Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phenomenal Women: A Portrait Gallery of Role Models by Robyn Hussa Farrell

In celebration of the 10th year of this empowerment blog site, #RealDeal Editor, Robyn Hussa Farrell, shares this “gallery of role models” and fierce women leaders.

Each of the below paintings were created while reflecting on the abundance of women role models in my life.  In honor and celebration of each of them, I wanted to create a virtual gallery in one space.  A live version of this gallery was exhibited as a special VIP installation for the DETERMINED TO RISE project in Spartanburg, SC, featuring Katherine Goble Moore and Joylette Goble, the daughters of famed NASA scientist Katherine Goble Johnson, who retold the story of their mother’s remarkable life as a black woman who began her education in a one-room segregated classroom only to become integral to the success of the NASA space program.

Because many of my mentors and role models cannot attend this exhibit, I am creating a version here — to share with you all.

As you read each entry, if there are women that come to your mind who have inspired you or mentored you in your journey, please add their names in the comments below.

With deepest gratitude and respect,

Robyn Hussa Farrell

Mom (or the essence of her) … to this day she never stops encouraging me to follow my dreams and to believe … I chose the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one” as a reminder of how grateful I am to have been empowered by two incredible parents.  Thank you mom!








Gram.  She struggled with depression and it made me try to learn more about it. I did my thesis in graduate school about the many women throughout history who struggled from mental illness, mostly in silence. When she died in 2007, it launched the beginning of my journey creating Mental Fitness … nothing has been harder than listening and learning from the world’s experts how to remedy a mental health crisis in schools. This one is in honor of gram… “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” -Anne Sexton







My sister Jenny taught me to paint — using the techniques of Kelly Rae Roberts and other multi-media artists.  This painting is dedicated to Jenny … and all the teachers who foster young lives. Inspired by bell hooks, this one says “Radical Openness” and the words “inspire” (or breathe in…), “believe” and “write.”  As I made it, I contemplated how my sister loves to garden and nourish all things … especially the minds of youth.  A life-long English teacher, Ph.D.-track for Rhetoric and Composition and a person who authentically empowers all beings. In this painting she also has kind of a fertility goddess thing going on. Throat chakra has a very embellished gold and black necklace … symbolizing someone who helps others find their voice and power. Made from oil, acrylic, Jenny’s vintage wallpaper collection and an array of die cuts … this one has dozens of layers … like my amazing sister.



My dear friend Maripat Abbott. We met in 2007 during yoga certification on an organic farm and — through yoga, the breath, meditation, prayer, inhalation and exhalation, have each found inner peace and truths or “satya”…. we have gone through transformations of all-worldly forms together.  We shared a common fear of looking inward.  Once we began the journey, the enlightenment, growth and expansion was palpable.  Through the silence, we were able to hear our voices. 









I worked for 4 years in a treatment center as a yoga / mindfulness based stress reduction instructor.  On every occasion, I was blown away by the girls and women I met there — all pursuing treatment for various addictions and mental health disorders.  On one particular day, a young girl was so moved after one of our yoga sessions, she stood up and started to dance again for the first time in years. I have been so inspired by these fiercely brave young women — battling mental illness and recovery —  and dedicate this painting to them, with the Alanis lyrics: “I have been running so sweaty my whole life urgent for a finish line and I have been missing the rapture this whole time of being forever incomplete.”




When my friend Jocelyn Smith learned she could finally adopt her baby, after waiting for 2+ years for adoption to be finalized, it was a celebration.  Jocelyn was finally able to share her life with little baby Ren.  Ren was born addicted and Jocelyn nursed her through to the other side of hope and healing.  More than words can say, the two of you are such an inspiration to me … this one is for baby Ren … and the many foster children who might also find strength and peace through this story.








This role model is my first voice teacher at UVA, Kate Burke, who devotes her life to service, faith, and to helping so many to find their voices.  I chose Matthew 5:16 “let your light shine”… as it reminds me of the work Kate is doing to assist individual in bringing their voices and perspectives to heightened, classical text — including scripture.







Every Friday at 1pm I would have the great privilege of learning from her. Margaret Riddleberger (“Mizzar”) — for seven years she always encouraged me to push myself and also to yield enough to “get out of my own way.”  In loving memory … “Eat ether, see what has never been seen, depart, be lost, but climb.” -EDNA St. Vincent Millay








This role model inspired me when I was living in Milwaukee touring Normal the Musical. She had been involved with Public Allies leadership for youth and I was moved by her work. She then became First Lady … and the rest is history. “People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together. “ —Michelle Obama









This is an homage to my colleague, Cassie Lloyd.  Together we launched Flourish (Girl Power Camps) at the YMCA, which led to our award winning program in schools. She is a gracious leader and a serious rockstar … she was among the first to believe and encourage me forward.










Inspired by the amazing Natalia Swanson and her tireless work to help families who are being deported and the children who are left behind without a home.  I’m blown away by her passion for human rights and justice. The quote is from Maya Angelou and reads:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”









Inspired by the clinical psychologist who helped me create Mental Fitness and helped build the systems that led to over 4,000 people connecting safely to mental health treatment, this one is dedicated to Dr. Laura Lees.  She and I wrote a book together and — to say the least — she has been a role model and friend for over 10 years. The lyrics printed are from beautiful by Carole King, representing the hundreds of young women Dr. Lees has helped, inspired and encouraged to find beauty inward.  “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart… then people gonna treat you better… you’re gonna find that you’re beautiful as you feel.”




I so admire this woman. The first woman to run for Mayor in Spartanburg, the first African American woman to run for Mayor … a leader, mentor, role model, roller-skater-goddess… if there’s one person on the planet who epitomizes grit (and elegance) … it is Lekesa Whitner.









In honor of my blood-neighbor and friend Lucy Lugo (and her husband Raul) who are role models, friends, family and who are always there. “You are a song… a wished-for song.” -Rumi









Kathy Dunleavy is a breaker of glass ceilings, pictured here with a flower and dragonfly made out of a ruler and poetry.  Leader of the United Way of the Piedmont and Mary Black Foundation in Spartanburg, she has truly been a game-changing mentor in my life and beyond an inspiration. “Women are the real architects of society” – Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Through her leadership and fierce example, she has profoundly impacted the landscape of my life.  Thank you, Kathy.






Carol Mabry is an empowered leader, fearless educator and protector of the children … especially those who attended the SC School for Deaf and Blind.  For Carol, I wanted to capture a quote or poem that had to do with karma or the importance of all we do in this life.  Thich Nhat Hanh had the best one “Our own life has to be our message.”  That’s Carol.  Her entire life of grace is, indeed, her message.






My sweet friend Louise Fagan is an inspiration, visionary, collaborator, ferociously generous leader and talented artist. Follow her anywhere … this woman is a force of nature.  “L is the lantern to light us to bed.”










Continuing with painted canvas dedicated to women who “march” on a daily basis in their lives … This piece is inspired by two women… both of whom entered the room with the most gorgeous Afro I had ever seen. I realized I have only seen someone wearing their natural hair twice in my life: first when I worked with Eisa Davis — a brilliant writer, activist, actor, kindred spirit and niece of Angela Davis.  Second was when I got to do a show with Arialle Kennedy Smith — a most stunning dancer, artist, teacher, and gracious human being. To me their gorgeous hair represented a voice that is rarely heard … a power and confidence to be whoever they want to be — no matter what. So for these game-changing warriors, I included the quote “remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” – Eleanor Roosevelt. May other women (and men) have no fear in allowing their individual light to shine …






This warrior is inspired by a woman who dedicates her life to empowering youth about prevention … about relational health and how to make healthy choices regarding pregnancy. She is the Beatles tune: “Blackbird”… one of my all-time favorites. The painting reads “Blackbird Fly: you were only waiting for this moment to be free…” and aside from our friend the Blackbird in the painting, she wears a bird nest with feather in her cap.  This canvas is a tribute to all of the women who march on a daily basis to empower others … thank you Polly Padgett for all you are and do.





Inspired by my friend, Valerie Barnet, who helps, adores and defends animals, children and all creatures.  She works tirelessly without complaint … this is a Tibetan lovingkindness mantra that reads “Protect all living creatures… may all creatures be free from suffering.”










This woman absolutely blew me away at the 2018 MLK Unity celebration in Spartanburg.  I was so moved by Erica Campbell’s speech, I had to come home and paint … “Walking IN purpose ON purpose” … from the gospel duo, Mary Mary.











One of the reasons I moved to Spartanburg was when I learned of Dr. Jennifer Parker’s incredible program at USC Upstate Center for Child Advocacy Studies.  One of only 4 in the nation, Dr. Parker has created a national training center to teach about trauma and its impact on our children.  She launched the Compassionate Schools movement in our community and has opened minds and hearts to an empathic spirit toward adversity in childhood.  Most importantly she believes in resilience and the power of prevention.  Pictured third from the right, Dr. Parker is surrounded by a tribe of women.  For your work defending children’s rights, improving protection and creating advocacy … Dr. Parker, you are my hero!




This is in dedication to my friend, Monica, who has endured, survived, and is a pillar of strength.  We met in grad school at University of Virginia and learned many things.  Among them: stage combat.  Monica Blaze-Leavitt is a fight director and warrior — a black belt in karate — a fiercely talented artist and generous human being.  Most of all, she is brave.









Heather Witt has boundless energy when it comes to serving others.  Her fierce dedication to helping empower, feed, fuel and nourish the world is palpable.  “In the midst of winter I learned there was in me an invincible summer.” – Camus










I dedicate this painting to Heidi Nielsen.  Attorney, mom, photographer… and friend. “Unapologetically Myself.”











Dedicated to Hope Blackley who represents strength, grace and integrity. You are an inspiration to me … and to the world.












This woman is yet another force of nature.  She’s a warrior, jedi, rockstar, game-changer.  After you meet her, you will be changed for the better.  Selfless and gifted … artist … mom … human. This is in honor of Betsy Neely Sikma.










I had the privilege of working alongside Samantha Campbell on a community engagement project… connecting more diverse voices into the decision-making process.  Samantha helps others to use their voice, speak up, speak out … and shine.










Crystal Pace’s energy, enthusiasm, power and creativity enter the space before she does.  Her glow is palpable.  She is fearless and literally “explodes life with joy.”









This one is for Dawn Davis-Deck.  Inspired by your wisdom, endless patience and beauty … the quote is from Carole King’s ‘beautiful’… “I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness in a world where tears are just a lullaby. If there’s any answer, maybe love can end the madness…”









Inspired by the one-and-only Susu Johnson who has mentored, guided and cheered me on … “Empowered women empower women” … Nothing says it better for this incredible role model in my life…. thank you for empowering children, families, women, girls … and me.









Mary Thomas was one of the first women to take me under her wing.  She graciously met for coffee, connected dots and outlined strategies for success.  She leads by example and is more stunning than any words could express, but the one word that says it all … “faith” … does just that.  She has taught me to have faith, to hold onto my faith and to embrace faith.  I am so grateful for you, Mary.  Thank you!







The last entry was possibly the most challenging, but an exercise that I encourage all to try … as women and as role models.  If you had to paint yourself — or aspects of yourself — in gratitude, as if you would paint a “role model” — what would you create?  What poem or phrase or affirmation would you attribute to the work?


For me, this was a painfully difficult task.  And yet … these images resulted.  “hope” and “satya (truth)” …




On the “Satya” painting, the phrase reads “you are exactly where you need to be” which is a mantra I use to increase my own trust and faith in the moment.  This piece ended up looking like my mom in her younger years.  A dedication and full-circle ending to the series.  Begin and end with mom … family.  With gratitude.


2 Responses to “Phenomenal Women: A Portrait Gallery of Role Models by Robyn Hussa Farrell”
  1. Monica Blaze Leavitt says:

    These are amazing, dear Robyn!! You are an incredible, powerful, loving artist and I’m so proud of who you are in the world and the difference that you make. You are one of my role models! I’m proud to be in your world and in your art.

    I love you!

  2. Kate Burke says:

    Margaret McQuaid Provost
    Jean Scanlan
    Robin Burke Calligan
    Marguerite Barrows Michels
    Breda Mathews (yes, one t)
    Sarah-Jane Gwillim
    Marianne Provost Webster

    We stand on the shoulders of giantesses.

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