Freedom to Create Art

Recently, my husband emailed me a link to an article in the New York Times. While he often alerts me to stories about art, this one was about women and bicycles in the Islamic Middle East, and whether they had permission from father/husband/etc. to ride. When two women, covered from head to toe, pedaled their clunkers up Salahuddin Road in Gaza, they caused quite a stir. The reporter wrote, "The sight of women on two wheels was so unusual that Alaa, 11, who was grazing sheep on the grassy median, assumed they were foreigners and shouted out his limited English vocabulary: 'Hello! One, two, three!'"

1897 advertisement in "The Graphic" for Elliman's Universal Embrocation (manufactured in Slough, England). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

1897 advertisement in "The Graphic" for Elliman's Universal Embrocation
(manufactured in Slough, England). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

In Western countries as well, women riding bicycles were a strange apparition at first. In this British advertisement from 1897, why did the man fall off his bicycle? Was he shocked at seeing a woman dressed in a bloomers outfit or at her having a bicycle? What, you might wonder, does all this have to do with art?

The Times article made me reflect on the freedoms and advantages we too easily take for granted. Had I been born 200 years ago, even 100 years ago, I highly doubt I would have had the opportunity to make the choices I've been fortunate to make and follow my heart's desires. I've never had to ask anyone for permission to ride a bicycle, get an education, write articles and books, create textile art, or travel.

Indirectly, the article also led me to the fact that March is Women's History Month, at least in the U.S., and that's where art enters the picture. 

Source: www.pittsfordschools.org

Source: www.pittsfordschools.org

Like a woman cyclist in the Middle East today, a woman artist was also once an anomaly. I still remember my university art history class (1968?): not one female artist appeared in H.W. Janson's text, History of Art. (I understand that the latest editions do include women.) It's not that women artists were non-existent; rather, Janson didn't deign to consider them worthy of being in his history of art.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

I realize now that, in this regard, nothing during my student years had changed since 1944, when Wilhelmina Cole Holladay graduated Elmira College with a degree in art history. She hadn't encountered women artists in her texts either. But a trip to Europe made her aware of this gross omission when she and her husband Wallace came across paintings by 17th-century Dutch still-life artist Clara Peeters. Since they had never heard of Peeters or other women artists whose work they soon admired, the Holladays began to specialize in collecting, exhibiting, and researching women artists of all nationalities and time periods in order to highlight their accomplishments.

"Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries" (1612-1618), by Clara Peeters. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries" (1612-1618), by Clara Peeters. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

In 1981, the Holladays incorporated the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) and opened its doors in Washington, D.C., in 1987. It is dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements in the visual, performing, and literary arts. Toward that end, it has acquired more than 4,500 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and decorative arts from as early as the 1500s. While some women artists might object to being ghettoized in this way, the museum demonstrates in a big way that art has not been confined to one gender.

"The Earth" (1984), by Kimsooja. Source: http://nmwa.org/works/earth

"The Earth" (1984), by Kimsooja. Source: http://nmwa.org/works/earth

It's also not confined to the historical limitations of the term "fine arts." This textile piece by South Korean artist Kimsooja originates from a childhood of sewing traditional bed covers with her mother and grandmother. She constructs contemporary collages from bits of old materials family members give her, then embellishes with thick embroidery thread, and adds thinned paint over the satiny jacquard fabrics for texture.

Women in the Arts, 2015. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Women in the Arts, 2015. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Over the years, Wilhelmina created individual committees of more than 1,000 volunteers from 27 states and 7 countries, to provide educational opportunities to children through schools and such groups as the Girl Scouts, as well as offer opportunities for adults to participate in and encourage art in local communities around the world.

Because of the Holladays' efforts, I have learned about such artists as Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), considered the first woman artist, outside of a court or convent, to work within the same sphere as her male counterparts. She was also the first to paint female nudes, and she did it all while being the principal breadwinner for the 13 members of her family.

"Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant" (1576), by Lavinia Fontana. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant" (1576), by Lavinia Fontana. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Tewa artist Margaret Tafoya, New Mexico. Source: http://nmwa.org/

Tewa artist Margaret Tafoya, New Mexico.
Source: http://nmwa.org/

There are so many more that are new to me, from centuries ago as well as in contemporary times. I'm gratified to learn that they've all successfully risen to the challenge of creating art, whatever their conditions and circumstances.

During Women's History Month, I acknowledge not only famous women artists, but also those who are creatively engaged and expressive everywhere, in particular, those who struggle against the kinds of restraints women encounter in something as basic--at least to me--as riding a bicycle.

For her 2008 documentary "Unveiled Views: Muslim Women Artists Speak Out," Spanish filmmaker Alba Sotorra hitchhiked from Barcelona to Pakistan to meet five women she finds extraordinary. Three of them pursue their creative passions despite the obstacles: filmmaker Rakshan Bani-Ehmad pushes Iran's censorship rules to the stretching point; Afghan poet Moshagan Saadat survived the Taliban; and dancer Nahid Siddiqui is forced by politics to practice her art outside her native Pakistan. You can see them in this trailer.

Pakistani dancer Nahid Siddiqui in "Unveiled Views." Source: diasporafilmfest.com

Pakistani dancer Nahid Siddiqui in "Unveiled Views." Source: diasporafilmfest.com

These and so many other women (men too, of course, but this is Women's History Month) inspire us to test and go beyond limitations, whether we impose them on ourselves or they're imposed on us by others. These women also demonstrate that expressing one's art can be as vital as eating and drinking.

Questions and Comments:
What woman or women in your own life or in history have inspired you to be an artist or to appreciate others' art?

How are you inspiring others to feel free to express themselves artistically--to write, to sing, to play an instrument, to compose music, to garden, to paint, to sew, to sculpt...?

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