Painting Virginia Woolf by Angela Yarber
As I painted her icon, I knew that “the room of one’s own” must engulf more space on the canvas than she did, her heart beating in the room and outside of it, and her arms outstretched as though she is inviting other women into the room.
I first encountered her in the lyrics of a song. The Indigo Girls shaped my adolescence, molding me into a young feminist as I sang in harmony with other teenage girls:
They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own
And a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end
Comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m alright
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s alright
‘Cause I just got a letter to my soul
Emily Saliers and Amy Ray (the Indigo Girls) were singing about Virginia Woolf, naming the song after her. As I belted out the lyrics with my soon-to-become-feminist friends, I had yet to learn who Virginia Woolf was and how her life and work had shaped my own. All I knew as I harmonized those many years ago was that this woman must be special if the Indigo Girls dedicated a song to her. I felt a longing to know her, to learn more about her, for her to call me on that telephone line through time and tell me I’m alright. Accordingly, Virginia Woolf is our Holy Woman Icon for September.
Joining the ranks of my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist, Virginia Woolf is a novelist, one of the greatest of the twentieth century. She joins the biblical dancer, the Shulamite, feminist scholar, Mary Daly, literary figure, Baby Suggs, and the earth goddesses Pachamama and Gaia who have been featured each month on Feminism and Religion. Many of these icons are currently on display as the solo show at Woven Soul Gallery in Winston-Salem, NC.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is most famous for being a respected novelist during a time when women were not welcome in the academy as writers. Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own have no doubt led countless young women to claim their self-worth, spark their creativity, and dare to dream big.
It was her book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, which emboldened me to live into my calling. So, I knew that her icon must pay homage to this particular work. “A woman must have money and a room of her own,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Certainly such a sentiment is not without flaws. Some have called it classist, highlighting the countless creative, talented, brilliant women around the world who will likely never have access to such a room, yet still manage to produce meaningful poetry and prose. I’d like to hope that, instead of merely referring to a literal room, Woolf may have also believed that every woman deserves to have an emotional, mental, and spiritual space that is safe, empowering, and free. I cannot help but think of the many times I penned my own writings, not in a beautiful studio with a view, but on public transportation, on the back of a napkin, or with my laptop precariously balanced on my lap in a crowded space.
As I painted her icon, I knew that “the room of one’s own” must engulf more space on the canvas than she did, her heart beating in the room and outside of it, and her arms outstretched as though she is inviting other women into the room. So, she stands on the edge where she belongs, her heart telling us:
A room of her own
Was all her heart desired,
A creative space
To set her spirit free
As I painted, of course, I listened to the Indigo Girls. Together we sang, “If you need to know that you weathered the storm of cruel mortality, a hundred years later I’m sittin’ here living proof.” As feminist writers, painters, singers, artists, activists, and scholars unite in spaces of freedom—rooms of our own—we are living proof that what Virginia Woolf did mattered. In these ways, she gave us all a space to call our own.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com