[Who Does She Think She Is? is now playing at Angelika Film Center in Manhattan. Click here for screening information.]
I'll admit, as a person lacking in any parental instinct whatsoever, that I thought twice before agreeing to review Pamela Tanner Boll's Who Does She Think She Is?, a documentary that asks "Is it possible to be both a mother and an artist?" I'm about as interested in creative mommies as I am in quantum physics, yet that's exactly why I decided to give it a look. If Boll, the co-executive producer of Born Into Brothels, can inspire and enlighten an artist who says a silent prayer of "Thank heaven that's not me!" every time I see a mother pushing a stroller, then she's succeeded in crafting a film that reaches beyond its limited theme. That she does so both with humility and driven inquisitiveness is an added bonus.
I'll also admit that, in addition to "Will I find this interesting?", one of my criteria in choosing which press screenings to attend is, "Will any of my pals want to see this?" For me, screenings are a great excuse to invite friends who I don't get to see enough of, a time-saving way for me to connect my personal life to my art. For the creative energy that goes into art is the same creative energy that fuels every loving relationship—and there is only so much of it to go around. (My memoir was a result of my inability to balance a relationship with my writing—thus my relationship became my writing, the only way I could have my cake and eat it, too.)
The women in Boll's film who've managed to successfully balance child-rearing with art-making usually have done so by deftly incorporating their children into their passion, sometimes literally having their kids painting or sculpting right alongside them, while the husbands are left outside of the studio, outside of the creative circle, probably accounting for the many failed marriages despite all the happy kids. (You can have your cake and eat it, too, only don't go back for seconds). And what a diverse and unusual handful of artist mothers Boll has managed to profile through her direct, no-frills interviews. While the talking head academics and historians, and the montages of artwork (both the artists' own and historical) set to light, non-intrusive music (from tinkling piano to tribal drumming to female chanting) provides important context, it's the women themselves who steal the show—three in particular, and so much so that I wish Boll had focused exclusively on their stories.
Take, for instance, Maye Torres. Suggesting a prettier Frida Kahlo, she's a thirteenth-generation Taos, New Mexico single mom (with two incredibly articulate, well-adjusted sons) who's managed to pull off the amazing feat of working full time as a painter, eschewing material goods and growing her own food rather than giving up her art and grabbing a day job. There's also Janis Wunderlich, a happily married Mormon MILF, a mother of five, and an internationally known sculptor whose dark and wondrously grotesque, fairytale-inspired pieces cause her teenage daughter to admit that she only wishes her mom would be a tad bit less graphic. ("Every once in awhile a friend will come over and say, 'Wow, there's a naked person having a baby on the table,'" she laments). Then there's Angela Williams, a radiant, honey-voiced co-pastor who looks like she was born to play Celie in A Color Purple and whose only goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom to her two daughters—until she saw a performance of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which inspired her to cold-call theaters the very next day, quickly landing acting roles in musical after musical though she'd never been onstage before in her life. Regardless of gender, this is quite a mesmerizing trio of artists to say the least.
Which is why Who Does She Think She Is? probably should be aired somewhere like PBS' P.O.V. rather than screened in theaters (and I mean that as a high compliment). The film should be available to as many people as possible free of charge, especially if Boll expects to reach busy, balancing-act women like those she profiles who aren't likely to have the time or the energy to trek out to the local art house (if there is an art house). And working moms are only the tip of the iceberg. It's truly astonishing just how damn good these artists are—every bit as good as the men with solo exhibitions at the chicest Soho galleries—and yet most are virtually unknown. Which brings up the dirty little business every artist faces sooner or later if she wants to reach the wider public—self-promotion. Between painting and algebra homework, where do artist mothers find time for publicity?
Perhaps more importantly, even while these women continue to create art to rival their male counterparts, will they ever be able to shamelessly shill as well as the men (a talent that can render a man the governor of California and a woman Paris Hilton)? The performance artist provocateurs the Guerilla Girls (featured briefly in the film) have been railing against the shameful fact that half the population is virtually excluded from the walls and halls of the greatest museums—yet we're not very much closer to remedying this disparity than when the troupe began protesting over twenty years ago. Yes, it's a disgrace that, even after MoMA's renovation, only 4% of the artists inside its new multi-million dollar home on opening day were female. Yes, it's an outrage that the majority of art students are female while the majority of art exhibitors are male.
But only when a historian talks about the correlation between the status of women and high quality of life—an even greater determinate for high quality of life than the GDP of a country—does the idea that this is not a female issue (let alone a maternal issue) hit home. The artist mothers in Who Does She Think She Is? are part of a much bigger global picture, one in which male values as expressed by male artists is what sells everywhere (while motherhood, childbirth—the female sensibility which defines women's artwork in general—is devalued, not taken seriously). And within this context, lest we forget, it is artists who are often the visionaries guiding not just art, but everything from the political to the scientific. As Torres matter-of-factly states, "Art is the soul of any culture. It's about being human, our search for why we're here." That an observation this important should be exclusive to a single POV is something that should give pause to all.
Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings, and a columnist for Spout Blog.