Women in Art


Dear Artist,

From time to time I do workshops and demonstrations for art clubs in my community. At the beginning I generally ask some questions: “How many paint in oils, how many in watercolor, how many in acrylic?” Here I look clearly into the faces of those who have given up an evening to try to pick up a new technique or two. Generally, eight out of ten will be women. Often these women will be in the process of switching gears from previous identities as wives or mothers. Some will have taken up painting the way others take up golf or bridge.

In popularity, painting is only slightly behind photography and slightly ahead of goldfish. Those artists who regularly teach adult classes and do workshops know that it’s a growth industry. When I look into those shining faces I realize I’m witness to a phenomenon that has not existed to such a degree in previous times. It’s estimated there are now 7 million women painters in the world. I’m not going to go into the sociometric causes — but it has to be observed that these are people who want to learn and grow, share community, and gain satisfaction and even passion from something that is more than a hobby. Outrageously challenging, art is also a tender and gentle activity that fits our times. Further, it’s not at all surprising to me that excellent artists are rising from among these legions.

Women now get going at any age. They can and do open their own doors. The expression of creativity is not the rare commodity it once was, nor is it the sinecure of men.


“Glass Wall”
by Elaine de Kooning

Best regards,


PS: “Women can also be creative in total isolation. I know excellent women artists who do original work without any response to speak of. Maybe they are used to lack of feedback. Maybe they are tougher.” (Elaine de Kooning)

PPS: “True strength is delicate.” (Louise Nevelson)

Esoterica: Emily Carr (1871-1945) was an average watercolour dabbler when, at age 58, she suddenly started painting big oils in what she called the “marvellous modern manner.” She found for herself a unique voice, reinvented Canada’s western forests, and monumentalized forever it’s totem heritage.

The following are selected responses to this letter. Thanks for writing.


Beyond goldfish
by Mary Ann Mountain, Seattle, Washington, USA

I guess I have gone beyond goldfish. Because I am a woman, single (by no fault of my own) and am striving as an artist to create — do I have to fall into the category of dilettante? I would love to take more workshops, but cannot afford the money or the time, boarding pets etc, to learn how to paint like someone else. Especially if I see things differently. Have done it twice! I think I need a touchstone to spur me — someone to say, “Hey you are okay, try this or that.” Is that unreasonable?


by Beek

Is it that clubs demand much volunteer time and that women are used to doing for others and not themselves? Is it that women artists are not taken as seriously as men artists? Is it that men have more confidence in their capability of success as an artist? It that they in some cases have a woman to take care of their needs and that of the family… so they can pursue and develop their craft whereas the women are doing the shopping… being the maid… the caregiver… the chauffeur… working a paid job outside the home… doing the art? Is it that men feel that they are breadwinners and that they have to succeed quickly or find  another way to bring home the bacon? Is it that women put these limitations on themselves, and wait until the kids are gone when they think they have more time? We women are dealing with all these obstacles.


The joy of classes
by Bev Willis, Fresno, California, USA

I certainly can relate to what you have written about these classes as I attend one weekly — have been attending now for over three years. There are several men in our class too. (The women are delighted that we haven’t driven them away. They have many things to offer us and we to them.) The people in our class are like a family. We are all around the same age and have many things to share with each other. These painting classes are very therapeutic for many of our class in several different ways. Some are able to see themselves accomplish something that they have been wanting to do for a long time. Some come to talk with others about their concerns or their past, some come because they have been sent by a doctor to help them through a health problem and some because they are lonely for some companions with similar interests. Some come just for the popcorn and cold drinks. Sometimes they don’t even bring paints because they don’t want to miss out on any of the “family” things.


Influence everywhere
by L.I., B.C. (Ele)

Regarding the de Kooning quote: “Women can be creative in total isolation.” Do you really think that is possible today? Now that we have become these superwomen and wearers of many hats, what and how does one get total isolation for long periods of time? Plus unless we live in the total boonies we are influenced by everything. T.V., magazines, books, other people and their response to our art as well as the many galleries springing up all over. When I read about an artist and they say “I am self taught”, that’s another doozy. Guaranteed they have watched TV, seen a book or visited a gallery. Looking and seeing other art influences teaches. Like a child growing up, we need the aid of a parent once in a while. It helps us to stay on the straight and narrow and focus on growing up to be the best we can be. I believe every artist needs a parent artist at some time as well.


Men too deserve the full treatment
by Sue Crerar, Florida, USA

It is well known among women that most do not come into their own until past their 40’s. Their intellect has this boost and they often become militant in a wide variety of issues. Sometimes as their partners are becoming less thoughtful & less open to new thinking? Walk into a room of 60 somethings and golf scores & the market tend to keep the men going. Women are more likely to be discussing ideas. I would love to see you target more males. There is all kinds of hidden talent out there, buried beneath years of corporate life. It’s a dick thing as opposed to a chick thing, favorite expressions in our large family, to not reveal ones’ softer more vulnerable & thoughtful side, and thus be open to teasing. Have you tried a beginning workshop with recently retired salesmen? Just a thought. Here’s a title: Increase your RRSP through Art! or Lower your golf score etc. I think I am getting silly, it’s very early in the morning here.(the idea being of course that they are opening more locked doors in their minds by expressing themselves visually!) A stretch but what the hell.


On your toes
by Sharon Tobasko

Your letter is a wonderful view of the changing times. I am now an enamelist/metalsmith. But that wasn’t always the case. When my son graduated from high school, I decided to return to college to study art history. Right out of high school, college was awful. I didn’t enjoy it at all. It provided me with a wonderful living (I spent 20 years as a successful public relations/marketing professional). However, entering college because I wanted to, not because I had to, made all the difference in the world. The study of art history lead to studio classes. Which is where I “found” myself. I completely immersed myself in the enameling classes. Finishing all the classes at one college, I studied more advanced techniques and metals at other universities. Finally, in 1992 I opened my own studio on a part time basis. And, in 1994, I finally opened the studio full time. I truly had to believe in myself because shortly after opening the studio my husband was injured on a construction site. A truck backed over him and broke his back. This now meant I was the sole provider and the art studio and my creations would have to support the two of us. This wasn’t exactly how I perceived my life would be at this point. But, no choice was given.

I am proud to say, now that I am in my 50s, the studio survived and this entire experience gave me an entirely new perspective on the medical world, the government, etc. I have become very vocal and “tough” in having to deal with everything involved with my husband’s recovery and treatment to everyday dealings with running the business. I have changed my creative thoughts many times just to keep up with customer tastes. It certainly keeps the creative juices flowing and keeps you on your toes.


Trapped by biology
by Susannah Wagner

Many of us, although talented and productive in art school, find ourselves trapped by biology. No matter who won scholarships and awards, we are the one artist in the family capable of bearing children. And then you find, by necessity again, that what pays the mortgage and food bill is what you must do. And so: at 50 I find fame as a jeweler and I want to paint. NO, I WANT TO PAINT!!


You have nothing to lose but your husbands
by Paula Sue Butts, Folsom, California, USA

Mothers, wives and working women! Make time for painting. Buy paper plates. You have paintings waiting to be born! Besides paper plates can be used in more ways than serving food. They make wonderful palettes.


Late starters
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I’m one of those women who took up art in my late forties, after my husband died. I was severely depressed, and art rekindled my passion for life. One year after taking Drawing for Absolute and Terrified Beginners, I was accepted into the Ontario College of Art and Design where I am almost finished my third year. Art may lead into a new career, or become a hobby. I remind myself from time to time that Grandma Moses started in her eighties.


Out of the closet
by Julie Rodriguez, San Pablo, CA, USA

I too came out of the art closet, at age 45-two and a half years ago. Having loved drawing but never having found the time to really devote to it, a former crazy friend pushed me in that direction after seeing some of my work. Bravo. I began reading books like the Celestine Prophecy and Simple Abundance — ones that I would like to add to your list too because they are about the art of life.

I made time to draw after years of letting life’s circumstances dictate my direction, my career (day job) and my life. Though I was and still am basically a very happy person, I was out of balance and believed that my entire identity was that of my family and job. Protestant work ethic to the max. I never “sharpened the saw” (Stephen Covey).

So now as part of who I am, I add artist and decided to expose my ego to all that it out there. I got a business license January of 2000 and started Art from the Soul, to see how it might go and now draw in the middle of the night and weekends. The joy I receive from doing this is akin to love. I am still amazed to see color spring forth and form take shape. Art is a religious experience for me. I once read an artist who said that art comes through them and not from them. I certainly understand that. As I approach 50, I look forward to an early retirement from my job of 30 years and move forward to the career of the heart.


Too patronizing
by Tania Bourne, Victoria, BC, Canada

Don’t be patronizing. You don’t mention the many men “in the process of switching gears from previous identities”. My art club is regularly attended by a retired surgeon, an ex-scientist, a handicapped pharmacist, etc. They, too, chose painting over golf and goldfish.

Men, no less than women, “now get going at any age.” These men are no more and no less creative than their female counterparts. Creativity was never the sinecure of men; you make this sound like a modern phenomenon. If you want to tell us that there are statistically more women than men taking up painting, fine. It may be interesting to explore the reasons why so many men choose computer games, surfing the ‘Net, buddying up with the boys and buying yet more “big boys’ toys,” over creative pursuits, both in their leisure time and after retirement. It’s not “surprising” to you that “excellent artists are rising from among these legions” (of women)? How very generous of you. Your letter was slightly redeemed by the inclusion of the excellent comments made by Ms de Kooning and Ms Nevelson.


How lucky
by Corinne McIntyre, Ocean Point, East Boothbay, Maine, USA

I feel so fortunate to have been born a woman. A woman whose parents told her she could have whatever profession she wanted. They had little money. I won a scholarship to an excellent art school. How lucky. Most every job I have had all my life has been art related because I chose that. Now at a wonderfully ripe age I am still at it. No one told me I couldn’t run my own gallery/studio… by myself… so I did it. No one told me to paint at certain times, in certain light , have certain windows, etc. etc. So I just did it, painted, painted, and painted… whenever, wherever. Wearing two hats (gallery manager and painter) is a busy busy life, but no one said I couldn’t so I do it. As for “flat” times (as you call them), I find them rewarding times because my brain and body are saying take a break, a mini vacation, read, meditate a little more, write e-mails to friends, do paper work, go sit on the rocks by the sea and just look and dream, without your easel… why not enjoy those times… they are gifts that we don’t know enough to take unless we make ourselves go “flat.”


Women painters
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville Ontario, Canada

One of my favourite female painters is Mary Cassatt. Her forthright yet tender depiction of mothers and children shows the importance of parenting and the undeniable bond between mothers and their babies. She had to overcome the predominantly male profession to work at her craft. Another great female painter I look to for inspiration, and there are many of them, is Georgia O’Keeffe. There is so much strength in both of the works of these women painters combined with an intricate and intimate portrayal of their subjects.


You may be interested to know that artists from 72 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001. That includes some guys who unsubscribed.



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