Free to be who I am, if you like it or not: From feminist to artist

Shiloh McCloud / Editor Lys Anzia – WNN SOAPBOX

Altamira Cave and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain in Cantabria. Image: UNESCO
Altamira Cave and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain in Cantabria shows some of the most ancient record of women artists who held up their own hands to use as stencils in their painting. Image: UNESCO

(WNN) San Francisco, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: When I was two years old I attended the second annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco on June 25, 1972 with over 54,000 supporters. Riding on the shoulders of the women in my family I had a view that went on for miles. My own version of ‘freak-flag‘ began to fly free at an early age and that experience would continue to inform my journey.

Those of us born in the 1970s were still riding in on the high on flower power, but there was a bitterness that settled in. It comes with waking up to what is really happening in the world and knowing that somehow you need to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

My earliest conscious memories about women’s rights would come when I was around 4-years-old. I sat on my mother’s lap at the kitchen table where the problems of the universe were parsed out with slices of Genoa salami, Sonoma french bread, Italian red wine served in small jars and those long cigarettes that my mother used to smoke. These discussions were called councils and were held with other activists and friends to discuss ‘the situation’ in our community and in our world. It was here that my older red headed cousin and I learned of the status and danger facing women, some of the same dangers we faced as little girls.

This danger became very obvious when for the first time we were each sent counties away, to our father’s homes. My mother and my cousin’s mother raised us separately from our fathers. They were neither bad men nor abusers, but not suited to rear us for the lives our mothers were choosing at that time.

Let me paint the picture of who sat at the kitchen table: My mother the fashion designer: long red finger-nailed with white go-go boots known as the activist poet. My aunt the Tai Chi teacher: in the hand crocheted vest and turtleneck with short hair.

The ‘butch’ member of the bunch spurred these two on. In work-boots and leather vest, not chains or spikes, she is the one we call The Separatist. We call her that now with great affection. Back then it was with some degree of fear. Years later I would inherit her said leather vest. The one with deer horn bone buttons made by a local witch that was softened by many years of milking goats, called the milking vest.

So why would describing what we were wearing make a difference to the scene I’m sharing?  The diversity of who we were and who we would become as a community created an environment of choice for those of us growing up in the early women’s movement. We weren’t told we had to choose a male or female partner or what we should wear, other than don’t wear high heels. And we were encouraged to pursue our freedom. I would end up dressing like a combination all three of ‘my mothers’ in one outfit. With this I would add cowgirl boots and a hat as well as taking on qualities from each of ‘the mothers’.

Anyone attending a Pride Parade knows that your individual freak flag attitude can indeed be manifest in your choice of shoes and hat. No one who attends would consider this statement an affront. Just ask the 6’ 5” tall black man in red heels that I praise Jesus with when attending Glide Church before we head off to the parade if his choice of shoes isn’t a part of his personal activism. It is. It’s because we aren’t willing to hide anymore, that is part of what coming out of the closet is all about, coming out wearing and being that which you were afraid to show your family and friends and for many of us, even afraid to show ourselves.

Pride is an outward expression of an inward state that says, “I am free to be who I am, whether you like it or not and not only that, I am going to have a great time doing it. And look good at the same time.”

In order to survive and thrive in our chosen causes many of us have chosen to create an activism that reflects our own personal identity. My own activism has taken the form of offering education. Today for me this is through something I founded called Cosmic Cowgirls University. We are women who are sparkling and creative as well as grounded and earthy. Who knew that those early days around the kitchen table would eventually cause a different kind of revolution? A call that for many and for me is equal to the fight for other basic human rights, a right to self-express. By self-express I don’t mean just the right to say out loud what you think. It means knowing how to think in the first place. It is the knowing that you have your own thoughts and that you don’t have to follow the status quo even if you are in a disenfranchised or separatist group that has a militant agenda approach to freedom.

These days the milking vest is what I wear when I paint. It connects me with my history of growing up around kitchen table wisdom that would inform my path as an artist. To this day I teach painting, alongside my heroine of separatism, to women from around the world. Just the other day my fiancé was allowed for the first time on her land. Now 77-years-old, she and he recently stood on the land together and took out a fallen tree. Both with chainsaws in hand and in the spirit of the work I saw my future husband and the woman who taught me how to be strong, feeling a flood of gratitude for this rich history that took me from feminist to artist.

My Separatist is gentler now in her sharing than she was years ago, but she was fierce back then for a good reason. When I was 5-years-old our family was part of the first group of pioneering women that started Women Against Rape of Sonoma County, now known as Verity, in 1974. As part of the group my family would open their homes to those women who were suffering from violence. Later in 1975, the YWCA Sonoma County was founded by a group of local women who volunteered their own homes as an underground network of safe houses. Two years later the YWCA Sonoma County opened the YWCA Safe House, which housed the first 15 domestic violence shelters in the United States. It was a time of empowerment when women were being encouraged to press legal charges when they were violated.

Red cowgirl boots
Shiloh’s red cowgirl boots. Image: Jonathan Lewis

Then something terrible happened. There was a gang rape close to home in our neighborhood. The suspected rapists, who were part of a local motorcycle gang, hung out at a local bar just down from where we lived in Sonoma County. That’s when a woman who knew the rapists called us for help. She would later provide key evidence for the police with the rapists’ locations.

As the violence got close we started receiving death threats. Our home was broken into because of our association with the situation. That’s when everyone knew we had to get out of there. We were sent away for safety. In a recent conversation with my beloved ‘Separatist’ she reminded me that it was she who had answered the phone call that day speaking on the phone to the woman who knew and turned in the rapists.  She also reminded me of the men on Harleys who noisily rode past our home, all those years ago giving us the finger. I am quite certain my red headed cousin and I always gave it right back to them in our own childlike way, but we did so behind the curtains of home.

In my teens and early twenties I went through what most women who wake up go through: anger at the system, the patriarchy, the unfair treatment and lack of equal rights for women. I was pissed. I was also devastated. I was called to action, but what kind? I had marched, sung, fought and stood with members of my community and gone through domestic violence advocacy training. What now?

With that anger also came a flood of compassion. It was the compassion that would inform me the true direction of the rest of my journey. It became clear to me that the way the women in my family had channeled that anger and still maintained their spirits was through the making of art. No one spoke about it at the time, that the way they managed suffering was through the making of art. But now everyone can see that was what was happening even though we didn’t have the language for it. I began to follow them in what we now call Intentional Creativity. I was so overtaken the with emotion of suffering I felt for others I had to do something that wasn’t only activist based, I had to do something with how my own spirit would contend with the realities of suffering and violence against women and children on the earth.

So I began to intensify my creativity. I began to throw pots, draw, paint and to write it all out.Years later these same conversations are still taking place with many of the original members of my early kitchen table feminism training.

The impact of being raised in an intimate culture that considers itself radically inclusive, yet is equally exclusive, also makes for radical distinctions between what is fair and not fair. From an early age I wanted to grow up to be a judge since I felt I knew what was fair and not fair. In the early separatist movement I am told I asked question after question about decisions that were made that excluded men and eventually even women who were considered too ‘male-identified’. It was certainly a journey for us to find our own way with our own beliefs about the world at large, and how we would interact with the subset of the world that was male dominant.

My feminism now exists as this: that I might think my own thoughts.

The result of thinking ones own thought comes with the most basic of human rights, the right to express oneself. It sometimes means to be fearless in your expression even if you are putting yourself in danger. I have received my own share of hate tinted mail and threats for doing the work I do. But mostly I have experienced a sense of relief from men and women that I am a part movement of re-imagining the feminine, not one that is against the masculine.

I always tell the women I teach, “Just because we do women’s work does not mean it is to the exclusion of men. We’re just choosing where we put our focus. Right now the focus is on women and the ones they love, and that includes men.”

For many of us, our freak flag of our own making goes beyond any political party or whether one identifies as a feminist. It has to do with the right to share who you are and how you want to share it. I think of self-expression as one of the basic human rights. While I still consider myself a feminist at heart, that isn’t the freak flag I choose to fly because it doesn’t represents the fullness of an identity. As an artist I have the freedom to express myself however I choose. I understand fully that that first Gay Pride parade of women and men standing side by side for their rights went into my very soul and instigated a life long desire to be in service to what is right, good and whole-making for humanity.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” says one of the important rights listed on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is time to go to my easel now, all this talk of ‘rights’ has stirred up the muse within me and she has something to say that can only be said between the canvas and I. It holds my fears, dreams and hopes for a better world.


WNN Special Commentator Shiloh Sophia McCloud is a visionary artist and teacher who has dedicated the past 20 years of her life to art as a path of healing through the process of painting, writing and intentional creativity. Through her work McCloud has represented hundreds of women artists internationally. At the core of her work is a belief that the right to self-expression is one of the most basic of human rights. McCloud is also the author of over 5 books covering poetry, creative expression and business ‘know-how’.


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