Archives for posts with tag: reflecting

Portrait of Mademoiselle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (c. 1801)

When you look at the History of Art, you might wonder why there aren’t as many women in the books as there are men. Why is it that the grand, romantic notion of the solo artist, imparting brilliance and genius upon the sorry masses, is always associated with a male figure? Who says that this is really what an artist is?

It is a complex and intertwined mix of reasons why we often make these assumptions about art and artists. Societal power structures, misogyny, the fact that women and their works have been regarded as “lesser” than equal compared to the works of their male counterparts… all this and much more has kept women out of the books.

Much like what happened to my Grandmother in the early/mid 1900’s (when she married she was forced to leave her job as a teacher to stay at home), European women artists, upon marriage, would normally have to leave their careers behind. Those who didn’t and continued to paint were not only exceptions, but they were unable to maintain a decent amount of work.

You might think “well, yes, society has made it difficult for women artists to develop, to become great artists” and you would be correct. However, there have been absolutely outstanding female artists throughout Western Art History who have been respected as Masters (Mistresses?) in their time. However, when it comes to reading modern and mainstream texts about their work, words such as delicate, gentle, light, and feminine are used.

Even paintings that were once regarded as Master works are re-described once it is discovered that a woman actually painted it. A former Master Piece is now a Fraudulent Disappointment… but it’s the same painting! An anecdotal example is of a Jacques-Louis David that was purchased in the early 20th Century by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1951, Charlotte du Val d’Ognes was attributed to possibly Constance Marie Charpentier, another female artist who was David’s student. What was once described using words like austere, perfect, unforgettable, tasteful, and exemplary was re-described as gentle, lacking correctness and concealing weaknesses, subtle artifices and feminine spirit. It should be noted that women artists were finally allowed to enter the Salon after the French Revolution. Jacques-Louis David accepted many female students, encouraging them to not only enter the Salon, but to paint both historical and portrait works. Essentially, he treated them as equals.

When people ask “who wrote the text” with regard to power structures, it’s about more than the textbooks. This is about society and its structures, how we exist in our time in relation to history and what we know about it. Which philosophers guided us, what art do we value and think is important, what defines people, what defines a family, how does one identify themselves within their time and place and how one survives. A big question in the midst of all this is: How Can We Change? Through persistent, hard work, we can change. This is why I truly admire artists who have forged ahead and made strides for female artists and equality.

I recommend the book Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick.

Over the next few days, in celebration of International Women’s Day this week, I will highlight a few Canadian artists who I feel have made some strides for an improved society, and whose work I admire.

Natasha Henderson, Montreal

some of my earlier experiments

One of the benefits of teaching to fully engaged students is the challenges that they present to you. I am teaching a weekly course on felt-making; the first class for this new group was last week. All of the students were keen to learn, to do, to make. Outside of the enthusiasm that they brought to the class, they had all done research beforehand on the craft of wet-felt-making.

When we started the class, I gave them a brief run-down on how felting works, what the science is behind it, the basic stuff. Then we talked a little about what we would do over the next twelve weeks. Some of the students were very keen to try out some specific techniques; techniques that I’d seen others do but, admittedly, haven’t done myself. When the internet offers such a wide array of videos, blogs, and instruction manuals, it was a pre-educated group of crafting students who entered my classroom the other day!

a student in the beginning stages of making a hat

This presented a challenge and an opportunity for me to grow. While the class is on, I am “on”. I am engaged fully with the students, I guide and help and demonstrate. Sometimes I must step back and allow them to discover things on their own. During this work-time, they are concentrating and I am quietly watching what they do, or I am preparing for the next step. While this is happening, I think about what we will do in the future, what would serve my clients/students best.

Much of art-making and maintaining a practice in it is about editing. Editing specific works, editing time so that the media of choice fit into one’s life, and editing things that might not seem to fit together until they do. I have, classically, fancied myself to be a bit of a trail-blazer type whenever I’ve started something new. I would quickly learn all I could about it, see what appealed to me, then go off on my tangent to experiment with what I chose. This is normal, I think. However, when I have students who want to try out all the different things that one can do in a chosen medium, I need to be ready to teach them these things I’d seen, not tried, and had previously discarded from my own milieu of work. Because of this, over this weekend I performed some experiments with feltmaking.

there are many ways to make felt, and many potential things to teach

There is a funny thing about this situation. By prescribing myself time to experiment in things that I’d not really been personally interested in before, I have been actively pushed to make use of my new knowledge. An example: felted soap. I make and sell felted soap, now, because I needed a little something to fill in about an hour’s worth of class. Felted soap seemed interesting, sort of cool, and something easily portable for students to make and take home in one day. Now I sell my little bubbly creations in many shops around town, and on my Etsy page. Benefit!

fabric-enriched scarf - the successful experiment

A second example of a recent experiment is building fabric into the layers of wool. A student last week was keen to try this, so I agreed to teach it. I took some time to try it out, and last night I made a very beautiful scarf using this technique. A little back-story is due; as I’ve mentioned before, I once had a job in the fashion industry. While working in a sample-making room I saved scrap pieces of fabric. I prevented good, small bits of fabric from stuffing the landfill. I have many little squares of printed cotton, and I’d been trying to force myself to sew out patchwork bags and skirts out of them. I like sewing from time to time, but not sewing boring things like grid squares. Last night I took two of these squares, and ripped them into strips. I added the fabric into the scarf, and presto! It was a success. I will be making more of them, and adding another aspect to my scarf-making business!

I am looking forward to the next couple of experiments I’m planning… a large vase, and sushi jewelry in felt. Who knows what will be after that! I’ll certainly keep the dialogue open with my students, that’s for sure.

Natasha Henderson is a painter and fibre artist based in Montreal. She teaches art and felt to adults and kids. You can check out her Etsy page and personal website if you’d like to see some of her work.

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