Looking for what isn’t there
Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch feeling lucky … Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; … hope should shove you out the door; because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.
– Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Two things in the construction of my first thoughts this morning color me, as by a lens, but these two stories:
Last Monday I was in New York City with my family. We live only two and a half hours from Manhattan and have close friends there. Manhattan is where I met my husband and where we lived until Ben was a year and a half. Then we migrated north, my favorite direction, to the Berkshires, where we live now. Both my husband and I have lived longer in our current home than any other dwelling our whole lives. So, it was from home that we ventured to New York to show a young friend some of our favorite haunts.
On Monday we entered the Morgan Library to see two exhibits, one about Ernest Hemingway and one about Henri Matisse. Manhattan is crowded during the holidays, many people find themselves elbow to elbow in the subway or in line for cheap Broadway tickets or, like us, peering over hand-written letters from Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The day before we had done the same thing at the Museum of Modern Art, elbow to elbow looking at Picasso sculptures.
Hm. Do you notice a theme here? Three male artists featured at two major art centers in an important metropolitan center where thousands of people pay hard earned money to be entertained and inspired. Hmmmm. I asked at the information desk at MoMA where I might find some paintings by women. I know the facts about the public representation of women’s artistic work in our nation’s large institutions. Yes, I know the work of the Guerrilla Girls. I well know the movie, “Who Does She Think She Is?” by Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy Kennedy. (Links to these below.) So when the two older women at the information desk puzzled over where in the five floors of art galleries, I might find a painting by a woman, they gestured authoritatively to the fifth floor, where if I wandered well, I would find one painting by Frieda Kahlo. On my way there, I passed a mixed media composition by Eva Hesse. That made two.
So, on Monday, I was loaded, as Hemingway often was, according to the exhibit, for bear. I stood, crowded up with lots of other curious visitors, hoping to glean some new understanding of his literary genius. The man worked so hard and wrote some extraordinary books. His Nick Adams stories are among my very favorite books largely because they happen in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But, I was irritated to find the two prominent galleries in the Morgan both featuring the work of men.
Claire Vaye Watkins says in her important essay “On Pandering” from Tinhouse,
“But I remind you that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives.”
What I have been trained to do is appreciate and understand the world through a very male dominated lens. I value much of what I have learned, but I have been hungry, since the time I was a little girl, to see what women make of the world through art. I keep looking for what isn’t there.
These hands are full of hope
Like my friend Jan Phillips says in this video, I seek to balance the volume of male voices to women’s. Imagine the two dials on a stereo (so retro, but I know you can do it), one marked male, the other female. I would love for my daughter and her daughters to live into the day when those dials are set to equal volume. I am not looking to overpower or wipe out the work of my male colleagues. Literary and visual icons like Hemingway and Matisse have much to offer my understanding of the world, of artistic process and how they lived and perceived the times in which they lived.
But this is such a limited menu of perspective. The truth laid bare at the Morgan, two galleries that share a foyer, is that two men are better than one. You can argue with me about the National Museum of Women in the Arts being a place to see women’s artistic creations. Yes, this is true. But it is one museum in one city. What I saw at the Morgan is not new to me. This is the world I grew up in. I read Willa Cather in sophomore English class and was startled at that moment to realize how powerful a woman writer’s voice could be. I wanted more of that. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started reading Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. I had to seek out women’s writing in a world flooded with men’s work.
Last night I arrived in Gatlinburg, Tennessee by car, having flown from Albany, NY to Charlotte, NC. I sped past Flat Rock, NC, which was the place where Carl Sandburg lived, which I learned from the sign on the side of the highway. This morning my email bore one of Sandburg’s poems, from which I treasure this line:
“Knowing silence will bring all one way or another.”
I arrived at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts as part of a group of 10 writers, here with 70 other visual artists for a week of studio time. We are the first group of writers to work at this place, known for ceramics, textiles and metal work. It is exciting to be here, though I miss the huge doorstop sized dictionaries I found at the Millay Colony last winter.
I wandered off on my own after unpacking in to this small room that is mine for the week. For those who don’t realize, Gatlinburg is the “Vegas of the South.” I had no idea. When I accepted the invitation to come here, knowing that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park surrounds this area, I pictured a more remote town. Imagine my surprise when I was stuck in traffic on the main street for over 30 minutes, inching along to my destination. Times Square all over again. I found a pizza place just down the road. My writer’s ears were perked up already. One TV on the wall blasted TV shows from the 1960s. Green Acres was just finishing up as I sat down, followed by Bat Man in an episode that took me in to Bat Girl’s boudoir. All those capes!
At the table next to me sat a large family, five young people likely aged from 12 to 23 or so, with their parents. They ordered a few pizzas while I ate my salad. The three girls, the youngest of the family were nose down to their phones while the parents and the boys watched the other television playing a local station news program that was peppered with ads. It was a noisy scene.
But this conversation cut through the cacophony. The eldest daughter lifted her face from her phone and peered at her parents. She asked a question that seemed to have been plotted for this moment, prayed over or pondered at least, by this open faced girl who seemed to be about 15. Her penetrating gaze was very like my own daughter. She said, “Next year, would you let me go with a group to France or Germany or even, Costa Rica?” What ensued was an argument with her parents about the cost and effort involved in her going on an exchange to live, as she kept repeating, “with another family and go to school and all.” Her father, his back to me, kept referring to a trip he took in high school to Washington, D.C. and how much that cost then. The girl was getting nowhere, persistently kept asking, “But would you let me go?”
I was so struck by the yearning in her face. Of course I know nothing of the actual conditions of this family. From what I heard from their other conversation, they were here in the Vegas of the South, on vacation, planning who wanted to play indoor golf or go karts at Cooter’s and who was going on the chair lift after dinner. The girls bowed out off the group plans and when pressed, answered that they’d do their own thing, which I hoped did not mean sitting on a bench somewhere, nose to those phones.
But that girl, her open face and that question, “But would you let me go?” She longs to go to a new city in a new country and live there, expand her horizons, learn another language, see how life and customs are somewhere else. I could hear how much she had thought this through, the money she promised to save and the teacher who would be her chaperone, all part of her request.
I heard in her plea a huge desire to be expanded by the world. Do you hear your own yearning? What calls you?
Last night, the 10 writers on this retreat sat around the living room of this old house, describing our projects. Three of the original group invited here had to bow out of this week for personal reasons, so we are 10 instead of 13. The three who did not arrive here are men. This left one man among the rest of the women. I felt a surge of comfort and hope in this group of mixed age and experience women. I felt like my work could sit among the work of the others as full of potential and insight as the next.
Lisa Sonora reminded me of of Maya Angelou’s words this morning,
“I believe that the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity, is daring to dare.”
I dare to work from inside motherhood, as a woman in this world, in this time. I dare to write and speak and create from the place of being elbow to elbow, faced with so much work by men, yearning to explore the world through the lens of a female experience. Sitting in the living room with this group of writers, my hope catches theirs and my daring gains momentum. I dare to write and clap the book of Laundry Line Divine together with that girl’s yearning and all the work we don’t even know exists in the world because it is not featured in our major cultural institutions.
Claire Vaye Watkins says, “Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.” Looking for more women’s work at the Morgan Library or MoMA is looking for the invisible. We can hope to see work by women if we ourselves dare to do that work. If the major institutions with all that funding choose to feature women’s work, it will be because we ourselves are contributing the volume and value of that work, by doing it. In the words of Rebecca Solnit,“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
Dare to dare yourself. Dare to pick up a pen or a needle and thread or a seed catalogue or whatever tools call your yearning forward, where worlds as yet unknown to you, beckon, like France or Germany or even Costa Rica beckon the girl at the table next to me last night. Go there. If it calls you, go.
I dare you.
I cannot leave this post with out an offering of gratitude the Arrowmont School for inviting me, especially Katey Schultz and Jason Burnett. There are so many women here, along with a great group of men, and I really appreciate the opportunity to cross-pollinate with this diverse crowd.
The photos that illustrate this blog post are what I took on a morning walk-about to the textile and clay studios. All of those women’s hands working, vulnerable and strong, and so willing to dare. As I learn more about these women, I will share their names and sites.
To learn more about the work of the Guerilla Girls, go here.
To see “Who Does She Think She Is?” go here.
To read more writing by women, go here or here.
This book looks very intriguing.
Lisa Sonora’s 30-Day Journal project is here. Daily prompts, free and very daring.
More on this site about doing the work that calls to you here.