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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Shaman

Years ago, an older gentleman using a wheelchair, and accompanied by his wonderful wife, came into my very first booth at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair.

He was an artist himself. And when he saw my work, he…exploded (figuratively), in a wonderful, emotional, deeply spiritual way.

He asked questions, he listened carefully to my answers, about the sources of my inspiration, what led me to do this work, where I was heading with it.

He got it. He got every single tiny little thing about it.

As he circled the booth, he kept saying, “You’re a shaman! You’re a shaman!”

His words made me very uncomfortable. Now, I (thought I) knew what a shaman was.  If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that the minute I think I know everything, life will quickly and surely show me I don’t. (That’s why “eternal student of life” sneaks into almost all my my bios and intros.)

He stopped. He said, “I’m scaring you a little, aren’t I?”

I said yes. I said, “I thought I knew what a shaman was. A wise leader. but I don’t feel that way.”

He shared with me this beautiful, powerful definition of a shaman:

All shamans are artists.  But not all artists are shamans. 

All shamans are teachers. But not all teachers are shamans. 

All shamans are healers. But not all healers are shamans.”

It spoke so deeply to me, to how I felt about my art: My art healed me, and I believe it sometimes helps others heal. I love to share what I’ve learned, but not in a here’s-how-you-make-a-little-horse-way that so many people expect. More in a “what is the story only YOU can tell?” way.

And yet, even years later, I felt uncomfortable using that word in reference to myself.

Until, just a year or so before we left New Hampshire, I shared that story with a professional shaman. And she said, what I call Definiton of a Shaman Part IV:

“‘Shaman’ isn’t something you call yourself. It’s what others call YOU.”

A day or so ago, I had a teensy emotional breakdown. (In addition to difficult family matters, scary family matters, my most vulnerable pet on the lam, more uncertainty about my studio space, etc., I’ve been demolished by allergies this month. It’s scary, and exhausting, and leaves me fragile and exposed.) I wrote about it, listened to Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-shay. Who knew?? Not me!) singing “Mercy Now”.  I had a little cathartic cry, and felt better.

So many people reached out to me, (you know who you are. THANK YOU!!!), including a few old and dear friends.

I get lazy when I’m “out of earshot.” I love catching up with people in person, but I suck at phone conversations, and when I write, I lose track of what I’ve told, and to whom.

But in the last two days, I’ve reached out. And people have reached out, especially a handful of people I call “my wise women”. And each one had just what I needed to hear to start down a healing path again. (Note to self: One quality of a good friend is, they don’t try to tell you your reality. Thank you, Melinda!)

None of these people would call themselves a shaman. (Of course they wouldn’t! See Definition Part IV above.)

None of them believe they have everything figured out. (Of course they wouldn’t! If you meet someone who claims that, run away.)

Some of them, who are going through extremely shitty stuff, would not even consider their blorting to be “wise words.” (But they are. Their words show self-awareness, self-responsibility, anguish with a huge dash of humor thrown in, and incredible strength of character. Not because “they’re doing it right”. Because , even when they think they’re doing it horribly, terribly wrong, because when they are in a hard place and they hate hate hate it, yet they continue to do the incredibly difficult work they have to do. And they are open to the tiny miracles and blessings they find along the way.)*

And so I say to you today, thank you. Thank you, Melinda, Carrie, Amy J., Julie, Deb, Mary-Ellen, anyone I’ve missed because I am a bird-brain this week, and also to those who would have reached out, if they’d known, because that’s what they do…. Even someone I hardly know, who simply validated my experience recently at an Art Trails event that went totally weird. Thank you, Linda! Thank you, Clare, for encouraging me to take some “horse time” today.

Thank you.

You are a shaman.

P.S. Just want to say, most of my issues I’m moping about are third-world issues. Others have it harder. A helluva lot harder. Just sayin’, I’m aware of my privilege here.

P.P.S. If you are struggling today, try this: Everything is Awful, and I’m Not Okay

*I’ve just read the book Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved… So I want to clarify this. I don’t believe we are sent shit to deal with for a reason. Shit happens. I do think that what can help us through, through the fear, the anger, the despair, is to look for those tiny synchronicities that help us get through another day.

Like me saying to Jon, during his quick visit to New Hampshire last week, and on his way back to Keene from the White Mountains, “I wish we could talk with Jim and Kate (whom we haven’t seen in years) because they went through this exact same thing, and maybe they have some wisdom on how we can get through this, too.” And ONE HOUR LATER, Jon stopped for a quick dunk at the Discount Beach Club (“Bring your own damn towel”) on Dublin Lake, and he heard someone say, “Jon? Is that you?!” And there were Jim and Kate on the “beach.”)**

**The Discount Beach Club was a turn-off on Route 12, which runs around part of Dublin Lake.*** It’s literally that–a turn-off where you can scoot down to the lake. Not “restricted membership”, like some other lake accesses, or the boat launch, or whatever. The chances of finding someone there, let alone someone we know, let alone the exact people we needed right then? Well. That’s my definition of a miracle! So add Jim and Kate to the list!

***Dublin Lake has worked magic before, as these two blog posts illustrate. Cool place.

 

Dublin Lake 2005
Dublin Lake works its magic again! Discount Beach Club is just around the corner. Literally!