As a very young child, I drew spirals. I felt at peace when the pencil lead would score the page and the circle turned ever inward. As I grew older, I drew tornadoes, which are just spirals viewed from the side. Many years later, I learned that the Celtic triple spiral represented time, life, and three phases of a woman. But whenever I want to connect with that inner vortex from whence art and love can flow, I start with spirals. And if you ever see me paint onsite at conferences, that is invariably how I begin.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to visit the Center for Green Urbanism in NE DC for a screening of the film Who Does She Think She Is?, directed by Pamela Tanner Boll. I had originally heard about this amazing film from Amy Romano, Associate Director of the Transforming Maternity Care Partnership for @childbirth. Amy, who tweets as @midwifeamy, sent me the trailer months ago as a YouTube link on Facebook. Within this documentary, images of birthing and art coil one upon the other as the tales of five female artists are unspooled.
It is a powerful film. I am very glad I got to attend, but I almost did not, for the want of a sitter. I asked Shoshanna, Courtney, Alex, Megan, Miriam, Hannah, and Pete if any of them could sit for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. All of them were unavailable. This is the point I would have probably given up, if I were just attending and not speaking as well. But as I had agreed to be part of this, I tried one more person. I asked my five year old’s teacher, Emily Stewart, if she would mind sitting. She said yes, and I could go. So I hopped in a taxi and left with another local artist and advocate- Patricia E. Ortman, the founder of the non-profit Girls Gotta Run.
As I looked around the room after the screening, I wondered how many artists were not in attendance because there was no one to watch their young children. Supporting the arts in our society requires asking for a lot more than a grant to support the funding of a mural or a public work. It also requires acknowledging the time, sacrifices and emotional energy spent in this pursuit and how that effects family relations.
Once we became parents, Fred and I infrequently went on dates or hired baby sitters. Upon the rare occasions we would go out, it was usually to attend a school auction in support of the work of my young art students. Before we would go out, I would place a note on the refrigerator. In addition to the regular emergency numbers and instructions for care, I would write a warning: “There is paint in the oven.”
As an artist living in a series of small, carpeted apartments, there was only one place to paint- the kitchen. So my counters were covered in brush bins and paint buckets. My sink filled with paint splotches, and my kitchen apron is an artist’s smock. There was so little space available I could waste none. So when I was not cooking, the oven was a convenient location for paint storage. Fred and I knew to empty it before pre-heating, but I always worried a sitter would just cook my paint.
After Fred became ill, people offered to help with chores at the house. One day I left some plastic bins out for a friend to take the artistic things off the kitchen counter. In my mind’s eye, I saw them carefully placing my clay pots filled with brushes and pencils in the neat bins so folks other than myself could cook for the children. I came home to find all my supplies unceremoniously dumped together in the bins. Have you ever read that part in the Bible about the great wailing and gnashing of teeth? That adequately describes my behavior upon seeing my supplies buried this way. My mother-in-law thought I had lost all sense of reason. Why was I screaming and weeping over art supplies, while my husband lay in hospital? Why indeed, was I crying? I could not bear to lose them both. Not my husband and my art--that is too high a price to pay.
So as mothers/wives/artists, we must talk of art in hearth and home and how that defines us as artists. As this documentary progressed, I saw scene after scene filmed in the kitchen. I saw women move from room to room, and unlike the documentaries of many male artists, I rarely saw talking heads. These women were too busy to sit still for an interview. They careened around the frame, trying to balance art, children, and husbands. And in almost every case, the art survived, although the marriages did not.
I sat with the other artists on the panel and gave feedback afterwards and also live tweeted. We tweeted using the hash tag #herstory6. We had been brought together by Michelle Parrish ’s HerStory project in collaboration with the Center of Green Urbanism and Sharon J. Burton, who founded Authentic Contemporary Art. Michelle led a great deal of the discussion, as Sharon had to attend to a family emergency.
The moderator for the event was Shawn Yancy from Fox 5 news. I told her the first television station to cover my mural 73 cents was the local Fox 5. The panelists being interviewed worked in three media: paint, photography and jewelry. Zandra Chesnut, co-founder of the Center of Green Urbanism, had worked for 30 years in government while raising children before she re-discovered her joy and passion for photography. Elsa Gebreyesus lived in Ethiopia, Kenya, and the United States. She’s been pursuing her career and her lifelong passion for art since coming to the US. In addition to her work and painting, she also volunteers with organizations involved with human rights issues, especially in Africa. The final artist was Evelyn Brooks, born in Peru. Evelyn was fortunate to work in the travel industry until a missed flight on 9-11. This life-altering event made her re-evaluate her life’s mission. In 2004, Evelyn discovered her new passion: jewelry making/design. Although Evelyn is no longer living in Lima, she travels to Peru to find inspiration and create her new collections inspired in Peruvian culture.
I am very glad I got to see the documentary. It struck such a chord with me. I felt the very real anguish of the artists in the film as their lives began to spiral into sadness. They felt a call; they felt they must create and lost so much trying to fulfill their mission. I am very happy I did not have to choose between hearth and heartstrings. I rejoice that I once had a husband that shared a kitchen with paints and pots and pans. And I will never forget that he told me the title I should use if I wrote a book about our time together.
He said it should be titled There is Paint in The Oven.