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May Issue 2007

A View from Down Under on
Who'd be an Artist?

by Judith McGrath

Who'd be an artist? You pour your passion onto a canvas, sculpt your spirit in bronze, turn your thoughts on the potter's wheel. It takes physical strength and creative energy so when you leave the studio you're exhausted.

Who'd be an artist? Certainly not a woman! Consider Artemisia Gentileschi (born 1598) the daughter of an esteemed artist in Naples, a wife and a mother. She taught in her own art school, had studio apprentices, domestic help, and produced fine works for rich merchants and nobles. She was one of the first women in 'modern' times to pursue a career on an equal footing with men. History also tells us that she was the maligned victim in a rape trial, rejected by her father and abandoned by her husband.

But things have changed a great deal in 400 years and life for the woman artist is different today. She is no longer reviled if she aspires to be equal with her male counterparts, and she has no help in the studio or the home while she attends to her muse.

Today, when a woman artist leaves her studio (more then likely its a spare room in the house) she has to wash her hands and change her mindset because it's time to prepare a meal for a significant other and/or offspring, throw a load of wash in the machine, and solve someone else's dilemma. However when a male artist vacates his studio (often separate from his living quarters), he can sit down, put his feet up and consider the solution to a particular creative problem, as more then likely there will be someone who will tend to his person and organize his domestic environment. If not, he can go to the pub, be fed and watered and find someone to tell his troubles to.

These thoughts came to mind after dealing with two women artists this month. The first was Janna, who phoned and invited me to her home to provide constructive criticism and help cull exhibits for her first show in over five years. Her name sounded familiar; as a talented young artist, she was picked up by an energetic and well connected gallery in this town and did quite well. A few years back the gallery relocated to Melbourne leaving quite a few Perth artists without representation. Janna was one of them. I assumed the long break between shows was due to this fact. I was wrong.

It seems five years ago Janna's then two year old child was diagnosed with a learning difficulty. Doing extra work with this child, caring for her house, husband and a second baby consumed much of her time. However, Janna continued to practice her art.

Now that her seven year old is progressing well, Janna is ready to return to her professional career. She has a sufficient number of quality works to exhibit but, after such a long break, no gallery will pick her up. Determined to get back into the art scene, Janna secured the lobby of a prestigious city hotel for her exhibition and will do all the dog-work (publicity, catalogue, advertising, hanging, sales, etc) herself.

Then there's Carol who has a husband, four teenage children, and a big house yet somehow finds time to paint. She's had many successful solo shows in the past but left the gallery scene after her fourth baby. However, she continued to participate in various group exhibitions over the years, as doing so often resulted in private commissions.

Last month Carol entered a major competition exhibition and took first prize. This means her work enters a prestigious public collection and she has the choice of either a two month artist-in-residence in Tuscany or $10,000. Although she really wanted the residency Carol took the money, not that she needs it but because there is no one to look after her house, husband and kids while she's away.

P.S. I recall how one year the male, married with children artist who won this prize chose to attend the residency in Italy, then spent a couple of weeks in Paris, at his own expense, before coming home. I guess he knew the family could cope without him!

Yep, things have changed a lot since Artemisia's day. Popes and Princes no longer maintain the master painter, studio apprentices have disappeared, and women are allowed to be serious artists. After they finish doing their real work.

I'll ask again, who'd be an artist? The bloke who can go 'walkabout' when the mood takes him, for as long as he likes, without being accused of deserting his domestic responsibilities. The one thing that hasn't changed over the centuries is how the male artist has someone to tend to his comforts and intercept the burdens of life while he indulges his muse.

Excuse me, I have to go now, it's time to start the dinner.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).


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