Video: Abington artist explores women’s roles with humor

Jody Feinberg

In her third-floor art studio, Candice Smith Corby showed a visitor an unusual self-portrait. On a green linen napkin that had belonged to her grandmother, the Abington artist had painted a straight-back woman pushing a red lawn mower and gazing dreamlike ahead. Overhead, a bird flies and a chandelier dangles.

This surreal combination of images resonates for any woman who has felt pulled by conflicting desires and obligations – family and work, independence and dependence, nurturing and self-expression. And it reflects Corby’s exploration of her own identity.

"Mowing the lawn was a great escape because it was one of the few times I couldn’t hear a baby crying or someone calling me and I could daydream," said Corby, 36, who  had been married for 10 years and was  focused on her career when she had the first of two sons two and a half years ago. "I was very concerned about how I was going to figure everything out. Would I have time for myself? Would I only be defined as a mother?"

Corby, whose work is on exhibit in a group show at Brandeis University and in the Miller Block Gallery on Newbury Street, now has the answer to those questions. Yes, she still has the time to make art, teach and direct the Cushing Martin Gallery at Stonehill College. And no, she isn’t defined solely as a mother, although motherhood is central to her identity.

"I feel very lucky," said Corby, who co-curated a recent exhibit of African artists at the South Shore Art Center. "I have a part-time flexible job that is inspiring and allows me time to work in my studio and be with my family. And I have a wonderful husband who is very supportive."

In recent years, Corby, who studied painting and has a master’s in fine arts from the Massachusetts College of Art, has used fabrics, doilies, napkins and women’s dresses as her canvas. Through these items inherited from her grandmother and collected on her travels, she finds a connection to women of the past and other cultures.

Onto these items, she has painted images of women, usually resembling herself, who seem to wear sofas and chairs, dishes and other domestic items as a sort of clothing. The result is quirky, humorous and provocative.

"It’s a playful and critical look at traditional domestic roles of homemaker, wife and mother," said Lisa Lynch, curator of the Brandeis exhibit "Dress Redress." 

"These are things you want to embrace at one moment that can be constricting at others."

Corby has studied in Rome and had an artist residency in Hungary, but her experience as an Army wife from 1994-99 in Colorado and South Korea was one of the most memorable.

"There was a protocol to the way things were done in the Army as far as what women did," said Corby, whose husband now is vice president for operations  at the Plymouth company SmartPak Equine. "How well the wife supported her husband was part of his review. That kind of atmosphere created a situation where women fell into the footsteps of men and put their own desires second."

While an Army wife, Corby launched her career at a Colorado art gallery, though the pace picked up significantly in 2000. She has exhibited in solo and group shows in California, Framingham and Boston and has been a visiting lecturer and teacher at Emmanuel College and Mass. College of Art. This fall, she will teach at Stonehill College, where she works two days a week running the art gallery.

Of her four pieces in the exhibit "Dress Redress," Corby’s "No One Makes a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" humorously expresses the circus-like nature of the female balancing act. Painted onto a vintage house dress, a woman balances on her head a huge stack of cake plates, dishes, an antique chair and frosted cakes. The dripping pink frosting is about to hit her nose, but the woman looks serenely unconcerned.

"Things get messy and it’s sort of how you deal with the mess," she said. "I imagine the woman would just wipe the frosting off her nose and go on."

In another piece ironically titled "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go," Corby painted onto a floral napkin a woman clothed only in underwear and surrounded by a plush red armchair on her upper body. Shouldering domesticity, she looks longingly at two birds, adorned with glitter, the only creatures that truly are dressed up.

"You become weighed down by the things you own and take care of," she said. "The birds are this wistful place."

In "Pretending to Know," a woman’s pensive profile is surrounded by a patchwork collar and a strand of pearls seems to fly out from her neck toward one of the pieces.  The collar actually is a copy of a quilt piece she collected, and it seems to represent the many choices women face.

"I don’t always know what I’m going to put on the material," she said. "The images sort of appear to me. This title references how you put on an air of knowing you’ve made the right choices and sometime you get yanked in a different direction and get surprised."

For now, Corby is not expecting any surprises, though she is particularly busy. She and her family are moving to Plymouth, and she is preparing art for a solo show at Bridgewater State College in September.