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Combining art, family and career

Every so often I run across some great articles where I feel the content is SO appropriate that it is necessary to share much of the article as it was written!  It would be very interesting to see if this documentary becomes available to a wider audience.

Arlington, Mass. – The highly acclaimed documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?” by Pamela Tanner Boll, delves into the lives of five women artists, and their struggles to explore their artistic calling while balancing the expectations of family life.

Experts interviewed in the documentary include Riane Eisler, author of “The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future,” Maura Reilly the founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Leonard Shlain, author of “The Alphabet Versus The Goddess.”

Boll, who also co-executive produced the documentary, “Born Into Brothels,” recently discussed her film.

Q: What prompted you to pursue this particular project and now that it has been realized, how has it changed you?

A: While I had managed to paint and to hold some shows of my work as well as to write and to publish some of this work … while my children were at home, I always felt I could have been doing more. When the boys entered their teens and began to pursue their own interests, I was bereft. I had been at the center of their world for so long and missed this. At the same time, I felt that I had neglected my own early promise — I was in my mid-40s and had no book to my name and had few exhibitions of my work.

Then, I attended a documentary film that a friend had produced. She and I used to teach writing at Harvard in the mid-nineties. With no previous experience in film, she had produced an extraordinary film, “The Day My God Died,” about sex trafficking in Nepal and India. I sat in the audience in tears at the beauty of this work, at it’s power and at its meaning. I wanted my work to have this same kind of resonance and scope. Soon after, I heard about Maye Torres, a woman in her mid-forties with three teen age boys like me, who was making her living with her art. She lived in the desert on the far side of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. I wondered how she was able to continue to make art when it paid so little and when she had the care and responsibility of these children.

Six months later, after having dreamt of Maye, I flew to New Mexico to meet with her. The moment I saw her, with her long black hair knotted down her back, huge smile and stunning work, I knew I wanted to document her life. That was the beginning of “Who Does She Think She Is?”

Q: How does “Who does she think she is?” reflect your own life, and your struggles with family, work, and your instinctual creativity?

A: As a young woman, I studied art and also creative writing. I pursued both of these disciplines through college, and wrote a book of poetry for my Senior Thesis. However, I decided not to pursue either as a career; I felt it would be too difficult to make a living from the blank page. Instead, I went into Publishing, where I thought that helping other’s realize their creative projects would be fulfilling.

For the next twelve years, I worked in the business world–first in publishing, then international grain trading and then for a start up records management company. Each job was challenging in certain respects, and each earned me a reasonable salary. But, in truth, I was deeply bored by the work itself.

My husband and I then had our first child. I had planned on going back to work. But, on my son’s birth, I could not imagine leaving him to go back to writing about underground record storage. I fell completely, madly in love with this little boy and soon had two more sons. I loved taking care of them and was also constantly worried about how to do the best job. This nurturing of a new being was the scariest, most absorbing, loneliest, most exhausting, joyous and most compelling work I had ever done. I began to write out of desperation, to make sense of it all. Soon after, I began to paint again, too. It was as though the birth of these children brought me back to my creative self. I had no choice but to put all that I felt and thought onto paper — after such a long leaving. They woke me up.

Yet, even as the birth and care-giving of my sons brought me back to creative expression, I was constantly torn between fulfilling their needs and making time and space for my own need to create. For twenty years, I have juggled these two — and have often felt that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Particularly when the boys were little, I felt my heart was being torn out, as I tried to leave the house to go write. They would cry and cling to me, begging me not to go.

“Who does she think she is?” is the result of struggling with these issues.

Q: This film focuses largely on the struggles that women go through to balance family obligations with their art, but what do you think it has to teach other would-be artists (namely men) striving to pursue their calling?

A: While I focused on the struggles women go through, I feel that this is actually, a universal story. It is the story of how one does the work they feel called to do while taking care of the people one loves. It is about pursuing a dream and not leaving those one loves behind.

I focused on “artists” because art is often dismissed as a hobby. It is not considered “real work” — and this is true even if done by a man. Artists rarely are able to make a living at their work — and this holds true for writers, painters, musicians, dancers, storytellers. Yet, without visual images, without music, without stories, what kind of life would it be? So, one question is how do you have the courage to pursue work when it does not pay, when it is dismissed by society, and even by those around you?

Many men have told me that they can relate to the stories in this film. I think many men feel as caught by the need to “make a good living” in order to support themselves and a family, as these women do in struggling between the extraordinarily important work of care giving and their expressive work.

Having said this, I do feel that women are in a particular and peculiar position in regards to creative work. For most of history, women have been seen as the Muse or the subject of art, the role of Mother, of nurturing is often portrayed as the highest calling, and yet, it is not paid. The face of poverty around the world is not a man — it is a woman.

Women do the unpaid work of care giving, birthing taking care of little ones–with the understanding that a man and his paid work will support her. This system is such that 70 percent of those earning less than $2 a day are women. So, how does this relate to the arts? Well, women who have the responsibility of care giving who then take on the often up paid “work” of the arts is doubly at risk of poverty.

Q: What did you learn about yourself, and the struggle of balancing the many aspects of life, through your interviews with the women featured in the documentary?

A: One of the best things I learned was that despite my fears that I had not pursued my calling as an artist — that I was more like the women I interviewed than not. They each felt torn between their creative and nurturing work. They each felt that they had just little bits of time to do this work. In interviewing each of these women, I could look back and see that what seemed piecemeal and unsatisfactory about my writing and painting, was, instead, preparing the groundwork.

Since finishing the film last spring, I have written a creative thesis for my Masters Degree, published several of my short stories and essays and have begun to put together a project for a book about creativity.

Another good thing that came out of this project was that my sons have a new understanding of my life and my values and a new respect for me. Each of my sons have worked on the film at one time or another. My oldest has worked as a camera assistant and went on several shoots. My two younger sons have helped with promotion and have attended many screenings. It has been an extraordinary gift to be able to bring my sons into my life in this way … and it has been a gift to them to see their mother doing work she is passionate about.

From the director’s chair: ‘Who Does She Think She Is?’

By Eric Tsetsi

Mon May 04, 2009, 06:30 AM EDT

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