Inside a Tipping Point

09/09/2016

This post was excerpted as part of a collective memoir of Now Be Here in KCETLink's Arts and Entertainment Section, September 3, 2016.  That article may be accessed here: https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/female-artists-now-be-here-kim-schoenstadt-hauser-wirth-schimmel

 

 

Kim Abeles  

August 28, 2016

 

Today at artist Kim Schoenstadt’s Now Be Here, my longtime friend and feminist, Anne Isolde, drew me aside saying, “As large as this group is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Rather than the tip of the iceberg, I told her, it was a tipping point.

 

Lives were changed that day, through the bravery of Schoenstadt, an artist with a good idea to photograph a relatively small crowd of female artists that evolved into a massive rave. And our creative spirit was palpable in the courtyard of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, with the final, official count as 877 rsvps and 733 attendees.

 

This was a reunion of varied generations of self-identifying women artists who create art in Los Angeles. Each person became a reminder of my own art career, unfolding before my eyes: students from decades past, colleagues, and friends. More relevant than career markers were the markings of our lives. Women never forget each other’s private confessions and struggles. Women make art about these moments or as far away as possible from these moments. 

 

As a female artist, I have a history of expended energy to try harder, trying to take prejudice as a challenge, trying to be a strong role model for younger artists who were trying to simultaneously raise children or find their way in a system that does not really want them. Though I’ve made art about feminist topics, and taught about it in classes, in my own life, I saw sexism as a cut on my arm that I didn’t have the stomach to see or to know how it got there.

 

In this leaden backdrop that I have just painted for you, Now Be Here stepped forward as an extraordinary event, a monumental gesture in all its greatness and tenderness. 

 

Everyone here was equal for this moment of the photograph. Our mass was like some ecstatic revolt, an unstoppable glacier. Because the numbers grew from a couple hundred to many hundred, we began to represent those who were not present. We were each and more than ourselves. 

 

I invited my mother to attend. Fran “Schatzie” Hoffman lives in the neighborhood of the gallery, and at age 96, she was one of the oldest of the artists present. Schatzie still paints, but doesn’t exhibit anymore, most likely because her route through juried shows for five decades kept her career from shifting to another plane. It’s not an atypical storyline, intermingling happy enough on the ground and in the trenches. The joyful engagement of Now Be Here, brought together the galaxy of stars in all their brightness and sizes. This is the real experience of the event, as a statement, that we are all here, still here, and in our struggle to be seen, we share a connection that is bigger and more beautiful than anything holding us back.

 

Monica Orozco was one of the artists who took photographs throughout the morning, documenting within the burgeoning crowd. Later the next day, Monica sent me a photo of Schatzie, singled out, and she told me that it was the first photograph she had taken at the event. Only later did she understand that the photo showed my mom, or “your mommy,” as Monica endearingly wrote to me. I burst into tears, as I have done many times since Now Be Here. When I was little, I didn’t really ever call her “mommy.” It would have made her feel old and sexless, I guess. When I was eight in 1960, she began painting. After my stepfather died, she promptly changed the master bedroom into a studio, played jazz on the radio, drank wine, and made large abstract paintings all day long. I didn’t know where she slept, only where my bedroom was located, and I knew not to bother her.

 

So, Now Be Here gave me something important. It gave me the ability to see my mother acknowledged as an artist. Maybe that is why as women artists, many of us mention the emotional aspect of our participation. This day was a day when we were open to looking deep into each other, with strange, endearing connections inside a courtyard cacophony of thrilled voices. This day gave expression to what it can look like to have equality. It means that free expression exists, that even “good girls” can find a place, and that our energy can burst out unfettered. 

 

                                                            ::::

 

I ached many times in the days following the event, when my elation began to subside, thinking of people who had not been present. I began to see on Facebook that when small lists of friends would be identified, someone would feel hurt and express an innate need to announce their absence. Articles appeared listing the names of a handful of artists from high-end galleries as if they represented all of us underlings below, and to give the impression of a balanced field. How ironic that the effervescent and enduring sound of all our female voices needed to be framed within the traditional scope of patriarchal institutions. I had a horrible feeling that despite the best intentions, the scraps are few, the societal structures so secure, that our role as artists, that female sort, is only for decorative purposes, brought out on holidays like dusty christmas tree lights. An illusion of festivity stuck in a caste system. Or call it a glass ceiling if you like. We are observed through magnified glass, with financial success and notoriety as a spearhead. And when I am sitting in selection committees and no one but me notices that we didn’t bother to pick even one women, that is when I feel in my bones how deep the old institutions reside. 

 

I keep getting stuck on the image of that “deep feeling in my bones” and the power of the ancient metaphor insisting I’m from Adam’s rib. I must have been in a semi-dream state all my sixty-four years and then the tipping point happened. Now the metaphor only has me thinking of medical problems, marrow transplants, and osteoporosis. 

 

So burst out of that bone, girlies! The road has been long, and the river is flowing with us. We remind each other daily that we have our stamina, creative strength, and that our connection is the tipping point depicted by Kim Schoenstadt’s yearning to make this photo.

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