Duane Bryers grew up in rural Minnesota and worked in the circus, painted murals, and sculpted giant ice figures before becoming most well-known for creating Hilda, a voluptuous pinup girl in the mid-1950s. Before becoming known as the "Norman Rockwell of pinup art," Bryers won 2nd place and $150 in the Proctor & Gamble National Soap Sculpture competition for carving a woman out of a single bar of Ivory soap in the late 1930s and started his girlie art career painting sexy ladies on the sides of military aircraft and went on to create poster art and comic strips for the air base.
After working as a commercial artist in Chicago and moving to New York to pursue his fine art career, "I got the idea for a plumpy gal pinup and thought I'd like to make it into a calendar series," Bryers said in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star in 2012. "But how was I going to sell a plump girl?" He took his series to Brown & Bigelow, then the country's top calendar maker, and "they reluctantly put it in the line and figured it would last a short time," he said. "It went on for 36 years."
Hilda calendars were the most popular in the 1960s, surprisingly, but waned in the early 80s and were almost forgotten until someone recently dug them up from the archives and collective memories of Americans. According to Bryers, Hilda was a mash-up of several larger models he'd worked with over the years and his own imagination, hence her imagery and features varying quite a bit from image to image and her face and body varying from calendar to calendar.
There are at least a hundred images of Hilda resurfacing from over the years and they are all silly and cute and feature her in a bikini doing a variety of sweet, sexy and often clumsy things. Her imagery has been shared repeatedly in fat activist/body positive circles and pages and posted on my wall and private messaged to me over the past few years, as news of her existence was shocking and celebratory. Here was a body that looked more like mine than many others I'd ever seen revered as something sexy enough to be on a flirty calendar. Her imagery has been a positive breath of fresh air in the body shame and sex shame filled media we've been used to consuming for so long.
I've written before about my love of using self-portraits and social media as a radical tool in the feminist revolution over the past few years and I thought Hilda's imagery could use a little more feminism and body positivity. So using things I had around the house, my tripod, my iPhone timer and a few supplies I purchased at the Dollar Tree down the street (plus a few $2.99 watermelons from Trader Joe's!), I embarked on a little fun summer project recreating some of her most iconic images.
Much like the art of Norman Rockwell, Bryers' Hilda reminds us of playful, sweet, and carefree days gone by. But she recalls more than that, too. Hilda shows us that at some time someone else found big girls' curves sensual, silliness sexy, softness endearing, confidence bold and bare skin beautiful. And that maybe, just maybe, we can find that in ourselves, too.
(All photos mine, all images of Hilda courtesy a Google images search for Hilda pinup)