Women & Art: We’ve got a long, long way to go.

louise_mamanHere’s a statistic that should make your blood boil: on average, only 5% of the pieces in permanent collections of museums around the globe were created by women. 95% of the art that has been purchased by museums—the very institutions that safeguard our culture—was created by men. While women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. 

We’re over half the residents of the planet earth, but when it comes to culture, we’re still woefully underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid.

I’m researching a piece right now about gender inequality in the gallery world. While part of me is overjoyed to be doing this kind of work, to be writing about a subject that’s so important to me, there’s another part of me that is just angry. Filled with rage at the injustice of it all.

A recent study from Lehigh University found that “artistic careers are subject to the same social forces that drive gender wage gap in other fields. ‘Though one might expect that the flexible nature of many artistic careers—well as research indicating that artists tend to possess more liberal ideologies than other professionals—would result in greater gender pay equity, our research shows that the difference between the incomes of female and male artists are about the same as you’d find in other fields,’” explains study co-author Danielle Lindemann. Not only is there a significant pay gap for women working in the arts, but there is also a “fatherhood premium” and a “marriage premium” that applies to men only. While women’s pay takes a plunge when they have children, men’s paychecks get a nice little bump. Fortunately, in the arts, women don’t experience the same motherhood penalty (but men do still receive a fatherhood premium).

Does this piss you off? It should. Whether you’re male, female, or don’t ascribe to gender binaries, this should really make you mad. Because it means we still don’t value women’s work. As a society, we place a higher value on art produced by men. Their work goes for far more at auction. Male museum directors and curators make more money than their female counterparts. Male writers are paid more, and their books sell more copies. It’s true across the board.

For years, I’ve been seeking to address this in small, quiet ways. I buy books written by women. Much of the art that hangs in my house was painted or photographed by women. I buy albums by female artists, rather than just listening for free on Spotify. When I want to read a great new book by a talented female author, I buy it. I get Melville from the library, but I pay full price for Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Eleanor Catton.

I believe in voting with my dollars. I also try, in this small, tiny, personal corner of the internet, to highlight female artists as often as I can. While men make great work, too, they don’t need my help. Not when their work comprises 92% of lots for sale at New York evening auctions. Not when there are men like Georg Baselitz arguing that “women don’t paint very well” in well-respected places like The Guardian.

Baselitz says, “the market does not lie.” But money doesn’t equal talent. We should all know that by now.

I’ll end this rant before I get too wound up and decide to quit working as a female writer and start selling my eggs instead (they’re worth more than my words, apparently). But I want to say this: If this subject is something you care about, you need to start voting with your dollars. Spend money on women artists. Pay women writers. Support women in the arts, because we still need it.

Image: Maman by Louise Bourgeois. This piece, which sold for $25 million, was the only one to make the top 100 lots sold at auction in 2015. All 99 other top-selling pieces were by men.

What I read at the Portland Museum of Art.


I was recently asked to write a short reply to a work of art in the “Masterworks on Paper” exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art and read it aloud during a one-night event. There were cocktails inspired by art and readings by local authors. I was one of the writers and I although I’m new to reading in public (and thus pretty nervous!), it was still a great evening. Above is the work I chose to write about. Below is what I wrote.

Thanks for being on my website, and thanks to everyone who came out.

Skin and Bones

In response to: Self-Portrait as Ishmael’s Arm, Scott Kelley, 2011. Watercolor and ink on paper, 18″ x 18″

When I was twelve years old, my forehead erupted into miniature mountain range, a mess of red bumps. Sometimes, little pieces of skin would slough off, like ice calving from a glacier.

I hated this change, the disruption to my facial topography. I hated every change imposed on my body by puberty. My body, this thing I had lived with for years, had become, suddenly and irreversibly, outside my control.

My skin cleared up after a few months—I consider myself lucky for that. But I never lost the feeling that puberty brought—that my body was something that needed to be tamed, changed, and conquered. As I grew taller, the thirty-three bones that make up my spine curved, first to the right, then to the left. It was subtle, my scoliosis, but it compressed my torso, bringing my height down from five-foot-nine to five-foot-eight.

But that change I welcomed because, as anyone who has lived inside a young female body knows, there’s always someone on hand to critique its size and shape. I have struggled to change my body, to make it into something other than its grown shape. I wanted to make it smaller, and somewhat paradoxically—because the world likes small, delicate women—something more visible to others. Over the years, I’ve applied myself to a series of ridiculous diets, some funny (like the time I only drank milk and ate carrots for a week, which gave my skin an orange tinge and made my stomach rumble loudly) and some sad (like the time I proclaimed proudly to a group of friends, “I only ate three grapes today” while they looked on in undisguised horror). I’ve joined gyms and attended expensive spinning classes where everyone sits in a dark room and pumps their legs aggressively while the instructor barks out orders from her own stationary station, going nowhere fast to the tune of overproduced bumping and grinding.

I haven’t found a single way to effectively tame this wild thing, this thing that grows hair in unexpected places and kicks fitfully in its sleep. But I have discovered a way to mark it as my own, and it involves needles, ink, and a blank piece of human real estate.

I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen years old. I had begged my mother for months to let me get one, to sign a parental release and let me permanently brand my body. Finally, on a family vacation to Bridgton, Maine, she gave in. Under the light of a neon sign, a burly man holding a can of Coors Light inked a small, black butterfly on my left shoulder blade. It cost $20. My mom held my hand as I lay on the cheap plastic table. “Does it hurt?” she asked me. “No it feels good,” I lied.

Or maybe that was the truth. I’m honestly still not sure. I’ve been tattooed multiple times since then, including a cover-up piece that erased the sad, faded remains of my first little butterfly, and I’ve never quite figured out how it truly feels. It stings, sure. It bleeds and that hurts. But it doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t feel good. It isn’t pleasurable. But it feels interesting. Compelling. It feels like a transformation, and I’m a junkie for change. So I keep doing it.

Of course, I’m not alone in my desire to mark up my skin. People have been getting tattooed since Neolithic times. Anyone who has seen a picture of the famous “Ice Man” knows how strange these mummified ancient corpses look, all leathery skin and short bones and dark ink, at once both alien and primal.

And this is how many still view tattoos in the western world. Exotic and somehow primitive, a visual marker of a volatile person, someone uncontrollable. This has been especially true for women. Tattooed men were sailors and soldiers; tattooed women were freakshow acts, painted ladies and hookers. Deviants, all of them.Maud_Stevens_Wagner.jpeg

When I look at Scott Kelly’s piece, his delicately painted watercolor arm, his beautiful tribute to my favorite novel, I feel something I don’t like: Jealousy. I feel jealous of that arm in the same way I once felt sick with jealousy reading Melville’s prose. Not because I aspired to be a writer like him (though I do—who doesn’t?) but because I wanted to enter that world so badly. Ishmael spoke my language, but he wasn’t speaking to me. He was hazy about the eyes, plagued by the dark November of his soul, and pulled like a magnet toward the water. I saw myself in him, a Narcissus-like reflection in a pool of literary beauty. And yet, I couldn’t enter that world. There was no place for me there. I was a girl. And that was a world for men.

The world has changed and moved in fantastic, spectacular ways. My tattoos do not mark me as a freak, but as person who values something a little left of the middle. I could be a sailor if I wanted to. I could hunt a white whale and harpoon my own beast.

When I see that whale spine, I have to remind myself. Do not be jealous. Do not envy the freedom of those who came before. Just straighten your own spine. Take those thirty-three bones and stretch them out to your full height. Bare your skin, and align your bones.

You own this body. You claimed it, and it is yours.

[Image of Maud Wagner, first female tattoo artist in the U.S., plus a circus performer, aerialist, and contortionist. Bad. Ass.]

Because they’re beautiful: Here are three neon love letters.

fionna banner be there saturday
1. Fionna Banner – “Be There Saturday Sweetheart” 

This 30-foot-tall neon sign was constructed in 2000 on the top of the New Art Gallery in Walsall, UK. I don’t think it’s there anymore, but I don’t know for sure. What I do know is this: The simple statement comes from the love letters of artist Jacob Epstein to Kathleen Garman. Although she was married to another man when she met Jacob, Kathleen fell in love with the sculptor and eventually left her husband for him. They stayed together until his death. Despite the rocky start (or perhaps because of it?) their letters are filled with sweetness and light. “With you I have every joy and every happiness,” Jacob wrote to his lover. “My nights are my worst time. I lie awake and think of you. Last night, Sunday, was wonderful moonlight and I thought of you, picturing how you were, how fascinating you looked on the balcony beside the lake in the moonlight and the lantern lights… I am always yours Kitty. Be there Saturday sweetheart.” Neon art about ghosts
2. Robert Montgomery – “The People You Love”

Truth time: I’m making this list today because I’m in a melancholy mood. I have a migraine hangover and my brain is fuzzy and unwilling to focus. I feel like a ghost of myself. I’m being lazy and wallowing—I’ll admit that.

But don’t let that take away from the art, because all three of these pieces are wonderful, lovely and haunting, modern and retro, sweet and sad. Artist Robert Montgomery created this piece after the death of a close friend. For him, ghosts are a positive force, a way of keeping in touch with the people he has lost. “I find the idea that love can somehow triumph over death an idea I need to keep sane,” he said.

But you know what I really love about this piece? It’s not just the ghost-y-ness or the eerie setting or the sparse and square font. It’s the way it turns light into a metaphor for humanity, for that elusive thing we call the soul or the spirit. Stare at a neon sign, then look away. The afterglow remains, spots on our vision. An imprint of what was. A visual ghost. More than a memory, less than a presence.

3. Tracey Emin – “I Listen To The Ocean And All I Hear Is You”

I saved my favorite for the finale. I find Tracey Emin so inspiring, both as an artist and as a human being. I love her brash attitude and her feminist message. I love her sensitive, neurotic, erotic works (I stumbled across “Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With” when I was in college and that piece blew my freaking mind). I particularly love her neon ladies, all naked and glowing with legs spread and toes pointed. I would have shared one of those, but I try to keep my blog SFW, so instead here is one of her text-based pieces (another good one reads: “People like you need to fuck people like me”—not as poetic, but pretty damn funny). Emin’s extremely prolific and likes to work with light-up letters, so if you like this as much as I do, you can see more of her work here.

And you know what? After writing all this and doing the work of inserting images and googling details, I find myself feeling much, much better. I think it’s Tracey’s good influence (or I’m just going to pretend that’s it and not the glass-and-a-half of wine I drank while waiting for my internet to catch up to my thoughts). Thanks, lady.

Be the Leslie.

Be Leslie Knope Illustration by Emma MungerIn honor of International Women’s Day, here’s a badass illustration of Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation (quite possibly my favorite TV show of all time) by California artist Emma Munger. This is my new goal: To be the hardest working, most dependable, best writer I can possibly be. To fail sometimes, but to keep at it. To succeed in the end through kindness and sheer determination (and smarts, too. Leslie is whip-smart despite her many malapropisms and general fuck-ups).

Emma Munger is also responsible for a very cool illustration tracking the wanderings of Wolf OR-7—the first wolf seen in California since 1924! Like Leslie Knope, wolves are badass and awesome. And probably feminists. I bet they are.