Who Does She Think She Is?

In recently returning to my visual arts practice, I am also re-immersing myself in the critical and socio-political constructs of that practice. So I picked up Art on My Mind by bell hooks from my bookshelf. hooks is one of my favorite critical writers of all time. Her writing about feminism, education, and love has been revelatory for me.

In Art On My Mind, which was published twenty years ago, hooks addresses the gaps in critical thought and writing about African American contemporary art and artists, with a particular focus on women. The book includes essays about and interviews with some of my favorite artists–like Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson–who contest and confront the colonial, patriarchal gaze. And in the current sociopolitical climate, where the dehumanization of people of color and women continues apace, this work feels more relevant than ever.

About halfway through the book, I got to her essay “Women Artists: The Creative Process.” This essay, in which hooks writes about the struggles women still face in fulfilling their passion as artists, struck a deep chord with me.

I often joke that art school made me a feminist, but it’s absolutely true. As a painting student at Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was shocked to discover that the “boys club” mentality that I associated with the abstract expressionist movements of the 1950s was still alive and well. A group of male students made work frequently degrading to women and treated their female peers like groupies who were there to serve their egos, a dynamic that was reinforced by several of the school’s more popular professors. As a reaction, my work began to incorporate iconic symbols of women’s power, fertility, and endurance. At the final critique of my junior year, my professor, who I had sparred with all year, said “the imagery in your painting is too feminine for me to be able to talk about.” Over the next year, my work shifted to mixed media pieces incorporating photography, text, and media images that more directly confronted the insidious social messages that shape gender roles. I discovered the  Guerilla Girls and the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) and stepped fully into the role of feminist artist.

That was more than twenty years ago. Now I am a parent to three children living in one of the most expensive urban regions in the country. Finding the time and space to engage in artmaking, a practice that is so devalued economically, and therefore rarely synonymous with a family-sustaining career, and setting that on top of a life as a full-time parent working full-time, seems almost impossible. Adrienne Rich describes the time women artists, particularly those with families, set aside to make art as “time guiltily seized.”

Seeking more women’s voices about this struggle, I came across a trailer for the 2008 film Who Does She Think She Is?, which follows a diverse group of women balancing the demands of family and their calling as artists. The film sets these personal stories within the larger context of the continued underrepresentation of women artists in the art world. In the trailer, a professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts states that while 80% of the students at the school are women, only seven to eight percent of the women represented in New York galleries are women. A recent survey of women in the arts adds more context.  

In other words, there are two layers to women artists’ struggle: the struggle to carve out the time to create, and the struggle to share what they’ve created with the world. Yet despite these barriers, for the women featured in Who Does She Think She Is?, NOT making art simply wasn’t an option. As ceramicist Janis Wunderlich put it, “I’ve found that, the times in my life when I haven’t had time to do art, I go crazy.”

I’m writing about this because I’m trying to figure it out for myself, and know that other women out there are too. It’s my hope that mutual support can lift us all up so that we can be our fullest selves: artists, parents, and partners. I really want to believe it’s possible.