My late father-in-law was an artist. After attending art school on the G. I. Bill, he and his wife moved to Italy for two years so that he could paint and study. When the couple returned to California, his career blossomed with several shows a year, including a solo exhibition at San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. But then his public career quieted, his output slowed; he shifted to smaller, more saleable projects like jewelry and jigsaw puzzles. I never understood this sharp turn in a successful career – had there been a devastating review? – until my first child was born and it occurred to me one day to map Jim’s career against his children’s birthdates. And there it was: sons born in 1967 and 1969; a rush of shows in 1969 and then fewer and fewer until just two in 1972, one in ’76, and then nothing for twenty years. It wasn’t the critics, I realized, but the kids.
We give lip service to the notion that our lives are never the same after we become parents, but it’s rare to find an honest examination of the impact of parenthood on one’s art. Literary Mama’s Literary Reflections department offers stories about how writers are affected by mothering, and I hungrily read those essays every month; but although motherhood has affected the subject and certainly the urgency of my writing, I can still do it: I write on the backs of receipts while on line at the grocery store or waiting at the post office; I started this column in a tattered notebook while I was riding the streetcar downtown to an appointment and then wrote another chunk with my laptop propped on the steering wheel while waiting in the carpool line. Although I can be finicky and insist on my office, my desk, my computer, I know I can write without them. Visual artists have it harder.
I hadn’t really thought about the constraints of space and materials that visual artists work with until I watched Pamela Tanner Boll’s moving new documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (2008), which introduces us to several mother-artists and asks why, when making art and raising children are both crucial for our culture, it is so hard to do both. The film wants us to know about these mothers making art, and it puts their stories in the larger context of all women artists. Like all women, women artists find their work less well-known and less well-compensated than the work of their male contemporaries. Like all mothers, mother artists endure isolation from their peers, sleep deprivation, and myriad claims on their time which make it difficult to continue their careers. But they do.
The film offers upsetting facts about women artists. Women and men make up equal numbers in art school, yet 70-80% of the artists represented by galleries are men. Art by women makes up only ten percent of the work illustrated in the standard art textbooks. But no one is suggesting that women are underrepresented because their artwork is inferior; tellingly, when artists are selected for shows anonymously by jury, rather than by invitation, the exhibition figures for women grow from roughly one-fifth to one half the opportunities granted to men. It is important to know about these obstacles facing women artists, but the film’s aim is to motivate rather than discourage, and it achieves that by grounding its facts in deeply compelling stories.
I related most to Janis Wunderlich, a Mormon mother of five who married her high school sweetheart after her first year of college. Nothing I just wrote about her connects to my life, nor does this: she makes intricate, brightly painted clay sculptures of female figures with fierce animal heads. The figures are covered – their shoulders weighed down, their arms full, their mouths overflowing — with other tiny figures who have their own fierce animal heads; sometimes they are birthing still more, from vagina or belly. The sculptures are fascinating and troubling – I couldn’t look away from them, though I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Janis ships them out to buyers and galleries as quickly as she can and still her work fills the shelves of her house. “Part of the reason I send it out so quickly is that I’m afraid it’s going to get broken in my home!” And when we hear her warning her son, “Isaac, there is absolutely no weaponage at the dinner table!”, we are glad, for her art’s sake, that she does. But she’s wistful about this, wishing she could slow down a bit and savor her work.
I laughed when I heard her talk about weaponage, and I nodded my head in understanding when I saw her driving home from school drop-off with her youngest strapped into her carseat. In voice-over, Janis says, “On the way home I have it just timed, Eliza will fall asleep in the car; when I pull into the garage and she’s asleep it’s like my special, beautiful time, I run to my studio and I close everything else out and I just spend the time creating. And really, sometimes, it’s one hour.” I still depend on my youngest’s naps to write, and as I listened to this moment, realized that probably by now, the child has shifted schedules, and I hope Janis has found a new way to get studio time.
Janis has no artistic community; her neighbors and the members of the church might know she’s an artist, but not that she’s a professional who has ten to fifteen shows a year and can sell a single small piece for $5,000. “I have no interaction with anybody in the art world, I’m just here in my little street, driving my kids to and from soccer and piano.” The film follows her to a major show in Chicago which she attends with her family, and she’s in heaven: “even if they could only coexist for five or ten minutes . . .” she trails off, happily watching her kids looking at her work, seeing them see her, for a moment, as an artist.
Who Does She Think She Is? tells other stories, some of which could fill whole films, and gracefully avoids the documentary’s typical problem of becoming staid by rarely using talking-head interviews: these women are too busy to sit down and chat! We hear the women talking about their artwork while they’re making it, or while they’re picking their kids up from school, or in voice-over while their artwork is on screen. One of the few sit-down interviews is interrupted by a child’s off-screen cry; the artist simply gets up and walks out of the frame. Another filmmaker would have edited the moment out, but Boll leaves it in to make a point about priorities and the claims on these women’s time.
“My kids, they really embrace the fact that I’m an artist,” Janis says; her teenage daughter confirms this, saying that sometimes when her friends come over, they’ll remark “‘Wow, there’s a naked person having a baby on your table!'” but, her daughter finishes, “I’m okay with her, like, doing that kind of stuff.” This, and other expressions of love, support and understanding from the artists’ children, encouraged me the most.
We see Janis in her studio with her youngest children, all of them contentedly working the clay, and I thought of the childhood pictures of my husband and his brother in their dad’s studio, playing alarmingly close to the jigsaw and open drums of resin. My kids look at those pictures, they see and touch their grandpa’s artwork, and will someday understand, as I do now, that he made a choice – a lucky choice, I know, not one forced by sexism – to shift his career in order to more fully parent his sons. The public’s loss was his family’s gain, and as my husband and I work out how best to share parenting, the decision continues to resonate in my family. I look at my kids and I am impatient for the day when all parents can choose both family and art, can choose to be whole. I am impatient for the day when people stop asking, who does she think she is, wanting so much? Impatient for the day when all artists – mothers and fathers both – can say, as Janis does, “No matter what, I have a right to be in my studio doing this; it’s good, it’s good for my family, it’s good for me.”
For more information please visit: http://www.whodoesshethinksheis.net