"People" Artist: James McNelis
by Melanie Corrigan
it starts with the quiet, whisper of a dream insistent on making its presence known. It is very much like a child in that it doesn't let you rest. It laughs in scorn when you lie to yourself and act like it doesn't matter. Pretending it's not there doesn't hush it, only accentuates its neglect. It doesn't quiet because you bury it with doing housework, running errands, tending children. No. The busyness of your life doesn't squelch it, only causes it to manifest as anger, insomnia, frustration, depression and bitterness. In this way, it becomes a resounding shout and refuses to be ignored. Heeding this voice changes everything. A metamorphosis begins. You begin to make sacred space, time for quiet reflection, you learn to say no. You quit your lucrative nine- to-five job. You end toxic relationships. You begin your journey as an artist. You create and the world unfolds. The song is sung, the words are written, the vision is given form. You become who you are -- an artist.
I'm old enough to believe in myself now. But what stands out are the life changes happening: Our parents who we've spent a lot of time caring for, are suddenly gone. My children are becoming more independent and the youngest starts school in the fall. Now that my time is opening up and we're in a position financially to allow me the freedom, I'm ready to follow the call.
"I was withdrawn . . . seriously depressed. It was a very painful and difficult time. I realized I couldn't live with the unhappiness and the pain. I needed to express this energy that was craving to come out. I began to write intensely."
"I was feeling pretty restless and unhappy because I knew I wasn't living my dream, so I went into therapy, enrolled in college writing classes and started to work. It was either write or stop blathering about wanting to."
"I was working on a painting. I remember the smell of turpentine and the thickness of the paint and how in touch I felt with the whole process."
"When I began this study, I suspected there was a certain point in a woman artist's life, when she admits to herself she is an artist, and despite societal pressures, brave choices must be made about her creative life. My hypothesis was this is a definite and definable period of metamorphosis."
"It was also my hypothesis that this is a time of conscious decision to either be true to her creative voice or go with the prescribed role society places upon her as a woman. My last hypothesis was this period is more difficult for women than it is for men and is accompanied by challenges from family, friends, intimate partners, colleagues and society at large."
Contemporary women artists, whether they are writers, storytellers, performance poets, sculptors, painters or illustrators, challenge these societal limits constantly. Courageous and creative women are refusing to follow the traditional patriarchal scripts that have been handed down to them. They have rich and influential stories to tell and beautiful and significant art to create. Following the exhaustive but joyful path of honoring creative voice requires definite choices and sacrifices.
This research enabled me to explore this metamorphosis and the ensuing pursuit of a creative voice.
My preparatory research for this study was quite unintentional. By virtue of who I am -- a woman and an artist -- I came to know quite clearly what was expected of me in this society.
At the age of 27, I started reading feminist literature such as "Women Who Run With the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "Reinventing Womanhood" by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "Bone Black" by Bell Hooks, and "Women's Ways of Knowing" by Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues. This literature challenged my training as a young girl and supported what I experienced as a woman. Estes' book is a testament to what is powerful and wise in women. She approaches age-old stories from a feminist perspective and offers them as a healing balm for an oppressed society of women. She urges women to arouse their sleeping instinctual selves and honor their psyches. Estes also discusses at length how women deceive themselves into thinking their wounds are not real and how we cripple ourselves and give away our power. Within the 500 pages of this book there are many lessons on creativity and the glorious, wild nature of women.
In "Reinventing Womanhood", Heilbrun examines the necessary liberation of women by not accepting past role models. She asserts that men have dictated human experience, leaving women incapable of mentally conceiving themselves as both ambitious and feminine. Heilbrun persuasively demands that we must redefine what it means to be a woman. Hooks creates a novel-like memoir in which she reveals her early experience as a flowering writer. She delves into her early strong-willed attempts to challenge society's path for her and fluently denounces our society's expectations of women. "Women's Ways of Knowing" is an illuminating study of women's development. The authors delve into the journeys of women finding their inner voice and how society can and does hinder the discovery of this mysterious element called voice. They look at the many women who are silent participants in this society and what makes them tolerate that voiceless path. In this book, there are sketches of womanhood that can deeply sadden and anger a feminist, such as myself, and at the same time tell another woman's story and bolster one's belief in what can be defined as female -- quiet and discernible strength, generous and honest tolerance and brave and powerful souls. During this time of unintentional research I was also reading and listening to a great deal of material on creativity and craft -- "The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity" by Julia Cameron, "A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood", by Judith Pierce Rosenberg and "The Woman's Book of Creativity", narrated by C. Diane Ealy. All relate well to this study. Cameron clearly illustrates how to accomplish the recovery of stifled creativity. This is a task-oriented book with a companion blank journal meant to be used as a tool to exercise creativity. Cameron asserts that everyone has creative potential, and gives artists the much needed permission to do their lifework. She gives us license to create in a society that appreciates art, but outwardly disdains those who are creative.
Rosenberg presents an accurate sketch of the mother/artist from in-depth interviews. Combining motherhood and the solitary craft of writing or visual art is a definite challenge in our society. When so many other elements are begging for the attention of the mother/artist, the discipline required is phenomenal. An abundance of support is required in order to succeed. Frustrations and resentments are commonplace when creative voice is neglected. This book is full of stories about the journey of learning how to designate what is necessary and give up what is not.
Ealy reveals her experiences as a woman and an artist and persuasively encourages women to identify and transform society's imposed limits. She talks about the obstacles facing women and furnishes methods to help tear down these barriers. Ealy also discusses the need to nurture ourselves and the difficulty women have in doing this. Recent exploration involved with this study included examination of literature concerning society's expectations of women and how those expectations can, and too often do, hinder women as artists. For many years, patriarchal societies have damaged women by insisting they nurture and sacrifice only for others, and not themselves. This stance causes what Tillie Olsen calls "unnatural silences"(21).
"Silences" describes societal powers that can encourage or stifle the voice of an artist. Even today, when women assert themselves and demand time for their creative pursuits, they are chastised. People try to fix them by insisting women's creative abilities lie in the areas of homemaking, childbearing and supporting others. The article "Gender Differences in Creative Achievement: A Survey of Explanations", by Jock Abra and Suzanne Valentine-French, examines the possible reasons for fewer women than men realizing extraordinary creative achievement. The manner in which women are frequently taught to be inconspicuous, relationship oriented, sympathetic and nurturing seems to be the main cause for fewer women achieving great success in creative fields. Accomplishment in creative domains requires traits encouraged in men but not necessarily in females.
Historically, women's stories and experiences have been unheard and considered trivial; not worth noticing. Jane Piirto, in "Why Are There So Few?" (Creative Women: Visual Artists, Mathematicians, Musicians), presents the quandary of reconciling what is stereotypically feminine, such as submissiveness and passivity with that of the unconventional artist, who is presumably rebellious and selfish. Again, this article examines the prescribed societal roles of mother and wife and how they often do not allow women to develop their creativity. Harriet Kimble Wrye, author of "Narrative Scripts: Composing a Life With Ambition and Desire", writes about women and achievement and how fears can hinder success. Women must wrestle with loss of acceptability when successful; a reality men do not have to contend with. Wrye looks at the value society puts on certain feminine qualities and how these expectations take power away from women and leave them wanting. All of the material I have had the opportunity to explore on women and creativity supported my idea of the adversity women face when they decide to call themselves artists. I am going through such a period myself and needed to see how others defeated those things which were once a hindrance.
This study is gravely important to the encouragement of women struggling to find their creative voice. It will illuminate a murky and often scary path, enabling us to follow our rightful dreams and ambitions. When this path is revealed, I am certain it will be lined with the glorious handprints of those brave women who preceded us. We will be guided by them. And when we fall we will find the necessary reassurance and encouragement to keep working and achieving. It is important for struggling women artists, whether they be writers, painters, sculptors or storytellers, to see the formidable barriers overcome by other women. It is essential to depict this path, as it will permit our stories to be told.
The study of the literature above has allowed me to gain some knowledge of the psychological aspects involved when women refuse to mind the rules prescribed for them by this society. Networking with women artists and performing in-depth taped and/or transcribed interviews was my primary means of obtaining material. There were 22 women artists, age 21 to 69, involved in this study. All answered questionnaires (Appendix A). Six women replied to my questionnaire posted at a women's forum called Pleiades on the Internet. I conducted in-depth interviews with five of the respondents. I also attended Lynn Pauley's (who was one of the respondents) three-day workshop provided by the Arkansas Arts Council and Henderson State University's Art Department.
The respondents came from varying backgrounds. Their occupations were diverse. Some were full-time students, working part-time jobs and accomplishing their art on the side. Many were pursuing their art full-time, subsidized by part-time regular jobs. Several identified themselves as artists as well as art educators. A majority acknowledged their lives were influenced mainly by a call to art as a lifework. Eighty-one percent either were married or had been married at some point in their lives. Six of them had been through divorces, which either resulted from their need to reach out to their creativity or a starting point for an awakening to their art. Five of them had never been married. Only seven of them had never had children.
When asked how long they had been doing their art, most began either in childhood or early adolescence. A few could not recall exactly when. They just knew it had forever been a part of their lives.
"Always . . . since I can remember," said Dominique. "It's always been with me -- the need to make art," Lynda stressed. "All my life," wrote Carol. A majority of them recognized from an early age they would pursue a creative discipline. Kyran, who is a poet and comes from an artistic background, was essentially expected to follow a creative path. "So many of my adult role models have been artists in one medium or another. My own creativity was encouraged and nurtured from an early age. So yes, it seemed reasonable to expect I would go into the arts," she said. Michelle, who defines her creative work as eclectic, states her endeavors were put on permanent hold 13 years ago at the birth of her first child. She also says the creative urge has always trickled out in some form or another. Jokingly, she adds, "I've simply been waiting for the next life to begin it."
"No. I went back to art school at age 37 when my children were at school for some time of the day . . . I was always attracted to art, but didn't consider art a career possibility until I matured and dared to dream," wrote Jackie, an illustrator/artist.
"Yes, but I did forget for a time," says Nancy, who is a mixed media artist, children's book illustrator and chairperson of Henderson's Art Department. "I think that women do forget, because you let everybody's life take priority over yours."
Women do tend to feel tremendous pressure from family and society. Creative endeavors seem indulgent and stand in the way of attention to family or other relationships. Teaching women to be attuned to others' needs does not give them the self-esteem and respect needed to listen to their own dreams. According to Wrye, empowering women is of utmost importance. They need to feel that they are entitled to self-interest and they need to not equate ambition with selfishness and abandonment(131).
When women make the decision to seek their vision of how their lives should unfold, something powerful happens. They undertake the journey back to self. Julia Cameron, author of "The Artist's Way", says, "The true self is a disturbing character, healthy and occasionally anarchistic, who knows how to play, how to say no to others and 'eyes' to itself." (99). The recognition of this true self inspires women to take action and find the courage to visualize how they believe their life should continue. The metamorphosis has started.
When I started this research I suggested there would be one profound metamorphosis and then a woman would conceive herself as an artist. I was mistaken. There is not necessarily one metamorphosis, but usually many. They essentially are a matter of claiming and acceptance of who you are. Many of the women identified an early period in childhood or adolescence when they drew something, wrote something or sang something and someone paid attention. "I was nine and some people were raving about a painting I had copied. I thought, what's the big deal -- anyone could do that," said Beverly, a visual artist. But most identified with later metamorphoses.
I found it interesting most of the women I interviewed seemed to correlate this time period with other challenges occurring in their lives. Many were facing changes, such as divorce, when this metamorphosis occurred.. Kyran was one of several who found themselves in failing and/or stagnant relationships. She told me about how her progress as a writer and her separation from her husband went hand in hand: "It kind of happened all at once. Basically I met, quite accidentally, the person I live with now . . . we connected in a very deep, kind of spiritual level and became very good friends. It just tapped into something in me and I realized instantly, it was like a floodgate opening. I had actually been living on a very lonely kind of level because I didn't have a kindred spirit in my marriage. I didn't have anyone to talk to about values I held important -- creative values. And then this person came into my life and sort of woke that up and I realized I'd been starving for it. We fell in love . . . even though my husband and I tried to put the pieces back together. That whole process was very painful . . . catastrophic. Everything I had invested my idea of self in came tumbling down around my ears. But it was rebirth. All of the sudden all this other stuff started waking up in me. I was writing poetry again. It was just coming to me. I lost my job around that time. It was serendipity, these events. They laid me off for the summer-- budget cutbacks. By the end of the summer I knew I wasn't going back to that kind of work again. And just the sheer emotional intensity of that period caused a lot of reflection, soul searching, it fueled a lot of creative expression."
The apparent connection between an artistic metamorphosis and other life challenges repeated itself time and time again in the women's responses. Michelle, a self-defined eclectic artist, says "I have an artist friend who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's. She only has a few years left, so understandably she has shifted into high gear with her art. I stand back and look at her, then at my parents' graves, and the last 25 years of their lives spent in inactive retirement, and I have to ask myself what am I waiting for?
Michelle also believes this has been a time of permission for her. "It's been more than a conscious decision, it's been a conscious acceptance of an ability hiding inside me, needing to be released. That and a niggling realization that my life is half over and I have not realized my potential."
Lynn, an illustrator/artist/teacher, spoke of a voice in her head. "At age 30 I was working at the Cape Cod Times, which is in Massachusetts, and I was making twenty-eight thousand dollars a year and a voice came to me -- 'quit your job.' I had already had a few one-woman shows, which sold out, and I was also getting up at five o'clock in the morning to make paintings before I went to work. It was getting a little bit ridiculous. All the signs were there that I was then working two jobs . . . something had to give."
According to Belenky and her colleagues, this is a sign of maturation and is called the "emergence of subjective knowing" (54). They say it's when a woman develops an awareness of the presence of "inner resources" and she starts to be attentive to the "still, small voice" within her. "A major developmental transition follows that has repercussions in her relationships, self-concept and self-esteem, morality, and behavior . . . Women become their own authorities" (54).
Barbara, a visual artist and freelance writer, acknowledged she probably wouldn't have listened to what she needed if she hadn't had other difficulties forcing her to attend to her inner voice. "I have always made things -- with materials or with words . . . however, I was raised in a household that viewed artists as odd, self-absorbed people who only did what they wanted to do rather than making a contribution to a community as did doctors, teachers, scientists, businessmen, and so forth. So my "making" interests followed traditional avenues: quilting, smocking, decorating, gardening and freelance writing. However, my last metamorphosis was so insistent, so specific, and came at such a pivotal time in my personal life that I broke with my established behaviors and let that call determine the direction of my decision making. I was 44 years of age and the time period was an excruciating one: my marriage of 22 years was ending, my son was going to college, my daughter was entering high-school, and I was in desperate financial circumstances . . . It was a decision made in the face of confusion and condescending tolerance by many of those close to me. My decision was to live with art -- in any possible capacity."
Even today, the point at which women decide to hear their creative voice and accept it, is accompanied by many hidden societal deterrents. They have to be very passionate about their artistic path because most do not receive the necessary support vital to stand up to the oppressive patriarchal culture-- the one that states "the good mother should be selfless" or, for that matter, the good wife (Rosenberg, 1).
Laura, a mother, musician, and art student, says she has always been a creative person but she has not found true support from anyone other than her husband. "My husband's father thinks I'm a freeloader for not working. I believe being a mom is one of the greatest creative challenges I have had to face. My daughter loves to sing, dance, paint, color, draw and build things. Of course, this is not an easy task I'm attempting. Opposition from a lot of outside sources and every day occurrences get in the way and self-doubt creeps in."
"My friends and female relatives have been supportive," answers Michelle. "But this was as long as it didn't interfere with my mommy work. It must take a back seat to the importance of diapers, alphabets and making money. Tamp it down and do the laundry first." She thoughtfully adds, "The women who have children and do their art either have no husbands or have really reasonable husbands who don't mind unpaid bills, heaps of unidentifiable things laying around the house and a carpet that hasn't been vacuumed since Mommy started her latest art project."
Tillie Olsen, author of "Silences", declares she entered a taboo area when discussing the hushing of writer/mothers. It is "the last refuge of sexism . . . the tormentingly complex core of woman's oppression -- motherhood" (202). She is quick to add though that motherhood allows women to shatter the ego and opens possibilities for deep and passionate art. Therefore, she in no manner blames maternity, but the institution of patriarchy, instead. Our culture still expects women to be obedient, accommodating and passive caretakers. A mature move towards independence brings up all kinds of dissent. It makes us wonder if society is scared of hearing what women have to say. It just might upset the patriarchal climate. Women have consistently been rewarded for "quiet predictability" (Belenky, et al, 65). When they step outside of what is expected they become threatening. Lynn spoke of this supposed threat. "They (her family) wanted me to marry and have children. It stirred up their unfulfilled creative dreams and became a subtle threat. At one point, I was told I could not go to graduate school." Barbara's metamorphosis also exposed oppression from others. "When I chose to obtain degrees in art, my parents were taken aback, thinking I had lost my mind by 'starting over' in a 'new' area when I could support myself by recertifying to teach . . . people close to me seemed to feel more comfortable if I met their expectations -- if I exceeded what they felt comfortable with, I was indirectly discouraged."
Very few of the women felt supported in their choices and felt expectations of society and family could be a hindrance to them realizing their goals. Diane Ealy asserts the enculturation of women for thousands of years to support and caretake for others has done considerable damage. We learn very well how to give, but we don't know how to give to ourselves. Ealy says it is essential to learn how to nurture our creativity. "We believe receiving nurturance is selfish, and selfish is bad . . . we need to exercise what I call healthy selfishness" (tape 1, side 2). This "healthy selfishness" results in the development of our creativity. We begin to shift the focus to our wants and needs and we recover what is rightfully ours. This is a major inner obstacle that needs conquering. Certainly not all women let the prescribed societal roles have an impact on their art. Annie, storyteller and writer, says, "I never paid very much attention to prescribed roles -- knew from the get-go my feet wouldn't fit in those slippers." And Kyran, whose attitude towards societal roles shed light on the changes happening in our culture, gave an enlightening explanation -- "My first instinct is to say no, as I tend to think of prescribed roles as the stereotypical 'good wife and mother,' which is not an overt influence for women of my generation as for generations past. Nevertheless, society still imposes expectations on both genders that are non-conducive to the artistic life."
And are men affected as women are by societal expectations? Is it easier for them to be true to their creative path? The women were not entirely clear-cut on this issue. "In some ways it may be more difficult for men because they are pressured to have a traditional career, family, house, etc. To 'fool around' learning an art is often seen in a negative way for a young man, especially if he isn't getting ahead," said Margery, an author. "Either sex faces difficulties making a living with his or her art," stated Martha, a writer. Kyran approached this with a critique on how women are not given the necessary tools. "I feel men are more accustomed and encouraged to take risks . . . by and large, they are also better at standing up to opposition . . . society tends to reward risk-taking and assertiveness in boys and men, and directly or indirectly discourages these qualities in girls and women." As an afterthought she adds, "At the same time, I think all artists are compelled to take risks, and exhibit a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that transcends gender."
Lynn presents it as taking charge -- "I think men have had extra time knowing it's okay to have a strong voice and they are encouraged to speak up and push for what they want. In men it is assertive. In women it's bitchiness. But we as women could take a page from men's books and quit talking about not having the time . . . society says as a woman 'you can't.' I think we should forget all that, carve out special time, ask for help, ask for the money we deserve and do it. Quit talking and do it. It's so easy to be afraid, have excuses. It's harder to chuck others' ideas of us and sing. That's why more of us don't."
This study has opened more doors for me than I ever dreamed possible. It has made me trust what is artistic in myself and it has made me alter my life accordingly. Something I found very interesting was that most of the women entered a truly convincing shift in attitude toward their creativity in their 30's and 40's. Age certainly seemed to have a say in where these women were in their lives as artists. This proves to me our daughters need us more than ever to show them it is okay to be who you are. It is liberating. And as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, "The good news is that we can make the necessary corrections and return to our own natural cycles again. It is through the love for and the caring for our natural seasons that we protect our lives from being dragged into someone else's rhythm, someone else's dance, someone else's hunger" (295).
This study concerns the period of metamorphosis in which a woman begins to know she is an artist (writer, painter, sculptor, photographer, musician, etc.). It is my hypothesis that such a metamorphosis occurs and with it comes challenges from society at large, family, friends, intimate partners, colleagues, etc. It is also my hypothesis that this is a time of conscious decision to either perform your creative work or go with the prescribed role society has placed upon you as a woman. I want to know what this metamorphosis was like for you, or if you even think there was a creative metamorphosis. I want to know when it happened, and what obstacles and objections you faced when making this decision to embrace your creative talents.
1. Name, address, home and work phone number
1. Abra, Jock, and Suzanne Valentine-French. Gender Differences in Creative Achievement: A Survey of Explanations. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 117 (1991): 233-84.
2. Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986.
3. Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1992.
4. Ealy, C. Diane., narr. The Woman's Book of Creativity. Audiocassette. Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1995.
5. Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
6. Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Reinventing Womanhood. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
7. Hooks, Bell. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996.
8. Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Dell Publishing, 1978.
9. Piirto, Jane. Why Are There So Few? (Creative Women: Visual Artists, Mathematicians, Musicians). Roeper Review 13 (1991): 142-47.
10. Rosenberg, Judith Pierce, ed. A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood. Watsonville, CA: Papier-Mache Press, 1995.
11. Wrye, Harriet Kimble. Narrative Scripts: Composing a Life With Ambition and Desire. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 54 (1994): 127-41.
Melanie lives in Quapaw Quarter District in Little Rock, Arkansas with her seven year old son, one year old Bullmastiff, and her two year old persian cat. She's sure she was a healer in a past life and now she needs to heal with her words. She is a proud feminist and a life-long learner. Melanie has a BA in Mass Media Communications and wants to pursue a MA in Feminist Studies and Counseling. She is making plans to move back to her home state of California where she can sit on the beach and talk to the ocean. She loves hiking, traveling, and talking and laughing with her son.
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