January 30, 2009

On being a woman artist

This past Tuesday I had an article I wrote posted (complete with visuals) on the website Womens Voices for Change. It's an interesting site with many different voices, political voices, social voices and some from the arts. My article was about being a woman artist and I will reprint it here:

One of the more vivid memories of my childhood: I am nine years old, walking down the middle of my one block-long street in Bethesda, Maryland with my neighbor and friend Carol,. We‘re telling each other how much we wished we were boys. All the things boys could do were so appealing to us then—sports, strength, audacity. My dad was working in the yard, and I remember his smile as he overheard our longings.

I wouldn’t want to be a boy. And I’m not sure I really did then. I knew they were very different from girls, and I was curious. Carol had a brother and I was envious of that. There were always boys in her house. I had a sister; I only knew about girls.

Over the years I’ve been very aware I am in a male-dominated profession. All the instructors in my undergraduate art classes at Brown University and Yale’s MFA program were male. I heard often the assumption that the men in our class would have careers as practicing artists and the women would be teachers.

Actually, while there were fewer female students, every single one had one ambition: to be an “artist.” Very few male or female students expressed an interest in becoming teachers and giving up a career as professional artists.

Yet the students from my class whose names I see on gallery listings are always male.
I don’t know what has happened to the female artists. Possibly, like me, they are still making art and having various degrees of success. I’ve never believed we couldn’t do it—couldn’t be on top of the pile of aspiring artists, to be the successful one, regardless of sex. It just takes dedication, persistence, confidence, and probably, most important, a feeling of stubborn necessity. I love painting. I feel privileged to live where I do and do what I do.

In the late 1970s in New York, I had a friend who would call up famous female artists. She’d hang up just when the person answered the phone—all she needed was to hear the voice of a successful artist. Inspiration: It’s all around us.

As a young artist I was fascinated by Louise Nevelson’s sculptures. I saw her works in major galleries and museums and never thought of them as “women’s art”. They were just good art. They also fed my confidence that “it” can be done. When I saw Eva Hesse’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in the early 70’s, I did, however think about her being female. She was very attractive, very feminine in her bearing. Yet there was something daring about what she did, her sculpture, the experimentations with materials, something neither male nor female. Again, inspiring. I’ve read recently in Louise Bourgeois’ writings she felt very intimidated by the male dominated art-world of her day. But she never stopped working. And that in itself is inspiring.

Like a racehorse, I’ve always worn blinders, just looked straight ahead. I’ve not thought about gender in the production of my artwork. I paint because I have to paint. It is the blood that runs through my veins, a vital necessity for my life.

I have at times used techniques and images that are labeled “feminine”— circles, sewing the canvases, soft colors. Men have, however, used circles and soft colors, no doubt, and there have also been men who have sewn their canvases. A well-known New York artist once did a lot of sewing on his paintings, crudely decorative additions. I don’t know if he still does. They are very good pieces. For a few years in the ‘70s, I also did some sewn canvases. At that point I was looking for a way to clean up my canvases, make the “statement” of the work more direct, have the mark clearer; my paintings had been too “fuzzy”, no definite imagery, just a color field and a few faint lines.

In the sewn pieces, I would stain canvas with thinned acrylic paint, cut it up and sew it back together in more obvious forms than I had been using. But people would usually comment that sewing equals female, even though tailoring has traditionally been a male-dominated occupation. Because I didn't put them on conventional stretcher bars, I stopped doing these sewn pieces when my step-mother referred often to them as hangings, not paintings. To me, hangings made them feel too decorative and this has never been what I am looking for in a painting.

If you want to push the point, I use male/female imagery now: circles/lines, often in a tense relationship with each other. But I don’t think much about that part of painting, what the symbols mean, just about what feels right, what works on the painting as I am making it, what makes a painting sing, more about the song than who is singing it.

I just hit five feet in height. This actually surprises people, as my paintings are big and have a boldness that I am told belies my size and gender. I used to think that the best thing to be, as a female artist, would be black and tall: As a Tall Black Woman I could proclaim me, while as a short Caucasian, I don’t really think it is worth talking about.

Studies recently show happy people live longer — and that people who are happy know how to play. Making art is a form of play, doing something with love, passion, caring, trying out ideas, taking risks. The place in the brain that governs the need to make art is likely the same in both men and women.

Possibly it is that place where a person, either male or female, knows how to play. In a way, it’s like someone obsessed with a video game: we take our “play” very seriously. It feels like an inner need. It is also an offering to society, not just a game at home. Something beyond the person. Seeing art as gender-specific is a societal thing, but actually, if you look at a piece of art it is usually impossible to tell the sex of the artist.

What I really feel most strongly is that the paintings should speak for themselves. Currently the consideration of sex is less important in viewing artwork. And I’m sure this trend will continue. Women wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise.

Posted by leya at 04:40 PM

January 28, 2009

Missing John Updike

I was sad to hear John Updike died. At seventy-seven. Somehow I thought he would live forever, be invulnerable to the human frailties he wrote so beautifully about. He will live forever of course in my mind and in his writings. Although his last novels were not my favorites, I love his style, his thoughts, his expressions of everyday life. How he can take four pages to cross the street. The flood of memories, details, associations, how a leaf on the road can turn the mind around and around.

I think my favorite book of his is Rabbit at Rest. I reread the Rabbit series a few years ago and still love them. Even as a man facing poor health and possible death, Harry Angstrom, like all of Updike’s characters, is obsessed with sex right to the end.

As a friend once said to me (of herself), I was single in the seventies. Both of us immediately understood the implications. That was a time of easy sexuality. And Updike wrote about this without shame or hesitation. I’ve had several friends say they didn’t like his writing because of his dark, brooding (and naughty) relationship with sex. It’s not "nice". But it’s life, friends, life at its core. And very beautiful.

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January 26, 2009


Nevertheless, Lila, Lucky, Suzanne and I took a walk by the brook in the woods yesterday . . .





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January 18, 2009


Here’s my New Year’s List of Books I Read Last Year. Actually I probably left out a few, but here are the memorable ones, more or less, and some thoughts about them.

Two by Samual Beckett: The Lost Ones and The Unnamable. I’ve always loved Beckett’s writing, love how they transport me to another level of experience beyond words yet through the use of words.

Short Stories by Nadine Gordimer, Something Out There. I really enjoyed these stories and would like to read more by her.

John Banville Eclipse. An aging actor’s search for himself. I was glad when I finished this one. It was okay but dragged on.

Dan Chaon: Among the Missing has one of the best stories I have read in a long time. I enjoyed the entire book.

On the other hand, his novel You Remind Me of Me really went on too long, needed cutting. Although a good story, too much of a good thing is not good. The book would have benefited by a good editor.

Joan Brady: Prologue. This was a wonderful memoir of her youth, her ambitions to be a professional ballet dancer and the tensions between her and her mother. I’ve been planning to read more of her writing, and soon.

J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians. Another wonderful novel. Beautifully written story of a man who faces an extreme moral dilemma involving power and colonial unrest and violence.

William Trevor: Felicia’s Journey (made into a motion picture by Atom Egoyan) A primer on how to become a derelict. A well-written story but without any possibilities of hope or transcendence of despair. Another book I didn’t mind finishing.

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukayama. Most of this novel was perfect, the part told by the young Chinese man recuperating from tuberculosis in a small resort town in Japan. But then, when the story changed point of view, it failed for me. The main theme is about outcasts: tensions between nationalities and also between the healthy and the ill. The underlying theme is the beauty of life as symbolized by the Garden.

The Master by Colm Toibin, about Henry James, a beautiful, intense, quietly profound book about creativity and loneliness.

News from Paraguay by Lilly Tuck. Perfectly crafted short episodes (a whole chapter in each paragraph) that give a full story of a major part of Paraguay’s history.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Searching for clues to the fire at the Venice Opera House, the entire history of Venice and its social life is laid out in a fascinating travelogue.

Everyman by Philip Roth. An interesting probe into the feelings of an aging retired successful advertising executive.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. A fascinating look at isolation and what it can do to the mind and what kind of person chooses it.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Still one of the best books ever. To write a book from the point of view of a six year old and have it seem believable is, well, unbelievable for how successful it is.

Yesterday by Agota Kristof. A very sad and beautiful book.

Pig Earth by the art critic and writer John Berger. A fascinating story of life in rural France.

Louise Bourgeois’ Destruction of the Father; Reconstruction of the Father. Her writings and interviews from 1923 to 1997. Fascinating!

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January 14, 2009


After a tough morning in my studio, I have some thoughts about my recent small black and white pieces and their translation into color. First, they work differently because they have a white border around them. That gives them some breathing room, some quiet space. All my work in the recent years has had that but usually in the middle of the paintings. These black and white are active in the middle, quiet at the edges because of the border.

Then too, I used a brush and the brush marks are a very active part of the piece. I’ve been using oil bars (paint sticks) for over twenty-five years and don’t want to start using a brush again. I don’t want to have to clean the brushes or use any turpentine in my studio. So I am having to continue with the paint bars.

Interesting thoughts. Now when I look at work I did last year, before the holidays, I want to rework so many of them. I have started to do that but I also want to leave some as they are and start fresh. So I have a stack of stretchers and bought some canvas yesterday. Lots of work to do.

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January 12, 2009

His and hers

My current inspiration is coming from some small, four by six inch (more or less) black and white pieces I did on paper. The series was done so I could choose two to take to my sister and her husband for their 50th wedding anniversary party (which I never got to because of the weather). My task now, besides packing up and mailing their pieces, is to figure out what makes these be so important to me and how to translate that into color, with paint and a larger scale, onto canvas.





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January 09, 2009

Dogs in dresses

The other day I bought Lila a coat, a pretty red outfit to keep her warm when she is out and about or waiting for me to return to the car. It turns out her friend Lucky has the same coat. Cute.





Photos courtesy of Suzanne, Lucky's mom.

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January 07, 2009

Back to work (more or less)

As I sit here waiting for a box of paintings (baker’s dozen, thirteen 20” x 20” pieces) to be picked up for a shipment to Naples, Florida, my thoughts wander to my studio and to all the possibilities brewing there. Sometimes it’s good to have a break from working. A fresh view.

I’d left some unfinished work and the ideas have been tumbling through my mind for a couple of weeks. A friend had come over the week before I left for Ottawa and encouraged me to leave even more of the under-painting exposed. I’ve been moving in that direction, but often I go too far in tidying up towards the end and losing the initial exuberance.

The (more or less) black and white pieces I do on paper usually stay more expressive because the color is so limited and the paint very fluid. I worked on a series of these pieces just before the holidays. The intention was to take two for my sister’s anniversary party. But I never got there due to the weather; they will have to be mailed. So I’ve had a lot of time to ponder what makes them different from the larger oil canvases. Now let’s see what happens.

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January 06, 2009

A few pix from Ottawa

There was a huge tree at the National Gallery:


High tea at the Chateau Laurier:



Hanging out at the airport in the early hours of the morning:


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January 05, 2009


Happy New Year! Already it seems the days are moving far too quickly even though I am not. No school to go back to, just the dog and me and painting. Not bad. To catch up:

I did go to Ottawa to visit Aaron and Joanne. It was a lovely visit, traveling easy, wonderful company and lots of interesting entertainment. I spent a lot of time with Joanne, Aaron and Joanne’s family. A very warm and welcoming group of people.

We went to see my paintings at the Koyman Galleries, 1771 St. Laurent. They looked good and I will have installation shots soon. Then we went to the National Gallery. Saw some interesting contemporary Native art. That evening, a party at Joanne’s parents’ house.

The other events were: going to see Slumdog Millionaire (great shots of India, places not usually seen, very romantic even through the hardships of poverty), Milk (definitely one of the best films ever, very moving, haunting reminder of human inhumanity), and going for High Tea at the Chateau Laurier.

They all took me to the airport for a very early flight Wednesday morning. When I was checking in at the airport, the woman behind the counter asked me if they were with me. No, I said, they are my family. I turned to them, said I’m not used to this, but I could get used to it!

Then home to recover Lila and settle in. (She stayed with friends in Halifax.) I was happy to get back into my studio, go for walks in the park, see friends, be home. I do love Nova Scotia, strange weather and all!

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