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Susanne Reece (’20) shows us peeks at her thesis story, ‘A City of Ladies’

It’s Takeover day!

Susanne Reece is showing us the inspiration, process and reason for her thesis story, A City of Ladies’. Look for it this summer. In the meantime, enjoy her posts on Instagram @susannemreece

The story: No mother can be all things to a child. When that child grows up wanting to be an artist, she may need creative mothers to help her along the way. Sometimes those mothers are people she meets in real life, and sometimes they are women she knows only through their biographies, letters, diaries, and creative work.

In a series of personal visual narratives, I investigate how 10 of my chosen mothers have guided my thinking about issues I has faced as woman and as an artist, among them friendships with other women, relationships with men, the decision whether or not to have children, how to live a creative life, the purpose of life, and growing older.

These explorations are organized in and shared with the reader through a website that serves as a portal to an imaginary city inspired by the one medieval writer Christine de Pizan, one of Susanne’s creative mothers, built in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies.

Christine understood her city as a place to which she and others could travel to whenever they needed a community of women to defend, support, inspire, and uplift them. The stories she collected in it were biographical.

My city is a space she created to organize, store, and share her experiences and memories. In it, she collects personal narratives through which she processes and understands her own world and own experiences. In sharing them, she hopes her city of ladies serves as a place of connection and contemplation, and is a catalyst for readers to think about their own experiences, their own chosen mothers.

Susanne writes:

Tell me about your mother. No, really. I want to know about her. And about all the other women who were like mothers to you. My thesis project for the School of Visual Art’s MFA Visual Narrative program is about mothers, my actual mother—that’s her with bare feet seeing me off on my first day of school—and other women who were like mothers to me. Some of these women were in my own family. Like my grandmother, shown in the second photo and then in an illustration from my thesis. And my great grandmother in the next photo. She’s the one at the right edge, looking back, the piano she was playing just out of view. The next image is an illustration from my thesis of her at the easel and me watching her. My great Aunt Leona is in the next photo and the illustration after it. Her house was the first place I ever saw modern art. As I got older, and saw many more first days of school, I found mothers in women outside my family. One was writer Virginia Woolf, shown in an illustration from my thesis. In her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf lamented the lack of other women writers and artists in history, creative mothers whose lives could serve as examples. I have been lucky to have had many creative mothers, including Woolf herself. These women are the subject of my thesis project, a memoir in visual essays called A City of Ladies, in which I explore how my creative mothers helped me find my way as I worked to become a writer and an artist. A website featuring the project will launch in late July. Watch my Instagram feed for work in progress.


My MFA thesis gets its title, A City of Ladies, from Christine de Pizan, one of my “creative mothers,” shown here in an illustration from the project. Christine is considered by many historians to have been the first professional woman writer. She was the author of a medieval bestseller, The Book of the City of Ladies. Image 2 is from a medieval book and shows her arguing with a group of men. Her book was a rebuttal to the ladyhaters in her time who thought women were by nature sinful and incapable of rational thought. The book collected biographies of exemplary women, each a metaphorical brick in an imaginary city. In image 3, from her book, we see Christine and a female allegorical figure physically building the city. Beyond using the city of women as proof of female virtue, Christine also understood it as a place to which she and other women could travel to whenever they needed a community of women to defend, support, inspire, and uplift them. She would have known about using an imaginary city and its buildings as a way to organize information from her studies of classical Greek and Roman writing, which I illustrate in the thesis with image 4. And she would have been familiar with devotional practices that encouraged the faithful to use books and images to imagine themselves physically present at the events of Christian history, like the woman in the right corner of image 5 is doing (detail from a painting by Hans Memling, 15th century). Images and books were like virtual reality headsets for people in Christine’s time, an idea I illustrated in image 6. I envisioned my thesis project and the essays in them as an imaginary city like Christine’s city of ladies that will be accessed through a website. My hope is that the site, the memoir in essays—my city of ladies—will serve as a place of connection and contemplation and as a catalyst for you to think about your own experiences and about your own creative or chosen mothers. I hope will visit it when it launches in July. Until then, you can find me here on Instagram and see how construction’s going.

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