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Trimming down real life: the issue of artistic identity

By Catherine Jones

Four years ago I stayed up all night to read what seemed at the time an utterly thrilling book: a guide to the then difficult process of using the Internet. What held me enthralled through all the technicalities was the hunch that somewhere at the other end of the silicon and cables and cryptic UNIX commands there might exist the makings of a new kind of artistic community. A community more supportive of the work I wanted to do than anyone I knew personally or any institution in my immediate environment.

What I wanted to do seemed both simple and oddly difficult. I'd been painting and dabbling with textile techniques (patchwork, dyeing, embroidery, etc.) for enough years to feel that the time had come to put these efforts together in a coherent series of objects that might or might not be called quilts. I'd made quilts before, but strictly for bedding or as exercises in design, not with the intent of commenting on life or portraying the visible world. If pressed for an example of what I had in mind to do, I might have mumbled something about Faith Ringgold, a painter known for her "story quilts": big loosely quilted rectangles that combine pictures painted in acrylic on canvas with panels of hand-lettered text and patchwork borders.

What fascinated me about Faith Ringgold's work was not so much the quality of her painting or writing or patchwork as the way she'd brought all these elements together and used them to cross the boundaries that separate different audiences for art. Her quilts had appeared in museums and a respected New York gallery, but they'd also served as illustrations in her picture books for children. The stories on Ringgold's quilts contained political messages, but the disarming physical context of the stories -- stitched into place between big floral prints and paintings reminiscent of folk art -- allowed them to reach people who might not have welcomed overtly political art. Somehow Ringgold had arrived at a format for saying what she had to say without alienating half of her natural audience or denying the complexity of her own artistic identity.

I wouldn't presume to sum up Ringgold's artistic identity, but it certainly has something to do with growing up as an African-American woman in Harlem in the thirties and forties, with her early marriage to a jazz musician, with her experience as an art teacher working in the New York City public school system, and with her mother's lifelong involvement with fabric and career as a fashion designer. In 1995 Ringgold published an autobiography (We Flew Over the Bridge) that sheds some light on the sources of her story quilts. Back in 1993, however, when I was digging through books on the Internet and hoping to find people there who might share my interests, I could only guess at the woman behind the quilts. They mattered to me because I liked how they looked and because they suggested a way of making art that didn't require suppressing or ignoring big parts of the artist's natural identity.

We hear so much about art as a means of self-expression that it's easy to overlook the adjustments, conscious or unconscious, and the self-censorship that enter into the process of forming an artistic identity. It's easy to picture an artist acquiring technical skills so that some pre-existing fountain of feeling and personal meaning can come gushing forth. But harder to imagine the artist surveying potential audiences and wondering just which part of that inner fountain might possibly interest them. I'm not talking here about a cynical effort to please crowds and follow fads. I'm talking about the normal human need to belong to a community, to model oneself after a known social type (even if, in some cases, a deviant or bohemian type), and to produce work that other people value.

In her autobiography Faith Ringgold talks about two different efforts she made during the 1960s to find some kind of artistic community. She approached two different groups of black artists and didn't quite fit into either one. Fortunately, she didn't choose to lop off parts of herself in pursuit of a better fit.

The first group, Spiral, consisted of one young woman and thirteen men from an older generation, more influenced, perhaps, than Ringgold by painters in Europe. The leadership of Spiral included Romare Bearden, an important painter and collage-maker whose work Ringgold admired. She wrote to him, sending some slides and hoping for an invitation to join. He sent back a courteous but discouraging reply urging her to study certain German painters that he thought might improve her sense of composition. This advice, Ringgold says, "didn't apply to what I was doing"; she "was trying to forget all those theories about composition...."

Her second foray in search of what she calls "meaningful dialog with other black artists" involved a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Black Arts Theater that was supposed to tour the New York City parks and the streets of Harlem. Ringgold's work did get into the show, but her encounter with Leroi Jones, founder of the Black Arts Theater, turned out to be something less than a meaningful dialog. She writes about the way his eyes "took in my straightened hair" and looked over a polished cotton dress that was far from "the 1960s hip uniform of dungarees."

Over the years Ringgold did make a place for herself and did find enough encouragement here and there to go on working and developing her style. She didn't submit to an alien way of composing her pictures or an alien style of dress. She even managed to smuggle echoes of her mother's sewing into a fine-art context. Romare Bearden used fabric in his collages, but Ringgold took the canvas off its stretchers, quilted it and framed it with patchwork. When I first saw her quilts, without knowing much about her, I thought that wherever she showed them they'd look impressive but also, for better or worse, a little eccentric. I figured that if she could get away with such a peculiar mix of elements (a touch of social realism and political protest, a lot of frankly decorative fabric and color, legible words on the quilts that tell coherent stories, and a painting style that looks more naive than it is), then I too I might eventually piece together a viable artistic identity.

Why this process has given me so much trouble -- to the point where the Internet has sometimes seemed a more promising source of community than various face-to-face artists' groups -- has to do partly with my own background and partly with the ways that art-making activity tends to get categorized. In popular imagination there's one place for the hobbyist, another for the professional, and a third place, sometimes romanticized, sometimes barely acknowledged, for the person who approaches art more as a calling than as a way of making money or achieving recognition. Cutting across all these categories of artistic activity is the concept of virtuosity. And, overlapping the idea of art as a calling, is the notion of the "peintre maudit." This expression, French for "accursed painter," refers to those extremes of poverty, emotion, social alienation, and, sometimes, drug and alcohol use that have afflicted some famous artists. Whatever the actual proportion of peintres maudits among those who've pursued art as a calling, they loom large in modern stereotypes of the artist and complicate the business of claiming an artistic identity.

Trying to maneuver around the expectations that go with the categories of hobby, profession, and calling hasn't been easy for me. My own background and struggles are odd and sometimes funny, but maybe relevant to the problems of other would-be artists wrestling with the issue of identity.

I come from a family where the women painted and sewed. Skill at drawing and making clothes was expected and taken for granted, along with a general tendency to improvise, decorate, and make things rather than buy them. I grew up assuming I'd draw for the rest of my life, but not really thinking of this as a means of self-expression, let alone as a possible profession or calling. All the ambition and idealism that go into the making of an artist I put instead into the dream of becoming a great mathematician. How I came up with this plan and how I avoided noticing the nearly total absence of women in the field I won't even try to explain. At any rate, I'd gone through my freshman year of college and deep into the math curriculum before I noticed any problems.

The most immediate problem I noticed then (in 1966) was the war in Vietnam and the rift it was causing within American society. My parents had taken sides in the general social conflict and had grown extremely angry -- so angry that they denounced most of my generation, all university campuses involved in political protests, and just about all academic endeavors except the training of specialists like engineers. Pure mathematics is a far cry from engineering; it's more like art for art's sake than anything practical. Knowing this and being in many ways at odds with my parents, I found it finally impossible to go on taking their money. On the other hand, since they were still nominally willing to support me, I couldn't get any financial aid for school. Thus I wound up practicing a kind of frugality more appropriate to a peintre maudit than to a hopeful young math student. It took me a lot of jobs and an extra year or so to graduate from college. But by then I had two new problems.

The first and most serious was what I'd seen in the process of earning the money for school. I'd left the university, traveled to other cities and lived and worked in places well beyond the student milieu. All this new experience required processing and gave me ideas that I wanted somehow to express. Had I been studying art or literature, this situation wouldn't have posed a problem. People in those fields take time to mature and use their life experience as raw material. But I'd got myself started on a narrow path that led to early achievement in pure mathematics or else nowhere at all. I had a fellowship and a place in a doctoral program, but these promising signs were meaningless unless I could muster the single-minded devotion to abstractions needed for creative mathematical work.

The second problem, which might have proved temporary, had to do with the state of mathematics itself. Pure mathematics back then was not unlike abstract painting just before the re-emergence of realism. No longer so closely linked to physics, mathematics had taken off in directions of its own. Within a few years the growth of computer science would reconnect the subject with daily life, just as new kinds of figurative painting reconnected fine art with the visible world. But I didn't understand this at the time. Fleeing from what seemed a waste of energy in elegant but arbitrary intellectual games, I left school at the start of 1972 and put a lot of my free time into the newly revitalized women's movement.

I wasn't interested in, let alone prepared for, any profession. What I needed was time to sort out my life and read, time to fill in gaps in an education devoted too exclusively to mathematics. So I took a series of makeshift jobs, lived cheaply, and moved to New York City, for me a beckoning center of politics, art, and ideas. By the time I'd decided I wanted to be an artist, preferably a photographer with a social-realist bent, I'd also decided that I wanted to have a child. I was several months pregnant when I hauled my first photo enlarger up to my sixth-floor walkup apartment. In retrospect I see that I must have been living out some comically strenuous feminine variant of the old myth of the peintre maudit. The myth ended for me when, unexpectedly, I gave birth to twins. A lone struggling artist with one child to raise fell within the realm of romantic possibility. The same scenario with two needy infants went beyond anything I could imagine. I made my peace with their father and, in short order, found myself installed in a family situation for which I had no preparation at all.

I think I spent the next year at the kitchen sink. Cooking. Mixing up darkroom chemicals. Sterilizing baby bottles and washing clothes. I photographed the babies and everything in the kitchen, trying to document the unfamiliar world into which I'd suddenly plunged. Few photos survive from then; obsessed with dust specks and my poor darkroom technique, I wound up destroying most of the prints I made. I could go on and on about my struggles in the darkroom and how they eventually led me back to drawing and painting, which seemed by comparison rapid and manageable. I could also detail subsequent efforts I made, after getting transplanted to California, to piece together at the free community colleges something resembling an art education. And I could explain the way that images of fabric, and then fabric itself, crept gradually into my work. But from here on my life follows a well-known pattern, a pattern I've met again and again in the writing of women who've made a commitment to art after getting enmeshed in family life.

What's funny and maybe instructive about my particular history is the grandiose and unworldly ambition that I brought to various classes, groups, and publications while searching for an artistic identity. I hadn't come of age thinking of marriage and motherhood or art as a hobby to be pursued on the side. Nor had I ever seen art as a career, a profession like any other. I'd grown up hoping for something more like a crack at proving Fermat's Last Theorem. And I'd transferred a bit of that crazy, romantic hope over to the field of art. I didn't expect to get famous or rich, but I did believe that sometime before I died I might make some images that held some people's attention and said something new about the world.

Art classes sometimes fed this ambition, but artists' groups generally didn't. Too often their talk ran to drearily practical matters: studio spaces, places to exhibit, and who knew whom from what art school. I'd come away bored and feeling altogether uncredentialed and unprofessional. Art magazines helped, even though by this time I was living in California far away from most of the exhibits they reviewed. Usually I didn't like what I saw, but drew encouragement anyway from the writing, which implied that making art was important and a reasonable occupation for adults. Art-oriented craft magazines (Fiberarts, Surface Design Journal, American Craft, Ornament, etc.) offered a feast for the eyes, though the writing in them focused mainly on art as a profession. Books sustained me too, of course, the only drawback being that most of the artists in them had already died.

And then, after a night of reading up on UNIX commands, I suddenly found myself loose on the Internet. I joined the ceramics mailing list and the art criticism list and every quilt-related list that I could find. (There weren't, of course, so many back then.) I visited every newsgroup related to art or writing or quilts and some dealing with subjects I knew almost nothing about. I read newsgroups frequented by graphic designers, typographers, scientists, engineers, and various sorts of computer programmer. The technical talk went way over my head, but I read between the lines and gained a kind of sustenance simply from listening in on the informal chatter of people engaged in creative work. I was searching, of course, for additional role models, additional insights into what it meant to function as a creative person.

While I haven't yet found on the Internet that elusive artistic community that I originally went looking for, the whole experience of Internet access has changed my sense of what art and quilts can be and of where the tattered boundaries lie between art as a hobby, a calling, and a profession. I no longer feel sure that these distinctions will matter in the future quite the way they have in the past. With the growth of the World Wide Web and the low cost of web-server access, a lot of new art -- good, bad, and ridiculous -- will come pouring into cyberspace. What gets seen, responded to, and eventually preserved may depend more on the art and its presentation than on the appearance, academic degrees, or life history of the artist.

The real person still matters, of course, as does the physical object. But once the object yields up a digitized image, the artist who places the image out on the Web becomes for a moment that neutral entity known in Web-speak as a "content provider." I don't know whether this situation is good or bad, but it does offer some flexibility to artists whose identity doesn't fit into some expected mold. Nobody asks whether a "content provider" wears an Afro and dungarees or straightened hair and a dress.

I'm still struggling with that series of quilts that I thought the Internet and its new artistic community might encourage me to complete. On the other hand, I've learned to program a bit in C++ and Java -- an undertaking I never would have considered before getting Internet access. I've written a program that helps design fabrics and patchwork and used it to churn out a big pile of drawings that may or may not eventually turn into something I'd call art. And mostly I've learned that we live in interesting times, that artistic identity develops in strange ways, and that there's now less reason than ever to force it into some preconceived mold. Faith Ringgold and her quilts are still very much an inspiration to me.

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