I always wanted to be an artist…

The Muse and Her Artist

The Muse and her Artist

I am one of those people who has always identified as an artist.  I remember distinctly the day in fourth grade my first drawing (of a dandelion) was selected by my art teacher to be put up on the wall as an example.   My parents encouraged that identity. (They thought being an artist would be an economic step up from a grade-b dairy farm.)  I received my first set of oil paints on my 13th birthday.  I became one of the kids in my school known as an artist and I loved that attention.

I was a first generation college student.  Where I came from it wasn’t assumed anyone would go to college, especially girls, but I convinced my family I should go to art school after High School.  I went off to Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the fall of 1971, excited beyond measure.

I loved school.  I worked as a janitor in the school at night and took classes during the day. Layton had a very strong foundations program.  My teachers were all wonderful artists and they moved me forward in my art making very quickly, especially in drawing. (It turned out they were having financial difficulties too and would close within a few years, but that is a different story.)

But something was wrong.  Despite receiving a small scholarship to continue the next year I only stayed a few weeks before dropping out.  I just did not feel like I belonged.  It took me years to figure out exactly why I felt so much of an outsider.  Now I know that it was an example of the times.

My teachers were all well-meaning white men who taught me about the art of other white men.  I was not taught by nor about a single woman artist, nor artist of color, during my time at Layton.  What I was taught, unintentionally I think, was that the art of women and people of color was worth less than the art of the white men that were in vogue at the time. (I do remember Georgia O’Keefe being mentioned in passing one day but with complete derision in the saying of her name.) I was taught that the art of women and the art of people of color was worth-less.  I was taught that my art was worth-less.  So I dropped out of school.  I did not belong.

I didn’t know yet in 1972 that there was a feminist art movement emerging on both coasts.  Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago were creating Woman House in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts.  Soon there would be a Feminist Art Institute in New York.
Feminist Art Histories were beginning to be written.

I went back to rural Wisconsin to try to figure out how to become an artist on my own.  Since there were not good paying jobs for women I started a house painting business (called ‘Painted Ladies’) where I mostly employed other women to help me paint houses barns and churches during the day.

Painted Ladies Painting Crew, 1973-74

Painted Ladies Painting Crew, 1973-74

After painting all day with a four inch brush I painted with a smaller brush on my own in my down time, trying to figure out what it meant to be an artist.  I kept making art, but I was very isolated as an artist.  The phrase I remember hearing most from my friends and family was “…yes but can you sell that?” which seemed beside the point to me.

Eventually I would figure out how to break the isolation and find ways to grow and prosper as an artist, and then I would find that there was a world of other women artists asking the same questions I was learning to ask as part of something called the Feminist Art Movement. The Feminist Art Project at Rutgers is documenting the past and present effects of this movement on our arts, culture, and society.

Finally, later as a teacher and professor I would remember what it is like to not see yourself in the curriculum or reflected in the ranks of those held up as examples of excellence and I would vow to teach like I had never been taught.


About Helen R. Klebesadel

I am an artist.
This entry was posted in Artist Resources, Biographical, Career Development, Diversity, Inspiration, Teaching Art and Creativity, This and That, Women Artists and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to I always wanted to be an artist…

  1. Susan Turner Thering says:

    Helen, This painting is wonderful! All of us who knew you when you were painting houses realized the great creativity you possessed and knew that someday you would find the way to express it that would be recognized by more than those who loved you. How fortunate that you have been able to achieve your dream of understanding why you weren’t satisfied with the male version of appropriate art and, more than that, that you have been able to help other women feel valued, understood and appreciated. I feel privileged to count myself among those who have been touched by your philosophy. Susan

    • I appreciate the kind words Susan. I’ve been very lucky to have supportive people in my life too who have had my back and shown me their confidence in me. No one can do it alone. Thank you!

  2. Helen, I could have written the same story!!! In 3rd grade we had to do drawings of the map of the United States, and I was shocked that other kids couldn’t draw it perfectly…assuming I guess that everyone was like me. That’s when I started knowing myself as an artist…though I had always wanted to draw, constantly, on every scrap of paper that came into the house. My mother encouraged me, every step. And recently at a class reunion someone gave me a drawing of mine they had kept from grade school! when I was famous for my drawings… Now I have a little granddaughter who draws constantly…I am thrilled beyond measure!
    And the stuff about women artists…I was told in grad school that won’t it be wonderful, I can paint at home while raising my children. And women gave talks at WCA conferences about how they had to hide the fact they were married, let along being mothers, in order to be taken seriously. It still pains me to think of it… and now young women take it all for granted… thanks to us, Helen…

  3. Thanks Joyce.

    There were so many issues that came into play about our expectations for each other. I took for granted I would be supported too, right up until I wasn’t. Creation vs procreation was a big one I hope is changing. ( I remember reading about Miriam Schapiro hiring someone to come and hold her baby so she could paint. An interesting form of resistance to the larger culture’s expectations.)

    At least today it is possible for younger women to have the confidence to go for it in their art careers without assuming there will be huge obstacles (Whether reality bears that out is still somewhat arguable. Women are still considerably under-represented in full-time tenure track positions in our art teaching institutions when compared to the available pool of qualified practitioners.) Things are better than they were but equity is a ways off yet.

    Its easier to find models of women artists and artist of color in the visual culture students have access to today, but you still have to look harder to find them. I’m afraid though its totally dependent on who is teaching what kind of inclusion there will be in the curriculum for women artists and artists of color.

    I remember searching for women artists and finding no documentation they ever existed (I hoped against hope that ‘Joan’ Miro was a woman, but no such luck.) That has changed somewhat thanks to big shifts in the demographics in art history too.

    When I finally found Whitney Chadwick’s book “Women and the Surrealist Movement” I literally wept. However, I don’t think there is a book yet that is a good follow up for Lucy Lippard’s “Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America.’ It was first published in 1990 and updated in 2000. I don’t know of anything that has come along yet to continue the dialog.

    I love seeing the bright talented young students coming up. I really want them to have the tools they need to counter the negative messages they will get today too. We still live in a culture that doesn’t really value the arts and culture for anyone even though its the place that makes us most human.

    Visible role models still effects our expectations for ourselves. I once researched the pattern indicating that many women artists who first became visible had fathers who were artists. ( My dad was a secret farmer-painter so that interested me.) I found that from as long ago as Artemisia Gentileschi, to in the 70’s Betye Saar, to Miriam Schapiro there were father role models in the lives of many woman artists who became visible.

    Now a days I would still expect that artists who have mothers, fathers (or grandmothers) who are artists will have an easier time seeing themselves in that role too. You have a lucky granddaughter. I hope she gets to take everything for granted as she grows and prospers in her creativity!

    Take care.

  4. Sue Martin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. As a late-blooming artist, I’m reflecting on what discouraged me from pursuing it much earlier (I was a theatre major, which somehow seemed easier and less threatening to a fragile ego). I had never pinned it to the issue of male domination, though I might have sensed that. But it definitely had a lot to do with the “but will it sell…” issue. I wanted to be able to support myself financially, which led me away from theatre and the arts to a career in public relations. About 13 years ago, I began painting again, taking classes, and eventually enrolled in a BFA program. So now I’m excited and not as afraid to pursue my (third or fourth) career as a visual artist! Your painting is beautiful!

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