Kirsten McCrea's art: Honouring feminists who challenge status quo

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Canadian artist Kirsten McCrea's recent series 'Hot Topic' is a collection of 60 portraits of feminist icons based on Le Tigre's song of the same name. After her initial success, McCrea is following up with 'Hot Topic Redux.' This time, she is asking for your help -- submit your counterculture heroes to help keep their memories alive.

We joined McCrea for a talk about her favourite feminists and her love for Le Tigre.

Jaela Bernstien: What inspired you to begin Hot Topic?

Kirsten McCrea: When I started the series in 2006, I was looking for a way to make political art that wasn't needlessly preachy or overstated. After many years of struggling with this conundrum, I realized I could make art that was celebratory of alternative cultures instead of critical of the dominant culture. 

JB: What do you hope to achieve through the Hot Topic Project?

KM: In a world that remembers the names of manufactured pop stars but forgets the names of suffragists, I hope in a small way to help preserve the memory of feminists who have challenged the status quo and helped create the world in which we currently exist. If we don't fight to maintain the memory of our cultural heroes they will be forgotten.

The Internet has made it easier to spread information, but it was shocking to me how hard it was to find data on some of the people in the first Hot Topic series. There really isn't a strong mechanism for remembering individuals who rail against the status quo. The memory of their existence has to be consciously maintained. 

Also, even though the series is composed of portraiture, it's also a critique of that genre. Portraits were historically used to indicate the great wealth and high social standing of their (often male) subjects. They are fundamentally based on the myth of a solitary hero or genius that rises above the crowd to accomplish something great. I hope that by finding alternate ways to present portraiture I can challenge that way of thinking. 

JB: What was your reasoning behind your musical selection, 'Hot Topic' by Le Tigre?

KM: It was as simple as the fact that I always loved that song. Every time I heard it I would think, "It would be so great if someone painted everyone in this song!" Of course I eventually realized if you want something done - just do it yourself. 

JB: How would you define a feminist icon?

KM: I think of Buffy Sainte-Marie becoming one of the first Cree international stars, of Doctor Hawa Abdi who has fearlessly run a hospital and massive displaced-persons camp in Somalia, of Rae Spoon, a successful openly trans musician. That's a pretty disparate list of people, but what they convey is the message 'I did this, and you can do it too.'

JB: Does the celebration of "manufactured pop stars," as you call them, threaten female equality and the feminist movement?

KM: No. What threatens female equality and the feminist movement is a narrow definition of "correct" behaviour and criteria for success. 

JB: Who is your feminist hero?

KM: Every single person listed on the Hot Topic website so far, and all the new ones I am continually learning about through submissions. I just can't believe how many people are doing incredible work out there! There is no way I could ever answer this question by just narrowing it all down to one person. 

JB: What has been your most significant challenge in creating this project?

KM: Choosing only 20 people to paint! Already 50 wonderful candidates have been selected, and I have no idea how I'll be able to narrow it down. My great hope is this is just the beginning and that I will continue to paint more feminist portraits, maybe for the rest of my life.

Suggestions for Hot Topic Redux can be submitted online here. Recommendations can be male or female individuals who have made an admirable contribution to their broader culture and community. To learn more about Kirsten McCrea, visit her website

Jaela Bernstien is a contributing editor for She graduated with Honours from Western University, where she also worked as managing editor for the Western Gazette. Now she lives in Montreal and freelances as a writer, editor and graphic designer.


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