Women Creating / Creating Women

By Kristine Hartvigsen

Three women’s creative cycles will sync up for a new art show coming to Vista Studios Gallery 80808 in April. Titled “Women Creating Women,” the show will bring together the works of painters Kirkland Smith and Bonnie Goldberg with the poetry of Cassie Premo Steele. The title concept, the brainchild of Premo Steele, has a double meaning, with “creating” being both a verb and an adjective.

There’s no doubt these three creative women are close, but you won’t find them finishing one another’s sentences. Each is an individual unique to herself, and the show highlights their sometimes shared yet often contrasting interpretations of the same subjects. For this show, Smith and Goldberg are focusing on figure works of the female form. It will combine the visual with the literary, as the event includes a reading by Premo Steele of poems composed in response to the visual works.

In a recent conversation infused with red wine and laughter, the women reflected on the joys and challenges of producing their art, as well as their creative processes. In researching a character for one of her books, Premo Steele modeled for the artists during a session of the group About Face, which meets in the basement of the Columbia Museum of Art every Tuesday evening to sketch live models. “What I love about your work,” Premo Steele tells Smith and Goldberg, “is that, in the figures, you are present in the world with the women, and you allow us to be present in the world with you. You allow us to go into that very deep, intimate place and come out connecting rather than come out isolating or judging. There is that openness of presence and awareness.”

About Face is integral to this show because Smith and Goldberg are longtime regulars. And it was at the same About Face group show many years ago where both visual artists exhibited their work for the very first time. “In the beginning, it was a core group of about 15 people,” Goldberg recalls. “Pat Callahan organized a group show at the old Weekend Gallery (on Bull Street next to Workshop Theatre). It was a tiny gallery. There were hundreds of people that just spilled out on to the sidewalk.”

“Yes. I don’t really remember being crammed together, just that we were really close,” Smith says. “I remember what good friends we were and how close we were.”

Seeing Goldberg and Smith produce stunning yet contrasting portraits of the same models in an About Face session, fellow artist Warren Brussee suggested they do a show together. “We can look at the same woman and come up with two completely different interpretations,” Goldberg says. “The models often are very surprised by that. It’s (varying visions of) one woman at the same moment in time.”

Nevertheless, these three creative women share many experiences that have been nearly universal to women throughout history, including conflicts related to traditional gender roles and the challenges of finding time for themselves and their art amid the daily pressures of work and family. Premo Steele, for instance, rises at 4 a.m. so she can exercise and get some writing in before her young daughter wakes up. Smith, too, has sacrificed or postponed some of her creative ambitions to stay home with her four children and focus on family. “When I was busy with a newborn and my husband (SC House Representative James Smith) was in his first political campaign, it got too hard to go to About Face on Tuesday nights. I took a year off,” Smith says. When she was ready to come back, Smith was excited to see that the group was still going strong. “I used to get a baby-sitter for two hours a week so I could write. I looked forward so much to those two hours. Words just poured out,” Premo Steele reflects. “When you say you don’t have time to do this, you can. Just do it a little bit at a time.”

Smith remembers one woman who came to About Face once a week. That was the only time she had to pursue her art – just once a week. “But there was so much growth in a year of working just once a week,” Smith says. “A lot of the work I will have in the show will be work I have done in About Face. For me, it’s the best thing I do for my art.”

Goldberg began painting when her children were teenagers, so she had the opportunity to approach art full-time right away. “It went from something to do to who I was instantly,” she says. She doesn’t believe that male artists approach their work much differently from women. “From my personal relationships and what I do as a painter and an artist, I try to bring something of me into what I am doing,” she says. “I don’t think my men friends who paint do it any differently. I think the aesthetic is the same. I don’t think the artists that I am close to who are men approach it any differently.”

Smith and Goldberg note that “Women Creating Women” is deliberately about women but does not purposely exclude men. “Women are beautiful inside and out. Models have told me that being the subject for a piece of art is very empowering,” Goldberg explains. “I want my work to focus on women because I think we have so much to offer, no matter how old we are or what color or nationality we are. We can stand in front of the world and be empowered by being proud of who we are.”

Goldberg, Smith, and Premo Steele all, at some point, have been impacted by the popular book, The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. At a time when she was quite overwhelmed in her daily life, Smith knew that if she tried to read the book alone, she never would finish it. But Goldberg and others in About Face formed a group to read and digest the book’s 12 chapters over six months.

“I have always known that I am an artist, and that is what I want to do,” Smith says. “My husband is definitely my great supporter. But earlier in our marriage, he was very busy. I had to get babysitters to do anything. He was busy making a career. I did lose myself for a while in the mothering process. I had the About Face group once a week that I could do, but I was very focused on being a mother … I think having a daughter changed the way I thought about myself. I had all these boys and, suddenly, had this little girl. I thought about what I wanted to model for her. The way to do that was to do what I wanted to do. I made choices and sacrifices to stay home and take care of the children. I am not sorry at all that I did that, but I didn’t pursue my art. I had a portrait business. I sold everything I did. It was successful but very part-time. I took about five years off from art. I wanted to come back, and I was a little bit afraid. What if I couldn’t do it anymore?” The Artist’s Way group provided strong encouragement and a creative stepping stone. “I think there is an artist part in all of us,” she continues. “I think we have this creator God who made us to create. The gift we give back is our creation.”

Premo Steele also found inspiration in the book and the idea of crossing creative genres to gain new perspective. One time when she was feeling impeded in her writing, Premo Steele picked up a paint brush. Later the paintings she created were displayed for a time at AMSA Yoga Studio, where she became friends with Columbia painter Philip Mullen, whose painting now graces the cover of her book of poetry, titled “This is How Honey Runs.” She felt the benefit of so many connections and opportunities that seemed to appear like a domino event. “You open yourself to things you could never plan,” she explains. “When we think about whether we could be a painter or a poet or anything else, we think we need a plan and a to-do list, but actually, you just need to start.”

An essential lesson in Artist’s Way is paying heed to one’s personal and holistic needs. This hit home for Smith on a couple of levels. “I was doing everything for everyone else,” Smith said. “I was the silent partner for my husband. I am very proud of him and all he has accomplished. That doesn’t mean that I cannot be a whole person. There is a lot of strength that I bring to our relationship. I think women in general are very strong. … And I need to learn to say no a little bit more.”

To that, Goldberg chimed in: “Tish Lowe (Goldberg’s neighbor in the art studios at The Arcade and the cover artist for Jasper Magazine Issue 3) once told me that saying no to someone else is saying yes to your self.”

“I think self-care and self-nurturing as a creative person is your number one priority,” adds Premo Steele. “Some days you don’t answer the phone. Some days you say you can’t go to that meeting. You learn to say no to yourself and other people. You become aware to the point where you know what your energy cycles are going to be, and you work with them.”

On a trip to Africa earlier this year, Smith was struck by the resourcefulness of African families. “They use everything – bone, hides, ostrich shell,” she explains. “I thought about egg shells in general. My family eats a lot of eggs, so I began saving the shells.” Smith purposely bought white and brown eggs so she could expand her color palette. The result is a striking, mosaic-like depiction of a nude pregnant woman, using only the natural egg shells as “paint.”

But don’t come to this show expecting to see more of Smith’s large post-consumer waste assemblage works that have received so much positive attention. She is still producing them, including commissions, but has returned to painting, her first and primary genre, for this show – with the exception of the one incredibly beautiful work referenced above.

All three artists are excited to bear witness to an arts renaissance in Columbia. Premo Steele hopes people are less intimidated by the arts, which are increasingly more approachable thanks to events such as First Thursdays on Main Street and Blue Jean nights at the SC Philharmonic Orchestra. “Art is not a thing. We think it is because we buy and sell it, and we buy and sell the earth, and we buy and sell women, and we buy and sell labor,” she says. “We live in a world that makes living beings into things. Art is a living being, and humans are living beings. When we make it just a thing, we make ourselves just a thing. Part of the fear comes from a sense that we can’t afford it or are not included.” And Columbia is putting inclusion front and center.

“Women Creating Women” unquestionably embraces the living being and celebrates in particular those of the estrogen variety. “Over the course of history, men have defined women,” Goldberg says. “Today, women are not defined by men. Modeling – clothed or nude – it’s not really the point. I think we are creating the art, but these women (the figure models) are defining themselves. We are just drawing, painting, or writing what we see. That person standing there is defining who she is in that moment of time, and if I am lucky, I am able to capture that.”

“There is a great challenge to painting the human figure or a portrait,” Smith says. “I have always enjoyed painting people. I mostly like to work from life. The subject really isn’t the woman; it’s the light and how it falls on her skin and her form.”

‘Women Creating Women’ opens on Thursday, April 12, 2012, with an evening reception at Gallery 80808. Premo Steele will give a special poetry reading in the gallery at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 15, and the show runs through April 17. For further details, visit www.vistastudios80808.com.


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