with blue water drops.I have met women of every shape, size and scarring and from all walks of life and each one reports the same thing; physical appearance, especially breasts and bellies, have negatively affected their daily lives. Women and girls seem to expel more energy focusing on what they look like, to themselves and those around them, than on life goals.

I don’t expect to change this ingrained social idea but already just the casting process has positively changed women’s perception of them self. I have a bunch of letters thanking me for helping them see their true physical beauty. Women see a certain image in the mirror and the voices fill the silence ‘you are too fat’, ‘your stretch marks are ugly’, ‘I wish I was…’ Yet, when women are cast they most often do not recognize their cast even though it is an exact replica of their body. Almost all of the 125 volunteers have been pleasantly surprised by the cast.

It seems we have three forces at play; expelling great energy looking in the mirror and criticizing, even more hoping we could be different and naming the wish, yet when we are offered a true exact replica of the physical self, we are happily surprised and mystified it is us!

I hope the exhibition will bring awareness to the wasted energy of wishing and criticizing, the falsehoods in the mirror and magazine and get women to know their true physical self. Begin a celebration to the beauty we already hold. The message of self-worth, self-identity and self-love will percolate down to the young girls and maybe just maybe one or two will allow themselves to be kids, let nature work her magic and let them smile in the natural beauty that will unfold with time.

Sorry not much of a nut shell was it! The topic is so big, so close to at least 50% of the population, it’s hard to narrow my explanation. I could go on and on about the lives that have been touched by the project and how the project has changed my life forever, in fact it has given me life too.

Moe: What was your motivation behind the BWP?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: My daughter came home from her grade 8 class and told me her friend was saving for breast implants, when I asked, in a shocked voice, “Why would she do that?” My daughter simply said “We all would if we had the money”. Following this I discovered that a popular High School graduation gift in the USA was Breast Implants, paid for by parents. The trend is coming to Canada!

A breast casting decorated with color and words. Moe: What do your daughter (and other family members) think of the project and your interest and time spent involved?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: My husband is extremely supportive of the BWP; he is very proud of me and tries to help where he can. He is dreadfully concerned about the cost of the project as I am not making any profit from BWP and I am working 24/7 on the project so I will not be earning anything for the next two years. Right now even the expenses are mostly being covered by his income.

My daughter is almost 16 years old. She has only known my husband and I for three years, so having a crazy artsy mum and 125 nude female torsos around the house is a bit too much for her at times. However, she has made some good suggestions and in her own way is supportive. I mean, I wouldn’t expect her to help carry the casts anywhere, to her a cast is almost a woman and she is not comfortable with nudity or breasts!! However, she does bring me tea in the studio!

Moe: What types of women have participated in this project?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: The women have ranged in age from 19years to 91 years old. They are teachers, artists, clergy, prison guards, social workers, welders, personal trainers, nurses, etc. They are both able and less able bodied. Some are gay and some not, they are birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and those that take in strays like me. They are survivors of abuse, survivors of cancer, and survivors of life. They are warriors knowing the Battle is lost, they are strangers in their own life searching for themselves and taking journeys into their futures. They are all naturally Beautiful Women.

Moe: How long has the BWP been in the works and when do you expect it to be completed?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: The idea has been brewing for 3 years; the first cast was taken in August 15th, 2003 during the provincial blackouts!! I am aiming for the start of the touring exhibition to be International Womens Day 2006 (March 2006), I am applying to Queens University, Union Gallery first to start the tour. After that is anyones suggestion!

Moe: What step are you at now?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: Phase one is now completed, in fact I have 125 casts when my goal was 100! I am now turning the plaster casts into clay sculptures. This is phase two; it is slow, expensive and difficult. Thankfully Tuckers Pottery Supplies has just donated all the clay so this has secured the projects completion. Sadly I spend more time at the computer, applying for funding asking for donations, looking for venues etc than I do in the studio. However, as more people are coming forward with donations and offers of help I will be able to move forward with the sculptures. Sixteen months is not very long to create 125 clay sculptures each decorated to represent each woman’s life journey along with all the admin that is required to pull this off … but with all the continued support I know I can do it!

Moe: How can others help out?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: I hate to say it but money is the primary need right now, I need to cover all the expenses incurred so far as well as the cost of applying to galleries (having slides made of the work), the decorating costs of the sculptures and the hydro costs for firing the sculptures… a million more expenses arise daily that I had never even considered!

The second biggest means of support is to spread the word about the project and its goals because that way when I approach a venue for exhibiting they will be eager to accept because they have heard so much about the project from so many different folk! We all need to shout the message “we are Beautiful as we are” for the societies perception to shift to a more positive one and then we can each shift our energies to life goals beyond our physical appearance.

As other help is required I will post requests on the web site. In the mean time any suggestions are welcomed by email.

Moe: What other mediums do you work in?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: I am a mixed media sculptor so although clay is my main love I use wood, leather, mirror broken watches and fabric (any broken watches are most welcomed). I have a web page for my usual art too, I am to be a visual voice for untold, silenced stories, namely Adoption, Abuse and Loss.

Moe: Do you have a day job?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: Haa haaa, I have a day and evening job creating art! I just don’t get paid anymore. When I first opened WebsterWood Studio in 2000, I was actually earning enough money to renovate my studio, buy new equipment and so on. Now with the economy at a low the luxury items are last on people’s lists and that’s if they even get on the list at all!

To add to the hunger I undertook the BWP and now have no time for anything else. I may be poor financially but I am stinking rich in love, support and dreams. I only ever had one dream in life and that was to make the world just a little bit nicer to live in. With the letters of thanks from women I have cast, I feel I have already fulfilled my dream.

Moe: After you’re gallery showing what will happen to the completed sculptures?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: Good question. I hope the tour will continue for all to see and discuss, then I am hopeful it will become a permanent exhibit in a women’s center somewhere. Who knows really? But I had no intention of them ever being split up or sold. But Maybe they could be grouped and ‘sold’ to raise funds for something like a shelter, or support center… I am always open for ideas.

Moe: How are you trying to raise money for this project? Are there other ways people can help?

Cheryl-Ann Webster: In addition to donations, a local photographer has designed and donated an image for a greeting card, a pink rose is on the front and the BWP logo and description is on the back, they are $10 for a pack of 4. So I am hoping people can help sell them to friends or buy them as stocking stuffers at Christmas, that way I raise some funds and the word gets past along.

I am also looking to give talks about the project to interested groups; I want to share my inspirations and goals as well as the journey the project has taken my life on and the technical aspect of such an enormous project. My local art group pays an honorarium for talks so I hope that will again raise money and spread the word.

Thanks Cheryl-Ann for taking the time to let us know the ins and outs of the BWP.

Cheryl-Ann Webster: Thank you so much for your interest in the Beautiful Women Project, the web page is now pretty much completed. Feel free to contact me through the website. I look forward to any suggestions and comments.

Update– Currently working on their sixth location in the National Tour! See official site for details.

Topic Links
* Visit the Beautiful Women Project

Originally published 11/20/2004 at Large & Lovely, BellaOnline.

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