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Irene Nelson &
While attending grad school at SFAI, a male faculty member asked me if I wanted to be a “great woman artist”. I answered “no, just a great artist”. This does not diminish the role other women artists have had in my life.
Although women artists were not adequately represented in my art history textbook as a student, I had several strong women that mentored me as a young artist. Their presence in my life gave me the courage to move forward in a field dominated mostly by men.
As an undergrad my first mentor was artist Doris Cross, a New York artist living/working in Santa Fe. She was bold, opinionated and respected for her contribution to Concrete Poetry in the 1960’s. Although Doris was under 5ft tall, her presence and self-confidence were huge.
During graduate school my role model was painter Pegan Brooke. Pegan, also a strong woman, had a pedagogy that was inclusive, supportive and real.
Pegan’s influence on me was not only as a painter but also as a teacher and advisor. I often think of Pegan when I am teaching. I ask myself “How would Pegan handle this?”
My goal as an artist, is to not only leave behind some good paintings, but also to have encouraged young women artists to confidently leave their mark on the world.
I went to Mills College in Oakland for my art education. The fact that it was a women's college whose purpose was to "help women find their voices" was irrelevant to me when I chose it. I didn't think I needed that!I chose Mills because I had seen my friend Debbie's work grow into a powerful and authentic expression of her own passions as a result of studying under Hung Liu at Mills and I wanted that to happen to me.
Yes, Hung Liu showed me what prolific, powerful, and honest artistic expression looked like and how authentic work could affect other people emotionally and intellectually. And, like a thirsty sponge, I soaked up all I could learn about contemporary art thought and process from a great conceptual artist and thinker, the photographer Catherine Wagner. I am grateful to both of them.
But, I found something else at Mills, something that would become indispensible to my art-making. I found an environment which honors and nurtures women to expose and share their deepest truths and to take the necessary risks to grow beyond their imagined limitations. The abiding culture of determination, challenge and courage at Mills and the women - both faculty and students - who offer and embrace that culture are truly my mentors..
I’m a ﬁgurative artist currently working with mixed media. I also teach life drawing. This is a short story from my past.
I was riding my bike past the carpenter’s shop at the park singing, “bored! Bored! BORED!” when a woman with ﬂaming red hair began sliding a canvas panel across my path. After the collision, I asked her what she was doing. She explained that she was the Production Manager for the Downey Children’s Theater and that her crew was off elsewhere & she needed to get these sets painted. She handed me a giant paint brush. I was nine years old. That was the start of an 8 year mentorship with Bonnie Skiff, Social & Cultural Division Director for LA County Parks & Rec. She taught me carpentry, set design, & all stage craft. She instilled leadership skills and a project oriented work ethic and most of all, creative ways of seeing & doing everything. One of my favorite productions was “Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves”. We fabricated the “cave” out of burlap, horse-hoof glue & chicken wire. We glued glass & glitter over a million different shades of gray. It looked spectacular from the back of the house! By the time I was 13, I was her paid assistant, when not in school. One day I was called to the principal’s ofﬁce…uh-oh! But it was Bonnie. Apparently the county’s graphic designer was leaving for a new job. So with my parent’s permission, I was picked up after school & taught how to design & cut the silk screens for posters for the county’s Park & Recreation activities…in 2 weeks…I was 14 years old. By the time I was off to college, she and I had worked at various capacities in several theater venues for the County including the Hollywood Bowl & the Greek!
Those years growing up instilled a great love for working with various materials and people in non-traditional ways and profoundly inﬂuenced the way I see my world and make my art…. Magic
TaVee McAllister Lee:
In my early days, coming out of the Kansas City Art Institute in the 80’s, I barely recall the one woman I had as a visiting painting instructor in one class for one semester. I didn’t much notice the lack of women on the painting department faculty or ever really think about it. The fierce, passionate and amazing women who were my classmates were pretty inspiring, though not exactly mentors. Now looking back, it was probably Laurie Anderson who had the most profound impact on me as an artist who happened to be a woman, and this even though I never saw her in person. She performed at the Art Institute, inspiring many earnest discussions about story telling, performance and art that opened up whole new ways of thinking about what one woman could create on her own, all alone on a stage with a microphone, tape reel and violin. That was inspiring.
Before the Art Institute, it was my mother who first opened the doors to the world of art. I spent hours pouring over her Time Life Library of Art books as a kid and she set me up with her full palette of oil paint, some basic instruction in mixing color and a large canvas when I was in my teens. That was quite a gift and ignited a dedication to painting that carried me forward for years.
Decades later I was powerfully moved by the work of Irène Pijoan in an exhibit put together by Carrie Lederer at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek. The range and sensibility of Pijoan’s work was hugely inspiring. She had done things with paper, paint and materials that I hadn’t seen before, that had never occurred to me but made some kind of perfect sense when I saw them. Walking through the exhibit I felt as if my heart and mind had just opened up and expanded in some indescribable new way. I heartily concur with this quote from her 2004 SF Chronicle obituary, "Irène Pijoan's cut-outs in paper and in metal were some of the most significant and influential art work done in the last decade," recalled Katherine Sherwood, a professor of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. "They were startling -- at once disturbing and achingly beautiful… ” Again, although I never met Irène, this one exhibit profoundly informed my thinking and experience as an artist in the ensuing years.
Today I feel privileged to be inspired by dozens of women whose art practice, insightful commentary or well considered critique routinely motivate me to keep working and finding my path. Some are well known, and some may well work in obscurity to the end, but each has shown or given me something exceptional and precious along the way.
When I went to art school in Paris, our art professor (a woman) started the first day of class by saying that ”this is no place for girls to hang out waiting to get married”. This was in the early 80’s, and the warning shocked me by its allusion to the fact that women may be flaky and lack ambition. But she spoke from experience, as many young women started art school, got married, had babies and stopped their art practice.
She certainly got my attention, and I worked really hard to prove that I was not painting to pass time while waiting for prince charming. I will never forget that professor, I forgot her name but not her face. I believe she planted a seed in me: either paint seriously or don’t even bother. She also added a good portion of guilt that surfaces any time I don’t work as hard or as much as I should or could. Many artists that happen to be women I particularly admire for their work: Ida Lorentzen, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Marlene Dumas, Hilma af Klint, Georgia O’Keefe, Cindy Sherman, and Tracey Emin, just to name a few. Their work inspire me to keep searching, exploring, and learning. Some inspire me by their incredible technical skills, some by their ability to shake us up by their provocative expression or subject matters, and then some for their sensitivity and ability to communicate with delicacy and sophistication.
And then there is Louise Bourgeois. She is the one that really keeps me going when the going gets tough. Her incredible production of large scale, three dimensional art is so strong, so beautiful and so thought provoking, it blows me away every time I come across a piece of hers. I admire her art, but more importantly I admire her strength of character, her guts, her persistence and her belief in the purpose of her own art. When I have difficult days and doubt the point in my own art making, I think of her.
"Art is the guarantee of sanity." (Louise Bourgeois).
Although I was exposed to art in many ways as a kid, and (uncommonly) encouraged by my family, women artist role models were few & far between. I took my cues from other women I noticed in my little world. It didn’t occur to me until much later that being a woman artist was going to be something different from just being an artist. My mother’s love for, and impassioned approach to cooking, gardening, and folk crafts has remained a primary & lasting influence.
As an adolescent, I must have seen some TV documentary on Margaret Mead because she became a singular model of dynamic & accomplished womanhood. It seemed to me that she barreled merrily through life pursuing her goals in spite of any barriers in her way.
As an adult, I now have many wonderful women artist friends & acquaintances who continuously demonstrate the infinite creative possibilities of making one’s way as an artist, a woman, and a human.