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Creative Research Lab

FEVER - July 2005

painting by Fitzgerald

Ali Fitzgerald
Poker Alice and the Maverick Madonnas, 2005
acrylic and mixed media on canvas
94" h x 260" w

Catalog Essay by Breanne Robertson:

Since arriving in Texas from South Carolina last fall, Ali Fitzgerald has become fascinated with stereotypes native to the Lone Star State. Her latest pieces examine the mythology surrounding the "Wild West" and its stock characters, including the saloon gal and the lone cowboy. She juxtaposes masculinity and femininity, virginity and promiscuity, and the sacred and profane to confront the viewer with gender politics that, even today, remain deeply ingrained in our culture. "In a land of a thousand pick-up trucks," she asks, "can one arrive at a healthy perception of gender?"

In Poker Alice and the Maverick Madonnas, Fitzgerald considers the idea of the saloon gal as a reinvention of Mary Magdalene. The stereotypical saloon gal oozes female sexuality; yet in the West even Miss Kitty had to be tough to survive. This striking combination of masculine hardness and feminine allure in saloon gals prompted Fitzgerald, an avid reader, to immerse herself in stories about women in the West. The characters in Poker Alice and the Maverick Madonnas represent historical outlaw women, all of whom challenged the limited role society assigned them.

Poker Alice is the driving force behind Fitzgerald's "maverick madonnas" and the only outlaw woman of whom the artist had a photographic likeness. Notorious for her poker skills and beauty, Poker Alice worked as a professional poker dealer. She earned as much as $6000 on a good night, allowing her to support her second husband and their seven children with her winnings. She also was a lifelong cigar smoker and always carried a .38 revolver. After her third husband passed away, Poker Alice ditched her feminine wardrobe and began wearing a man's khaki shirt and a frayed hat. She later supported herself by bootlegging alcohol and by running a house of ill-repute in Sturgis, South Dakota. Choosing to create an emblematic portrait rather than a faithful reproduction of the photograph, Fitzgerald depicts Poker Alice with her legendary attributes, a poker hand and a lit cigar. Poker Alice cradles in her arm a miniature man, representative of the many husbands and other men she exploited to advance her poker career.

To the right of Poker Alice stands a gaunt Big Nose Kate, whom Fitzgerald included primarily for her nickname. Big Nose Kate was a dance hall girl and prostitute, who became romantically involved with Wyatt Earp and later Doc Holliday. She was visiting her beau Holliday in Tombstone during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Floating above Big Nose Kate's kicked-up skirt, Charley Parkhurst wears a man's tailored suit and brandishes a revolver. Most likely born "Charlotte," Charley lived her life as a man. As a young orphan, she worked as a stable boy and learned to drive a team of horses, smoke, chew, and drink. Her voice became raspy and her tailored suits concealed her femininity. Charley worked most of her life as a stagecoach driver, a dangerous profession in which she encountered hostile Indians and navigated perilous mountain roads. She had a large scar across her face and wore a patch over her missing eye, which she lost from a kick to the face while she was shoeing a horse. The truth of her sex was not discovered until her death. With this discovery, Charley became the most famous stagecoach driver in California. Legends about her driving prowess, gentle nature, and generosity blossomed even into the 1970's when women used her memory to champion equal rights.

Cattle Kate was a prostitute whom vigilantes hung for allegedly stealing cattle. Fitzgerald quotes the history of art with the reclining female nude gazing suggestively toward the viewer; yet Cattle Kate is not the pliant, virginal nude we have come to expect in art. Instead, razor-sharp longhorns protrude from her hair like a Viking's war helmet and a branding iron propped casually over her shoulder suggests acts of sexual violence; like a perverse crown and scepter, both endow her with power. Fitzgerald considers the renowned prostitute's name a metaphor for her profession, through which Cattle Kate herded men just as a cowboy might herd livestock.

Rounding out Fitzgerald's packed composition is Belle Starr, the flamboyant Bandit Queen, who had relationships with numerous outlaw men, including a member of the James gang. She and her second husband, a Cherokee rogue named Sam Starr, formed a gang around themselves. Belle Starr used her home as a base of operations, carefully planning and overseeing the group's bandit life of rustling, horse stealing, and bootlegging. She often bribed the freedom of any gang members who were captured using money or her womanly charm. Starr spent some time in jail herself, but never reformed her outlaw ways. Fitzgerald puns Starr's name and recalls pornographic magazines from the 1950ís in her depiction of the Bandit Queen by covering her nipples with red stars.