Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve oil on paired panels 1530
This talk isn't about art in any particular way, but since I've posted a talk at church I gave two years ago about Vincent Van Gogh here and got some supportive responses, I thought I would post the talk I just gave at church about marriage. Since my religion and my marriage play a large role in my artistic psyche, I think this blog is the right place to post this meditation, even if there aren't any paintings or painters (except for myself) referenced this time. Although the art critic/writer Rebecca Solnit does get a lengthy quote. . . So maybe there is more oblique art content than I first thought.
So, without further ado:
Why Marriage Between a Man and Woman is Ordained of God: for Joy
By Eowyn Wilcox McComb, presented in the RidgeCreek Ward, Murray, UT on January 24, 2018
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells an origin story that goes something like this:
In the beginning, when the gods made humans, they made them with two faces, four hands, and four legs. And they made them in this form: man-woman, and sometimes man-man, or woman-woman. Humans became powerful, intelligent, and strong, so much so that the gods began to fear that their creations would rise up and try to overthrow them. So the gods met together and came to a decision: they would take the humans and split them apart, weakening them and leaving them lonely and desperate, restlessly wandering the world seeking their lost other half. Some of the broken humans longed so intensely for the rest of themselves that they became ill with loneliness, and sickened, and some even died. This story is the origin of the concept of ‘soul-mates.’
Aristophanes’ myth is perhaps one of the earliest stories to attempt to explain the passion that drives us together towards marriage. That marriage needs an explanation makes one stop to think. Most cultures have an origin story about the beginning of humanity, and most of those origin stories center on the creation and union of a man and a woman. On a physical level, this makes sense---in mammalian species there needs to be a male and female member in order to procreate and have offspring. But this does not require marriage, or loyalty, or fidelity. While some animals, like swans or many wolves, are monogamous and mate for life, many other animals, like mice or ducks, are promiscuous, sometimes violently so. So why do we humans practice marriage? Why do we have ancient origin stories about soul mates?
In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” President Gordon B Hinckley and the first presidency of this church proclaimed that “the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.” How do we know this principle to be true except through the scriptures? When God gives us a commandment he wishes us to follow, he usually gives us a story about that commandment so that we better understand it. And what story is more archetypal on the subject of marriage than the story of Adam and Eve? Aristophanes had one story about how soul-mates came to be. We have another.
Adam and Eve’s story is of marriage and true love enduring. Let us turn to Genesis chapter 2, where I will paraphrase the story told there, and we can consider together the implications of Adam and Eve’s choices, and what we can learn from them:
In the beginning, some time after God made the world, he made a garden with a river that ran through it, which he called Eden, and in it he “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” named Adam. Adam lived in harmony with the plants and the animals in Eden, which was a place of surpassing beauty. All of his needs were met for him, because Eden had every good fruit and vegetable. God gave Adam two tasks: to keep the garden and to name the many living beings within it. But something was lacking---there was a need that Adam had that was not met, and he did not know it. God saw this and “caused a deep sleep to fall over Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” God gave Adam and his new wife two commandments: first, that they should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28), and second, that while they could eat freely of any tree in the garden, they should never eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for they would “surely die.” And while Adam and his wife kept the second commandment, the first commandment they could not keep, for they were innocent and ignorant and did not know how to keep it.
Now Lucifer disguised himself as a snake and came into the garden and spoke to Eve. The art critic and writer Rebecca Solnit wrote in her essay “As Eve Said to the Serpent”: “I always thought Eve and the serpent must have conversed at greater length than Genesis records. That the most crucial conversation in Judeo-Christian theology is between a woman and a beast suggests that the voices that count are not always those of the fathers. . . That talking and eating were Eve’s decisive acts suggests a kind of intellectual and corporeal exchange with her surroundings, a willingness to take in the new and the risky. Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented, about what joys would rise like seafoam from the storms of history ahead, about what kind of places they would encounter and what it would take to make those places seem like home or Paradise.” Eve had not yet gained her name: “The mother of all living.” She had to make her risky decision first, all alone. After she spoke with the serpent, she realized that she needed to gain knowledge to ever progress or change or fulfill that paradoxical first commandment she had been given. She was the first human to desire knowledge, and the first to risk everything she had and lose her innocence to gain it. I have found through observation and reading and personal experience that gaining knowledge rarely makes life easier----it complicates our decisions and makes them a great deal harder-----but is worth every sacrifice for how it enriches life and opens avenues of thought and inspiration that were closed before.
So Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, fruit described as “good for food, and... pleasant to the eyes, and... to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). And she was not selfish. She loved her husband, and offered him the fruit, and he ate it also, and “the eyes of them both were opened.” And so Adam and Eve fell from grace and were banished from the garden, and given toil and sorrow and pain for their punishment. And what we know of as time began, and children were born, and with their work came achievement, and with their loss came gain, and with their sorrow came joy.
For “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” I find it striking that in that famous scripture I just read, 2 Nephi 2:25, it is Adam who is named, and blamed, for the Fall, and not Eve. I think there is a reason other than gender-bias at work in making Adam responsible: we often focus on the difficulty, riskiness, and profundity of Eve’s choice, but we rarely focus on the great sacrifice Adam made when he chose to follow her and partake of the fruit himself. In one action, Adam gave up his home in the garden and his ability to walk and talk with God face to face----all to follow his wife into exile and spend the rest of his life working for the privileges he gave up to be with her. Is this not powerful? Adam knew God---he spoke to God----and yet he willingly gave up God’s presence out of loyalty to his wife. Adam’s example is complex: he chose his marriage before God, and yet his choice fulfilled God’s wish and commandment that he should “cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
While I often identify strongly with Eve as a fellow woman facing the necessity of making choices that rarely affect only myself, and who often has to resort to subversion to be able to act or speak in a world that strongly favors men-----still, when it comes to my own marriage, I identify more strongly with Adam. Eve made a choice without Adam that affected the direction of his life. This put him in the position of being forced to make his own choice, but one of reaction, rather than action. My marriage has followed a similar pattern: when I met Ryan he was finishing his master of bio-science at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. He had already made significant life-decisions about his education and his career path, and he had also made the crucial decision to go very deeply into debt to achieve those goals. And those decisions he had made without me changed the path of my life after we got married. His debt affected us every day as we gave up (among other things:) meat and cheese, the internet, going out, new clothes or new anything, heating, and finally our car in our efforts to make ends meet. I learned to cook beans from scratch and bake bread to save money. I sewed my own clothes out of sheets and fabric that I found at the thrift store. I learned to make art in tiny spaces, with only a desk and a bookcase and an easel in a corner of the room as my studio. I had chosen not to pursue a Master of Fine Arts after I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Art Center College of Design because I was afraid the debt would cripple my career as an artist. That decision I made turned out not to matter: Ryan’s career path led us out of the neighborhood I’d lived in all my life and the city where I had all of my career opportunities. Similarly, Adam had to sacrifice his comforts, his home, and his standing with God to follow his wife into banishment and hard work that he had probably never expected and in the beginning, surely didn’t know how to do. Why did he do it? Why did I do it? For love, for true love. For the chance to have joy together. In Moses 5:10, Adam reflected on his decisions and: “Blessed God. . . saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy.” And Eve, reflecting on her own decisions in the next verse said: “Were it not for our transgression, we never should have. . . known. . . the joy of our redemption.”
The paradox of Genesis is that Eve and Adam disobeyed in order to obey. Lehi explains the importance of Adam’s choice to follow Eve in 2 Nephi 2: 22-23: “…Behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden.” And I would add here: remained there alone. “And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”
Let me return again to 2 Nephi 2:25: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Here, in one sentence, is laid out the plan of salvation and God’s purpose for us: We exist for joy, to be joyful. Teryl and Fiona Givens wrote in their book The God Who Weeps that “in a universe limited by the economy of the essential, joy is proof of surplus” (35), and perhaps, if you take this idea one step further---proof of God. For what other reason does joy exist except that God intends us to have it? What purpose does joy serve except to crown our lives and give purpose to everything else----all the suffering we have to endure in order to achieve and recognize joy at last. What other proof of love is there, than that it gives us joy? And what better proof that God loves us, than that his purpose for us on this earth, is to learn to cultivate and understand and have for our own selves----joy?
Marriage is one way to increase and multiply the joy in our lives. Love is the greatest source of joy, and marriage is, at its best, a test of true love and a way to develop more pure love and gain more joy. All the sacrifices I have made for Ryan are worthwhile because I love him, and that love gives me joy and the love he returns gives me strength to bear, or at least attempt to bear, our burdens. The love we have for each other is a choice, and is thus fragile, strengthened by time and sacrifice. The hardships we have faced together and will face together in the future are the special alchemy that transforms our love into a solid substance that binds us: true love. This said, I would like to assure you all that true love is not limited to marriage---love and joy are something all of God’s children can and do enjoy, through any and all relationships based in love. Any time we love a person, a place, an animal, a thing----we are following God’s path towards joy.
For after all, "which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said. . . Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). If we love, we are following God’s way, and are sure to achieve joy at last. The more love we have, the more joy we will be given. Of this I can and do firmly bear my testimony.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
When we were visiting our parents for Christmas my family was very kind and took me to the museum. I wrote about it in my journal: “I did get to see Van Gogh’s bedroom painting, visiting from Chicago to the Norton Simon, which was so beautiful in person—a dream of serenity---a dream of home that Van Gogh painted when he was at the asylum in Saint-Remy, having already lost that bedroom and everything it represented to him. It was very poignant for me to see it, struggling as I am with not having a home of my own, no space, no room, no decent studio to work in.”
It is the main reason I haven’t been writing as much here. Since we moved to the bottom of the Silicon Valley in September 2015, I have done nothing but struggle and miss my home. Like Van Gogh, I too, have been painting from memory, using painting to cross boundaries of time and space and re-inhabit the place I miss most. One of the paintings I am working on now is of Mimi, who died last year on one of my visits home, sitting in the long green grass in the backyard of my parents’ house. I can’t pet Mimi anymore, I can’t even sit in the grass that I love and miss so much, but I can paint them, here, in this tiny, dark, cold place hundreds of miles away. It is one of the gifts painting gives the painter.
I am trying so hard to capture some images of life. One of my new year’s goals is to try to write more here, to keep updates on the progress of my artwork and the spirals of my thoughts. Since I rarely get to go out to art shows any more, I’ll try to write more this year about the art books that I am reading, and paintings that I am looking at in my memory, or through my post-card collection, which is its own tiny museum of art.
Vincent Van Gogh Blossoming Almond Tree oil on canvas 1890
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints there are no paid clergy. The lay members take turns with all of the teaching, including giving talks in sacrament meeting on spiritual subjects. This past Sunday was my turn, and my husband’s, and we spoke on the subject of love and patience in the family. When I received our assigned subject, I immediately thought of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. Here is my talk:
If you were able to go back in time to the mid-1860s to a small town named Zundert in Holland, you might have seen two young boys walking together through the fields and woods, gathering flowers and grasses, confiding secrets, hunting bird’s-nests, playing games, and in the winter, ice-skating on the frozen ponds or sledding across the snow under the dark, leafless trees. The elder brother, an awkward, red-headed boy, was named Vincent Van Gogh; his younger, slighter and fairer brother was named Theo. These long childhood afternoons and evenings were the beginning of an ardent bond that lasted their entire lives until their deaths a mere seven months apart at age 37 and 35.
Theirs is a remarkable story of enduring patience and love. The masterpieces that may come to your mind when you think of the name Vincent Van Gogh: the brilliant yellow sunflowers, the cypresses, the irises, the mysterious starry nights, the golden, waving wheat-fields, the serene lavender bedroom, the sunburnt portraits of peasants, and the tortured self-portraits of a troubled man----it is likely that not a single one of these paintings would have been made without Theo Van Gogh’s love, encouragement, and support.
Vincent Van Gogh Sunflowers oil on canvas 1889
To explain this, we should return in our minds to those two boys, whose love for each other was adoring and fervent. They shared the parsonage where their pious parents eked out a modest living with three sisters and a much younger brother. As the oldest, much was expected of Vincent, and when he was in his teens, his father got him a job with his namesake uncle Vincent, an art dealer in the Hague who became very successful selling prints of famous artworks to decorate the walls of middle-class Dutch homes. Vincent worked hard, and in the summer of 1872, he received permission to visit home and resume his long walks and talks with his favorite younger brother, Theo. During one of their long rambles in the countryside, the two brothers pledged to always support each other and write to each other often, a promise they kept until death. After Vincent returned to work, his uncle sent him to the English branch of the Goupil and Co. gallery. Vincent was an awkward, intense young man, described later in life by his brother as having “something in the way he talks that makes people either love him or hate him.” As the months dragged on, Vincent felt unfulfilled by working at the gallery, and possibly seriously depressed. One of his sisters described his depression, how, “intensely serious and uncommunicative, (he) walked around clumsily and in a daze, with his head hung low. . . He was a stranger to himself.” Concerned by his behavior, Vincent’s uncle transferred him again, this time to the Paris branch of the gallery, where Vincent quickly lost his job and came home to familial accusations of “shame and scandal.” Theo was sent back to Paris to take his place.
This was only the first of many failures that dogged Vincent through his twenties. He attempted to become a teacher and failed; he tried to woo his widowed cousin, only to be firmly rejected. He worked at a bookshop, but only briefly. He told his father he would like to emulate him and enter the priesthood. Skeptical, his father arranged for a tutor so Vincent could try to get admitted to the university to study theology. But nothing came of it. Desperate, Vincent attempted to become an evangelist, a sort of missionary to the coal miners in the Borinage, a bleak and desolate region of southern Belgium. His parents were convinced that Vincent would “spoil everything by his eccentricity, his queer ideas and views on life.” And after a mere six months the Church Council withdrew their support from Vincent because of his “almost scandalous excess of zeal.” He had given his possessions away to the poor and lived in a shed even smaller than the tiny shacks the miners dwelled in. Stranded, desolate and alone, Vincent did not want to go home. His parents had already threatened to institutionalize him in an insane asylum, frustrated with his erratic and intense behavior and alarmed by the trail of failures he left in his wake. Instead, destitute and almost starved, he began to draw in earnest, at the age of 27, using pieces of charcoal and cheap sheets of paper. His artwork saved him. He wrote to Theo: “How rich art is, if one can only remember what one has seen, one is never empty of thoughts or truly lonely, never alone.”
Vincent Van Gogh Pine Trees in the Fen pen and ink on paper 1884
Theo was his only supporter. He had always thought his brother would make a good artist, and even though Vincent’s first attempts at drawing were heavy and clumsy, Theo promised his brother financial support to get the training and materials he needed to become an artist.
This was the beginning of one of the shortest and most remarkable careers of any painter in all of art history. Vincent remained dependent on Theo for financial and emotional support for the rest of his life. He attempted to return his brother’s kindness with his own devotion to his work, mailing stacks of paintings and drawings back to his brother that would eventually become some of the most valued masterpieces in the world.
Vincent Van Gogh Olive Trees with the Alpilles oil on canvas 1889
What can we learn from the relationship of these two brothers? What can they teach us about love and patience in our own families?
First, to increase love, there must be an increase in communication. The bond between the two brothers was born out of the intense, intimate conversations they shared as children, and was cemented by the almost one thousand letters Vincent wrote to his brother over the course of his adult life. The letters, described by the writer Proust as some of the greatest literature in history, are full of vulnerable emotion, voluble opinions, wide-ranging ideas and recommendations. They are, in short, the record of a soul, bared to his brother. To love someone, you must know them, and accept them for who they truly are.
But when you know someone so well, you also know their weaknesses, their faults----you become vulnerable to disappointment, and also hurt feelings. That is why to continue to grow in love you must also practice forgiveness. Both Vincent and Theo were often disappointed by the others’ limitations. Theo was disappointed in Vincent’s poor relationship with their parents, and Vincent was disappointed that Theo, though a successful art dealer, never sold a single one of his paintings. Vincent chafed at being dependent, and mild, gentle Theo struggled to support Vincent, his family, and all the other artists whose work he showed and championed. The brothers sometimes fought, but they also forgave each other. In Luke 6:37-38, Christ tells us to “judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given unto you. . . for with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
Why did Theo keep forgiving Vincent, even when he overspent Theo’s money and sent him argumentative, demanding letters, even when he failed to become independent, or to reconcile with those he offended? Why did he stay loyal to him when his own parents no longer believed in their wayward son? Perhaps the answer lies in the answer that Jesus gave to Simeon and the Pharisees when they condemned the woman who “washed his feet with tears.” Christ said, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47). Vincent was a passionate and ardent man, a man who loved art more than anything, and who shared that love with Theo. Perhaps Theo was able to forgive him his failings because he understood that Vincent’s weaknesses as a person were also his strengths as an artist: his stubbornness, his persistence, his intensity, his originality. For as it says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, “ God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen. . .” Like the apostle Paul, Vincent Van Gogh was “a fool in glorying.” His humility born of difficult experiences and persistent loneliness, his similarly humble subject matter, his direct and powerful way of painting are what give his artwork enduring beauty, reality, and power. In Ether 12:27 God promises, “I make weak things become strong.” When we are humble, and accept our own and other’s limitations, then there is a true chance for forgiveness, and the chance that we, too, may have our weaknesses transformed into strengths.
Finally, most importantly, we learn from Theo and Vincent’s example to never give up on those we love. As Shakespeare wrote in his (CXVI) 116th sonnet: “Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds, / or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken; / it is the star to every wandering bark, / whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. / Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / within his bending sickle’s compass come; / love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Theo and Vincent surely bore their love out to the edge of doom. Vincent dreamed of starting a utopia of artists in southern France. But his dream failed when the painter Gaugin made plans to leave the famous yellow house they shared in Provence after only a brief few months’ stay. Distressed and depressed, Vincent’s mind failed him, and on Christmas Eve, 1889, he cut off part of his left ear, delivered it to a prostitute with the words, “take this in memory of me,” and returned home to collapse on the bed in a pool of his own blood. Gaugin took one look at him and fled, leaving Vincent to wake in the hospital on Christmas Day injured and alone. As soon as Theo heard, he rushed to Vincent’s side, proving Proverbs 17:17 that “a friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” In one fateful swoop Vincent lost his friend, his yellow house, and his health. He checked himself into the St. Remy asylum, where he had sad, lucid periods where he painted canvases all day which are now among his most loved, interspersed with episodes of illness and what he described as “mental torture.” Putting on a brave face for his brother, he wrote to Theo: “Considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy.”
Vincent Van Gogh Irises oil on canvas 1889
Yet Vincent was dead less than a year later. A phrase he wrote in a letter to Theo is almost a premonition: “There’s nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.” The true circumstances of Vincent’s death may never be known. The facts, however, are these: one morning in late summer in the year 1890, Vincent walked out into a sunny wheat field to paint. A few hours later, he stumbled back to the hotel where he was staying, a bullet in his stomach and an unfinished letter to Theo asking for more art supplies in his pocket. Were his persistent feelings of failure and the fear that his illness was growing worse enough to push him to the desperate act of suicide? Or had his local tormentor, a teenage boy, shot him by accident with a borrowed gun? The gun was never found. Vincent’s easel, his still-wet painting, his last palette-----were also never found. And so Vincent Van Gogh died in a tiny rented room in Auvers, attended by Dr. Gachet, and his brother Theo, who had rushed from Paris to his side in time to hear Vincent’s last words: “The sorrow will last forever.”
Theo prepared for Vincent’s burial. He placed one of Vincent’s old palettes on his coffin, hung the walls with Vincent’s blazingly colorful canvases, and filled the room with the sunflowers so beloved by his beloved brother. A handful of artists gathered and said farewell to a man who was, like Christ, “a man of sorrows,” and “well acquainted with grief.”
Vincent Van Gogh Wheatfield with Cypresses oil on canvas 1889
Theo’s health had been delicate for a long time, but his brother’s death shook him to his core, and he collapsed soon after the funeral he had so lovingly arranged. His family interned him in an asylum in Holland, where he died at the end of January in 1891. His grieving wife arranged for his body to be brought back to France and buried beside his older brother under the rolling yellow wheat fields they both loved so much. The legacy of love and patience that Theo bore his brother did not die with him, though, because his wife Jo Van-Gogh-Bonger, kept all of Vincent’s artwork and his letters, and after not many years had passed, Vincent’s paintings rose to fame, and became, as Vincent so ardently desired, “a consolation” for many “broken hearts.”
I am grateful for the love and patience my family has shown and continues to show to me, especially for the abiding love and immense patience Ryan gives me every day. I am also grateful for all the times in my life I have been able to see in person the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, a truly great artist.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Sewing II graphite on paper 2016
Sewing I graphite on paper 2016
The Artist Sews Her Clothes graphite on paper 2016
I made these drawings about sewing over the past month. The first two are a pair, the third could be a pendant to the set, or it can stand alone.
My husband expressed curiosity about learning to sew a bit over a year ago, and I have been teaching him ever since, on weekends and the occasional evening. My mother taught me to sew when I was quite small. I remember long car trips during the summer while just a toddler; mom would hand me a piece of plastic embroidery canvas and a large, colorful plastic needle strung with yarn, and I would practice making stitches as the desert rolled by outside the window. When I was six turning seven my summer project was to make a matching set of shirt and shorts patterned with white cats---my mom supervised heavily, of course, and made the buttonholes for me. I think I did sew on the white buttons, if I remember correctly. Two years later my summer project was a new quilt for my bed. Mom taught me how to tie the quilt on a big wooden frame we borrowed from some quilter friends using thin pieces of ribbon. I sewed on and off after that, until Mom gave me a sewing machine for my 22nd birthday. It was a surprise to me, despite my previous experiences sewing, because I hadn't done much while I was in college or high school---homework kept me too busy, and working at the animal hospital weekends and holidays. But after I married, I began to sew in earnest again, and have since sewn almost all of my own clothes. My husband feels that we should keep a record of the things we sew, so we have set up a small blog to keep track at www.mrandmrsrat.weebly.com.
I remember my college classmates often despised anything that could divide attention away from art-making. But I found their view very limiting. Most artists are talented in other ways, explore the world from many points of view, and make art in many forms. Sonia Delauney designed fabrics, as did the Bloomsbury group, Georgia O'Keefe sewed her own clothes even when she could afford designer outfits, Modigliani was an amateur poet, Joseph Cornell was an avid and extensive collector and film-maker as well as collagist-sculptor, Maria Sibylla Merian was an accomplished entomologist as well as exquisite watercolorist, etc. Most my art teachers were good cooks, avid readers, excellent gardeners, and had other interests too varied to list here. An artist is an explorer of the world---she or he uses whatever is in reach to form meaning.
With sewing such a integrated and integral part of our lives, I have been thinking about its meaning to me. Here is a small list I made in one of my notebooks about why I sew:
-to revolt against being poor, plain, and insignificant. The writer Linda Grant says that "the desire for luxury, for beautiful clothes, can be revenge against poverty, neglect, and cruelty" in all their forms.
-to communicate. Since I have few opportunities to speak beyond my intimates, much less be heard, clothes are one of the few ways I can communicate with the people--mostly strangers or distant acquaintances--around me every day. Clothes are a visual form of communication, and one that everyone engages in whether they like it or not, whether they believe clothes are "a natural extension of the body, or even the soul," or not (quoted from Quentin Bell),.
-because I feel judged based on my appearance. Everyday we look at each other and make judgments, consciously or unconsciously. By sewing I can attempt to shape very slightly the way I appear to other people, and attempt to bring that appearance closer to the truth of my inner emotional self.
-similarly, to subvert other people's stereotypes and expectations. I am astonished at how other people, often strangers. feel comfortable commenting (often negatively, occasionally admiringly) on my appearance. What is it about clothes and hair that sometimes makes other people so uncomfortable they feel the need to make fun of a stranger? What misplaced sense of control is at work in such unfriendly behavior? I don't see why I should ever bend to someone else's assumptions about what I should look like based on my gender, age, religious ties, region, race, economic status, etc. I am not a stereotype--why should I dress like one? I am my own person, unique, complex, a whole world inside me.
-and lastly because, "you can't have depths without surfaces," as Linda Grant so aptly put it.
I am pleased that you want to write more reviews about artists who are women after you read Maura Reilly’s Art News article on gender disparity in the visual arts. It strikes me as a problem, though, that if you only found the work of 17 women interesting enough to write about before considering their gender that if you seek out more artwork by women to write about, the issue of importance remains----did you look at their work because you felt it was important and interesting in itself, or to rectify your previous omission? When I read Reilly’s article it occurred to me that at least part of the problem for women is one of perspective, especially the perspective held by the viewer of what is ‘important.’ Because the subjects that a woman finds important because of her life experience may well be different than what a man finds important because of his. It is an old distinction in the history of painting, most obvious in still life. Norman Bryson wrote eloquently about the concepts of megalography and rhopography and their relationship to gender in Looking at the Overlooked: “For as long as painting’s mode of vision would be constructed by men, the space in which women were obliged to lead their lives would be taken from them and imagined through the values of the ‘greater’ existence from which they were excluded.”
It takes a revolution of perspective to see past one’s own expectations. When you are a cat in a world of cats, it may be difficult to empathize with the perspective of a rat. When you are a man looking at a woman’s artwork, a leap of empathy may be needed, a change in perspective, an openness to unsettling your previous judgments about hierarchy and importance. Looking at art allows one to try on another person’s eyes for a while, to look about in their brain, to see into their life and philosophy. Importance necessarily shifts from artist to artist; judgment must be suspended until the other world view is fully inhabited.
You may not remember an evening five years ago spent visiting the studios at a small art school, but I vividly remember the first sentence you spoke as you entered my space: “Why so domestic?”
I was taken aback at the time, and didn’t have a chance to answer your question with my own: Why not? Our inner lives are most revealed in the privacy of the home. It is a space all share; everyone goes to sleep somewhere, has parents somewhere, fill the needs of the body somewhere. Domesticity is universal. Why would that be your first question unless, as I guessed to myself later, you felt that such a subject was unimportant and therefore my interest in the home needed to be justified?
It is the puzzle of perspective – we look at the same thing with different eyes --- and whose view is closer to the truth?
Life is lived within the circumference of gender. To make artwork about something means the artist feels such a thing is important, should be looked at, thought about, remembered. One’s own sphere of experience affects all definitions of importance. When you go out looking at women’s artwork with the intent to write more equitable reviews, I would like to ask you to stop and question what assumptions you bring with you. Can you make the leap of empathy – can the cat see a rat’s world with rat-like eyes?
Some day when you next look at my artwork, I hope you might not look at it straight with all your old judgments and assumptions, but slant, and backwards, and sideways, to see from where it was lived, and with what concern and wonderment.
Regard a Mouse
O'erpowered by the Cat!
Reserve within thy kingdom
A "Mansion" for the Rat!
Snug in seraphic Cupboards
To nibble all the day
While unsuspecting Cycles
Wheel solemnly away!