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Rock Hill painter's work featured in Columbia show

You see her because she can't be overlooked. She demands your curiosity.

Her arms hang by her side. Is she being demure or is she up to something? Her hair is up, exposing her long neck. The straps of her dress hang ever so slightly off her shoulders. One leg, it appears, is planted in front of the other. The stance makes it easier for us to glimpse her curvy figure through her long gown.

The woman in "Peering into the dark, waiting for a signal," an oil painting by Harriet Goode, is one of more than 25 women Goode will show in an exhibition that opens Thursday at City Art.

The women in Goode's paintings are mysterious. It's hard to determine what and who these women are, but the viewer is captivated. Goode's women are on display, very much like that of female pop stars on the red carpet. But unlike the pop stars who glammed-out for last week's MTV's Video Music Awards, Goode's women, painted on hollow core doors and standing seven feet tall, don't have to worry about makeup before they leave the house.

But they stick out like Hollywood stars. Goode, a Rock Hill native, said she invents characters rather than painting real life figures.

"It's more fun to invent people than to paint actual people," she said. "I can manipulate them any way I want to. Sometimes they're powerful and influential. Sometimes they're vulnerable and indecisive."

Pop divas manipulate audiences by reinventing their look and thus themselves. For decades they made the change from album to album, but in this age of overexposure, stars have had to change their looks between appearances.

Lady Gaga, the singer who infamously wore a meat dress, turned the idea of femininity on its head when she spent the entire VMA's as her alter-ego Jo Calderone. The jacket and pants she wore, some observers noted, was probably the longest she spent in one outfit at an awards show. Gaga's look was the opposite of the cartoonish costumes worn by Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj that were straight from some future-world theme park. Perry, Minaj and other singers such as Britney Spears have been overshadowed by Gaga's ever-evolving persona. About the only female immune to Gaga's power at VMA's was Beyonce. And she announced a pregnancy, the ultimate suggestion of femininity.

"I just think she's just a real person, but she's a reinvented person," Goode said of Lady Gaga. "She just like the women in my paintings. She can reinvent herself 10 times a day.

"She has invented these new characteristics, these new personalities. This woman has the most extraordinary imagination. When I come back, I want to be Lady Gaga."

'A full-time painter'

The images of Goode's women were born in her mother's magazines. She would read the stories as a young girl and then sketch what she thought the characters looked like. Goode, 74, wanted to be a fashion designer.

"They wouldn't let me go to the college that would've equipped me with that career," Goode said of her parents. "I wanted to go to New York and became Coco Chanel No. 2."

Instead she went to Converse College. Before college, her parents kept her well supplied with tools to make art. There was only one stationery store and print shop in Rock Hill in the late '40s and early '50s, Goode said.

"They might call me up and say we've got something you might like and then they'd send my daddy a bill," she said.

Goode made her own clothes, creating her own image. ("Those women are wearing clothes that I used to make," she said of the cast of "Mad Men," AMC's '60s-era drama.) She did the same for her daughters while they were young. (Her son, though, didn't want any clothes made by mom.) When the last of her three children graduated from college, Goode made a decision.

"I rented a studio downtown and decided I would become a full-time painter," she said. "I shared a studio with a good friend. We painted. That was my job."

That was in 1981 and Goode has been painting women since. Are they her friends? Does she know their histories? Do they mean to be glamorous?

"Most of the time, I'm unconsciously painting," she said. "I never know what it's going to look like when I finish painting. They're sort of a mood.

"I guess they do have a job and I guess their job is to tell a story. Or inspire people to reconnect with a story. But some days I just think they like to stand around and look like tall girls."

After priming the wood panels, Goode puts them against a wall. She stands on a box to reach the top on the panels, which she paints three at a time.

"I've always painted on more than one thing at a time," said Goode, whose husband, Martin, picks up the doors from Lowe's. "I tend to overwork something. I like to have at least three things going."

An obvious question: why paint women?

"I don't really have a good answer," Goode responded. "I need to make up something like I make up these women."

Persuasive powers

Goode's women are somewhere between two women who have stirred conversation lately. On one side there's Lady Gaga, who appeals to rebellious and young women and men. Drucilla K. Barker, the director of women's and gender studies at USC, said Gaga overemphasizes to shock.

"She's a rule breaker, and she's made her reputation by breaking rules," Parker said.

Way, way, way on the other side of Gaga is Michele Bachmann, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Barker referred to her as the perfect example of looking ladylike.

"She's very attractive," Barker continued. "She's very attractive to men, and that's important in being ladylike."

Women, Barker added, have persuasive powers even when it seems, like the women portrayed on "Mad Men," that they are powerless. Goode's women are persuasive if only because they look like women we have known, admired and loved.

"My initial response to them... is that they're all quite beautiful in the classical sense," Barker said, with the exception being, "Not as fragile as one might believe," a painting of a rigid, pear-shaped woman. "They're all fascinating because they're all mysterious."

The women are metaphors for Goode.

"They are visual thoughts that describe the thick and thin that life doles out," she said. "You know, stuff that is beyond our control. I don't try to control the women.

"I just let them occur."