“I decided I’ll do penis paintings because the problem is the penis.”
Donna Ibing has been called many things. Feminist, shit-disturber, printmaker, painter, consciousness-raiser, all around badass. But her favourite?
“I think it was Bryce Kanbara that called me Dirty Donna and yeah, I was happy with that.”
Ibing grew up in Windsor, far from any visible art world, “nobody in my family was an artist, I knew nothing about art, there was no art on the walls, we didn’t go to art galleries”. She first learned of her artistic prowess by chance, drawing maps for a school project, “the teacher came over and said, ‘Oh come over and look at Donna’s map, she did a really good map’ Then they started asking me, ‘Will you do my map?’ And I kept saying, draw your own map, like can’t you draw…”
This sparked a lightbulb moment in her head and diverted her path towards Toronto.
She enrolled in the Ontario College of Art (OCA) and graduated in 1971. A great departure from her small town, here she fell in love with the possibility of dedicating her life to the higher powers found in art and social movements, “it was during that time with all the sit-ins, we did sit-ins, walks on Queen’s Park carrying a coffin, like it was protest, it was the Vietnam war, it was crazy, wild, you could do anything you wanted.”
She moved with her husband to Burlington shortly after graduation, linking up with the local art scene at the time. Back in another small town, she did not feel she belonged with the more conservative approaches of her peers, “they had this thing called The Guild and they had the Burlington Fine Arts and I joined but I didn’t fit in. I didn’t feel [I could do] what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to do what they were all doing, which was really beautiful watercolours.”
Ibing found a home with the Hamilton Artists Inc. when she wandered into an opening with a neighbour in the mid 1970s. She instantly felt a difference in the air, sensing kindred spirits in the DIY space. This began a long love affair with the artist-run centre.
“For years and years I was on the Board, I was the President at one time against my will. I refused to be Secretary because I refused to be the cookie lady… when I first started it was all males and me. They’d all look at me and I’d go, no, I’m not going to be secretary. And then they’d say, we need cookies for the opening or we need something and they’d all look at me. And I’d say, Okay, I’ll make cookies but only if you guys make cookies. And not your girlfriend and your wife, you. I have just as little time as you do.”
It was here that Dirty Donna found the environment ripe to say what she wanted to say. Ibing held two major shows at the Inc. that skyrocketed her infamy, ‘Spring Drawings’ in 1978 and ‘Males Nude’ in 1983. She began her interest in the gender dynamics of nudes during her time at OCA, and quickly found that galleries would gladly show female nudes, but never the male.
“I thought if male artists can paint female nudes, which is sexual or what they’re interested in or they think they’re pretty or whatever, then why can’t I, as a female artist, paint male nudes? …At the Hamilton Art Gallery (AGH) rental… this lady phoned me and, I’m sorry, but they were all sort of older, wealthy women that sort of ran the rental. Volunteers, which I applaud, but they were always giving me a hard time. This one lady actually phoned me and said, ‘Oh you, we’ve been asked a few times for nudes and I know you do nudes so could you bring in some nudes?’ So, I brought in some female nudes and some male nudes and she said, ‘Well, we’ll take the female nudes but we won’t take the male nudes.’ And I said, ‘Well why not?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s showing.’ And I go…it? It took me a minute, like I was seriously…really? It? And she said, ‘You know, it’ and I said, ‘Oh you mean the penis?’ And she turned all red and wouldn’t take them… I liked that they were promoting women’s art but on the other hand they thought my work was, you know, bizarre.”
Ibing uses her voice to humorously point out the obvious but oft-ignored inequalities that exist in the art world, “Male artists can expose women and put them on the wall and they can be the icon and revered and untouchable and it’s hard to live up to. But they don’t want to do that. They don’t want to be the naked person on the wall. One time, I did a part of that ‘Males Nude’ series that was an outline of a male nude and just the hands and the penis were painted. This guy came to the opening, he looked at it and he said, ‘Is that all we are to you?’ And I said, ‘Really you’re actually saying that like you don’t get the point? Hello, you’ve been doing that to us for five hundred years!’”
Resistance only emboldened her, validating the importance of her mission to expose the penis to the masses, “I thought, let’s laugh at this. Let’s get used to it. You’ll get used to seeing it. It isn’t going to hurt you to look at it. You’re not going to go blind.”
Censorship followed Ibing in many forms, including the insistence of galleries to include age-restriction warning signs outside of her exhibitions in an attempt to “cover their asses”, but more so showcasing their own kind of Comstockian perversity. She gained a reputation through the censorships that meant to quiet her, “When I had my retrospective at the Hamilton Art Gallery (AGH), somebody put graffiti on the outside wall of the gallery… It was two cross penises and then it said art and a question mark. I was secretly happy about it. It was in the newspaper and and people kept saying, ‘Did you do that? Did you know that?’ …I thought oh, this is so good. No wonder they think I did it because it was perfect.”
Despite her natural rebellious spirit, being a trailblazer was born more out of necessity than anything else. “My son told me this one time he learned in history in high school, the teacher said, “Nothing ever changes unless by revolution.” And I at first said, Oh, no that can’t be true that’s horrible, that’s…and then I started thinking about it. Yeah, that’s right. They’re never going to change unless you do something about it and make them change or embarrass them or whatever. So, I thought okay I have to do that…I’m going to do…like I’m going to be badass.”
To our reluctant hero, Dirty Donna, we salute you!
The following oral history video was filmed in October 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Thank you for
submitting feedback to
Building Cultural Legacies