Tween drama played out on local artist’s canvas

By Rebecca Pace

Typically, artists portray young girls as angelic, doll-faced angels. But Sarah Hatton isn’t your typical artist and the girls she paints aren’t exactly examples of model behaviour.

In her new Role Models exhibit at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery, Hatton explores the different types of behaviours girls display toward one another.

With titles like The Clique – You Don’t Know Me and The Clique – Too Good For You, Hatton uses powerful brush strokes and subdued colours to present some of the harsh realities of growing up as a girl in today’s society.

“It’s about being tight one minute and then complete enemies the next,” she says.

The oil and acrylic-based paintings are portraits of what Hatton describes as the “tween” generation – girls aged eight to 12. Using real-life photos and images from the internet, the paintings look eerily similar to what Hatton describes as “mall photo booth snapshots.”

Hatton also uses splashes of “candy-like” colours to express some of the girls’ personalities. For example, in Bubblegum, she uses hot pink not only to represent every young girl’s predisposition to the colour but also to reflect the spunky girl that “everyone wanted to be friends with.” Each piece is also covered in resin as Hatton says children are usually drawn to all things shiny and whimsical.

Painted on wood, Hatton carved several paintings with popular text messages that the “tween” generation uses over instant messaging services like MSN Messenger. For example, in The Clique – LOL, a portrait of a girl “laughing out loud,” Hatton engraved the trendy shorthand “LOL.” She says the messages represent a tongue and cheek view of young girls’ fleeting relationships.

Julie Dupont, cultural planner for the City of Ottawa’s public art program, says the judges, who select the exhibits to be displayed at the gallery, chose Hatton’s work not only because it was strong artistically but also because the work had a current message. “It’s timely,” she says. “When you look at the carvings – the msn lingo – it’s what kids are doing these days.”

Don Wallace, a sociologist and one of Hatton’s coworkers at Library Archives Canada, says her paintings are more than good works of art as they represent an unconventional view of children.

“Consider the classical department store portraits where children are stylized to convey a sense of control and order,” says Wallace. “Sarah’s paintings do the opposite; they represent themes of anger, jealousy, and competition.”

Wallace says Role Models also represents a current theme of mixed messages society is sending to today’s young girls. “We have parents shielding their children from responsibility in an attempt to let their children be children,” he says. “But at the same time, we have an aggressive fashion industry which is trying to over sexualize our children.”

In her painting entitled Kiss, Hatton expresses the pressure of young girls to act more grown up or adult-like.

“Her eyes and face are that of a child, yet her stance and gesture of blowing a kiss resemble that of an adult,” says Hatton of the girl in the painting. “It’s meant to unsettle the viewer.”

She says this pressure on the new “tween” generation is a result of targeted consumer marketing and hopes her work will draw attention to the growing problem.

“Girls at this age are extremely impressionable,” she says. “And I really think we need to start thinking about what we’re exposing them to.”

But not all the Role Models paintings reflect “negative” imagery of growing up as a girl. For example, the works entitled BFF1 and BFF2, which picture two young girls hugging, demonstrate the positives of having a “BFF or best friend forever.”

And reaction to the young, budding artist has been positive, says Dale Smith, owner of the gallery which represents Hatton.

“When you’re first starting out, you need to have determination and the ability to work hard,” she says. “Sarah has these qualities. She’s intelligent, has a vision, and is quickly building a list of collectors who want her work.”

Dupont agrees. She says reaction to the show has been overwhelmingly positive based on the comments she reads in the guest book.

For Hatton, the craziness of her Oct. 5 opening night and seeing people of all age groups visit the exhibit makes it all worth it.

“Overall, I hope people leave the show and gain a respect for children as people,” says Hatton. “They experience a wide range of emotions and I don’t think we see art which shows them as complex beings often enough.”

The exhibit is open daily from 9a.m. until 6p.m. and runs until Nov. 19. Admission is free. The paintings will then be displayed for sale at the Dale Smith Gallery.