Arts

By drawing her body over and over, Quinn Rockliff sees herself — and is helping others do the same

Rockliff's nude self-portraiture has blossomed from a personal healing exercise into a space where others can feel more at home in their own bodies, too.

Her nude self-portraits have empowered both herself and her followers to feel more at home in their own bodies

Quinn Rockliff. (Whitney Smith)

No story sticks to a person more than one of tragedy. The narrative formula is simple: a bad thing happened to a person, and here's how they either overcame or succumbed to it. It can be life-defining, removing agency. This narrow scope doesn't allow for joy to run parallel to trauma, a life existing in tandem — even harmony — with the tragedy.

For Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist Quinn Rockliff, her nude self-portraiture portrays control and consent, self-love and empowerment. But it also serves as a way to reclaim her body: her striking single-line style began as a personal healing exercise that has blossomed in an online space where others have used her work to understand and feel more at home in their own bodies, too.

As graciously open as she is telling her story, she pauses, unsure if she will be depicted as a survivor whose only offering is that she overcame something — a worry that too many people have to grapple with when giving voice to their pain. "I struggle when people tell my story [...] because sometimes it can be painted as, 'She was assaulted, then drew herself, and now she's better.' And that's not how this works. That's such a misrepresentation of how healing works because it's not linear. You don't just get better."

The 25-year-old artist says that initially she wasn't traditionally trained, but she now holds a master's of fine art from OCAD University. Her path to this practice began two years in the aftermath of a sexual assault. One day, she found herself at an art store; at home, with her new supplies, she began to draw.

"The only thing I would draw was myself, my body specifically," she says. "And it took me a while to figure out why I was doing that."

Her illustrations appeared hyper-realistic at first until she landed on the single-line style she uses today. She then consistently, even habitually, practised drawing her body over and over again. "I needed to see myself. I needed to feel in control over my image. I needed to desire my body without the male gaze."

Healing is not direct. Trauma can remain dormant, sometimes for years, and even then there is a shroud of shame. For Rockliff, her drawings became a way to have a conversation about assault, and the societal constructs that support it, without actually using the words — without having to explain herself to anyone who may be a contrarian about it. Creating more abstract work instead of aiming for realistic depictions has allowed her the space to come to new conclusions about herself and her body.

Rockliff's portraiture work, first and foremost, does not intend to speak to the total experience of women. She emphasizes that she is a cis, able-bodied woman — her voice is one of many. Rather, her work expresses a deeply personal perspective of her own body, and the way desire or image control strengthens her relationship to it.

"The art itself [is] a way for me to be soft and tender with my own body in a time when I sometimes don't feel that way toward it," she says. "The act of drawing myself again and again and doing self-portraiture forces me to sit with my body and admire it during times when I don't necessarily feel like I deserve to or that I want to."

While she isn't speaking broadly for all women, her work is deeply relatable to those who have similar, worse, or conflicting feelings about and experiences with the body they carry in this world — a world that has vast and sharp opinions on how that body should be. In the past few years, Rockliff's profile has risen, including partnerships with brands, but this year feels like a turning point. She has cultivated a passionate online community, with followers who value what she shares on social media. She does commissions for people who want similar portraits, translating a feeling of reclamation or a reimagination of their body — feeling self-desire as part of the healing process after assault, or tenderness toward it if it's chronically ill. What if one simply enjoys the nakedness of their body? This is what Rockliff's work encourages.

Quinn Rockliff. (Whitney Smith)

Many people, for nearly a year, have sat at home with their bodies, encountering them differently. This is one possible explanation for the uptick in interest in Rockliff's work. She also points out that people have been spending more time than ever discovering new artists online, and have been particularly motivated to support local businesses and makers. Whatever the impetus has been, the power of redefining one's relationship to their body, and unravelling from dated narratives, has resonated. She tells me how open her community is, messaging her on Instagram almost every day about self-love, the path toward healing from trauma and the grief particular to a year kept inside, and how affirming it feels to see themselves in a new light.

Rockliff's work doesn't present a solution or completion, which is part of why it is so compelling. There is an unparalleled grace in understanding the benefits of and limits to healing, especially from a sexual assault. It is work. But a body can hold tragedy as well as triumph: absolutely unfettered joy and desire exist in it, too.

"Understanding these nuances of how we interpret our body, and how we navigate the world, is so important to acknowledging how dimensional a woman's experience can be — and how you are allowed to feel all of those things at once."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah MacDonald is a music and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Flare, NOW, and many more. Previously, she was an associate editor at Noisey Canada. She's happy to be here.

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