WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Now There Are Artists That Look Like Me!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Now There Are Artists That Look Like Me!

Art History hasn’t been historically inclusive, but that’s changing, for the better!

More insights for (and from!) the young artists who visited my studio last month.

I grew up in small, agricultural community that was white white white. I never saw a person of color—any color!—until I was standing in line at a McDonald’s in my teens, behind a person of color. I could not stop looking at their skin, because I’d never seen anything like it (in person, AND this was before we owned a color TV.) I hope they did not notice my interest!

I rarely saw a woman’s art in my art history textbooks in college. None in Janson’s History of Art, and a handful (literally!) in my other textbooks. There are a jillion paintings of nude women, and very few women recognized as “real” artists, even today.*

I’ve just realized I rarely saw the work of any artists outside the U.S. or Europe, either. I did take Asian Art History classes, so I eventually saw work from India, Japan, and China, but those were advanced classes. I do remember at the end of my senior year, one professor suggested that African Art seemed to be becoming a “thing”, and if we couldn’t find work in “regular” museums, we might consider exploring that “new field”.

As for genders, there were “men” and there were “women”, period. I knew nothing about people being gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or any other gender placement and didn’t know any people who were, until college, either. Of course, looking back, there obviously WERE people who blurred the lines, but we just considered them “odd” or “weird” or “different”, “not quite.” Or we didn’t talk about it. My heart breaks for what they must have endured their entire lives among people just as or (or even more) ignorant than I.

And the only religions depicted in traditional art were Greco-Roman mythology (not a “real” religion, of course, these were myths, right?) and Christianity. The big schism in religions were limited to Protestant and Catholicism. (As I branched out into more specialized Art History fields, I did encounter Buddhism and Shinto, so there’s that.)*

Things are much different today!

Where I live now has an amazing variety of many races, creeds, genders, and countries of origin. And most of the students that stayed to talk in my studio were Latina artist. (I’ve only recently learned that “Latino” is male and “Latina” is female. So….still learning!)

I shared my lack of exposure to artists who were women, to the point where I assumed women really couldn’t be “great artists”. After all, the experts said they weren’t, and I couldn’t “see” them. So it had to be true.

When I had my epiphany in my early 40’s, I still hadn’t embraced the bubble art history had put me in. I said I had to be an artist, and I didn’t care anymore if I were a good one or not. I just had to do it.

What a difference today!

David Foster Wallace and his famous commencement speech for Kenyon College This is Water is a powerful message to us all. If we grow up only seeing what others deem is “normal” to see, then we won’t be able to see the whole picture. If we never see women artists, we believe there aren’t any. If we believe the only “real art” is 2-D work, then we won’t believe other media “count”. If we believe there are only two “real genders”, we can’t accept as human beings those people who don’t fit into that box. If we believe only certain periods of history and certain places were the home of “real art”, then we can’t even see that the art of other times, places, countries, religions, etc. have their own respectable place in our world.

We still have a long ways to go.** But it’s getting better. And I encouraged these young women to see their art-making as a force for good in their journey.

I told them, “Don’t accept anyone else’s judgement of your worthiness based on your gender, your color, your country of origin, your religion, your personal beliefs and experiences. Do the work you love, grow, improve, practice, keep it in your life, and know that you are always worthy.”

They are fortunate. It was obvious they are already getting that support from their community, their teachers, and their fellow students.

I wish them the best of luck, and I hope you do, too.***

* “…9 percent of artists in the 9th edition of Janson’s History of Western Art are women, and 5 percent of artworks on major U.S. museum walls are by women artists….”

**”In recent years, museums across the United States have worked to diversify their collections, sometimes even selling work by white male artists to buy art by women and artists of color.

But according to a new study, they still have a lot of work to do.

Researchers examined more than 40,000 artworks in the collections of 18 museums across the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to analyze the gender and ethnic diversity of their holdings. They estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is, notably, significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.)…”

***No, I do not hate all white men, except when they persist in believing they are automatically better than anyone else, because….well, BECAUSE.

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MANIFESTO 2016

Oddly, 2016 also looks like a year of not-color. I'm exploring the power of white, and other neutrals. Thank you, Patty Tulip!
Oddly, 2016 also looks like a year of not-color. I’m exploring the power of white, and other neutrals. Thank you, Patty Tulip!

I’ve been thinking about 2016 for awhile now. I revisited my Manifesto for 2015 just now.

It still works for me.

The only difference is, other big changes are in store for me.

I can’t talk about them now. I’ve found that sometimes, me writing and talking about ‘next steps’ can feel like I’ve already done them. The talking replaces the doing. Not good.

This past year, an entire year apart from everything that’s gone before, has been strange. Unsettling. Exciting. Powerful. If only from the fact that we took a huge step outside our comfort zone, left familiarity behind, embraced something new. Because we believed we could, and so we did.

With this distance has come the gift of space, space to contemplate, space to heal.

My first manifesto, and events in the year before the move, sparked some usual responses from readers, friends, and family. My decision to speak up, and not hunker down, caused some explosions, some ridiculing, and a lot of patronizing. A lot of this stemmed from people who are very, very sure they have everything all figured out, and see the rest of us (me in particular) as stupid/hateful/not worthy. They consider themselves experts and all-knowing, to the extent that they don’t even know what they don’t know–to the extent that they can’t even hear someone who’s experienced something different. (A huge shout-out here to Quinn McDonald, a friend whose wisdom created the space for what I learned in hospice, to come in. Her words inspired a slew of posts about perfectionism.) (And probably more, because I used to really mess up with categories and tags in my blog.)

A fellow traveler, Sheri Gaynor, came into my life late in 2015. I’ve had an intense, beautiful session with her recently, one that finally laid to rest many old wounds I was still carrying. Sheri is a licensed therapist who uses the healthy, healing properties of horses with her clients. (If you’re interested in how this works, walk calmly to the HorseTenders Mustang Foundation in Greenfield, NH and meet their horses. An amazing family, with amazing mustangs, working in partnership, with peace and intention, creating profound experiences for all of us.)

Most attacks in my life came from me expanding, emotionally, spiritually, from new experiences and insights. And most devastating were the ones that I triggered just by being myself. “You’re too sensitive!” could have been my mantra growing up. I sure heard it enough. The attacks were at times so powerful, I would retract to protect myself. This act of retraction/contraction became such a protective measure for me, I soon equated each expansion with fear. If I stepped up/forward/outward, I would be slapped down. The contraction became a habit. It held me back.

(Quick note: I always–always–take responsibility–and apologize–for my own contribution to these attacks. Maybe I took too much on myself. Maybe I overestimated the other. I could have been more calm, more measured, more grounded. But I rarely regret what I believe and say. I’m also a sucker for a good apology (and I can smell a non-apology apology a mile away. I also know, and understand, that most people who hurt us, are hurting, themselves. That’s fine. But….Not my circus, not my monkeys.)

As one of my wise woman friends, Melinda LaBarge constantly reminds me, I’m not here to “fix” anybody else. Though I love to try, I must resist. That’s their journey, not mine. (Melinda is also the person who told me, after I whined about the difficulties of transition, “This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.”)

Looking back, I see the attacks are an important part of who I am today. The pain I’ve carried has caused major shifts in my persona. But they will not define me–or rather, restrict me–going forward. (There, I said it.)

2015 became my year of healing, though I didn’t realize it til today. (I’ve always excelled at looking back than leaning forward. Amazing what a little space to heal, and a lot of time to think, can get you.)

What does 2016 bring?

Expansion. Time to step up to the plate with my gifts.

And with it: “Protection through rejection.” I heard this phrase in the context of, sometimes we don’t get what we want because it would have been bad for us. We may feel ‘rejected’, but we were actually protected. It also works both ways: Moving forward, I may need emotional/physical/virtual distance to protect myself. Facebook is my frenemy. I see it as a way to connect, to see new points of view, to learn from others. And you can post whatever you want on your timeline. But be warned–From now on, if you shit on my timeline, you are history. (And for those who embrace the ‘a few bad apples’ theory, you have to understand–Michael Jackson got it wrong. Bad apples do spoil the whole bunch, girl.  They need to be set apart from the good apples or they continue to rot, and spread the rot to the rest. You don’t tolerate, excuse, overlook, rot. (Did I get carried away with my farm metaphor??)

I hope to will practice leaving the contraction part of expansion/conttraction behind.

To all my fellow travelers in this world, to those who have helped me, educated me, encouraged me, believed in me–thank you, bless you, go with light. To those I have wronged or hurt, please forgive me. For those who have given me the gift of love, and friendship and a true sense of family, I love you. Because of you, I’m moving forward.

And I hope I truly get a pony–er, horse–in 2016.