TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 149: Lessons Learned from Alice Neel and Julie Mehretu – Believe in Your Art


Miriam Schulman:
Well, hey there. This is Miriam Schulman, host of The Inspiration Place Podcast. You’re listening to episode number 149, and I’m so grateful that you’re here. Today, we’re talking all about two artists who have shows right now in New York City. The late figurative painter Alice Neel, and the abstract Ethiopian born artist Julie Mehretu. In this episode, you’re going to discover what relentless commitment to your art looks like and why you can paint or create, doesn’t necessarily have to be a painter, you can create your art in a style contrary to what’s popular and still make it as an artist.

By the way, I wanted to make sure you’re signed up for one of my free masterclasses happening July 14th and 15th. If you want to discover how to sell more of your art and your art classes, this is for you. I used to focus on all the wrong things, which totally sabotaged my sells until I stumbled upon the secret to selling anything, including art, and I realized that made the difference between starving artist and successful ones. I came up with this simple solution called The Passion to Profit Planning Framework to help artists develop their businesses so they can have the time and freedom to create art and do what they love.

Now since then, I’ve used this framework to build a wildly successful art business that I love, and as founder of The Inspiration Place, I’ve coached so many other artists just like you to create sustainable income from their art as well. So I’m hosting a live masterclass called How To Sell More of Your Art, and it doesn’t require Reels, TikTok or being Insta famous. So if you want to find out the secret to that framework, I would love to invite you, You’ll discover why your success is not measured by your social media following, how to break free from those social media chains, and go way beyond starving artist mindset to uncover what’s really sabotaging your success. You’ll also hear why most artists get stuck and inspiring artists who were definitely not stuck and have built a sustainable income selling their art. So you’ll want to see how they did it.

Join me by going to All right, now on with the show.

If you’re listening to this as it goes live in 2021, there are two must see exhibitions in New York City right now. One of them is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other’s at The Whitney. We’re going to start first with the Metropolitan. At the Metropolitan, it’s a blockbuster exhibition, which means 15 galleries filled with this artist’s work. So I want you to meet Alice Neel.

She’s known for her psychologically disturbing portraits that she created during the 20th century. She initially painted in Greenwich Village. She moved to Spanish Harlem, and she painted portraits while most artists during that time shunned representational artwork, especially portraits. But she did it anyway, and she gained prominence by painting portraits of other artists, other art world figures such as Andy Warhol and other well-known public figures.

I want to tell you more about her because her story is really an inspiration to us all no matter what kind of art you create.

Alice Neel was born at the dawn of the 20th century, and she wanted to be an artist. But her mother told her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You’re just a girl.” Don’t forget, Alice Neel was born in 1900. But instead of accepting the severe limitations of the Victorian Era that her mother knew, Neel went off to study at Philadelphia’s prestigious Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which is now known as the Moore College of Art and Design.

By the way, in an interview, she shared with art historian Cindy Nemser that her mother’s words, instead of destroying her, here’s what she said. “Instead of destroying me, they made me more ambition because I think you know I’ll show them. I’ll show her. I’ll show everybody.” This is what 100% belief in yourself looks like. This is what belief in your art looks like.

Throughout her career, she embraced a quasi impressionistic style. I would say it’s closest to the way Van Gogh did his portraits, and she chose primarily the figure as her subject. Now to the modern eye, this may not seem like such a brave or unusual choice. But don’t forget, Alice Neel painted in New York throughout the 1950s. When her contemporary such as Helen Frankenthaler or Lee Krasner or having success painting in the popular abstract impressionist style, figure painting, that was shunned. That’s why she was ignored through most of her career. The art world was focused on abstract impressionism. Plus, let’s face it, it doesn’t help being a woman. Even today, although 50% of those who call themselves an artist are women, less than 5% are represented by museums or major galleries. The gender gap is real. You walk into any art museum, you’re more likely to see a naked woman in the artwork than you are to see artwork created by a woman.

I was recently reminded of this in the New York Times, they were featuring the art chosen by the president. By presidents, we’re talking about from JFK all the way through Biden, they listed all the different presidents and what art they had in the Oval Office. I didn’t find a single painting created by a woman in that entire list, even Joe Biden’s list. Now Joe Biden had paintings of women. That was nice to see. A painting of Eleanor Roosevelt, but I didn’t see any paintings by women. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected. You can send me a DM over on Instagram or put a comment on my blog on the show notes. I’d love to be proven wrong about this.

So getting back to Neel. So she was largely ignored, and it was therapist who actually suggested she start painting her art world friends. And this choice made her career. She painted noted figures like I said, like I mentioned before, Andy Warhol whose name you know, other names I could list you may not be as familiar with. Art historians, art critics. Basically she painted those who helped sway in the art world, and she also painted drag queens, drug addicts, the poor, the disenfranchised. She was a Civil Rights activist and she’s sometimes considered herself a communist. But mostly she used her art to make statements about social justice.

Here’s a quote by her. “For me, people come first. I’ve tried to assert the dignity and external importance of the human being.”

She loved studying people. Even when she wasn’t painting, she was always studying people. So her art is used to make social commentary about people.

Now the show that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum is running until August 1st, and if you miss that, it’s traveling to San Francisco, as well as the Guggenheim in Spain.

I want to tell you a little bit more about her because I found her life so fascinating. She had several children. She lost I believe it was her first child she lost. There is truly a heartbreaking painting in the Met. It’s not about the loss of her child, although it kind of is about the loss of her child. If you see the exhibit in the Met, you will turn a corner. They put this painting on an alcove, and I think they did that so that you don’t stumble upon it accidentally because it is very disturbing. So it is a picture of a crib death, and that was a crib death that was known in the current events at that time. So very notorious crib death that she depicted. It’s a very haunting painting. But we are known that that death in that painting is a stand in for the loss of her own child.

The next child that she had was taken away from her by her estranged husband. There’s a painting of that child as well, Isabetta. So she basically lost two of her children.

Now it’s no surprise that like her predecessors, Van Gogh, Rothko and others, her early lack of commercial success, along with these heartbreaking events lead to visits to a psychiatric ward and even a suicide attempt.

Now she did have two more children, but I’m not sure if the second two are by the same father or different fathers. She was known to have a lot of lovers and husbands. But the next two children, she raised as a single mother. And yet she never gave up painting, the whole time, this whole time. One of my favorite paintings that you’ll see at the Met shows her son in a rocking horse in their small New York City apartment. So it’s a painting of the son on a rocking horse. But here’s what’s really important, you know the artist painted while caring for her son because in this painting, she includes a self portrait of herself in the mirror behind her son.

So basically you can see that her son is in their apartment, in their home, and there’s a bureau behind the rocking horse, and there’s a mirror on the bureau. And you can see Alice Neel reflected. You can see the artist reflected in the mirror. So she’s showing you how she’s integrating caring for her children and being an artist. She balanced both. She shows it was possible to be a mother and an artist.

You also notice throughout her paintings a striped chair. This was part of her own furniture, and it’s like a recurring character that appears throughout the exhibition.

Now one of the other things I love most about Neel, well most about her art are her unsentimental portraits of mother and children. They’re really radical. She has radical paintings of nude pregnant women, woman in childbirth, and woman nursing. Just radical and brutal depicting women’s pain of childbirth. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s truly stunning. She truly broke all the rules. Don’t forget, she’s painting during a time where it was scandalous for I Love Lucy to appear pregnant. Lucille Ball to appear pregnant on TV, and here she was painting pregnant nudes.

Neel’s relentless commitment to her art did pay off, and at the end of her life, she enjoyed a retrospective at The Whitney in 1974 at the age of 74. She was born in 1900. So she was a child of the century. That’s a big deal for a living artist. That their next artist is also having a retrospective at The Whitney as a living artist. We’ll get to her in a moment.

When Alice Neel passed away in 1985, she had let’s call it a Joan River’s worthy memorial service at The Whitney Museum, which was attended by then luminaries such as Mayor Ed Koch and in addition, the poet Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of his poem White Shroud at her service.

So the 2021 blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art places Neel and her art in the cannons of art history as one of the greats. I do hope you’ll get a chance to see it, if not there, perhaps where it’s traveling. If not there, come on over to my website, in the show notes, I’ve linked to a blog post I did in 2014 that has a lot of images of her art, also links to books about her art, and then I’m also linking to a YouTube video which is a broadcast from a Facebook live I did earlier this year which shares a lot of the arts. If you want to see the art, I invite you to go there and see it.

Okay, next I want you to meet Ethiopian born American artist Julie Mehretu. Now she didn’t have to wait until her 70s to have a retrospective. I believe she’s 51, and she’s got a boundary breaking, mid-career exhibition at The Whitney Museum of Art, and this is a powerful symbol of progress. She’s an example of a contemporary Black female painter who is already famous. Remember I shared that woman make up less than 5% of art represented in museums. Well, Black artists make up less than 1%. And she is a member of both minority groups. So this is truly groundbreaking.

And not only does this show showcase a woman, but it was also curated by two women. So I’m going to give them mentions as well. Christine Kim, curator of contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and also hopefully I’m saying it right, Rujeko Hockley, an assistant curator at The Whitney.

This Whitney show features about 30 canvases, 40 works of paper, and it’s interesting to compare her career trajectory to that of Alice Neel. So Mehretu paints abstract, and Neel paints figurative. Here’s the kicker, you would expect Mehretu to paint figurative paintings because what’s popular right now, especially among Black contemporary artists is figure painting and portrait painting. Ever since, I don’t know if this is really marks the hallmark beginning of it, but definitely starting with Obama’s choice to have Amy Sherald who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait and Kehinde Wiley who painted Barack Obama’s portrait. The rise of the Black figure artist and portrait artist has been highly in demand as a way for them to express their own narratives.

And I will link to yet another Facebook live. I’m going to link to actually to the YouTube video, but it was initiated on Facebook live that I did about the rise of the Black portrait painter. So you can learn about how important that has become in the last I would say 10 years. And here is an artist painting contrary to what you expect.

So Alice Neel was painting in the 1950s when abstract painting was in vogue. She was painting figurative art, and Julie Mehretu is painting abstract art when you would expect her to be painting figurative art. What that shows us is that you can paint in a style that’s contrary to what’s popular and still make it as an artist. If you have 100% belief in yourself and 100% belief in your art, you can follow your passion and be true to yourself.

All right. So I included the links to everything I mentioned in the show notes. We have a wonderful lineup the next couple weeks. I’ve already interviewed these authors. They are amazing, and I hope that you will hit that subscribe button. Next week, we have The Introvert’s Edge: How Shy Artists Can Sell More Art. That is with Matthew Pollard.

Matthew Pollard:
We still draw our energy from being by ourselves, but if we learn strategies and systems, we can learn to enjoy these so-called extroverted renders. Although it’s far to say I believe that an introvert can actually out-sell, out-network, out-lead, out-public speak any extroverted counterpart because they win things. And the truth is when you win things, you can’t recreate them, and you can perfect them. So introverts have an unbelievable ability, but again, if they run their energy too low, it can go horrible wrong. So you have to know just because you’re finding it easier because you’re enjoying it now, doesn’t mean that you still don’t draw your energy from being by yourself.

Miriam Schulman:
Following week, Stories that Stick with Kindra Hall.

Kindra Hall:
If you ever struggle with getting your work sold or whatever it is, stories as a strategy, having yourself differentiated from everybody else. Stories as a strategy is a winner all the way because as I’ve gotten older and realized so many more of the barriers to any success or experiences that I’m seeking have much less to do with the stories that I am or am not telling out into the world and everything to do with the stories I tell myself. Stories I tell myself about what I’m good at, what I’m capable of, what I deserve, what I don’t, what failure it, what it is. I have had to systematically dismantle many stories in my life to get to where I want to be.

Miriam Schulman:
She is a firecracker. You’re not going to want to miss that episode either. Then early August, I have Kara Goldin who founded Hint Water Company.

Kara Goldin:
I’ve always believed that for me to spend time with anything, whether they’re people or they’re products or a sport, I have to enjoy it. It starts there. In order to have an experience with it, you have to want to engage in some way. But to actually buy it again, you have to have other elements that allow the consumer to want to engage. Whether that is a product, like I said, a sport, a service, a piece of art, there’s a tremendous amount of feeling that goes along with that. That’s where consumers want to spend more time with it is when they really appreciate the aesthetic part of it.

Miriam Schulman:
She really was so inspiring. One of my favorite interviews. I can’t wait for you to hear it. So hit the subscribe. I hope that you’ll join me then. Don’t forget, if you liked today’s episode, go check out the video I did of Neel. We’ll link that into the show notes.

All right, my passion maker, thanks so much for being with me here today. I’ll see you same time, same place next week. Stay inspired.

Thank you for listening to The Inspiration Place Podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at, on Instagram @SchulmanArt, and of course, on


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