In 2014, deep friendships, intersecting experiences, and common frustrations brought a group of mature women artists together in Berkeley, California, to examine ways of securing their legacies. The artists had originally convened, forming the Bay Area Women Artists’ Legacy Project, with deep concerns about safeguarding their artwork and their histories from erasure. Although a couple of the artists had been interviewed over the years, most had exhibited and taught for decades with little opportunity to put their experiences on record. So many artists’ talks of the last 50 years were never recorded — and even in the past decade much went unrecorded, unedited, unarchived and unavailable to curators, scholars, or the public.
This is a story not only of illuminating artists’ legacies, but of also empowering artists in giving them the methods and tools to be pro-active and mutually supportive in structuring a framework for the understanding of their work.
When I applied for the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop in 2018, I did so in the hope that attending would help me prepare to interview and record the experiences of local Bay Area artists now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Having spearheaded a number of catalogues and books documenting the artwork of two Northern California cohorts, I recognized a need for recording the voices of these individuals who had exhibited, taught, and curated throughout several decades.
The VoCA Artist Interview Workshop hosted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 27- 28, 2020, unfolded in a conference room with a wall of windows overlooking the museum campus, site of demolition, controversy, and also wild optimism for a greater future.1 The gathered attendees in the conference room were all charged with a similar energy of expansive plans for dialogue, conserving histories, and spotlighting art that would also open new vistas. It was stimulating to learn about the projects and plans of fellow attendees. And it was revelatory to go through the workshop exercises of interviewing each other: my curatorial experiences had always placed me in the seat of the interviewer and now I could feel how differently one might respond to diverse interviewers of different ages and backgrounds. The warmth and interest exuded by my fellow attendees relaxed my posture, softened my voice, and opened a door to the personal.
It was also validating to be in the company of professionals committed to the importance of oral histories. The workshop presentations by speakers like Sam Redman and Glenn Wharton, who recognized the significance of capturing the accounts of the creators of culture or witnesses of history, were affirming. In much interpretive or theoretical art writing the artist’s voice may be absent. In contrast, the oral history can embrace the subjective nature of memory as a foundational palette.
I was mesmerized by the presentations: charmed by the simple points of having back up devices, extra batteries, chargers, and lights; encouraged by the legal exposition of copyright issues and release forms; challenged by the considered contemporary interview contrasted with older, existing recordings; and appreciative of the practical cautionary tales of distractions leading to the recommendation of exclusion of pets and family members from the interview site.
Enthused by the fabulous workshop, I could not have imagined how the COVID-19 global pandemic lockdown would shift everything within six weeks, including my plans for the Bay Area Women Artists’ Legacy Project. Unable to meet with artists in their studios, unsure of the duration of isolation, uncertain of survival, the recording of these voices – the marking of the space and time and local culture – rang with even greater urgency.
Despite the severe limitations of the global pandemic and sheltering-in-place, it was possible to take the skills and lessons from the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop and share them with this group of other artists so that they could be carried forward in a modified yet productive format. This COVID pivot allowed for documentation of the stories of a group of very mature artists that will stand as a record of the cultural richness of a community. A number of these artists live alone and others lost partners, husbands, family members – grieving without social support during the pandemic. Many of these elderly artists, suffering extreme isolation, were grateful for the engagement in the project. They also found satisfaction in actively securing a record of the considerations and processes that fueled the decades of their art practice. Several of the artists had no previous spoken documentation of their activities and found these virtual recordings an important reassurance during a time when mortality weighed in nearly all common daily decisions.
Facing these enormous changes, I proposed the Bay Area Women Artists’ Legacy Project (BAWALP) artists partner and interview each other in turn. Some of the roots of these friendships reach as far back as the 1970s to a women’s critique group with Edith Hillinger, Jeannie O’Connor, and Elizabeth Sher. Though all of the artists were active within the same geographic area, many had known each other only casually. Working in painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, film, textiles, and eco art, they had long histories exhibiting and teaching and curating within their respective medium. Engaged in different areas – Mary White in glass, Elizabeth Sher in film, and Lia Cook in textiles, for example – were colleagues teaching at the California College of the Arts. And Liz Sher, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, and Kerry Vander Meer were members of the artists collective gallery, Mercury 20. Further intersecting activities saw Andrée Singer Thompson, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Sharon Siskin, and Sally Weare active with Liz Sher in Women Eco Art Dialog (WEAD). These shared histories of art in the San Francisco Bay Area also formed an intricately woven pattern of galleries, art centers, and art schools. In self-selecting partners, there were natural affinities and shared histories upon which the artists could draw. Deep familiarity with each other’s artwork, generational and experiential commonality, and allied purpose made for a strong degree of trust. It also made for a relaxed environment for the artists in both role as interviewer and interviewee.
On a Zoom meeting with the BAWALP members, I emphasized a very informal approach that would match the intimacy of the studio. Unlike a formal stage before a live audience, the artists were surrounded by their work, their books, and objects that inspired their practice. There is an enchanting quality to a casual discussion rather than a detailed all-encompassing career survey. I emphasized the concept that not everything needed to be in one video, that interest and attention is better held in shorter videos. This was also a means of relieving the pressure of getting everything “right,” an aspiration that could often prove paralyzing. Indeed, in organizing print publications for BAWALP, I realized that the ability to focus each volume contribution on one decade had removed much of the individual artists’ stress in writing. Alluding to this experience and recalling the clarity brought by a narrower scope was helpful in alleviating much camera anxiety held by several of the artists.
The one structure giving shape to the interviews was a pre-determined duration. In Zoom meetings, emails, and phone calls, all the artists asked me again and again: what was the time limit? In the end, nearly all held to twenty minutes. Though one interview came in at only 13 minutes, and one or two ranged to 30, all others produced a unique picture of their art practice within this framework. The length of time was a comfortable span for most to enjoy the process. It also stands as a good introduction upon which to expand in the future with further interviews with a specific focus of time, place, or medium.
Another unease that arose centered primarily on the questions to be posed for the interview. Most of the artists wanted questions in advance. In guiding this process, I turned to a lesson learned at the VoCA Workshop and suggested they each write down some topics they would like to address in interviewing, then email them to each other. I pointed to the liveliness of spontaneous responses and the awkwardness of reading off formulated questions and prepared replies. Even altogether dispensing with sending questions in advance was put to them as an alternative. I also made clear that the interview might be modified by an interviewee letting it be known that certain topics were off limits. There are often concerns that biography can feel invasive or divert discussion from remaining focused on the art. The working methods of the artist pairs varied from the shared prepared question and prepared answers to the free form, free associative. This has produced a dynamic series that is engaging and flows and shifts in tempo.
Though I did not present a list of questions for the women to use, many used chronology as a natural armature and, beginning with childhood, asked whether parents had encouraged their art interests. To Mary Curtis Ratcliff’s clearly delineated lines, Kim Thoman replied:
My mother nurtured the artwork that I did. I would draw these objects that I did that I called moon flowers. And the interesting part about them for me … they had to have something that they did – ostensibly on the moon, … they were gonna wash the dishes or do some task that I was probably asked to do…2
Even the earliest memories reveal inner determination and character, an awareness of process and purpose.
These long lives also reach back to give a piquant view of early tumultuous days in the San Francisco Bay Area. When M. Louise Stanley (Lulu) speaks of arriving in the 1960s and enrolling at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and finding “her own people,” she encountered a radically different environment:
The students were all doing these wild crazy drawings out of their heads. And I didn’t know who to be. I was embarrassed by my classical drawing style and the skills that I had. I didn’t realize that they were on acid or smoking dope (laughter) and channeling from another, another realm.3
The interviews also offered very frank descriptions of exclusion and discrimination against the women, and the emotional trauma can still be heard in the voice. But so can the effects of time and distance as when asked by Linda MacDonald about the effect of the women’s movement on her art, Lulu Stanley, unravelling the mysteries of early consciousness raising groups, recounted:
Well, there were rules for getting along. We had some people in the group that were – it was competitive. And we had to go back to basics and talk about, one of the topics was what do you need from a friend, talking about how do you feel about other women, competition, jealousy.4
Yet for those who formed groups, as these intersecting circles of women did, there was not only complaint or comfort, but stimulation and fertile ground for work, as Lia Cook recalled:
I was with a group of artists that did textiles in a very broad sense. It was a time when women artists, women actually, met with groups to complain about men; but we didn’t do that (chuckle). We did our art. We shared everything… So we would travel to India and bring back images and slides and share everything. That’s where I learned about the Lausanne Biennial where I exhibited my work right out of graduate school. So I went to graduate school at Berkeley, but I also had this group that we worked together to sort of develop our careers.5
The restrictions of sheltering actually brought an unexpected intimacy through the way in which Zoom pierced the protective pandemic bubble and allowed a privileged access to the artist’s studio. This revelation of the social and personal context places the viewer closer to the artist’s thinking and almost feels as if one were witness to evolving change. Addressing how she came to leave the study of history and photography in favor of a life of painting, Livia Stein made a very visceral case:
When I was in college, I was always attracted to history in the sense that I thought if people understood history, they could make the current world a better place…. I gradually became a painter. I would say that part of the reason that I became a painter was that I was so attracted to the freedom of it…. I loved the tactility, I liked the decision making, I loved the openness. And so gradually I kind of moved away from photography. I was in graduate school at the time and I felt like I’d reached a dead end… there was nowhere to go for me….With painting – you can completely jump off a cliff in painting, whereas in photography you are still held there.6
The close regard also is enhanced by the artists self-selecting their interview partners. That familiarity draws on a deeper fundamental relationship to the art and the artist’s development. Particularly with the mature artist, there are questions specific to the passage of time, to aging, and the long dialogue in the studio with the work itself. Livia Stein’s interview carried a poignant observation:
I put much more into the work than I think I did when I was younger. I think when I was younger, they were more decorative, brighter, more interesting, and they sold – whatever – with art consultants and galleries and such, but they didn’t give me what I get now from the painting: I get some version of my own truth that comes through ultimately.7
Some of the artists’ interviews were enthusiastically scheduled immediately, some took weeks trying to coordinate calendars, some dragged on with hesitancy, and a few artists demurred altogether. One artist could not choose a partner but was pleased to have me conduct the interview. Because of poor health, many of the artists were unable to undertake an interview even when offered assistance. Precarious health presented evidence that these interviews were even more precious than originally understood.
On a technical level, these interviews held new challenges for the artists. Many had never entered a Zoom meeting before. Setting up a Zoom account, scheduling and starting a meeting, recording / pausing / ending a recording, volume levels, essential lighting, speaker and gallery views, and finding the Zoom folder and files automatically saved to documents on their computer were all basic tools to be addressed. Zoom allowed for a video recording of an interview to be made with the tap on a keyboard without any sound engineering or camera skills. For many, there was pure delight in the process and enormous satisfaction. For some with film and graphic design experience, there was editing to be done and titles to be added. Another artist was not happy with her appearance and so her video is still in process. But in the completion of the videos, the artists felt this a joyful project and deeply appreciated the shared experience; indeed, it provided virtual companionship during COVID. The common undertaking actually strengthened bonds between the artists.
Though some artists were initially overwhelmed by the prospect of video recording and the unfamiliar technical maneuvering, they soon were taking pleasure in the project. The realization of these intimate interviews testifies to the resilience of these women who were deeply challenged by the extreme isolation and difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were affirmed in the focus on their work and the opportunity to document and share their vision, giving voice in a time of echoing silence.
From the initial online meeting in 2020 when many of these artists were logging into Zoom for the first time, needing assistance and guidance in turning on their mic or allowing use of the camera or raising a hand or muting, these women were now able to interface with others and use a powerful tool for documenting their art practice with the added texture of their studio life. They could enter into each other’s living and work spaces and have the conversations that opened the work to make visible the underlying motivations. The seashells on the table, the rocks on the bookshelf, the dried fronds propped in the corner – these speak of the artist’s inspirations as richly as the painting racks and flat files speak to their aspirations. As unpolished videos streaming across a computer screen, these impress with frank simplicity and raw authenticity.
There are now two platforms from which the Bay Area Women Artists’ Legacy Project Artist Interviews can be accessed: the Bay Area Women Artists’ Legacy Project YouTube channel and the BAWALP website. The website, with individual pages for each of the artists with text and selected images, also links to the artists’ individual websites, thus serving as a directory to further aggregate documentation of the artists’ work. The artists have also been encouraged to link from their personal websites to the videos and for those who have their own personal accounts and channels, to upload their videos to YouTube and Vimeo.
This is an aging cohort. The deaths of three members of the group – Thekla Hammond, Mari Marks, and Katherine Westerhout – before even the first BAWALP book was printed and distributed left BAWALP without any video record of these artists. This along with further extreme health crisis of illnesses, surgeries, and stroke brought the urgency of this project into sharp focus. Taking these initial interviews as a starting point, we hope to develop these stories as the series expands. New video interviews focusing on materials and processes will serve not only to illuminate the artists’ methods and development, but will provide an important guide for future stewardship. As an aide to preserving the work of the artist, detailed discussion of paints, papers, adhesives, fabrics, threads, metals, electronic components, and digital platforms, etc, such dedicated videos will help assure proper conservation and restoration.
Unlike film, or even videography, the computer and smart phone were available to all members of the BAWALP. The simplicity of touching just one record button without complicated set-up, external mics, wires, or light meters opened the door to (and for!) these artists. The fact that there was no financial outlay required was also a significant consideration for this retired cohort. Furthermore, as the recording was not monetarily precious and did not involve outside professional technical support, artists were less anxious knowing that they could have a free “do over.”
Putting the digital means of documenting work – with the artist’s influences, considerations, organization and process in their own voice – into the hands of the artists themselves has become a simple and relatively free means of securing a significant future understanding of the artwork. This project also unified their voices in a daisy chain of shared experiences and histories. It provided a glimmer of security in a time of instability. Hopefully this can be taken as a model to inspire other artists to come together to encourage and assist each other in developing ongoing documentation of their varied and stimulating art engagement. Together these informal interviews can weave a rich tapestry of a cultural community.
1 Comprehensive discussions of LACMA’s razing of four buildings to be replaced by one that would not increase exhibition space by 42 % (120,000 square feet) as originally planned, but would in fact reduce the exhibition space by 8% and require curators to work offsite in five floors of rental offices in a high-rise office tower, can be found in articles including:
Michael Slenke, “The Man Who Blew Up LACMA – Inside Michael Govan’s Quixotic Crusade to Reimagine a Landmark,” Lamag.com October 22, 2020 and Christopher Knight, “LACMA, the Incredible Shrinking Museum: A critic’s lament,” LATimes.com, April 2, 2019. See other articles in Artforum, ARTnews, The New York Review of Books, architectmagazine.com, The Art Newspaper, and many other journals.
2 Kim Thoman, Video, Interviewed by Mary Curtis Ratcliff, January 7, 2021 (17:39 min.). Excerpt 1:17 – 1:58
3 M. Louise Stanley (Lulu), Video, Interviewed by Linda MacDonald, April 5, 2021 (19:19 min.) Excerpt 2:30 – 2:59.
4 M. Louise Stanley (Lulu), Video, Interviewed by Linda MacDonald, April 5, 2021 (19:19 min.) Excerpt 7:36 – 8:02.
5 Lia Cook, Video, Interviewed by Jan Wurm, April 13, 2021 (26:49 min.) Excerpt 5:47 – 6:33.
6 Livia Stein, Video, Interviewed by Jan Wurm, October 8, 2020 (23:02 min.) Excerpt 1:36 – 5:26, 8:26 – 8:28
7 Livia Stein, Video, Interviewed by Jan Wurm, October 8, 2020 (23:02 min.) Excerpt 21:28 – 21:58.
The Bay Area Women Artist’s Legacy Project meeting on Zoom, January 2022
Screenshot of a video of a grid of fifteen light skinned older women on a video call in their respective homes. The white border around the video has the text YouTube in the top left and a search bar extending from the top middle to top right.