The cover art promoting Myesha Callahan Freet’s new exhibit, “You’d Look Better With a Smile,” is equal parts eye-catching and powerful. However, the idea behind the art, and the process that produced it, shows just how compelling Callahan Freet’s work is.
Earlier this year, the artist sat in her living room pondering the results of her “self-given, self-portrait” challenge from 2017. “I hate having my picture taken and I don’t like taking my own picture; that was my own issues of looking at myself,” said Callahan Freet. At the end, however, it became “just something self-healing that I did for myself,” she said.
As Callahan Freet looked at a particular portrait of herself she began to think about how others may react to it. “I started thinking about all the times that people have told me to smile, and you know, men walk up and say ‘You’d look better if you smiled,’ ” she said. “I grabbed charcoal and I just aggressively put a smile on; it was just kind of like a retaliation, I guess. I ruined my own portrait with that statement.”
The statement resonated with many women across the Inland Northwest.
“I had women coming up to me and saying ‘I love this; I want to do one,’ ” Callahan Freet said. She began to host portrait sittings where she would photograph these women, followed by a workshop where the women were invited to come finish their portraits. “It was very powerful and therapeutic. We cried, we laughed, we told our stories.”
The resulting portraits comprise “You’d Look Better If You Smiled,” which is Callahan Freet’s first solo show. The show features the portraits of 51 local women.
The process of creating the exhibit was full of emotion, healing and learning from each other for everyone involved. “I just learned that I really love women,” said Callahan Freet. “I love that everybody’s story is so similar.”
The stories the women shared helped foster a community based on the mutual experiences that women share. “For me it was very therapeutic just to know that other women were kind of going through the same struggle that I was,” said Callahan Freet. “Sometimes I don’t like myself and we pick ourselves apart, and I kind of think that we are taught to pick apart other people.”
In addition to providing a place for women to share stories and help each other to feel safe, the exhibit comments upon society’s focus on appearances and on the reality that “You’d look better with a smile” is a phrase that all women are more than familiar with. “I think that we are obsessed with image and this idea that it is normal to comment on someone else’s person,” Callahan Freet said.
The show opens Friday at the Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center in Post Falls, with a reception from 4 to 8 p.m. At 6 p.m. there will be a presentation from the artist and a panel of some of the women who participated in the project. The show will run through July 10, with a closing reception on July 6, which will also feature a panel of women from the project.
Callahan Freet said she does not want the exhibit to be the finish line for this project. She hopes to do another round of sittings and a workshop. “The big thing is the support system I created for these women, and that’s why the workshop was so powerful,” she said. “I was really proud of myself that I could create a safe space for women to feel so comfortable to share so much.”