The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


February 8, 2014

Marta Churchwell: 2008 documentary studies sacrifices female artists make

JOPLIN, Mo. — The question posed seemed easy enough: Name five female artists throughout history.

I started out pretty well. Lillian Hellman, Emily Dickinson, Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassatt. Then I went blank.

If I had been listing men who had achieved artistic success, naming five would have simply been a warm up. Why is this? It's doubtful there is a disproportionate number of male artists when compared with females.

Is it because women have never been able to get a foothold on art success because of sexist attitudes? Is it because women are quicker than men to sacrifice their creative juices for parenthood?

Those were the questions considered by local artists, art supporters and university art instructors who recently gathered at Phoenix Fired Arts for a viewing of the documentary "Who Does She Think She Is?"

The film, directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll, traces the lives of five women as they struggle to find artistic success under the demands of motherhood. When the documentary was released in 2008, a New York Times review described it as being about "answering the call to self-expression in the face of biological imperatives and cultural programming."

The artists in the film are, for the most part, older women who have survived the travails of being both young mothers and young artists. Now their children are teens or adults, who recognize the sacrifices their mothers made on their behalf, and they voice admiration for their mothers for pursuing their artistic passions. They speak of the respect for the creativity they developed by growing up in their mothers' studios, something they would have been denied had their mothers betrayed their passions to pursue professions in other fields.

How did these mothers find the delicate balance between nurturing and self-expression free of guilt and without slighting either one?

"You really have to make choices, and I made this choice (to pursue art)," said Camille Musser, a Cambridge, Mass., painter who was profiled in the film. "I just had to arrange my life to do it."

In post-film discussion, Carthage artist Brenda Sageng agreed that an equilibrium can be found, but it requires organization and maternal patience.

"You just arrange your schedule accordingly," she said. She also learned to keep her four daughters occupied with art projects of their own so she could concentrate on hers.

For Janis Mars Wunderlich, a clay sculptor featured in the film, it meant getting her oldest children off to school then working in her studio while her toddler napped. Sometimes the creative juices were at full tilt only to be cut off by the children's needs.

For metal sculptor Maye Torres, it meant working at night after bedding down her three sons, and then making it on only three or four hours of sleep a night. For a couple of the artists, it led to failed marriages.

If those struggles weren't enough, they also faced conservative value systems that promote gender inequality.

"I had a museum director in my studio who said, ÔYou're never really going to be taken seriously because you're a woman and you're a mother," said Torres, of Taos, N.M.

Supporting this, a representative of the New York School of Visual Arts offered some statistics: An estimated 80 percent of students at the school are female, yet 70 to 80 percent of the art work in galleries and museums is created by men.

For stage actress Angela Williams, of New York, this contributes to a feeling of fighting it all alone.

"I'm in the middle of the forest," she said. "There are no paths. I have no companions, and I hear wolves."

"Self-sacrifice and feeling alone are how women artists feel and the film showed that they aren't alone, and that's important," said the film director.

For artists in the documentary as well as those viewing it locally, the issue isn't as much about gender and pushing past maternal demands as it is about refusing to ignore the need to create and to find purpose in life.

"It's a calling and the calling is getting louder, and I have to answer it," said Williams, the performing artist.

Leonard Shlain, an author whose book on art and physics is now used in many art schools and universities, contends that our society as dependent upon artists to help interpret the world and contribute to our quality of life.

"If you have the urge to be an artist, it is imperative that you express it," he said in the film.

Local artist Lea Ann Jordan agreed: "There's something about art that defines what humanity is, in terms of our spiritually and the people we are as individuals and a society."

Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at joplinglobe

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