PICTURED: Profile photo of Kristine Schomaker. Photo courtesy of Kristine Schomaker 

by Kathryn Stelmach Artuso

Some women find their identity by pressing against glass ceilings, others by pressing against glass doors . . . and pressing hard enough to open a portal that expands our vision and understanding of the human form. 

Kristine Schomaker’s nude silhouettes against frosted glass doors serve as a figurative entry into her curated exhibition, Perceive Me, which is currently on display at Studio Channel Islands in Camarillo through Sept. 25.

Raising questions about what we obscure and what we reveal when we create a public versus a private identity, Schomaker decided the time had come to strip away exterior trappings and lay bare her most authentic self.

Having struggled with her weight and with an eating disorder, Schomaker had grown weary of being judged by others and decided to reclaim her self-perception in her journey towards self-acceptance. When she invited 60 artists to collaborate by creating nude portraits of herself, they responded enthusiastically, with artwork ranging from paintings, drawings and photographs to sculptures, video and 3D printing. 

“My journey is about learning to love my body,” she said, but it’s also “about building community among artists . . . Even though it’s about me and my body image, it’s also about every single one of those artists who came together in this community that I created.”

Kate Kelton, “The Celestial Orbit of Kristine Schomaker” Image courtesy Studio Channel Islands

In comparison, the local community in Camarillo who has come to view the artwork has reacted to the exhibition in a variety of ways. “I’ve never heard so many people come into the gallery and just make some sort of vocal exclamation of surprise,” said Peter Tyas, executive director of Studio Channel Islands. “Everybody who has come in, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of having an arts education . . . is surprised by how they react. And that’s the mark of a great exhibition.”

Tyas notes that the exhibition is “intentionally provocative” and “daring” because it “celebrates the bravery of standing naked in front of somebody, and the bravery of accepting your own body, and presenting your own body for others to accept.” 

He adds that he is fascinated by how viewers are “confronted by this exhibition. And it says a huge amount about who you are, and what your view of the human figure is, in how you respond. So some people come in, and they are just delighted, and they laugh, and they see the humor, and they see the fun. And they see the bravery of the idea. Other people come in, and they’re profoundly uncomfortable. And they have to work through why this is making them uncomfortable.”

The exuberant vitality of Schomaker’s personality shines through, particularly in the giant sculpture at the entrance and in playful pastiches of Rubens and Botticelli, which engage viewers with the changing face of beauty over the centuries, defamiliarizing their vision and helping them see the original artworks anew. The voluptuous, luxurious flesh of a Rubens model sparks a reminder that not so long ago American culture privileged the full figures of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. 

As a part of the body positivity movement that encourages acceptance of all shapes and sizes, Schomaker’s exhibition arrives at an auspicious moment, when plus-size models now appear in Victoria’s Secret catalogs and celebrities like Lizzo grace the stage.

Jesse Standlea, “Stretch, Weight, Relaxed, Proud, Twisted.” Image courtesy Studio Channel Islands

Coming to terms with self-acceptance has been an arduous journey for Schomaker, who works as a painter as well as a curator and artist manager. While completing her Master’s in Art and Art History at California State University Northridge, Schomaker created a social media avatar on Second Life Virtual World, which freed her from her actual physical form in order to emphasize her personality instead. In contrast, the current exhibition seeks to showcase the interaction of her flesh and spirit, form and personality. 

Such freedom and courage also inspired her to shave her head a few years ago. “It was the most freeing thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I don’t want to be defined by my physical attributes. I don’t want to be defined by my hair. I don’t want to be defined by being fat . . . And so I swore that I wouldn’t grow my hair out until things change.”

Schomaker doubts she will witness such a change in her lifetime, but the audience at her exhibition is already witnessing such change in action.

Perceive Me on exhibit through Sept. 25 at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 E. Ventura Blvd., Camarillo. Quest for Beauty screening and discussion with director Cris Saur on Friday, Sept. 3, at 7:30 p.m. Making/Giving Panel Discussion with Daggi Wallace, Nurit Avesar and Janet Milhomme on Saturday, Sept. 18, at 1 p.m. For full schedule of events and more information, call 805-383-1368 or visit studiochannelislands.org.