“Women’s Work”

Two Eves mixed media paintings

Two Eves, empowering portraits of girlz, circa 1995

Back in September 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, a friend drove me to Indiana to pick up as much of my old artwork as we could load into her pickup. It was my first trip out of town since the pandemic began, and I was nervous about the four hour drive, nervous about being in public places, even briefly and while masked, and nervous that I would bump into my ex as a good portion of my artistic history is still in the attic of the farmhouse I once co-owned with him. Instead the trip was a going backwards in a good way that I sorely needed.

When I got it home to Kentucky, it felt oddly satisfying and deeply settling to wrap the rescued artworks in plastic and store them in my shed. All winter long as walked by it, filling bird feeders and fetching dry wood for my ceremonial little fires I could feel their presence, and that was enough until I moved into a new art making space where I have been painting and drawing several times a week again, also a first since the pandemic hit.

One of the purposes of this new, shared art space is to sell artwork. However, anyone who knows me well knows I don’t give a **** about selling my artwork; that’s not the reason I made art (although I didn’t know it at the time) or make art now. I do it because it’s a way to tell stories, some of them secrets, without saying a word. Visualizing my memories and feelings is healing and empowering. It grounds me. Making art creates something concrete and real when my world feels shaky and nebulous. It makes me feel like I am doing something positive and constructive during difficult times. So I told the art-space-mates that I wouldn’t be putting anything out in the front room to sell.

Now, I live in a place “where art is alive” as the billboards boast and the water tower proclaims. But in truth, it is a place where art is meant to bring tourists in who will buy it. Old Town, the location of my new studio space, has several galleries and craft workshops, but it’s mostly a ghost town, only recently enlivened by a pizza place that sells beer and wine. This “artisan village” couldn’t support a coffee shop either, though there was one in 2016 that I frequented once or twice with Owen, and I still think of him and that cafe every time I pass the clothing boutique that has replaced it.

But, like I said, I had no intention of selling anything — until the blank walls began to bother me, and I thought about my mummified artworks baking in the summer heat, and I suddenly had a fierce need to display them. So yesterday morning I worked up a slight sweat by grabbing two packages of small pieces from the late 1990s along with the two panels illustrated here, and brought them to the art space after work.

Here’s my history, according to them. 

Me outside ARC 1995

Me, outside ARC Gallery Chicago, after hanging Women’s Work

It was quite a transition from graduate student to working artist/teacher. I had to downsize my studio space by three-quarters, moving it into a half-basement of a townhouse I rented with my second husband, whom I married in 1994. But one of the first professional things I did was join ARC Gallery in Chicago, “one of the oldest co-ops of its kind in the country”. It was my first experience with gallery representation, which likely formed my lack of affinity for traditional galleries with paid staff judging artists based on their ability to sell, charging 50% commission on artworks sold, and an institutional hierarchy that is clearly patriarchal and focused on consumerism and majority rules. At ARC in 1994 there was a president, treasurer and secretary, elected by the membership for short terms. We all had a full say in decision making, and practiced group consensus. Every member paid minimal dues and had a gallery job — mine was doing monthly PR and Saturday gallery sitting a couple times a month. It wasn’t perfect, I’ll admit. I remember being particularly jealous of members who had lawyers and doctors for husbands and didn’t have to support themselves and a family like I did while struggling as a frantic adjunct professor with little time or money to make art. But overall ARC became a great role model for another kind of arts organization that I have been trying and failing to sell to this artist community after brief stints as a co-director of an informal organization that was supposed to promote public mural projects, and a member of local arts council that seemed to become paralyzed by COVID-19 restrictions that I saw instead as opportunities for growth and change.

So I feel like celebrating the person I became because of the person I was in 1995 by posting this pic of me in my late 30s, looking like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, tired as hell from hanging my ARC solo show entitled “Women’s Work” in which I displayed the panels I depict here, two of the six 50 x 35″ or so panels I entitled “The Eves”. They were based on photographs of my youngest daughter and one of her friends, and I no longer recall if I took them or they did. I only know that their poses intrigued me from a feminist perspective, it was pleasing and empowering to work with them and display them, and I am even more impressed with myself now as I unwrap crusty bubble wrap, maybe for the first time since that show, as ancient shavings from industrious mice cascade onto the sales room floor.

 

 

 

Healing Through Art Panel, 3/27/19

Flyer I designed for Healing Through Art Panel, EKU

I took three hours out of my busy AmeriCorps Program Director work day to participate in this panel presentation on art and healing. I was one of three writer/artists to participate, although I have twenty academic years under my belt as well and could easily have worn that hat — but I am glad I didn’t. I find so much more meaning in telling my own story (as egoistic as this may sound) because my story is also the story of the underserved by art individuals I have been able to help through offering them opportunities to visually tell their own.

With organizers Drs. Melinda Moore and Judy Vandevenne, and artists Pam and Obiora at the Healing Through Art panel, March 2019.

The artists present were invited to bring samples of our artwork, and I automatically chose the healing artworks I created between 2009 and 2013 that helped me by illustrating my misery, my grief and finally my ability to celebrate my transition from traditional college art professor to teaching artist to the underserved and during a time when many painful memories and truths were being revealed. As a result I will most likely be showing that series of artworks for the first time at a local Richmond, KY gallery — and won’t that be empowering!

Night, 2009, at the Healing Through Art panel, March 2019.

Many thanks to Melinda Moore, psychology professor and leader of the Survivors of Suicide group at EKU for inviting me to speak and share my healing through art story.

Pride

I recently sat in on a prospective AmeriCorps KY READY Corps member interview, during which she was asked to share a most significant project, most complex project or a project she was most proud of — and my heart went out to her and her struggle to find a story to relate. Though I had no doubt she would discover something, and she did, watching that struggle and hearing her openly confess: “Pride? I never really thought about anything I did as something to be proud of…” touched me and made me remember the shame of the homeless in terms of where they lived, what they did and how it got them there. It also reminded me of me as a kid and young adult without any self confidence or pride in myself or my family or where I came from.

That is why it was soooo amazing to be a part of helping the William Wells Brown kids last fall to create these panels because they are all about pride in themselves and the history of their community. But the best part was hearing that the panels would be part of a new exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park, honoring the long history of African American jockey and trainer involvement in the horse industry.

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The panels have also been made into a fundraising poster!

I plan to be at the Park on 7/5/18 when many of the William Wells Brown kidz will be present to see their work on the walls. THAT’s going to be empowering!!

Orientation

Me at KY READY Corps orientation, 4/27/18

One definition of orientation is: a usually general or lasting direction of thought, inclination, or interest.

And that type of orientation to art, learning and service are what led me to the place I am at now, Berea, Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, and the position I am in, as an AmeriCorps Program Director, involved in readiness and resilience for vulnerable individuals.

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On April 27, 2018 I led the first KY READY Corps orientation, and it was a wonderful experience on many levels. It reminded me of many firsts, including my AmeriCorps Senior Connection orientation in 2014 and introduction to service other than volunteerism, and my decision to become an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader in early 2016 which led me to Berea and back to eastern Kentucky.

Me as VISTA Leader at Berea College, spring 2017

Me as VISTA Leader at Berea College, Spring 2017

It also reminded me of the excellent teacher I was and still am, and how right I was to believe I had more than sufficient experience and credentials to launch myself from a former art professor to a volunteer at a homeless shelter, to an AmeriCorps, then VISTA Leader and finally to an AmeriCorps Program Director.

Like all of my accomplishments of the last two years, this feels bittersweet. But I am learning to cautiously allow myself the happiness I deserve, though it has to be without Owen. Regardless, O is always with me, helping me move forward, pushing me onward, and for that I am truly grateful and blessed.

PS: I am still teaching art (Upward Bound, June 2018), making art and writing. The Art Bag Lady perseveres!

 

 

 

Settling In

It is taking time to settle into both my new home and new job. About two weeks into my tenure as an AmeriCorps Program Director a co-worker who is about to retire leaned out of the office she was emptying and asked if I would like a big map of Kentucky, and because I still have a partial office wall to fill, I said yes.

smallbigmapofky

She delivered it a couple days ago, with a palm full of the lethal looking, unique mounting devices for it. But she didn’t just leave it. She wanted to talk about it. She explained that the map’s surface was writable, like a white board. She told me the best marker colors to use so the surface would stay clean. Several times she mentioned the name of the staff person who acquired the map in the first place, and with what sounded like affection tinged with sadness that touched me because I have been feeling affection and love tinged with sadness, sometimes despair, for eighteen months straight and wonder if I will ever stop. Our apparently similar feelings about loss, in this case of a several decade’s long job, made me connect with this woman and wonder: Did her coworker retire too? Did she work with him for a long time? Does she miss working with him?

This interesting encounter started in the hallway, as I returned from one of many deliberately long walks to  get away from my desk and computer. I am used to writing alone and in silence, spent the whole summer and fall of 2017 writing about late in life professional and personal losses, some of them profound, on blessedly quiet mornings in my old apartment, in public and private libraries in the afternoons, on weekends in coffee shops and, during the 2017 holidays, in a lovely dining room of a home I was helping to house-sit, so I am okay with solitude. But now that I am housed in an academic institution again and busy preparing to launch a new program I am eager for contact. First, however, I have to create many original forms and documents. This requires sitting in front of two computer screens that are not particularly companionable, and so loneliness is what I was escaping from when I saw that woman and she asked if I still wanted the map.

I almost said No, and I don’t know why. Maybe because she gave me the option. Maybe because I have a piece of Owen’s artwork taking up part of that wall, and it meant moving it and moving Owen’s things has left me drained and depressed and feeling bereft of a future, despite my new home and new job. Maybe that day I was afraid that map would be a daily reminder of his loss and the others that led me to a new life in Kentucky. Whatever it was I stifled it, and was glad I did, and for the woman’s company and the memories she shared over the map she is now entrusting to my care. Somehow, seeing the shape of state and the many roads that connect the hundreds of small towns to the much fewer large cities that comprise Kentucky, some of them places I visited with or lived in with Owen, makes me feel more grounded and not nearly so alone.