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

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Categories: Art, Feminism, General, Naming, Spiritual Journey

Tags: , ,

16 replies

  1. Yes, that room doesn’t have to be a literal room in a building. Hooray!

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  2. This post gave me goosebumps … as if I felt her cross the bounds of time and space, life and death, to truly energize the space of this sharing. Thank you, Angela. Blessings!

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  3. I seriously and completely love your work. This is one of my favorites so far!

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  4. I feel that if one wants a very clear account of what liberal feminism means, “A Room of One’s Own” is a very good place to start.

    And her lesser-known book, “Three Guineas”, is an equally clear account of radical feminism.

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  5. Daniel, I actually haven’t read “Three Guinea,” so I’ll have to check it out!
    And thanks everyone for your kind words! I had my third opening for a solo Holy Women Icons exhibition last night and it went well; it’s so powerful to have them gathered all in one room…truly a “room of one’s own”!
    They are all for sale, as well. If you’re interested, you can check out images of every icon at http://www.angelayarber.com

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  6. And let’s not forget that VW was not only speaking of the psychic space provided by “a room of one’s own” but that she added “and 75 pounds a year” by which she meant a sufficient income that a woman would not have to cater to men’s ideas,or what men expected of her, in order to survive economically.

    I don’t know if I would agree with Danienl that A Room of One’s Own was only liberal feminism, as VW was talking about having the psychic, physical, and economic freedom to think “one’s” own thoughts as a woman, and she understood that the ability to do so would create “new sentences,” new ways of viewing the world, the envisionment of acts which would upset the whole order of things in literature and in life. “Chloe loved Olivia” is one of those sentences.”A world without war” which she explored in Three Guineas is another. The mention of money in the title of the latter and in the vision of the former shows that she understood that women would not be free and would not be free to change the world without economic independence.

    And this is why I, like Jessica Valiente, wanted to throw up when Michelle Obama was forced [?] to say that she was oh so happy and proud to have given up her economic independence for full-time [?] motherhood.

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  7. Many thanks for this Sunday morning send up for dear Virginia Woolf. That pushes me to write, today, in my own room.

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  8. Virginia Woolf was a tragic figure in many ways, in her life and death. Woolf’s bigotry and hubris were spectacularly displayed in her reaction to T.S. Eliot’s salvation: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” (Hitchens, Peter, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, p. 24). In a weird sort of way, Woolf in her tragic futility may have helped others avoid similar fates. For if a person rejects Woolf’s dark despair, that person might yet find a true and better path, leading to the light and goodness of God.

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