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.
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.