Panel ponders: Who Does She Think She Is?
By Rita Papazian
Posted: 05/15/2009

In the documentary film Who Does She Think She Is? broadcast journalist Bill Moyers cites a number of significant female artists over the last 150 years who have never had children. They include Georgia O'Keeffe, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson among others. Are the two worlds of creating art and raising children incompatible?

It is no surprise that the provocative title of this documentary provoked thoughtful discussion on this point from a panel of local artists and an audience, including many artists following the film's showing, sponsored by the Fairfield Arts Council at the Fairfield Theatre Company Monday evening.

Contrary to the perception of Moyer's statement, all five female artists featured in the documentary and all five artists on the panel discussing the film are mothers. The film's title, as implied in the film and evident during discussion, is open to interpretation. Does it represent the attitude of society who question women's decision to pursue art while a wife and mother? Or, taken from another point of view, is the artist trying to sort out her own identity while balancing the responsibilities of being a wife and mother while pursuing her art.

The ability to balance family responsibilities and creativity has been a challenge for generations, but more so since the second wave of feminism beginning with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963.
The film focused on five artists living in unique environments ranging from Providence, R.I., Cambridge, Mass., and Columbus, Ohio, to Taos, N.M., and Hawaii. They are sculptors, painters and one performer. They are all married with children, but as we follow their journey balancing family responsibilities and their art, we have come to learn that three marriages culminate in divorce. Yet, we observe the artists in this film receiving the love, support and respect for their art from their children.

During discussion, the panel of artists addressed the relationship between the life of an artist and motherhood. The panel included local residents Elisa Kachian an art educator and narrative illustrator, and Lori Petchers, a filmmaker; Barbara Gray of Westport, an abstract impressionist painter and printmaker; Michele Hofbauer, of Trumbull, author of children's books and vice president of the Fairfield County chapter of the National League of American Pen Women; and Anne Gilmore of Wilton, an artist and designer;. Marti LoMonaco moderated the panel discussion. She is professor and director of the Theatre Program, Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Fairfield University.

Just as one of the artists in the film saw a direct connection between birthing and art, panelist Hofbauer sees raising children an art form in itself. She said the issue becomes how much time a woman decides to spend focused on her art and her children.

"I can't stress enough how much it is an individual decision how much emphasis a woman places on her art and the children," she said.

Hofbauer reiterated a point in the film that showed the correlation between the more powerful women became in their roles in society, the better off society is as a whole. "This is like saying, 'When mommy is happy, everyone is better.'"

Consensus among panelists, which was evident in the film, is that women must take personal responsibility for their lives, especially in how they integrate their art into their lives. For example, in the film, Angela Williams, a co-pastor with her husband, reached a point in her life where she became frustrated by the fact that she was using her talented voice mainly in church. Watching local performances such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she got "tired of sitting here. I want to be up there." She began to audition for roles in productions, including Broadway. Her focus on building her career as a performer changed the dynamics in the household and eventually she and her husband divorced. Reflecting upon her pursuit in the performing arts, Williams said, "I knew there was more to my artistry than singing before my husband preached."

"It's personal responsibility," said Ulla Surland, a fashion designer and former owner of a women's fashion shop and gallery in downtown Fairfield. "No one is going to hand us anything and we have to stop asking for permission."

A Wilton artist, Gilmore, the mother of two college-age children, observed how "powerful" it was for the children in the film to see their mothers "deal with the creative process." Kachian concurred. As a mother of four and grandmother of 11, she literally has incorporated family members into her art. She also has worked closely in encouraging her children and grandchildren to create their own art. Her oldest grandchild, Christine Quinn, who grew up in town, will be graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied illustration. Through the years she has saved all her grandchildren's art work and is compiling the work into personal books for them.

Unlike other artists in the film and on the panel, Kachian said she never found it difficult to find time for her art. Even today, she continues to get up before 7 a.m. and go into her home studio where she works until 9 a.m. -- before the phone starts ringing or she has to attend to other responsibilities. While raising her children, she managed to take her art materials with her and work in her lap, if she had to, she said.

Gray, who has two children and two grandchildren, also paints from her studio in her home. She admits having a family and pursuing her art "was a lot of work and a lot of coping. Her advice to others is "to hang in there. You have to be driven because it's easy to be put off.

Petchers said she identified with Williams in the film, who had to leave her Providence home for stretches of time to audition in New York or to perform outside of Rhode Island. She said it's difficult "to grab chunks." She said sometimes the art is like "a second lover."

In the film, sculptor Janis Wunderluch, married with five children, works on her art after the children are in bed or she'll catch an hour or so while the youngest takes a nap and the four others are in school. Of motherhood and marriage, she says, "A lot of it is fabulous and a lot of it is busy work." She puts the struggles of balancing family and art in her sculptures. That is why many of her sculptures have two heads

Dennis Bradbury, a female photographer who runs a gallery in her home in South Norwalk, was among the approximately 75 people who attended the event. Although she is not married with children, she said she did sacrifice relationships in order to find the time and space "to do my art." The art precluded her having a relationship.

Fairfield resident Linda Coleman, a former fashion stylist, who enjoys fine art photography as a hobby, has spent many years as a Montessori teacher in New York City and Wilton, where she taught up until two years ago. Now, she is ready to devote herself to her photography. As with Kachian, Coleman has found that being a photographer benefited her work with children. However, teaching took "all her time." And left no time to pursue photography until now.

"So much has changed. Now everything is digital," Coleman said.

Watching the film, one comes away with many messages and themes including a woman artist must "trust the process. Art is all about not knowing where you're going," said one voice from the film.

In the film, Williams, the former co-pastor who ultimately gave up her dreams of Broadway and traded them for running a school for the performing arts, summed up the challenge of balancing art and family: "I am in the middle of a forest. There are no companions and I feel the wolves."