TRANSCRIPT Ep. 308: Late Bloomers of the Art World

THE INSPIRATION PLACE PODCAST

Miriam Schulman: These artists hit their stride late in life.

Speaker 2: It’s the Inspiration Place podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to the Inspiration Place Podcast, an art world insider podcast for artists by an artist where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the art. And now your host, Miriam Schulman.

Miriam Schulman: Well, hey there, my friend. Welcome to The Inspiration Place. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration, and you’re listening to episode number 308. I’m so grateful that you’re here.

Today is a very quiet day in New York City. It’s rainy, it’s beautiful. The blooms are all out, all the trees are flowering, daffodils are waning. The tulips, though, are spreading. So it’s just magnificent. It’s one of those perfect quiet days that I want to get a lot done, and it’s so easy for these days to just slip through my fingers.

What I wanted to spend this episode sharing with you is that yesterday I had the opportunity to go to the Whitney Biennial. The Whitney Biennial happens every other year. It features American art, although not all the artists are born in America. Some are from other places and are working now in America. But it was a very interesting show, and what impressed me the most was there were five artists who were all in their 80s.

Usually in these biennial-type shows, they feature more emerging artists, young artists, and definitely the show had its share of artists born in the 1980s and the 1990s, you know, millennials. But there were five artists who were born between 1941 and 1944, and I absolutely loved the work of some of these artists.

I wanted to spend this podcast episode sharing with you what inspired me and why, and also perhaps share some ideas you can incorporate into your own art, as well as the inspiration or the motivation, rather, of how these artists hit their stride late in life. But before we get there, these words.

Okay, so one artist that I’m just so excited to talk about right away is Suzanne Jackson. She was born in Saint Louis, but she was raised in the Yukon Territory. In other words, she was raised in Alaska before Alaska was even a state. She’s very accomplished, very much a multi-passionate or multipotentialite. I think that’s what they sometimes call it. A multi-passionate person, she traveled as a dancer, she was a gallery owner, she did many things in her life. She owned a gallery in, I believe it was California. She was a single mother in her 40s, and around that time, she earned her MFA in Theater Design from Yale University. I believe that was in the 1990s because now she’s in her 80s.

After earning her MFA, she—I don’t know if this was a direct path—went to teach at Savannah College of Art and Design, which is a very well-known art college in the South. She lives in the Starland District of Savannah, which is a historic district, very artsy. She has a home built in the 1890s.

She’s on three different lots, and she says in the interview how people are always wanting to buy her house, but she’s not parting with it. She loves her house. In her backyard, there’s fruit trees, turtles, possums, and other wildlife.

As I mentioned before, many of these artists didn’t hit their stride until later in life. When she was 75, in 2019, she received a very prestigious Joan Mitchell Grant. The type of art that she’s been focusing on over the last five years, and the art included in the Whitney Biennial, is truly exquisite. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I think you will find it inspiring as well.

I’m going to describe it to you so you can understand what she did without even going to look at it. But I do hope that you will go on Google and look up Suzanne Jackson’s art to see what I’m talking about. She paints with acrylic paint, and she doesn’t use canvas. What she does is put plastic on the table and paints directly onto the plastic. Then, when it dries, she peels it off. Any of you who have worked with acrylic paint and made a palette know how, when the acrylic paint dries, it’s actually quite fun to peel it off the palette and you get these beautiful peel layers.

Well, what Suzanne Jackson does is create entire paintings by letting those layers dry and then peeling the whole thing off together. She also sometimes incorporates thermoplastic. When she’s cleaning the paint off her hands, she’ll save all of the dried paint and incorporate that into her artwork as well. The way these art objects blend between sculpture and painting is fascinating. It is paint, but it has a three-dimensional form. They are hung from the ceiling and on the walls, almost looking like animal hides the way they hang. They also have a very delicate appearance because they are transparent, and an organic appearance because they look like amoebas under a microscope. Really amazing.

I wanted to share that with you because her story is so interesting, but also because the art is so unique. Perhaps you might want to try putting plastic down on your work table and painting directly on the plastic to see what you come up with.

Alright, next I want to share artist Mary Kelly. Kelly is an artist who first came to prominence in the 1970s with a very conceptual and political point of view. She was known as a socialist who tried to unionize artists alongside factory workers, and she was a boundary-pusher who brought feminism into the realm of conceptual art. One of the most radical aspects of her art, especially in her early years, was her insistence that maternity and domesticity were worthy subjects of serious creative expression. While most conceptual artists focused on violence and transgression, Kelly’s work was very understated, very intimate, and emphasized motherhood, pregnancy, and reproductive sexuality.

I want to share with you the art that I experienced in the gallery, which led both me and my friend—who is not an artist or an art historian—to become emotional in front of her work. So, I’m going to describe it to you. She had ten years of her life represented as calendars. She displayed the 12 months of each year behind plexiglass, and she had ten years’ worth. She wanted you to experience this continuum of ten years.

What she did was mark her birthdays every year with the numbers 75, 76, 77, and so on. I believe she’s in her 80s now.

Let me share a little more about what art critics have said about this work. They describe it as being collages, and what they are is personal calendars. She drew on the calendars in ash on vellum. Ash is reminiscent of someone being cremated or returning to dust or ash, so it’s very much a commentary on the aging process.

I already mentioned that her age was juxtaposed on the calendars, as well as whenever one of her friends died. When a friend died who was younger than her, she saw it as having cheated death by the number of years that she lived beyond her younger friend. And whenever someone older than her passed away, she viewed it as a measure of how many years she might have left.

This is what really created a deep emotional impact for me and my friend. My friend had just lost her mother in her 80s, so that was part of it as well. But even without an immediate loss in my own life, I felt the emotion of this piece. The work evokes this sense of loss that definitely shapes people later in life.

I know my mother is going through this as well, as she has friends who are no longer in her life. I can’t remember if she’s lost a friend yet but she currently has one in a nursing home and another in hospice. So it is present. Her husband is quite a bit older than her and has had some of his friends pass away.

This series that Kelly created is part of an extended project with an autobiographical narrative feel to it. In addition to the dates on the calendar, these are her actual calendars. You see things like doctor’s appointments, phone numbers, and all the details that make up her life. The way she has drawn on it really has this feeling of time slipping away.

This isn’t the first time Kelly has been in a biennial. She was also included in 1991 and 2004, so this is her third time being here. Her art is represented in numerous public collections, including the Tate Modern, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Hammer Museum, as well as museums in Stockholm, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Her work is also in the collections of the New Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and many others. It’s definitely an impressive resume.

Some of the calendars are so abstract that you can’t even tell it’s a calendar anymore, except you might see something like “March 2019” on it. I want you to note that in this calendar, I think she was 74. This art represents ten years of her life, so she’s in her 80s now. It’s quite amazing. She’s still working, and still relevant.

The third artist in her 80s—these are all women in their 80s—that I want to share with you is Mary Lovelace O’Neal. She was born in 1942, in Jackson, Mississippi, and then lived in Oakland, California, and Mexico. What I found very striking about this artwork was that it was one of the first pieces we saw that wasn’t quite so conceptual. The other art I’m talking about, I think I actually saw later.

So I’m actually describing the art in reverse order of when I experienced them. Mary Kelly’s work was the last I looked at, whereas this one was probably the first art I encountered that was less conceptual and more had the feeling of traditional painting. Sometimes conceptual art is very interesting to me, but other times I get a little annoyed if the art needs such a long explanation for you to finally understand what you’re looking at and why.

I appreciated Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s work because it hits you on a visceral level without needing an explanation. One thing that’s very interesting about her is that she, like Suzanne Jackson, is a woman of color. Both of these women are living artists and are both currently creating artwork that is not a direct commentary on their experience of being Black women artists.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s point of view is that she doesn’t have to make art about being a Black woman because just the fact that she’s creating very large artwork is a statement in itself. I wish I had the exact dimensions, but these artworks are tremendously large, taking up a full wall in the Whitney.

This is not small artwork. The curator was quick to point out that just being a Black woman artist who takes up space with large artworks is enough of a political statement without having to be so literal. Many Black artists, or artists of color, make art that is more figurative and speaks directly about their identity, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, Mary Lovelace O’Neal is doing something radical by creating these very large artworks. She says, and I agree, that this act in itself is significant. Women, in general, are often afraid to take up space.

As I mentioned in Artpreneur, women are generally hesitant to occupy space boldly. It’s funny because sometimes when I talk about the trolls and the people who hate on me, more than one person has said that I am a man-hater, which isn’t true. I guess they just feel that anyone who talks about feminism must be a man-hater. I really can’t figure it out.

You can email me, comment on the blog, DM me on Instagram, or comment on Instagram and let me know your thoughts. Did you get the impression that I was a man-hater from reading my book?

Yes, I talk about the socialization of women, but I don’t even use the word patriarchy, though, until the end of the book. And the patriarchy, It’s used in the book, but it doesn’t even come in, except for the fact that I’m saying, “Oh, this writer who wrote this book on the patriarchy”, blah, blah, blah, and that’s how it’s used. So it’s very funny. To me, it’s very funny when people say she’s a man hater and she’s so miserable and blah, blah, blah, because it’s not really true. So I don’t know what it is that triggers them about my book specifically why they come away with that feeling.

So but yeah, I do comment. I do comment on how women are socialized not to take up space, not to claim power. We’re taught to be small, and that’s wrong for us to desire money. So anyway, I digress. Let’s talk about this artist. The wall plaque that I took a picture of actually talks about her art, Blue Whale aka number 12, which is from the whales effing series. And by effing it doesn’t say the word effing. It says F you see, blah blah blah -ing. Okay, so that’s her words, not mine. And it is a beautiful, large, abstract, a lot of power, very dynamic. Very outrageous point of view. Really, really interesting. So that artwork was really good. The other artwork I saw looks like somebody on a cross has lots of drips. It definitely has that abstract quality to it.

If I were to guess, I would say that the canvas is at least seven feet high and maybe 20ft long, and then she has another artwork on the opposite wall that is actually four canvases. So four times that size, maybe. Maybe it’s 30ft long. Let me see if I actually took another picture of the other wall plaque, just so I can give you more information here. No, didn’t do it. Okay, so I looked up Mary Lovelace O’Neal to give you a little more background on this artist. So she’s done painting, drawing, printmaking. She went to Howard University and she studied closely with David Driskell as well as other artists. I’m not familiar with the artist she studied with, and she was also a graduate student at Columbia.

She came to prominence in the late 1960s, she was active with the Black Arts Movement, working alongside artists and writers. I don’t I’m not familiar with the names of the artists that she and the writers she worked alongside with, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t famous. I’m just not very familiar with this movement in art history and the 1980s. She joined Robert Blackburn’s New York printmaking workshop. And she also was part of a communal print workshop in Santiago in Chile. She’s already had solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She’s had exhibitions in Paris. She’s had exhibitions at the Mississippi Museum of Art, where she’s from in Jackson, Mississippi.

And she’s won some some prestigious art awards. So overall, I really enjoyed the Whitney’s biennial. You definitely got a sense going through all the different objects and artworks, and there was also video installations going through everything. You can definitely see that there was an agenda, not that there was anything wrong with it that the curators had. There were 71 artists chosen collectively to interpret what’s going on in our culture, and they had stories to tell. Each of these artworks sparks discussion. They comment on issues across all different mediums and disciplines. And this is the 81st biennial and it will be up until August 11th. So if you have the opportunity to visit New York between now and then, I highly recommend that you go and visit the Whitney. It’s an amazing museum.

And don’t forget to go down the street. There’s this beautiful French coffee shop where you can get the best croissants and hot chocolate in the city on beautiful blue China. All right, my friend. So that’s it for now. I hope that you found the stories of these three artists as inspiring as I’ve found them to be. And make sure that you try to look at their artwork. We will put some photos on my website. This is episode 308, so you can find the photos of these artists at SchulmanArt.com/308. All right, my friends, so I will see you same time, same place next week. Until then, stay inspired.

Speaker 2: Thank you for listening to The Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at facebook.com/schulmanart, on Instagram @schulmanart and of course, on SchulmanArt.com.

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