One of the more vivid memories of my childhood: I am nine years old, walking down the middle of my one block-long street in Bethesda, Maryland with my neighbor and friend Carol. We‘re telling each other how much we wished we were boys.  All the things boys could do were so appealing to us then—sports, strength, audacity.  My dad was working in the yard, and I remember his smile as he overheard our longings.

I wouldn’t want to be a boy.  And I’m not sure I really did then.  I knew they were very different from girls, and I was curious.  Carol had a brother and I was envious of that.  There were always boys in her house.  I had a sister; I only knew about girls.

Over the years I’ve been very aware I am in a male-dominated profession.  All the instructors in my undergraduate art classes at Brown University and Yale’s MFA program were male. I heard often the assumption that the men in our class would have careers as practicing artists and the women would be teachers.

Actually, while there were fewer female students, every single one had one ambition:  to be an “artist.”  Very few male or female students expressed an interest in becoming teachers and giving up a career as professional artists. 


Yet the students from my class whose names I see on gallery listings are always male. I don’t know what has happened to the female artists.  Possibly, like me, they are still making art and having various degrees of success.  I’ve never believed we couldn’t do it—couldn’t be on top of the pile of aspiring artists, to be the successful one, regardless of sex.  It just takes dedication, persistence, confidence, and probably, most important, a feeling of stubborn necessity. I love painting. I feel privileged to live where I do and do what I do.

In the late 1970s in New York, I had a friend who would call up famous female artists.  She’d hang up just when the person answered the phone—all she needed was to hear the voice of a successful artist.  Inspiration:  It’s all around us.

 


As a young artist I was fascinated by Louise Nevelson’s sculptures.  I saw her works in major galleries and museums and never thought of them as “women’s art”.  They were just good art.  They also fed my confidence that “it” can be done.  When I saw Eva Hesse’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in the early 70’s, I did, however think about her being female.  As seen in the image at left, Hesse  was very attractive, very feminine in her bearing.  Yet there was something daring about what she did, her sculpture, the experimentations with materials, something neither male nor female.  Again, inspiring.  I’ve read recently in Louise Bourgeois’ writings she felt very intimidated by the male dominated art-world of her day.  But she never stopped working.  And that in itself is inspiring.

Like a racehorse, I’ve always worn blinders, just looked straight ahead. I’ve not thought about gender in the production of my artwork.  I paint because I have to paint.  It is the blood that runs through my veins, a vital necessity for my life. 


 

I have at times used techniques and images that are labeled “feminine”— circles, sewing the canvases, soft colors.  Men have, however, used circles and soft colors, no doubt, and there have also been men who have sewn their canvases.  A well-known New York artist once did a lot of sewing on his paintings, crudely decorative additions.  I don’t know if he still does. They are very good pieces.  For a few years in the ‘70s, I also did some sewn canvases.  At that point I was looking for a way to clean up my canvases, make the “statement” of the work more direct, have the mark clearer; my paintings had been too “fuzzy”, no definite imagery, just a color field and a few faint lines.


In the sewn pieces, I would stain canvas with thinned acrylic paint, cut it up and sew it back together in more obvious forms than I had been using.  But people would usually comment that sewing equals female, even though tailoring has traditionally been a male-dominated occupation.  Because I didn't put them on conventional stretcher bars, I stopped doing these sewn pieces when my step-mother referred often to them as hangings, not paintings.  To me, hangings made them feel too decorative and this has never been what I am looking for in a painting.

If you want to push the point, I use male/female imagery now:  circles/lines, often in a tense relationship with each other.  But I don’t think much about that part of painting, what the symbols mean, just about what feels right, what works on the painting as I am making it, what makes a painting sing, more about the song than who is singing it.

I just hit five feet in height. This actually surprises people, as my paintings are big and have a boldness that I am told belies my size and gender. I used to think that the best thing to be, as a female artist, would be black and tall: As a Tall Black Woman I could proclaim me, while as a short Caucasian, I don’t really think it is worth talking about.

Studies recently show happy people live longer — and that people who are happy know how to play.  Making art is a form of play, doing something with love, passion, caring, trying out ideas, taking risks.  The place in the brain that governs the need to make art is likely the same in both men and women.

Possibly it is that place where a person, either male or female, knows how to play.  In a way, it’s like someone obsessed with a video game:  we take our “play” very seriously.  It feels like an inner need.  It is also an offering to society, not just a game at home.  Something beyond the person.  Seeing art as gender-specific is a societal thing, but actually, if you look at a piece of art it is usually impossible to tell the sex of the artist.

What I really feel most strongly is that the paintings should speak for themselves.  Currently the consideration of sex is less important in viewing artwork.  And I’m sure this trend will continue.  Women wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise.

Leya Evelyn lives in Nova Scotia, where she moved in
the early 1980’s after having lived and worked for some time in New
York City.
Curator Gil McElroy writes of Evelyn's work: "Given our human tendency toward seeking out recognizable
things, we look for what might be representational and identifiable in
Evelyn’s paintings. And indeed we can find it here, in the form of
fragments of images the artist has appropriated from popular magazines
and collaged into her work….Her art actively resists the constriction of tidy
categorizations like “representational,” or “abstract,” while
simultaneously exploiting them. It is a delicate balancing act that has
made for some powerful art." You can learn more at her blog, Use My Sky.


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Debbie Page February 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Hi Leya,
    We arrived here at HHI and I want you to know how much I enjoyed your article. Love your work, as always!
    Debbie Page

    Reply
  • Diane Stupay January 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Leya,
    I enjoyed reading your lyrical reaffirming comments.
    Diane

    Reply
  • Julia Kay January 28, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Hi Leya,
    Always interesting to read about other artists’ processes. I think you’re right that male or female, those of us that keep going are the ones that have to. You put it well when you say “I paint because I have to paint. It is the blood that runs through my veins, a vital necessity for my life. ” Frida Kahlo said something related: “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”
    I also think there are different needs – the need to paint, the need to have an audience, and the need to have the specific audience of an “art scene”. For me the the first is primary, and the second is also necessary. But the third one has never been as strong for me.
    In any event, fun to read your thoughts and see some of your images,
    Julia

    Reply
  • Alice Cathrall January 28, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Always delighted to hear about art.I particularly liked the notion of just “putting on blinders and doing the work”.I know once I release the art it no longer belongs to me and all sorts of narratives will be imposed.One of the good thing s about technology today is that annonimty may reign and the image begins its own life

    Reply