One Arm Tied Behind Your Back
A woman couldn’t behave like Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso and not be institutionalized.
—Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo, Shameless 2003
You can’t have a great government without great art.
Maye Torres lives with her sons in Carson, New Mexico, where they’re surrounded by mountains and wide blue skies. Here they attend school and, as she puts it, are allowed to be “wild boys,” while she pursues her career, painting and sculpting. The balance they have achieved has been hard-won, following efforts by her ex-husband to gain legal custody of the kids, by arguing she couldn’t be a good mother and a committed artist. “I had lots of people telling me I was really selfish to continue making art,” she says. She points out one of her “open sculptures,” a figure without an arm. “Leaving an arm off allows the viewer to look inside,” Torres notes. It also illustrates her predicament, working with “one arm tied behind your back.”
One of five artists profiled in the documentary Who Does She Think She Is?, Torres insists, “Art is like the soul of any culture. It’s about being human, it’s the search for why we’re here.” If she is given to grand-sounding assessments of Art with a Big A, she has also made very practical, real world decisions. It is “by stepping outside of that nurturing mothering box” that she has found herself and forged a path for women artists who might come after her.
While Torres’ story is dynamic and inspiring, it is also framed by fundamental limitations, according to Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy Kennedy’s film. That is, her story is now and will remain largely unknown. While men’s achievements are regularly chronicled and remembered, commemorated in museums and books, women’s work is more often forgotten. This means, as was emphatically declared in Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1974-79), that women repeatedly reinvent their wheels and reaffirm their potentials. The arrangement endures for good reason. “The world would fall apart economically if women didn’t accept the responsibility of the caretaker for no pay,” explains Courtney E. Martin, professor of Gender Studies at Hunter College. “So there’s a lot of incentive for people to keep it that way.”
Who Does She Think She Is? examines this systemic dysfunction through individual stories. Musical theater performer Angela Williams charts the inception of her ambition while she and her husband were co-pastors at the Cathedral of Life church in Providence, Rhode Island. Simultaneously raising her five children and tending to her housework, Williams remembers wanting to be a “domestic goddess.” And then, she found another desire, to perform on stage, to sing and tell stories with her body and voice. As she finds work outside of Providence—say, Broadway—Williams’ schedule becomes increasingly hectic, she’s spending less time at home. “I began to understand the power of living on purpose,” she explains. At first, her husband Jeffrey, appearing in the kitchen as the family gears up for the coming day, seems supportive. “Children need to know that life can be unpredictable,” he offers. But, as the film shows, the demands on the couple’s time and patience eventually become untenable, and they make decisions they haven’t expected.
Watching the artists at work and at home, Who Does She Think She Is? is more compelling than in its more ordinary moments, featuring talking heads who lament and agitate. Janis Wunderlich, another mother of five and a sculptor in Columbus, Ohio, describes her apprehension about trying to do everything. “I do feel a little that I’m not quite an artist and I’m not quite a good parent, that since I am so many things, I’m not quite really good at anything.” Each day, she says, she gets three kids off to school, then spends some tie with her two younger girls. By the time she’s dropped Emma at preschool and come home, Wunderlich says, her youngest has fallen asleep in the car seat. Now, she has her own time. What she calls “my special, beautiful time.”
She heads to the studio where she makes small sculpture, little creatures that are part human, part beastie, figures with two heads, figures giving birth to monsters, figures contorted and grimacing. “I have a good side and I have a side that just wants to cater to my emotions,” Wunderlich explains. Her art allows her to explore all sides at once. Her husband is supportive, her art travels to many places she does not. But that’s not to say her situation is perfect. As the camera shows her kids playing—one young son spins and dance with a ball under his t-shirt, a pregnant-looking dervish, all smiles and sweetness—Wunderlich explains that sometimes she just wants to slow down. She sends her work out to shows and galleries so quickly, she says, that sometimes she nearly forgets what she’s made. “I send it out off so quickly,” she says, “because I’m afraid it’s going to get broken in my home.”
Such is the daily chaos facing women artists trying to keep pace with families and ambitions, activist politics and personal choices. If the stories here begin to sound repetitive, if images of goddesses and old-school feminist language (“self-empowerment”) point as much backward as forward, it’s because the point is lost or ignored again and again. Women can make art—paintings, films, and music—at the same time they make families. Of course, men can do this too. But they aren’t expected to. And this makes all the difference.