Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. (An installation based on material collected for the film is also on display at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery until December 3.) Over the next week, three area female artists, all members of the local arts organization mnartists.org, will be contributing responses to the film on the Walker Film & Video blog; after the film’s premiere screenings, mnartists.org will also publish a roundtable discussion regarding the film. This post is artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund’s response.
If Lynn Hershman Leeson interviews you about your life and work as a woman artist, what do you talk about? The artists in !Women Art Revolution discuss their career successes and setbacks, doubts and determination, changing relationships to family, friendships, politics. These women are my role models: they’ve had long, interesting careers making work I admire. But here’s the thing I still don’t know: how did they make living as an artist actually work? How do art life and regular life actually intersect? The minutiae of everyday life might not make for an interesting film, but I am thinking more and more that these dull details are actually quite central.
Let me share three encounters that have stuck in my head for years:
— A conversation with a fellow art student who opined, “If you have to have a dining room, you’ll never be a real artist” when I expressed doubts about a raw warehouse space.
— Feeling self-conscious about cleaning my studio at CalArts, especially when a (male) studio neighbor commented on my domesticity. Repeatedly.
— Chatting with fellow grad school alums who scoffed when I said I had a full-time job. True artists, apparently, worked only part-time and didn’t worry about health care or retirement benefits.
Years after these encounters—each of which, in the moment, made me doubt I would ever be a real artist—I am still making artwork. I also live with my family in a house, where we eat at a table in the dining room. I sweep, cook, and sometimes clear the bathroom; all house and kid work is shared with my partner, which means I can spend time in my studio. I have a nearly full-time job that I love, and which provides health care and retirement benefits, not to mention a grants office that helps me find funding for my work.
Still, I have nearly constant doubts about the balance I negotiate every day between a domestic life of daycare schedules, piano recitals, and the vanpool, and the time and money I spend making my work. I have a feeling the women in this documentary—and other artists, as well—struggle with tensions between domestic and artistic life, too. In a way, it’s no different than the life/work balance we all try to negotiate, no matter our occupations. But thinking back on the experiences that have made me feel most insecure about my choice to be an artist, they are those which pit the artistic life against the banal one, the creative against the practical—the pernicious notion that if I can’t release myself from a desire for a house, a family and the security of a job, I certainly won’t be able to free myself to be an artist.
The women in !Women Art Revolution broke with convention and with their comfortable lives to be artists: they left marriages and relationships, defied expectations, scraped by to make their work. But why is this still the narrative of the ideal for an artistic life? I want to know more about the everyday life that art is supposed transcend. How did these artists make work when they were worried about money, when their parents or children were ill, when the car broke down, when they had to work overtime?
I now feel that those early encounters that provoked my doubts were based on that idealized narrative, and that a male artist wouldn’t have been asked the same questions. I wouldn’t have been criticized for sweeping, for example, if I was male; the expectation was that because I am female, evidence of domesticity or practicality merely reinforced the preconceived idea I was ill-suited to life as an artist. Well, here’s the deal: I have a house, a family, a job—and I am a working artist. And thinking that the practical details of my life will be eclipsed by the fabulous creative dimensions of my artistic life—or vice versa—is both unrealistic and dismissive.
And on a side note: I went to graduate school in the 90s at CalArts, and know the work of most of the artists featured in !Women Art Revolution through my coursework and conversations there. I feel very fortunate to have studied at a school where I learned about women like Eleanor Antin, Yvonne Rainer, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann, and Judy Baca. Thanks to all the artists and educators out there who are working to make sure this doesn’t remain a lost history.
Margaret Pezalla-Granlund received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California. She has exhibited locally and nationally, and her work has been included in exhibitions at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, and the Peabody Essex Museum. Pezalla-Granlund was recently awarded a McKnight Artist Fellowship for 2008-2009 and a Jerome Foundation Travel Study Grant for 2009. She is interested in modeling the complex spaces of the natural and built landscape on scales both macro and micro. Her website: http://www.mpezalla.com/index.html