Successful female artists like Barbara Waterman-Peters are still a rarity in the male-dominated art world, but she has worked to become a critically acclaimed painter who is a fixture in the newly revitalized arts community in Topeka, Kan.
Waterman-Peters attended Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., to pursue painting. She married while in college and had a child, but when her daughter grew older, she returned to Washburn to complete her undergraduate degree in the late 1970s.
“At the time, the art world was just beginning to shake open for women artists. It was a good time for stepping into the fray,” Waterman-Peters said. “I thought seriously about what I was painting and what I wanted to do in the art world and I taught myself the skills to equip myself.”
After Waterman-Peters received her undergraduate degree in painting, she completed her MFA at Kansas State University. She has since been invited to teach at both institutions and been active in artists’ coalitions while showing her work in galleries.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist and I really never considered another career,” she said. “I realized that painting was something I had to pursue and the world wasn’t going to beat a path to my door.”
In addition to her painting career, Waterman-Peters is also a writer for Topeka Magazine and was largely involved in the revitalization efforts in Topeka that resulted in the NOTO Arts District where she currently has a studio.
“I wanted to show that an arts district was a good thing for Topeka and for artists and by writing for Topeka Magazine I can introduce fellow artists and their work to the city,” Waterman-Peters said.
The work created by Waterman-Peters has contained depictions of clowns and the use of jacks-in-the-box as well as universal archetypes like Greek mythology or fairy tale lore. Waterman-Peters said she creates works that come out when she sketches.
“There are some ideas that demand to be in my work, which is sort of strange to wrap your mind around,” Waterman-Peters said. “There haven’t been any men in my work, but they will come one day when they appear in my drawings.”
In 1992, Waterman-Peters began a series of paintings depicting women. The first works in the series were surreal, nightmarish portrayals of women with no arms, no feminine characteristics and minimal hair. Waterman-Peters said this work came from an examination of the clichéd expectations of women during the time she grew up in.
“Women are more adaptable so they had to be willing to change for a man. Women would marry and have children and be the perfect housekeepers,” she said. “The early work was a reaction to that and a way for me to work through that.”
The work eventually expanded from her story to a more universal viewpoint. Waterman-Peters said the series was impacted by her time in graduate school through learning different ways of thinking and seeking justification for her artistic career.
“My work has gone from containing very personal imagery that only really spoke to me to something that a lot of people can enjoy and that is thought provoking,” she said. “I made the women more human and more powerful.”
Waterman-Peters said she believes women’s role is to continue making important art and addressing the important issues of the time. One of the important issues she addresses is the effort to reestablish arts programs in schools.
“How I envision it, women will be the ones to make that happen,” Waterman-Peters said. “Women are great collaborators and I believe that their collaborative efforts lead to something.”
Waterman-Peters said men and women may have a different approach to making art but she doesn’t see a difference between men’s art and women’s art.
“Artists are communicators. Men and women may be communicating different ideas, but they are still communicating,” she said. “I just think we’re all artists. We don’t always have to base things on gender.”
While women have been discouraged from art careers in many ways in the past, Waterman-Peters said this only made her more determined to become a successful artist and this impacted her work in a positive way.
“Being a woman is part of who I am as an artist,” Waterman-Peters said. “It can’t help but be.”