This begins a series of excerpts from my MFA Portfolio called Excavating Wholeness.
It is as if there are external equivalents for truths which I already in some
mysterious way know…. Vulnerability is implicit in it; pain, inevitable. ~ Anne Truitt
I was drawn to the stories of women artists whose feelings of intense loneliness, brought on by heartbreak, grief, abandonment, or social expectations, were ameliorated by their art practice. As an empathic person, their stories burrowed their way into my heart and offered me a golden opportunity to delve into my own sense of solitude as a woman and an artist.
This story began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2012. My husband was working there and I went along for a holiday. At that point in time, we had been married 28 years; our two daughters were living their own independent lives. The first week we walked the ancient streets in Edinburgh and marveled at the architecture, the castle, the museums, the Royal Yacht Britannia. We toured the countryside and visited Loch Ness. I tried to enjoy myself and be a good travel buddy, but I was chomping at the bit to have a few, whole, unfettered days of my own. I had gone back to school and was beginning my second MFA semester in a few short weeks. Away from my small studio, I felt artistically frustrated. When my days finally came, I sat alone in coffee shops thinking about study plans and wandered streets searching for some creative inspiration. I spent a long time gazing into the eyes of Rembrandt at the National Gallery, and two days wandering through the Contemporary Art museums where viewers were accosted by Ron Mueck’s Giant Baby sculpture. I was intrigued (and jealous) as I looked in on Eduardo Paolozzi’s (1924 – 2005) sculpture studio, fully installed in a Gallery hall. I imagined the man moving through the organized chaos to his desk, surrounded by books and notes tacked to the wall filled with ideas and calls to return. He would rise and move over to his work table where plaster heads, body parts and unformed mounds of plaster waited to be charged into action. When he grew weary after a long day of work or a heavy lunch, he would climb up the ladder to his sleeping loft to read a book or sleep. This room was Paolozzi’s personal vault of inspiration and creation, the quintessential life of a focused and dedicated artist. There was seemingly no order, but there was clearly purpose and possibility in every dusty nook and cranny.
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. ~ Anaïs Nin
One afternoon, on a day that portended rain, I found myself on a side street in a charity used bookstore. As I grazed past the shelves, reminding myself that I did not need any new books, I was suddenly drawn in to a spine on a shelf; first by the title Stravinsky’s Lunch, then immediately after by the beautiful painting on the cover of a woman knitting. I bought the book, walked up the hill and the 78 steps to our cozy apartment just before the skies released torrential rain. With my cup of tea ready, I snuggled in for an afternoon read. As I turned each page of Drusilla Modjeska’s thoughtful book I was offered the story of Stella Bowen, an artist old enough to be my grandmother, whose personal life choices were eerily similar to mine. Modjeska’s title Stravinsky’s Lunch refers to an anecdote she discovered researching the book: that of composer Igor Stravinsky who would demand that his family sit silently at lunch so as not to disturb his creative process. Modjeska wondered why no one suggested that Stravinsky just take a tray up to his studio, and also she could not name a creative woman who would be so insistent on silence in the presence of her family.
Living life sandwiched between first and second wave Feminism, Stella Bowen fled the oppression of her Australian home to live as an artist in London, England. As a bright-eyed, shy, twenty-four year old woman, she fell in love with the famous writer Ford Madox Ford, a man 20 years older than she. “To me he was quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met…. [He] wanted to start a new home. Wanted a child. I said yes, of course.” [i]
Bowen moved with Ford to a secluded farmhouse in England and spent her days hauling water, cooking meals, entertaining and making sure that Ford was not bothered in any way while he wrote his books. Renowned for spoiling many a dinner party by keeping his guests waiting while he finished a pesky paragraph, the title of Bowen’s life at this time could have been Ford’s Dinner. While loving his scintillating conversation and flattering attention, Ford’s child-like behavior, tantrums and self-centeredness made the relationship challenging for Bowen. As an artist who had garnered some recognition of her work, Bowen was eager to get into a studio to paint. Even when she could find time, she found she was frequently interrupted by Ford’s needs. Bowen soldiered on as country consort, bore him a daughter out of wedlock, and eventually moved the family to France, where she enjoyed a brief period of artistic satisfaction. Nine years after they met, however, she was rewarded by Ford running off with another woman. “Why,” Bowen asks, “are people allowed – and women encouraged – to stake their lives, careers, economic position, and hopes of happiness on love?” [ii]
Feminist author bell hooks writes, “Most women search for love hoping to find recognition of our value. It may not be that we do not see ourselves as valuable; we simply do not trust our perceptions.” [iii] And yet, a woman’s value was and is often measured by the partner she chooses and if she chooses one more famous or successful, she is often relegated to the shadows. People may say behind every great man, there is a great woman, but there is no accepted measure for her greatness, is there?
Reading Stravinsky’s Lunch and the stories of other women artists, for me, can only be described as an embodied experience. As I dug into the lives of these creative women, I began to feel a metaphysical relationship to them. I marveled at how time-after-time, strength and acute vulnerability were woven so tightly together. Of course, as a white woman living in the post second-wave Feminist era, I did not endure the trials some of these women faced. I was never destitute. I was never committed to a psychiatric ward. I did not live through the deprivation brought on by war. I was not battered. Mostly, I stayed sane and fed and clothed my children by finding satisfying work. And yet, in the solitary moments following the stillbirth of my first child; or alone for months in a secluded farmhouse with an infant daughter; or in the dark of night in a hospital bed following a cancer diagnosis at the age of 33; I was profoundly changed on a cellular level. Each time I had to locate a new normal. As I read, my story became their stories and a swell of emotion erupted up to my surface.
As I processed their stories, and worked my way through my own emotional responses to each of them, it crossed my mind that perhaps, I had it in my control to change our stories. At first I was satisfied to read about other women who loved the wrong guy and survived being left behind with kids to support, but when I began to reflect on their lives and my own, it dawned on me that this was not the story we would want to be remembered for. I was sure that I did not want to be a woman who was celebrated only because I had challenges; I wanted to be celebrated because I survived the challenges. Stella Bowen, Alice Neel, Margaret Watkins, Vivian Maier, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Smart and others succeeded in leaving the world a significant creative legacy. As artists, it was their efforts to maintain or revive an artistic practice while struggling that became the story I wanted to be part of.
Women in love offer to the world our inner gifts, seeking companions to share mutual regard
and recognition – a communion of souls that will sustain and abide. ~ bell hooks
As a mother and wife in a loving relationship, I took great pride in raising my children and supporting my husband. I felt useful when I made lunches, did laundry and soothed hurt feelings, bumps and bruises, entertained friends and family. In between my domestic chores and work obligations, I carved out time to write. I took up weaving. Still there was something missing that I could not name; I wanted to be a “good” mother and a “good” wife; a “good” daughter and a “good” friend. In hindsight I see now that I was responding not so much to what others were expecting of me, but much more to what I was expecting of myself. I was living some of the messages I had received in my formative years; messages such as: Children need their mother at home. Art is a hobby, not a vocation. A person cannot do two things well.
By choosing to let my family/domestic obligations take a front seat, I denied myself the time to truly focus on an artistic practice. I was too easily distracted from the dedication and focus required to be an artist when I thought that the people I loved were counting on me. What I discovered in the stories was that the breaks in concentration, that Stravinsky was so fearful of, were common occurrences in the lives of these women. A friend called this experience Artist Interruptus. At first, I thought Stravinsky was being selfish, expecting his wife to take care of all the domestic responsibilities while he created. But of course, we can never know the true story. Traditionally lunch was the main meal of the day. Perhaps Stravinsky was away a lot and Mrs. Stravinsky wanted him to see the children. Perhaps this was a marital compromise. Perhaps Stravinsky was teaching his children about the sacredness of creative process by demanding silence. Perhaps he was giving them, and me, a great gift. Perhaps I could learn from Stravinsky by requesting the space and time I needed to be creative, without feeling guilty, without regret.
[i] Bowen, S. (1941, 1984). Drawn from life. London: Virago. Pg. 68
[ii] Ibid. Pg. 160
[iii] hooks, b. (2002). Communion: The female search for love. New York: W. Morrow. Pg. 121