formerly on the Wild River Review website
by Kimberly Nagy
Directed and Produced by Pamela Tanner Boll
Edited and Co-directed by Nancy C. Kennedy
(In association with the Wellesley Association for Women)
It’s not every documentary that compels me to stay up writing most of the night and that weighs heavily on my mind for days. But then again Who Does She Think She Is? is not your average documentary. Directed by Pamela Tanner Boll, mother of three, writer and documentarian, the film looks at the under-representation of mothers in the arts and other creative fields.
But before you say, “ Oh, I’ve heard that one before”…. I ask you to keep on reading.
“It wasn’t until 1986, that HW Janson’s History of Art included 19 women artists, out of 2,300 illustrations.. That’s only 21 years ago,” points out Maura Reilly, Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Exhibition, the first museum exhibition space of its kind in the world. Moreover, while most art students are female, 70-80% of artists featured in professional galleries are male. I mean 19 out of 2300 illustrations. What gives?
For all of its startling statistics and polls, Who Does She Think She Is doesn’t feel didactic or preachy. That’s because the film enters the personal lives of women who are real people. They just happen to be struggling to gain respect and recognition in places they are not always invited (or able) to attend. There are museums, yes, but also messy living rooms, backyards full of sculptures and nurseries scattered with toys.
“Art is the soul of any culture,” says featured artist Maye Torres. “The search for why we’re here.” Torres remembers being told that she’d never be taken seriously in the art world because she was a woman and a mother. But Torres points out, “ I think there is a direct link between mothering and art. Creation is an unstoppable force of the universe. But we’re not really taught to follow the heart.”
Or meet actress and singer Angela Williams, passionate on stage and in her love for her children, a woman who nursed her baby between the scenes of an early play. “One day I heard a call and I just woke up. The call just keeps getting louder and louder.”
Or Camille Musser, who, for most of her life, put her art on the backburner. “Painting has brought out another side of me,” she says of her colorful paintings full of memories of her native home, St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Every day she says she feels divided between being an artist and a mother.
To be fair, female or male, mother or not, the life of an artist can be a tough one. When your heart pounds to an inner drive that most people might not see or hear, at some point or another you may be the beneficiary of some strange looks. The urge to create can be an unbearably powerful one, a drive that requires inner contemplation, the vulnerability of self-expression and solitude. It can also be physically and mentally painful to ignore. People will doubt you. At some point or another you will doubt yourself.
Of course, art doesn’t usually pay the bills. So to be true to the force behind art is to be faithful to an inner call that defies “reasonable” explanation. And perhaps that’s the point. To live in that space beyond reason once in a while. Within the realm of passion.
One perfect day, I found out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. When words blend into paragraphs and pages, to me they become sculptures. I add here and chip away there until it feels so right my heart is on the edge of bursting. The satisfaction of writing can be so great that I can become lost for hours in that blissful concentration. But I’m also mother to my deeply loved six-year-old daughter, Isabel, and so, feel pulled into many different directions at once.
As one woman said, “It’s hard to push that urge down. I feel so divided.”
Me too. And I think many women (and maybe men too) are in the same boat.
So, to take my experience as a a writer back to Who Does She Think She Is? What struck me most about the artists portrayed in this documentary (many of whom felt guilty and selfish in pursuit of their art) is that they often ended up using their deep self-expression to heal themselves and others. Their stories make me wonder what might happen if the work of more women were permitted not just into museums and galleries but into an overarching point of view that valued the wide scope of the feminine perspective to the fullest of its expression –in all of its phases.
As one commentator in the film notes, the relegation of women to the sidelines in the creative arts is, “simply not just a woman’s issue.” Rather, it affects everything.
Read Kim Nagy’s interview with Pamela Tanner Boll.