New Fave Book - Daily Rituals: Women At Work
I’m a sucker for books about other artist’s habits/creative rituals - whatever gets them out of bed in the morning. Whether it’s to validate or vindicate my own sometimes rigid, sometimes sloppy practices, I distract myself with the ways other creatives keep from being distracted and getting down to work.
Some years ago, I gobbled up the first iteration of Mason Currey’s best selling book, Daily Rituals, How Artists Work. In that edition, of all the 161 greats mentioned - Einstein, Hemingway, Marx, Picasso amongst them - only 27 of them were women.
In his recent followup, Daily Rituals, Women at Work, Currey, mortified at his oversite, offers a sheepish and regretful apology, and serves up a cross section of some of the greatest of our female creatives and the daily practices (or not) that helped them achieve the success and acclaim they rightly deserved. Some of the dignitaries profiled include: Sarah Bernhardt, Nina Simone, Diane Arbus, Coco Chanel, and countless other groundbreakers and innovators.
While the male subjects of his previous book often had wives, assistants and secretaries to take care of daily distractions such as housework, child rearing and food prep, the female artists usually had to squeeze in stolen moments after meals were laid and kids put to bed, or leave their creative work until the children were grown and launched in the world. And of course, most of these women struggled to be recognized at all - as writers, painters, directors etc - simply because of their gender.
I’m highlighting in this review just a few of the extraordinary female creators represented in this book, but I highly recommend reading all of the stories - by known and lesser known artists. There is evident proof that there is no right or wrong way to craft a creative practice - just to know and honor ones’ own rhythm and then stick to it.
Frida Kahlo’s story is, by now, the stuff of legend - the horrific accident that broke her body but not her spirit. The tumultuous relationship with the oversized artist Diego Rivera. The self portrait as introspective catharsis.
“I have suffered two serious accidents in my life,” Kahlo once said, “one in which a streetcar ran over me…the other accident is Diego.” One can not separate out the artist and the varied conditions that created the work, and Frida, despite insurmountable odds, used her physical pain and emotional dramas to express a compelling body of work that resonates as much today as in her somewhat brief lifetime.
Few of our excuses can compare with her overcoming the obstacles of painting in a full body cast after dozens of botched surgeries, her physical body in a constant state of anguish. While she longed to have a steady schedule, the endless dramas in her personal and financial life derailed her painting practice for months at a time. Even at her worst moments, while laying in the hospital for nine months (much of it boosted by Demerol), she never lost her need to create: “I painted my corsets and paintings, I joked around, I wrote. I passed the year in the hospital as if it was a fiesta. I cannot complain.”
Some artists, like the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, kept long bankers hours, “I have always thought of my profession as an ordinary work-a-day job.” She regularly began in her studio at 8 in the morning and continued going until 6 in the evening, but only after her 4 children were grown. While they were young she had a “very strict discipline with myself so that I worked every day, even if it was only 10 minutes.”
And even when domestic duties couldn’t be ignored (“the children aren’t well and the kitchen needs scrubbing”), she recognized that “the ideas can go on developing behind the scenes if you keep in close touch with what you are doing, even if you have interruptions. You actually mature faster. You may do fewer carvings, but they could be maturing at the same rate is if you had all the time to work.”
One of my favorite painter/printmakers, Helen Frankenthaler, admitted, “After a break, I sit around and sharpen pencils, make phone calls, eat handfuls of pistachios, take a swim. I feel I should, must, will paint. It is agony. It is boredom. I become impatient and angry with myself, until I reach a point of feeling I must start, make a mark, just make a mark. Then hopefully, I slowly get into a new phase of work.”
She usually worked in fits and starts and tended “to focus on a body of work intensely and one day put down the brush and feel emptied out.” She then needed to shift gears for awhile before painting again.
Her breaks were not for long however, as she was a prolific artist and exhibited throughout her life with major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2001.
These are just a few of the inspiring stories of the 127 women artists and their daily rituals that helped move them from stasis to the studio. While Currey barely scratches the surface of these women’s rich and complex lives and work, it’s a captivating skipping stone across the past centuries of dynamic creative feminine output.
I did find it frustrating to only catch a glimpse into the intimate worlds of these dynamic women, but I’m now compelled to read more about many of these great artists and the obstacles they had to overcome in the pursuit of their creative callings.