When we hear the word “nudes,” we expect to see young bodies – the smooth, taut ones that painters usually paint and photographers photograph. Aleah Chapin, an award-winning artist who is quickly making her mark on the art world, paints a different type of nude: She makes huge, hyperreal paintings of older women’s bodies with all their wrinkles, sagging skin, cellulite, scars and grey hair.
In her series of oil paintings called the Aunties Project, for which she won Britain’s prestigious BP Portrait Award, Chapin captures her models’ aging bodies – and much more: joy, caring, support, humor and a “take me as I am” attitude.
We asked Chapin a few questions about her work; she responded via email from her home in Brooklyn, New York.
How did you, a young woman in her 20s, became interested in depicting older women’s bodies?
I’ve been obsessed with realism since I was a child. But I noticed that the subject has mainly been the idealized young, female nude. Although these paintings are undoubtedly beautiful, I wanted to see something that mirrored the world I saw around me. The Aunties Project is less about age and more about making paintings that fully embrace the real human body, this fascinating vessel that carries us through our experiences.
Is “Auntie” really your aunt?
My mom is the only woman I have painted who I am actually related to. The woman in the painting called “Auntie” was in the room when I was born and is one of many who call themselves the “Aunties.” This name refers to the fact that although we are not actually related, I grew up in a community of people who feel like family.
I chose to paint the Aunties, a group of women most of whom I’ve known my entire life, because they are people that I care about. I realized that the only work I could make with any honesty would come from my own life, and these women exemplify a certain outlook on the world that I was raised to have.
They seem so natural posing nude. Do they spend other time naked outdoors or was this just for you?
People have often asked me if I grew up in a nudest colony – which of course, I don’t blame them for thinking! But no, these women are not naked together very often. I asked them to pose and amazingly, they said yes. We’ve had several sessions where I get a group of them together outside and we take photos. It’s very much of a collaborative experience. I want to capture their reactions in the moment to me, each other and their surroundings. Life gives us an infinite outpouring of subtle emotions, physical manifestations of thought and experience that range from intense and dark, to hilarious and childlike. I want to make work that digs into all of this and everything in between.
These women look very comfortable in their own skin. Do you think they are unusual in that regard?
Yes, I think it is unusual. But as strong and confident as they are, they still have their own insecurities; they’re human. I think that they’re just more okay with everything that comes along with it, the good and not so good, and are comfortable acknowledging this fact.
We sense camaraderie and support among the ladies. Can you tell us more about them?
Most of them have known each other for 30 or more years. They are artists, nurses, dancers, mothers, grandmothers, business owners, therapists, writers, healers, funeral home directors, wives, activists and preschool teachers. My friend Eliza, in blogging about them, writes that they “have shaped history, raised children, explored the outer edges of consciousness and washed the dishes, and they are not finished yet!”
Our society overall has a cultural blind spot for older peoples’ bodies. What has been the response to the Aunties Project?
Hearing people’s reactions has been one of the most gratifying aspects of creating this body of work. I originally started the project for very personal reasons, having no idea what people would say and being really nervous to put the work out there. Surprisingly, people from all generations, sexes and nationalities react in the same way. It seems the paintings speak to a shared humanness that ignores our differences. This is nothing new. In fact, what it is to be human, to search for what unifies us as a species, is probably the most ancient idea. I think we’ve ignored this for a while, but it’s coming back because we desperately need it to.
How has working closely with the Aunties Project shaped your perceptions of aging?
I was raised by these women, so I don’t think anything has actually changed, I’ve just become more conscious of it. I’ve always had great examples to show me that getting older doesn’t have to stop you from anything and is definitely nothing to be scared of. I can only hope that this feeling will last the rest of my life and that I can pass it along to my children.
Are there more exhibitions scheduled? Do you have any other plans for the Aunties Project?
Yes, I do! I’m currently working on a solo show for fall 2014 at Flowers Gallery on Cork St. in London [a street of London’s top-tier galleries]. The Aunties Project is something I think I will always continue. It had a beginning, but I don’t see it having an end. I’ve begun to paint the younger generation, the daughters and grandchildren, but I think I will always paint the Aunties, too. My intention is to explore through paint, and the people who enter my life, the spectrum of the human experience.
What do you think about the Aunties Project? Please comment below.
Click here to see the more of the Aunties Project.
Click here to read more about the Aunties on the Wildly Ordinary blog.
These are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing your work.
Such work is a revelation to me. I learnt something new about human-ness…about just how naturally human we all are after all. The artist and these aunties have taught me that life isn’t so bad after all … thank you for a great job – bravo to the artist.
This is a wonderful project. The art is beautiful and the women are amazing. Thank you for the article. Thank you, Aleah Chapin for your talent and your vision.
Thank you for bravely posing. Thank you for capturing beauty at this age. I’m turning 56 in a few days. We are all aging
I’m so happy that the media has started to show more variety of colour, shapes and sizes in the media. I like natural beauty. You’re aunties are so beautiful!
I absolutely loved this page. Thanks so very much.
These paintings so inspire me…as an artist who hasn`t painted in years, I love seeing the beauty & comfort in your work. Having had breast cancer, I still have a difficult time looking at myself in the mirror. Thank you for helping me accept my body. If you need another “Auntie”, please contact me! I would be proud to see myself in a painting. Thank you so much.
As a woman of nearly 63, I want to thank you for seeing the” true” woman in each of us through your art. We are so often tossed aside after the bloom of youth has left us ,especially in regards to our bodies; yet we feel the same in our minds as we did as when we were young. Your art reflects this so well. I especially loved the one of the woman on the rock. It says “I AM WOMAN,HEAR ME ROAR’ . I have a lifetime of experience, strength and wisdom. I AM BEAUTIFUL.” Age and time can not take this away from any of us; it can never take the heart and soul of our womanhood, of who we are as sisters. We are the daughters of Eve and who can doubt she had to have been the most beautiful woman that ever lived? So I say to all older woman out there, remember who we are and be proud.
Splendid shapes. The real thing for a change. This is art and what real life’s about. Sadly we are bombarded with male perception of women every day in pictures. Can we have more of others like this please.
I think it’s beautiful. You have done an amazing job of capturing all the emotion going on behind the eyes. Yes, you can still see the little girl there. I am 58 and have been thru breast cancer.( And I thank you.)
I’m 74 and have had a partial foot amputation, breast cancer, kidney cancer, have been divorced, remarried, and have lost the gorgeous shape I had without even trying when younger. I’m saying my body certainly is older and unusual looking, but it is the result of my history and age. I am proud of it. I love the artist’s use of soft, subtle colors. I totally love seeing the beautiful aging face closeups as well as the positive moods that are so obvious in all the paintings. Just love that someone took the time to portray real women.
What a talented, TALENTED artist and what brave and beautifully spirited women that she painted. I am in a state of awe.
Excellent to affirm that Aunties are everywhere. The Aunties in our community could probably find some nudes with each other in their early days together and during the childbearing years! Yeah to communities that raise the kids!
My first reaction was “Oh, my God!” My delayed reaction was that I have rarely seen anything this amazing on the ‘net. I LOVE this!
I am 71 years old, male, and still occasionally work as a life model. If you want to paint some “uncles,” just let me know!
I absolutely adore the realism, joy and naturalness (?) of your paintings. I wonder if you take commissions, or do you need a new model ‘auntie’?
I am 52 and have multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. As treatment, I have had a stem cell transplant, which has caused graft versus host disease [GvHD] in various parts of my body. Most specifically I have something called sclerodermatous GvHD, which means my muscles, tendons and skin (underneath, not surface) are hardening, stiffening, losing mobility and flexibility. It also means the shape of my torso and limbs has changed.
Seeing your work has inspired me to want to be painted in my new form. Please let me know if this is something you might consider.
My brother lives in Brooklyn so it would be easy/possible for me to come to you or meet somewhere locally.
If you’d like to discuss this further, please email me.
And if not, I still love your work. :)
So beautiful and inspiring
Awesome.wish I could feel like that about my body.
Michelle, you can be as comfortable with your own body– as soon as you as you stop seeing yourself through the eyes of others. You should never accept the vision of yourself as a reflection of other peoples perspective of you in a mirror. You are unique in this world and you should view yourself this way. See your beautiful creamy/ ebony skin. See the highlights in your hair. See the beautiful person inside yourself and you will soon see a new, wonderful vision of yourself. After all beauty is an illusion. Attitude is a woman’s gift to herself.
I absolutely love this work. It is so very touching, it made me cry. Speaking as a 59 year old woman, one can feel invisible after a certain age. The warmth, humour and friendship that emanates from these paintings is truly magical. What a brilliant and insightful artist.
I am curious about the choice of ‘poses’. I recently read a couple of articles regarding differences that poses (and lighting) make.
Here is a link to what I mean – https://seniorplanet.org//beautifuldecay.com/2013/12/04/nude-bodies-transform-flattering-unflattering-slight-shift-pose-nsfw/
Your paintings are precious. The look like photographs. Thank you for painting real women, not airbrushed models.
I hope my words convey the uplifting feeling I have looking at these images, the faces, the bodies, the expressions. It is a sense of wholeness, wholesomeness and holiness that arises in me. I feel filled with a joy that causes tears to overflow my eyes. I recall the bodies of my late mother and her mother, bodies I saw daily and interacted with as I grew up. I miss the feeling of home that being around such women imparts to me. Thank you so very much for the gifts.
Thank you! Glorious images that make me want to play. Yesterday I looked down at my body and thought, “well, I guess I’m just junk now”. I don’t feel that way anymore.
I LOVE THIS!
Fantastisk og gribende.
WOW…So happy for this nude paintings of women, with used bodies who tells stories about a long life.
I love these paintings and I hope it will inspire more artists to paint, photograph and do sculptures of older people naked. Why should people think that it’s ok to have a painting of a young naked body, but not an old one? People need to see nature, in all its forms and stages, it must not be hidden, or it gets more and more taboo. And there is beauty in everything, if we look, and these paintings really do help us see that. I want to take my son to this exhibition, he’s only 6 years’ old, but I’m bringing him up to be comfortable with all stages of life, with life and death, and to be well acquainted with nature and with people of all generations. I don’t want him to become one of those ignorant young adults who laughs at old people, or looks at them with disdain.
Wow…. absolutely PHENOMENAL…. I was very moved by the artist’s intimate feeling she portrayed.. and so glad I was able to see this. Thank you..
bravo! love it.
These pictures show that OLD is a state of mind not a number(Age)..
This is amazing – I hope we have an opportunity to see this artist in the US. We are so obsessed with youth as everyone knows. Women of experienced years get it, we know what is important and how quickly it can be taken away. Thank you for sharing this, they are so beautiful.
I love them. I feel more comfortable in my own skin just seeing these portraits. Thank you
Extraordinary, masterful, and heart driven. More please!
They are beautiful and courageous women. Love it.
This is so beautiful!
It is positive and uplifting and happy.
So many wonderful things happen as humans age but we are often blinded by the physical beauty as youth. But, that is all we are ever exposed to. We are told that ONLY youth is beautiful. We all change. We all age. Let’s embrace it, see it, understand it, appreciate it, love it. It is us.
This is great…I would love to be involved…
I think it is a beautiful rendition and homage to woman in her crone years.
The ‘Aunties’ are beautiful. I want to share with you, I am an Auntie too. I am 75 years old. Today I was using a magnifying glass to pluck a few wild hairs. As I did so, I noticed the up close reality of me, my skin condition, etc. You see, since our eyes are often not seeing as well as they used to, we don’t see ourselves (in the mirror, on a daily basis) as we are, but through the haze of blurred vision. It makes me appear a lot younger, in the mirror, than I actually am – and a lot younger than others (with better eye sight) see me. God is good, it’s all good. lol
I LOVE the Aunties project. I loved seeing all of these women in their power, It made me smile and recognise the angel in each one. I could still see the “little girl” in them. Innocence and wisdom all wrapped up in who they are. What a wonderful project.! hugs and love
I love that you see the ‘little girl’ in them. My grandmother would say that when she looked in the mirror she saw herself a young girl. I like to say that my four year old comes out to play!
@momschmidt, read our interview with Lynne Segal, “All the Selves We Have Been” – Segal, a psychologist, has a new book out in which she talks about how we experience our younger selves along with our older older selves as we age.
A very inspirational and reassuring article!!
So true, raw, awe inspiring, and beautiful! I’ve been on Earth 48 years and when someone asks me how old I am, i reply “ageless”. Not because I am ashamed of my years, but because I dont define myself by them. My face is youthful, my body not so much anymore :). Two babies, weight gain and loss, and the years have sagged much of it! These photos model for me what is still yet to come and the loving embracing of it! Thank you to the strong women in the photos and the artist :)
Refreshing and interesting images! The fleeting perfection of youth is beautiful, sure. But so is the fleeting beauty of the rest of life as well. Besides, doesn’t the image of the ever-so-sought-after “flawless” body get a little boring after the twenty billionth time? Yawn.
Interesting work. There is a lot of Hanneline Rogeberg here.
Thank you. Very beauty-full. I hope you might consider painting old women of diverse racial backgrounds. There are “Aunties” in many communities.
This is beautiful. It injects you with reality and destroys your illusions all the while letting you know, it’s gonna be cool!
Sorry, Opt Me Out of this site ASAP. Did not know it was a porn site..thought it was for computer know-how. I do not want to look at naked people old or young. Quickly, where do I ‘Opt Out?…help, Help, HELP!
Help Help Help…..you certainly do need some help if you think this is a Porn site
Oh please, this is so not porn. Nude does not automatically equal porn. Beautiful paintings of nudes have thankfully been a part of art throughout history, and these are absolutely beautiful! Honest and joyful and beautiful!
To opt out, just don’t come back. How did you get here in the first place? Whatever you clicked on, don’t click on it again. This is art, and certainly not pornography. It’s sad to me that you see it as such, but since you do, I bid you farewell!
What have this pictures to do with Porn??? Hey, we’re born naked! And a naked body have nothing to do with Porn. Thats just a very repressed way to look at this.
I find these photographs tasteful and beautiful. Porn is the last thought that comes to mind. There is nothing shameful about nudity at any age, as long as the body is not being exploited.
Help, Help, Help, What a boring,sheltered, unenlightened life you must live…..Beautiful Art!…Beautiful People!
i think this work is beautiful!!!
however, im also curious about the desire to depict them naked? What does it say about their age vs. them being clothed? i ask this, because a lot of times we consider the nude body as the ultimate evidence of self confidence. but is it?
either way, i love these paintings. hope to see more. :)
I’m going to show all my dinner guests this work and read them your comment…should keep the ball rolling quite a while !
I think being nude depicts us at our most vulnerable. Clothing would be a form of hiding, not just physically, but emotionally. That’s what makes these images so powerful. Women completely vulnerable, bold, loving, beautiful. powerful, and totally alive! Thank you so much for leading us into our power, showing us who we can be. Who we are!
The beauty of art,I think that it’s lovely.
I think this is fabulous. It depicts women who have grown wise enough to be comfortable in their own skin. How refreshing.
Oh I like this very much! I hope this show comes to the U.S.A.!
Many of these paintings were shown in the USA last February, at the New York branch of the Flowers Gallery. They were listed in Senior Planet’s weekly events calendar (https://seniorplanet.org/explore-nyc/event-details/?eID=234&mID=02&dID=07&yID=2013), whose mission is to keep the senior community up to date on NYC’s most interesting cultural happenings. Stay tuned.
I absolutely love it. Hope to see more.