A Life Lived

Legendary UA art prof, painter Bailey Doogan takes a look back

Bailey Doogan was teaching in North Carolina on the day in early 2003 that U.S. fighter jets started raining bombs on Baghdad.

After weeks of dreading the invasion, she was so upset that she almost got into an accident on the way to work.

"I went through a red light," she remembers. "Then at work, I moved a ladder with a hammer on it, and it hit me on the head. I said to myself, 'Calm down.'"

Once she did, she diverted her fury into a giant piece of art. But it has none of the earmarks of conventional anti-war art. Instead, Doogan made four monumental charcoal drawings of her own naked body.

Now on view at Tucson's Etherton Gallery as part of a major two-part Doogan exhibition that's also at the Tucson Museum of Art, "Exam in Nation" towers 6 feet tall. The body in each picture is luminous, a white, rounded form emerging from the darkness into the light. But the woman's face is hidden by a tangle of hair, because she's bending down to examine her various body parts, first her foot, then her hip, then her thigh, then her breast.

The woman's self-examination is meant to urge the nation into thoughtful reflection about the war.

"We're not looking at what's going on," Doogan says. "That's what that drawing came from."

The war criticism may not be immediately apparent in the big piece, but the human body has been a battleground in Doogan's art for years. Since at least the early '90s, the now 64-year-old artist has been making confrontational, larger-than-life-size paintings and drawings of human bodies. They're usually women--but not always--and they're defiantly realistic.

Her naked figures picture every imperfection of the human flesh, every wrinkle, every sag, every crevice, every bump, recording the journey of the body from youth to middle age to old age and beyond. "Exam in Nation" is also a literal depiction of an aging woman anxiously examining her own body for signs of deterioration. Figures like these turn their backs on art history, defying a tradition of the beautiful Nude--with a capital N--that dates back at least to the ancient Greeks.

"There are very few artists who have not portrayed the body as ideal," Doogan says, listing Rembrandt, Thomas Eakins, Lucian Freud and Alice Neel among the rebels.

And hardly any painters have depicted the taboo terrain of the bodies of older women. "I deal with the real body," Doogan says. "Our bodies are diaries of our experience. Whatever happens to us is recorded there: wrinkles, scars, the way we stand. That specificity fascinates me. I think it's beautiful."

Not everyone agrees. Some viewers are repulsed by Doogan's forthright images of aging female flesh, and her work has provoked angry reactions. A curator once furiously ripped a painting from the wall; a museum director who planned to buy a painting had to return it to Doogan after his board, aghast, had a look-see. Other venues have promised shows, and then backtracked, scared off by the no-holds-barred nudity.

"We're taught from when we were young to be ashamed of our body," Doogan offers by way of explanation. "And our culture is terrified of not being tall, thin and young. People want to see the ideal nude."

Still, Doogan, a longtime UA art professor who retired early in 1999, has had her share of acclaim, particularly at edgier venues like the Alternative Museum in New York and among feminist artists. In her adopted hometown, she won the Arizona Arts Award, a $25,000 prize, from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona in 1996. In 1998, the University of Arizona gave her a one-person show of her startling charcoal figures, an exhibition that was hands-down best of the year in Tucson. And she has exhibited regularly over the years at Etherton and before that at Dinnerware. The current double exhibition, complete with full-color catalog and essays by leading feminist critics, marks a crowning recognition in her adopted hometown.

"She's one of the best artists around, right here in Tucson," says gallerist Terry Etherton.

Neither the gallery nor the museum shied away from Doogan's most provocative work: They display everything from a 1978 drawing of Minnie Mouse doing a strip tease to "Assman," an ironic 1996-97 charcoal of a naked guy with his butt in the air.

Doogan makes no apologies for her subject matter.

"People say, 'It's grotesque. It's difficult.' But it's us."

Born Margaret Mary Bailey in Philadelphia in 1941, the artist was Peggy Bailey growing up. When she married, briefly, years later in Tucson, she added her husband's last name, and went by Margaret Bailey Doogan. But she found the triple appellation unwieldy, and she eventually sliced off Margaret to create an art name and alter ego.

"When I became Bailey Doogan, I found that Bailey Doogan was this person over there," she explains, adding that friends still call her Peggy. "She does all these things--and I can sit back and watch her."

If her name is complicated, so are the inspirations for her art. She likes any art in which she can "feel the hand of the artist," and admires Rembrandt, Eva Hesse and Paul Morrison Becker. She prefers the austere artists of the northern Renaissance--Van Eyck, Dürer--to the lavish Michelangelos and Bellinis of the southern.

"In the southern Renaissance, the painters made beautiful, icon-like work, but in the northern Renaissance, things are articulated in a particular way--people don't feel contained. They've been through something."

Doogan pinpoints three real-life influences on her art, for good or ill: the Catholic Church in which she was raised; the advertising biz, where she worked as a young woman; and feminism, which transformed her.

She grew up in an intensely Catholic world.

"The major events in my childhood ... read like a list of holy days," she told Julie Sasse, the TMA curator who put together the museum show and wrote a biographical Q&A in the catalogue. She was born in Philadelphia's Misericordia (Mercy) Hospital, baptized at Our Lady of Lourdes Church and educated at Holy Cross and St. Anastasia elementary schools and West Catholic High School for Girls. "I didn't know there were non-Catholics in the world until we moved to the 'burbs in 1950."

Her family was working-class--her father was a milkman who supported his wife and three kids by getting up for work at 2 a.m.--with even poorer roots. Her mother, oddly named William Mary Rowe to please a rich Uncle William, grew up in a "dirt-poor" farming family in Virginia. (Like her daughter, Rowe had a series of ephemeral names, shifting from Willie Rowe to Billie Bailey to Mary Bailey.) Doogan's father, Edward William Bailey, was Philadelphia Irish, a son of the sturdy Rose Murphy Bailey and a ne'er do well "alkie" named Joe Bailey.

Rose, Doogan's beloved "Nana," was an early model of an independent woman.

"She's the one I felt closest to. She was at least 6 feet tall. She was pure Irish."

The strong-minded Rose grew up among miners and farmers in Mahanoy City, in the coal country of upstate Pennsylvania. "When she was still in her teens, she said, 'Enough of this,' and moved to Philadelphia, a country girl with no education," Doogan says. Once she married Joe Bailey, she had four sons, "boom boom boom boom." They got an Irish divorce--"he went out one morning and never came back."

Rose took on a job as a waitress and didn't stop working until she was 75. She wore a black uniform with a little lace cap, a twin image of female fortitude and oppression that has shown up in more than one of her granddaughter's artworks, including the etching "Secrete" at Etherton.

"She was incredibly Catholic; she went to Mass. Yet there was a bluntness about her. I remember her saying, 'Peggy, don't ever get married.'"

At school, in the post-war suburb of Newtown Square, Peggy was not yet thinking about marital troubles. She had enough troubles of a different kind. She literally never talked in class, but she found a kind of salvation in reading and art. She drew nonstop, and her religious milieu became part of her aesthetic sensibility.

"When I was young and in church, it was beautiful: the colors, the flowers, the windows," she says. And even today, some 45 years after giving up on Catholicism, "The light in my work is celestial."

Though she imbibed the usual Catholic lessons about the dangers of the flesh, she also absorbed the ideas about the sanctity of the human body, the "temple of the Holy Spirit," as Catholic schoolchildren call it. The central lesson of Christianity is that God became man to redeem humankind, and medieval and Renaissance painters drove this point home by "celebrating the physicality of Christ," Doogan notes.

In their paintings, the Word is literally made flesh. They lovingly pictured the Baby Jesus nursing, painted his baby penis and detailed the sacrificial wounds in his tormented adult flesh.

"The body is more corporeal and more beautiful than anything else," Doogan says. "The human body is beautiful and should be celebrated. ... That's what I grew up with."

"Mea Corpa," a powerful 1992 oil painting on linen on view at the TMA, usurps the Catholic image of the risen Christ and replaces him with a naked woman. The model, a Doogan friend who later got muscular dystrophy, gazes out boldly, her feet planted firmly on the ground, and spreads her arms and hands as though she's about to dispense Christ-like grace. This woman is glorious in her flesh; her muscles and veins are visible beneath her nearly transparent skin, painted in a series of thin, luminous layers.

Even the title upends the Catholic penitential prayer "mea culpa"--Latin for "my fault"--and replaces it with a feminized version of "corpus meus," my body. Woman's triumphant body supplants guilt. Curator Sasse considers it the best work in the TMA show.

"It's beautifully painted," she says. "It says so much about the human spirit."

Doogan picked up the Latin that flavors her early '90s work in high school. She traveled seven miles each day by bus, and then another mile or two by train into the city, to a free Catholic high school incongruously located around the corner from the American Bandstand studios.

But Doogan wasn't one of the "tough girls" who danced on the show. She was busy translating the Aeneid from the Latin and reading the rather racy Latin poems of Ovid in the original. And she was immersing herself in art.

"Some of the best teachers I had were nuns," she remembers. "They were either great or terrible." Mother Margaret Alacoque was one of the good ones, a "great art teacher ... temperamentally passionate." And she encouraged young Peggy to go to art school.

No one in the family had gone to college before, and Doogan's parents thought a girl like her would make a fine secretary. But with her teacher's and her mother's support, she won a scholarship to Moore College of Art, a women's school in Philadelphia. The college offered an excellent education in drawing and painting, including the traditional year of drawing plaster casts, but mindful of her need to make a living, she majored in illustration.

Still, Doogan says wonderingly, "When I was in art school, there were no women in the history of art. None." No matter that painter Alice Neel was among the alums. "I studied art history for four years and I didn't know there were any women artists."

A couple of years later, as a 20-something head designer at a New York advertising firm, Doogan had the chance to learn about the corresponding sexism of Madison Avenue. For a redesign of the classic Morton salt box, she sketched dozens of little girls with umbrellas. But the gentlemen of Morton's board shot down every one, decrying them variously as "too easy" or "too smarty pants," or claiming that one "looks like a dyke" while another showed "not enough leg."

The trick, Doogan learned, was to draw a little girl who looked innocent, but who radiated sexuality. "Pour It On," a 1998 pastel on linen at the TMA, is an ironic parody of the salt men's mentality. The "logo girl" in the artwork still carries the trademark umbrella, but she's a grown-up woman, a half-dressed bodybuilder who provocatively uncovers the not-so-subliminal sexual subtext of the salt box.

"It didn't take me long to realize how deceitful and manipulative advertising was," Doogan says. "The Catholic Church and advertising both taught me about the power of image and language. Both play on people's fears and insecurities, and both are masters at what they do."

Still, Doogan thrived in the creative atmosphere, working under Ed DeMartin, "a brilliant designer." (Nearly all the significant men in Doogan's life, from her father and her brother to her brother-in-law, nephews and ex-husband, have been named Ed.) And she drank in the art in New York City, relishing the Roman busts drenched in light at the Metropolitan Museum of Art uptown and the minimalist art downtown.

During her six years in the ad biz, she won a slew of design awards, but she began to long for more significant work. Then she discovered that the men working below her were earning more money. The contrite DeMartin offered her a raise, but she quit anyway. "I could only do it so long."

Doogan had been to Europe, but she'd never been west of Pennsylvania, and she began to cast an eye on the wide-open spaces of the West. She had only a bachelor's degree, but armed with multiple awards, she applied for university teaching jobs in graphic design and illustration.

"I foolishly picked up a map and picked schools in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico."

It was 1969, and the UA art department had an all-male faculty. She got an inkling of troubles to come when, sight unseen, the department head called to offer her a job.

"We didn't want to hire you," she remembers he told her, "but we had to because you were the most qualified. We thought you would cause social problems."

Once she arrived in Tucson, after a cross-country road trip with a couple of girlfriends, "I felt like I had landed in a time warp." She had never before experienced the men's club atmosphere she found at the UA.

"I had been taught by women, in Catholic school and at Moore, and I had been in New York and out in the world," where women and men worked side by side, she says.

She loved her students and threw herself into her teaching, working on her own fine art in the meantime. She moved away from illustration and into painting and drawing, and began exhibiting seriously. UA art professor Charles Littler invited her to live at Rancho Linda Vista, the artist's community he had helped found in Oracle, and her daughter Moira, born in 1970, joined the ragtag kids roaming the ranch. "I called them the pack."

Doogan acknowledges being "outspoken" around the art department, but she was shocked when she was denied tenure in her sixth year of teaching. Littler and painter Doug Denniston, now both dead, supported her case, she says, but the other men voted against her.

"The department head called me out of class to tell me, and then I had to go back and teach." Doogan was devastated, but she filed an appeal to save her job. "I loved teaching, I loved Tucson, and I loved the land."

Dean Ed McCullough--another Ed--investigated by questioning the art professors separately about why Doogan's tenure had been denied, she says. He found that each prof gave a different reason--a no-no--and that the department had not been clear on its tenure guidelines. He ordered another vote, and this time, Doogan's colleagues voted unanimously in favor.

She was advised to bolster her credentials, so she spent her sabbatical year at UCLA, working on a master's degree, in animation. Her master's project, the film Screw: A Technical Love Poem, is playing at the TMA exhibition.

Looking back, she says, besides old-fashioned sexism, the professors were intimidated by feminist artists and other upstarts who were challenging the old art hierarchies.

"They had provincial ideas about art; they valued only painting on canvas and sculpture," she says. "Then the feminists came along. They said, `You can do work that's personal and narrative, in non-traditional materials.' Post-modernism came partly out of that. Art changed and became much more interesting."

Women were suddenly championing the long-scorned female domestic genres on art's bottom rung. Miriam Shapiro began making art quilts, and Judy Chicago started painting on ceramic. In concert with other art rebels, feminist artists helped spur the switch to the anything-goes materials of contemporary art.

"With feminism, doors opened up to a different perspective," as curator Sasse puts it. "It allowed art to come from a female place."

Doogan luxuriated in the new materials, mixing up collage, half-tone transfers and blueprints. She reveled just as much in oils, making thick, expressionist paintings of women's faces and, eventually, a wild series about Punch and Judy, in paint and in shadow box.

Text and image merged in many of her works in the late '80s, including the groundbreaking "RIB," a triple portrait of her naked body in a media mix of charcoal, aluminum dust, dry pigment and collage on primed paper. Above the three women, the letters RIB are painted in red, emerging from the spelled-out words Angry Aging Bitch. The epithet had been directed at her by a student; Doogan was angry at first, but she ended up using the insult to look at the way that "language labels a person" and distorts the truth.

She evolved a whole new way of drawing with charcoal that she still uses. She covers sheets of paper with many layers of gesso, and rubs charcoal all over the gesso. Then she takes sandpaper to "draw" into the charcoal and sand it away, roughly pulling the light out of the darkness.

In the backyard studio of the modest West University bungalow where she's lived for years, a full-length mirror stands at the ready for self-portraits. Doogan did not inherit her grandmother's stature, and her slight frame is transformed via that mirror into the powerful bodies of her giant charcoals. But her worsening vision has begun to change her art.

Plagued by near-sightedness since childhood, she switched from glasses to contact lenses as a young woman and enjoyed perfect vision for years. Then in her late 40s, she had a detached retina, but the laser surgery that repaired the retina had a disastrous consequence: It helped trigger cataracts. Now she's dealing with glaucoma.

"The diminished acuity has caused my work to be more felt," she says. "I feel as through I'm crawling over the surface of the body and seeing through it." She "feels" instead of "sees" the muscles and ligaments below the nearly transparent skin of her figures.

Lately she's been concentrating on smaller works, richly colored oils depicting her assorted body parts, a close-up of the veins in her breasts and another of the lines creasing her face.

"Art is a life lived, it's a process," she says. "Obviously the body is, too."

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