In Northdale, Tampa artist Ashley Cassens fights women’s repression one tiny portrait at a time

‘Eye Traps’ is at Elevation coffee until Jan. 29.

click to enlarge Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022. - C/O ASHLEY CASSENS
c/o Ashley Cassens
Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022.
Tampa artist Ashley Cassens listens to a lot of podcasts on her drive to and from work, but they didn’t inspire her art until recently

In June 2021, popular true-crime podcast introduced Cassens to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a fundamentalist cult whose “educational” pamphlets inspired her latest series of paintings. “Some Place Under Neith” did a six-part series on the Hinsdale, Illinois-based cult that summer, where hosts talked about everything from child abuse to male supremacy and sex-shaming. Like Scientologists, IBLP members are recognized by their creepy clone-like uniforms.

Bryan Smith writes in Chicago Magazine, "The sight of teenage girls walking arm in arm in a nearby park, identically dressed in chaste ankle-length skirts, red scarves knotted around their necks, and modest Mary Janes, and of teen boys seemingly stamped out on a Wonder Bread assembly line—always in dark suits, white shirts, and ties—drew the occasional stare."

As one might guess, these kids didn’t all wake up one day and decide to dress in the same boring outfit. Their parents taught them to dress this way in accordance with IBLP principles. As in most patriarchal groups, the rules for women’s dress are the most stringent.

Girls growing up in the IBLP receive a “wisdom booklet” that teaches them to smile, to do their hair a certain way, to keep their stomach toned, sit up straight, and avoid “eye traps.” The IBLP defines eye traps as anything a woman wears that could possibly attract a man’s eyes away from her smiling face. This includes “jangling jewelry” and “garish colors.” According to the IBLP, God loves a smiling, well-groomed woman in plain dress. And don’t forget the Creator’s color plan, ladies. (Obviously I’m kidding about the Creator’s color plan, but you can find this exact phrase in leaked IBLP documents.) "What's a garish color?" Cassens asked herself. "I use a lot of cadmium red when I'm painting, and that's a very bold color." As much as the IBLP hates eye traps, Cassens loves them.
"I wanted to change the term from something negative to something positive," says Cassens.

Cassens' latest series of paintings, a collection of 16 portraits she calls "Eye Traps," are meant to encourage female expression, boldness and individuality. Although Cassens' tiny, eight-by-eight-inch oil paintings don’t look like any sort of affront to repressive cults, this type of art challenges these groups in a small way.

Cassens’ “Eye Traps” counter cult fashion by depicting women whose bold style sets them apart from the crowd. Cassens didn't want all of her women to look the same. She wanted them to reflect the real world that we live in. It was enough to push Cassens out of her comfort zone of painting only family and friends.

Still struggling with pandemic isolation, Cassens reached out to (and conversed with) models and photographers around the world using Pexels, a free stock photography site based in Germany. On Pexels, Cassens found the connection and inspiration she’d been searching for.
click to enlarge Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022. - C/O ASHLEY CASSENS
c/o Ashley Cassens
Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022.
"Once I opened that door, the possibilities were endless,” Cassens told CL. "I've been able to connect with people from Brazil and Vietnam.”

Showing her work at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, and doing this interview with CL, is also about making connections and starting conversations.

There are several discussions we can have over Cassens’ latest collection, which is still on display at Elevation Coffee Roasters. We can chat about religion, cults, women’s rights, trauma and fashion—all things I write about here. But we can also talk about making time for art.

Outside of the IBLP, most Americans have the freedom to express themselves. The challenge is finding the time. Most of us have jobs and outside responsibilities, and Cassens is no exception. The full-time elementary school art teacher and young mother would love to have 20 hours a week to paint, but that’s not her reality. “I had to shift my studio practice when my daughter was born,” Cassens told CL. “I can’t paint 16 18-by-24s when I have a newborn.”
click to enlarge Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022. - C/O ASHLEY CASSENS
c/o Ashley Cassens
Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022.
Cassens had to find a way to create in the three hours a week that her toddler was napping. So she painted at home, she painted small, and she painted during the summer when her work schedule was lighter.

When she was ready to share her paintings with the world, Cassens found an empty wall at her neighborhood coffee shop and emailed CL. Like Cassens, I’ve been struggling to connect with people and stay creative during this pandemic. Perhaps that’s why Cassens’ story resonates with me. But whether I have three or 20 hours a week to create, I’m grateful I have the freedom to create at all. Even in the U.S., there are groups who seek to take our freedoms away. That’s something we should never forget or stop talking about.
click to enlarge Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022. - C/O ASHLEY CASSENS
c/o Ashley Cassens
Ashley Cassens' 'Eye Traps' is at Elevation Coffee Roasters in Tampa, Florida through Jan. 29, 2022.

About The Author

Jennifer Ring

Jennifer studied biology for six years, planning for a career in science, but the Universe had other plans. In 2011, Jen was diagnosed with a rare lung disease that sidelined her from scientific research. Her immune system, plagued by Scleroderma, had attacked her lungs to the point of no return. She now required...
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