Women and Telling Stories - Links Between Art and Life

by Nancy Solomon

This essay was based on the fourth Women in Photography Center for Photography in association with the University of Houston, Department of Art, March 24-27, 1994.

"Women and telling stories was not the announced theme of the fourth Women in Photography Conference, but it was the con­ceptual threat thatcaptured the attention of participants.

The very structure of the conference encouraged the telling of individual stories. The format was one-track with everyone focused on the same primary sessions and ideas. Yet, rooms and time were scheduled and available for breaking into small groups, and discussion questions were suggested, such as: If you had been supported in your resistance to gender stereotyping, how might things have been different for you? Is it possible to resolve a difficult relationship with a parent while that parent is still alive? How does that parent’s death facilitate resolution?

The form of the conference also gave rise to fundamental questions. How do life and art overlap? When foes the individual become universal? Where is the boundary between therapy and making art? Why grapple with personal issues if your art is not narrative, realistic, or autobiographical? The answers were not neat or complete. Months later, the questions still resound.

“Women and telling stories” was not the theme of Carolyn Heilbrun’s keynote address, but it was never very far away. Women’s biography is the focus of Heilbrun’s current work, and she opened her address with a questions that she asks when examining the lives of accomplished women. How did it happen? And, what do accomplished women have in common? Her research yielded an unexpected answer: their ability to resist socialization.
How can this be done? The first chance comes early; for instance, Gloria Steinem, the subject of Heilbrun’s next book, avoided early socialization by not starting school until she was 11. Reaching 50 is another watermark when many women often take more risks, as if becoming 50 initiates a rite of passage marking the possibility of change.

Heilbrun said: “Every woman needs to rename herself [to create a new story] and make a list of everything she wants out of [both meanings] and in her life.” Understanding the truth of women’s experiences is essential to making these changes. Women need to talk to other women regularly, to share stories, and to trust and support each other. In the nineties, she sees the best hope in women’s reading groups that meet regularly, particularly “those that transform into something else.”

In the days that followed, several individual presentations and panels revealed different ways that transformation grows from telling stories. Lorie Novak in the “Women and Autobiography” panel discussion described a flash of understanding. While choosing snapshots from her own life for a large-scale projection piece, she realized that the personal had become universal. She began to add imagery from the lives of others, because the art itself carried a universal human message. On the same panel, Ann Fessler told how her exploration into being adopted was manifested in an installation and an artist’s book titled Genetics Lesson. The art was not overtly about her personal quest. Rather, Fessler confronted a homogeneity assumed by society and schools and exposed it as a mythology. She established an elementary school setting, where the viewer encountered a student lesson requiring a family history that most adopted students would not know. Here a personal exploration was transformed into a larger societal issue.

Gay Block integrated narrative with images in a strong and emotional presentation entitled, “An Autobiography of my Mother.”Block described a moment of transformation that occurred as she continued to work on the piece after her mother’s death: Suddenly, she could not distinguish between her mother’s version of reality and her own perception at the time.

Mindy Fabe’s videos Delirium and Suburban Queen star her mother, who comes across on screen as direct and funny. Fabe explained that her mother is a manic depressive and was often excluded from family activities and decisions. Through sensitive use of humor and obvious exploitation of video formulas, Faber not only expressed her own concerns about how women are viewed, she also gave her mother a voice.

In the panel “Women and the Representation of Aging,” Anne Noggle discussed the invisibility of older women in our society-its benefits and its problems. For Noggle, a person’s face “doesn’t even get interesting until they are at least 60.” She showed portraits and told the story of Russian women flyers who were active during World War II and are now abandoned by their society. Noggle devised her own fundraiser to help these women; in conference hallways and at the Firehouse Gallery, she offered her photograph Myself as a Pilot in exchange for a $50 donation. Herlinde Koelbl presentedNina, a series of portraits and nudes exhibited at the Goethe Institut – Houston – images that tell a story of dignity and long life. As one student observed, “I never knew there would be wrinkles all over your whole body.”

Joanna Frueh lectured on “Polymorphous Perversities, Female Pleasures, and the Post-Menopausal Woman.” She stressed the importance of telling new love stories for older women, “women with flesh that moves.” Another strategy Frueh envisioned is artists developing the archetype of the crone. Just as I was surprised to hear the “Women and telling stories” theme in Joanna Frueh’s lecture, I was equally surprised to find it emerge in the “Women and Advanced Technology” panel. During her studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, Wendy Snyder MacNeil was intrigued by the way new technologies change the way that stories are told. She wanted to find a new narrative form that encourages interaction and narrows the gap between the maker and the viewer.

Surroundings and interactions with other attendees are often just as valuable as the planned sessions at any conference. The “Women and telling stories” theme continued to develop. Throughout the city of Houston, nearly fifty photography exhibitions were on display, and many of them showed art with narrative elements. The Firehouse Gallery offered the opportunity to see the prints of work by Gay Block, Anne Noggle, and Joan Mysers shown in slide form at the conference. The greatest impact for me was Houston Center for Photography’s exhibition “The Visual Diary: Women’s Own Stories.” Wall photographs, installations, artists’ bookworks, and video art were all presented in an exhibition that took hours to see. This element of time was crucial to every work. If exhibitions were reduced to equations, this one might be: time/narrative + personal imagery = intimacy.

In the “Visual Diary,” artists used low tech ways to narrow the space between the maker and viewer. For instance, Sadie Benning used a Fisher Price toy video camera to create Jollies, an exploration for an emerging lesbian identity. There is a sense of immediacy in these videos with their simple, contrasty black-and-white imagery. The viewer lies in the moment with the artist; even her title and credits are part of the picture. In Giving Fear a Proper Name: Detroit, Susan kae Grant grabs the viewer’s attention by integrating parts of her body such as fingernails in self-portraits punctured by pins and intensified by text. If the use of time and text is expected in bookworks and video art, it was also used by the artists like Karen Johnson showing photographs on walls. Looking at and reading the photographs in “Valuable Papers: Constructing My Father/Myself,” the viewer is drawn into a story from different viewpoints and creates his or her own version of the whole.

The resistance of some conference participants to the impact of telling storied continued to fascinate me, as if the artists who attended raised questions that added another layer of inquiry to the conference. What does self-examination have to do with art? If art is essentially human communication, isn’t developing an authentic human core an ongoing part of an artist’s work? How does telling stories initiate change on a personal level - for the artist and the viewer? When does the personal become universal expression? Isn’t all art autobiographical in some way? For artists whose subject matter is not overtly personal, telling stories, developing one’s authentic core, might find expression in a freer line or a more intense color.

For me, the best story that surfaced during the conference belonged to several people. During the panel “Women and the Representation of Aging,” Joan Myers was showing slides of her large platinum-palladium portraits of older women. As is characteristic of her work, form and emotion combine to create powerful imagery. When Myers’ dignified nude portrait of a woman who bears the mark of a radical mastectomy was projected on the screen, Anne Tucker, curator of photography as Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, called out from the audience asking for the story. The woman in the photograph had seen Myers’ work in this series and offered to be a subject. Before her surgery, she had no image of what her body was going to look like afterwards, and she wanted to help provide that picture for other women.

Tucker, it turned out, had her own story about the photograph. At another conference, Tucker’s track record of acquiring work by women artists was called into question. She explained that fundraising is necessary for all her acquisitions and that what she purchases is in response to the interests of her museum community. A woman in the audience offered to donate the photograph to the museum, and it is now in their personal collection.
This is not just one person’s story; it is four people’s stories. We can label them, artist, curator, subject, and donor. But that misses the point. Their interaction reveals that telling stories is a complex expression where internal and external experiences are integrated. Each one. Speaking and hearing. Giving and getting.

Through this multi-layered example, we return full circle to that need expressed by Carolyn Heilbrun at the start – to understand the truth of women’s experience. Sharing stories is a way to find this understanding. Listening is as important as telling, and giving is as crucial as receiving. Honest stories are a powerful means of growth and expression on all levels, both individual and universal.