Being a woman painter: reflections on Elaine Risley’s career in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’

‘To be lost is only a failure of memory’
Margaret Atwood, ‘A Boat’, Interlunar

One of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels is Cat’s Eye, published in 1988 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a fictional autobiography, a Künstlerroman, that is, it depicts the progression and growth of an artist, Elaine Risley, the protagonist. The novel has also been considered the most autobiographical of Atwood’s novels as it contains links to her childhood. Similarly to Elaine, Atwood spent most of her childhood in the wilderness with her family because her father was an entomologist, that is, he studied insects, like Elaine’s father. In autumn and winter, they moved to the city, Toronto, where Atwood, and Elaine in the story, attended regular school. These parallels do not mean that Atwood’s life is reflected in Elaine’s story, but they do draw attention to the fictionality of life and how we construct our identities. In a similar way, I have made connections to Elaine’s artwork in my painting practices. The creative process of painting allows Elaine to express her traumatic experiences in the novel and to voice her vision. For me, it is a way of expressing my creativity in everyday life and producing decorative objects.

Gerbera in a pot

In the novel, Elaine’s family settles in Toronto when she is nine. She is eager to meet girls, to have girlfriends at school and to enter the feminine world she could not experience in the forest as her only playmate was her elder brother, Stephen. However, being introduced to the girls’ world is eventually traumatic. She is bullied by her best friends, Grace, Carol and Cordelia, and pressured to perform life-threatening actions, such as being buried in a hole and retrieving her hat from a frozen stream. These experiences affect her perception of her past and define her future. At a certain point, Elaine rebels against these impositions and develops a clearer objective vision that is triggered by a cat’s eye marble she uses as a talisman.


Despite this apparent liberation, she interiorises the rules and roles forced on her by the dominant society through her ‘best friends’ and this causes her lapses of memory and a suicide attempt. She feels constantly observed, controlled by both men and women. Though she seems to comply with the roles imposed by society, she develops a different vision in her artwork and tries to reverse the gaze and express her view, a female vision, in her pictures.

Elaine’s pictures are described in the novel; they are a reversed ekphrasis, that is, they are not a description of an equivalent artwork we find in the real world, but are created by language. In the foreword, Atwood remarks that the creation of Elaine’s paintings in the novel was influenced by the work of some Canadian artists she mentions. Therefore, the pictures described in the story exist in the world of language of the novel and evoke in the mind of the reader something similar that is present in the real world. This is an interesting point that connects the ‘real’ and the fictional and questions our notion of identity.

In a fictional world, I imagine myself in conversation with Elaine Risley. I am not a proper artist, rather an amateur who has painted throughout her life, experimenting with different techniques. I am not famous or successful, though I have exhibited my work from time to time in local art and craft trails and am part of Woking Art Society. My dialogue with Elaine would be about techniques and the function of art in a feminine world. Like Elaine, I wish to express my vision too; I explore my subjects in sketches and then try to finalise a finished piece. My process does not mean to be conclusive; I just record a meaningful stage of my work. As in Elaine’s memories that are narrated in the novel and figuratively depicted in her retrospective exhibition, my work is a work in progress that always has the potential for further developments.

At a certain point in the story, Elaine divorces and moves to Vancouver with her little daughter. In Vancouver she remarries and has another daughter. Her artistic career flourishes and she becomes a successful artist after an accident in which a woman throws a bottle of ink over one of her pictures during an exhibition because she is outraged by what she considers to be blasphemy. The story starts when Elaine goes back to Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her art. She remembers her past in a series of flashbacks that alternate with what she is experiencing in the city. Remembering the past and living the present brings to the surface her traumatic memories in an exploration of her blurred identity that she tries to define through her artwork.

Her way of painting is considered naïve and incomplete both by her teacher, Josef, and by her partner, Jon, who uses acrylics and prefers an abstract style, a ‘pure’ style. She needs to fight to find her way in a world of men where women are considered models rather than artists. Elaine uses the ancient technique of egg tempera, messing about with pots and pans and working at night. She is inspired by the pictures in the Eaton’s Catalogue and in women’s magazines. When she was a child, she used to cut out these pictures and stick them in scrapbooks. In this way, she absorbed the rules of the role she had to perform as a woman in modern society, that is, the roles of good mother and housewife, a consumer of the products pictured in the catalogue. In reproducing their forms and colours, Elaine changes their meaning and disrupts the views, exposing the hypocrisies and incongruences of their message. She gives a different version that reveals, at the same time, the traumatic experiences she has gone through that she is not completely aware of. She uncovers her unconscious thoughts that she expresses through visual art, thereby becoming a creative non-victim in her pictorial production.

For example, ‘Erbug, The Annunciation’ shows a desecrating picture of Mr And Mrs Smeath, a family who introduced Elaine to Sunday school. They are depicted naked, mating like two insects and flying over the church spire. The religious allusions present in this picture expose the contradictory and rigid quality of the biblical narratives and religious practices Elaine experienced at the Smeaths’. Another example is in the cat’s eye marble that is present in some of the pictures. It is her favourite marble, a recurring object in the story that acquires a symbolic meaning. It makes her see in an objective and less involved way which guarantees her temporary survival. It gives her a clearer vision, an ‘impartial gaze’ that helps her to develop her artistic, subjective gaze. The cat’s eye marble is consequently symbolically internalised once she decides to ignore and rebel against her girlfriends and patriarchal dominance. It is present in two paintings: ‘Life Drawing’ and ‘Unified Field Theory’. The first one depicts a woman in the centre with a blue glass sphere, the cat’s eye marble, as a head. At the sides there are two men, the men of her youth, Josef and Jon; they are depicted naked, painting the woman, or rather their view of the woman. The picture expresses the woman’s gaze, which is directed to men this time, inverting the man’s gaze to represent a woman’s view. The men are naked, and therefore vulnerable, while the woman who is sitting down is wrapped in a white bedsheet.

Walk in the Woods, Keswick

‘Unified Field Theory’ represents the traumatic experience that happened in the ravine, where Elaine’s friends threw her hat one evening while coming back from school, saying she had to retrieve it. Elaine almost froze to death and was rescued by the vision of a lady who said: ‘You can go home now. It will be all right.’ She imagines it is the apparition of The Virgin of Lost Things and depicts her in a black robe holding a huge cat’s eye marble over the place of her body where her heart should have been. This emphasises the clear vision Elaine obtained through the marble that she finds stored in the steamer trunk in the attic at the end of the novel. Looking through it, she sees ‘her life entire’, that is, she remembers the traumatic experiences she had forgotten and reconstructs her past.

Therefore, through her art Elaine expresses her vision, where her subconscious experiences emerge. She does this using a figurative technique that, in apparent simplicity, exposes the incongruities of the roles imposed on her by patriarchal society and the traumatic consequences these roles have had on her life. In this way, she proposes a different vision, a woman’s view that questions these roles and attempts to reconstruct a new identity through art.

While Elaine juxtaposes ordinary images taken from women’s catalogues with her subconscious disruptive interpretations, I’d rather express my intentions through technical approaches and the structure of the composition. I use all kinds of techniques. I have used tempera in the past in figurative still lifes, and later on I used oil paints for landscapes and flowers.  I also experimented with papier mâché and ceramics for a while, then completely changed my style when I moved to England in 2007. I learned to use watercolours and attended courses that inspired me to be looser and use a mixed media approach. This was a fantastic change that moved my artistic process forward. I usually mix oil pastels, inks and watercolours, because I love the effect they make. This is the media mixture that best reflects my vision – it is loose and controlled at the same time. The control is in the use of oil pastels that are water resistant, while the looseness is in the water-soluble media, such as watercolour and some types of ink. Water-soluble pencils and other water-soluble media, such as Brusho and Artbars, are also among my favourites. I like the idea of being in control, but not complete control, leaving things free or loose in some way, but still keeping an eye on what is happening. I rarely use acrylics or oil at the moment; I feel sketchier in my approach, which reflects the uncertain time we are experiencing.

Besides still lifes and landscapes, my subjects used to be flowers, shells, stones and fashion. Now coronavirus is dominating my work. I recently did some embroidery, too, which was inspired by lines of poetry. In conclusion, my artwork is mainly decorative and expresses my vision more in the technical approach rather than in the figures I depict. I wonder whether I am expressing a trauma or some secret psychological issues I am not aware of in my paintings. I certainly try to convey my vision, develop my creativity, as Elaine does in the novel, which is an important step in the process of expressing the self.

English Daisy

In the novel, Elaine finds her voice in visual art; she speaks her vision that she is not able to communicate through her narratives. The paintings reveal her trauma, her anger, her fears and secrets, and the familiar which is unfamiliar. Her artwork questions the self and changes her view and our views. In a feminine perspective, creativity becomes fundamental in the reconstruction of the self, which has been shattered by the traumatic experiences inflicted by the constrictive roles imposed by society. Rebelling against these roles through art in order to survive and recover identity is a crucial point in the novel and maybe in everybody’s life too.

About the contributor

Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has been published in various magazines and reviews. She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading.

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