Kayla Rae Whitaker composes an ode to ‘women who make things’, from wooden dolls to indie music, and post-modern triptychs to the best candy bar you’ll ever taste. These are tales about what happens when the muse becomes the artist
Yours is quite a niche theme. As it relates to a person’s identity it’s two-pronged – there are two qualifiers, for want of a better word: woman and artist.
One of the reasons I wanted to discuss women artists and why I’ve always been drawn to stories about them is the fact that if you are a woman and you are putting in the self-investment and time to pursue private projects – things which are required to make any piece of art – you’re going against your conditioning to be the emotional and sometimes physical custodian to everyone around you. It is pretty much the epitome of self-care, to make a piece of art. That’s something that, even now, women are conditioned against doing. We’re trained to give, to give to those around us, to the detriment of our personal lives. So I think where woman meets artist is a really fascinating space.
“It is pretty much the epitome of self-care, to make a piece of art, and that’s something that women are conditioned against doing”
You go one step further if you’re a woman who makes a piece of art and then puts that piece of art out into the world. Again, you’re working against your conditioning. Socially, there’s a silent code that’s still adhered to when it comes to women – ever since girlhood I think we’re pushed, even just subtly, towards silence; but putting a piece of work out there is the ultimate way of using one’s voice. So stories of women struggling against these social tenets to make something that comes from deep, deep within always makes for a fascinating story.
Superficially, one part – the woman part – seems to have to do with what you are, while the other – artist – has to do with what you do, or what you make; so, one is life, the other is art; one is created for you, the other you create yourself. But the separation doesn’t really hold, does it?
There’s certainly a blurring there. Women are given less courage to claim that grey space between life and art. Building that bridge for any woman is a struggle and in that struggle there’s a major story. One of the interesting things about reading reviews of my own book – and I’m embarrassing myself by admitting that I have started doing that, it’s an itch I have to scratch – is that whether they’re positive or negative, I’ve marvelled at how reviewers respond to my characters, the two animators Sharon and Mel. I mean, there are certain decisions that Sharon and Mel make and things they do that aren’t exactly admirable, but I can understand their decisions, especially when it has to do with their art. I didn’t realise the extent to which many readers would respond to those actions by saying, ‘Wow, I really hated these characters, they’re terrible people’. In going back to the titles that I’ve chosen for today, I realised that that was a thread that ran through all the narratives – particularly in The Song of the Lark, where the characters are working to build up that space between their life and their art. It fascinated me that, in that act, women are seen as so unlikeable.
Mel and Sharon, and the protagonists of the novels you’ve chosen, are all outsiders pushing into a sphere where they shouldn’t really be – whether it’s ‘trailer trash’ attending a high-end art school or rural types going to ‘make it’ in the big city.
Their outsider-ness is just another thread that connects with their position as women making art. They’re moving into a questionable space; they’re trying to use their voice but they have strep throat – they’re trying to exercise their voice and figure out how to convey themselves at the volume they need to. There’s something about that that still feels very transgressive. So, yes, they are definitely outsiders – it’s a central part of them.
Making art can clearly be a gruelling process. I like your description – which happily takes us away from clichés about women making art being like childbirth – likening it to a kind of infection: ‘A project always begins like a pimple on the back of the neck. You can’t see it, but you can feel it, rising just under the surface. And it drives you crazy. It swells, gains definition, becomes visible. The bigger it gets, the more it presses into the back of your spine. The more it presses, the less you can focus on anything else. Working on it every day is just a way of scratching the itch until you’ve finished its business and it slowly starts to shrink back down.’
Yeah, and it can get pretty bloody. For anybody, making a really honest piece of work and revealing themselves or their characters as somewhat unsavoury – human, but unsavoury – is often really painful.
Let’s look at the first product of pain on your list – The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow. Arnow isn’t a very well-known writer.
She’s not, and so I was really excited to see that Penguin UK is reissuing The Dollmaker this month. The cover is gorgeous – it’s an overview of the Detroit grid and it just looks so cool. Arnow was a Kentuckian – from the same part of Kentucky as I’m from, the eastern Kentucky mountains – and her book hasn’t really got the credit and the study it deserves. It’s not easy to read, a lot of it’s written in dialect. But it’s gorgeous.
“Gertie Nevels has a hard life and, for lack of a better term, she is a badass, to an extreme degree”
It’s about a woman named Gertie Nevels who is from south eastern Kentucky and she’s pretty typical for her time and place. She runs a farm, she’s married, she has a large, large family, she feels a deep connection to the land and to the seasons, she grows her own food…. She has a typical agrarian life and it’s one she’s fairly happy with. And the aspect of her life that gives her the most joy – and she never describes it as artistry, she just describes it as something that she loves to do – is whittling. She has a pocketknife that she carries with her all the time and she’s always looking for the perfect piece of hickory or cherrywood to just sit down and carve something. She almost treats it as a secret release. She makes dolls for her children and sometimes she makes little curios for her friends and family, but really it’s something – a sweet, secret something – that she loves to do.
It’s almost like by not naming it – whether as art or as something with a more prosaic purpose (she makes axe handles, too) – Gertie, or Arnow, is trying to prevent it from becoming categorized or reduced to any one thing.
Once you call it art you set the stakes and the stakes are really high. And the thing about Gertie’s life is that she is forced to be a pragmatist – she works from morning to night trying to feed her family. In the first chapter one of her sons is incredibly ill and she’s forced to hive him an emergency tracheotomy and – oh – it’s so hard to read. She has a hard life and, for lack of a better term, Gertie Nevels is a badass, to an extreme degree.
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So it’s interesting to see how this drive to make something is with her even when she’s tending to her family and doing chores. The story’s big turn is when she’s pretty much dragged to Detroit by her husband because he’s got a factory job out there during the Second World War. And so it’s the story of the Appalachian migration – in the US we call it the Hillbilly Highway – when folks from Kentucky and West Virginia and Tennessee, whose farming lives were very difficult and often not very profitable – and coal jobs were drying up, too – would go to industrial cities to find jobs in the factories. This is a move that Gertie hates, but when she’s working and going through the paces of her life, she is fingering her pocketknife in her coat pocket and longing to get back to that piece of cherrywood. At the centre of the story is this piece of cherrywood that she’s working on, and she doesn’t know yet what it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be Jesus or Judas – she’s waiting for the face to occur to her.
A pivotal moment comes when, having moved to Detroit and found that money is still hard to come by, Gertie’s husband convinces her to use an electric saw to make the dolls, to increase productivity and sales – because the dolls now have a material value. And they become rough and ugly compared to the delicate handmade ones.
It’s the only concession that her husband makes in the marriage – because in all other respects it’s like Gertie’s husband barely sees her. It’s a difficult moment because, in one way, it could be taken as a kind of olive branch to her, to her need to do something for herself; but really, yes, it’s for money and he totally misses the point, doesn’t he?
It represents the loss of the one thing that she still had for herself, the one space that she had carved out as her own.
Yes, that’s a heart-breaking scene.
It makes the emergent and undetermined cherrywood sculpture all the more important.
Right, and that speaks to the great thrill about making anything – the thrill of feeling almost as if you’re simultaneously at the mercy of and in partnership with something that’s bigger than you; you’re doggedly working and you’re not quite sure of the direction this thing that you’re making will take. That’s part of the excitement, part of the sense of – without wanting to sound too clichéd – wonder that is attached to making anything.
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is concerned with similar themes. It’s a portrait of the artist – although she probably wouldn’t define herself as an artist – who travels from Moonstone, a backwater town in 1890s Colorado, to Chicago to fulfil her (quite humble) dream of becoming a pianist. But her talent takes over.
I had a really lovely encounter with this book when I first read it at 21–22 years old. I was studying Willa Cather in college and I picked this book up and just fell in love, hard. I read it again just recently and it was one of those really wonderful experiences when the book is even better the second time around. In a lot of ways, The Song of the Lark is a kind of prototype for my own book, and it’s mostly because of Thea. Thea is such a striking character. She’s wildly talented – her teachers pinpoint that she has this ‘voice that comes from nature’ and she has this amazing aptitude for music and for voice. But the story really spins on her crazy sense of will.
She’s very determined.
Yes, she’s very much a General. Even when she’s very young she feels passionately about her music, she feels a drive and she practises and studies very closely. And even when she’s young, she feels disdain for mediocrity. Quite markedly early in the story, she feels disdain for other girls around her who are her same age but who receive accolades and praise for being pretty and doing a song and dance. There’s that scene when she’s about 11 or 12 and her great rival in town is Lily, a girl who can do the whole little song-and-dance thing. And it’s the first time we really get to see Thea be furious – she’s absolutely furious when Lily has the central song at the show in Moonstone. I really love that turn because we can trace that steeliness in Thea right the way through the novel.
Cather doesn’t make any bones about the kind of hardening that can often come from very hard work and from striving for perfection and not leaving any room for human error in your life and art. Thea is forever pressing forward in her practice, and I guess it’s true, that makes her, as a character, not that likeable.
One of her most distinguishing features is that she will discard anyone, any relationship, especially from her past, if it gets in the way or simply doesn’t serve her anymore. She’s just out for herself.
It’s one of her patrons early on in the novel who points out that she’s very much interested in herself – as she should be. Which is an interesting and fitting observation. That’s part of what drew me in on the first reading – I was so bowled over by that steeliness and that hardening – but, on revisiting the book, I realised that I hadn’t noticed as closely the passages that sort of outline the fact that, as she grows older, Thea loses her sense of joy. There’s a sense of flight in her early practice, when she’s singing or playing the piano – she feels true joy. But the older she gets, the more that sense of joy – despite the fact that, in terms of her skill set, she has improved and become a master – vanishes; it’s in the past, it’s a memory. It’s not something that she’ll ever really reclaim and that’s the sad part.
“Thea is forever pressing forward in her practice, and I guess it’s true, that makes her, as a character, not that likeable”
Towards the end of the book, Doctor Archie, from Moonstone, comes to see Thea after she gives this performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She’s young and supposedly in her prime, but the description of her is that she looks like she’s 40. There are lines and rivets in her face; she looks spent. That’s a down note to the book which I didn’t pick up so much on first reading, but it gives the story so much more flesh.
The title of the novel supposedly comes from a painting of the same name, from 1884, by the artist Jules Breton. The painting depicts a field worker with her scythe hanging limp as she looks up for a moment; the sun is setting on a long day’s work and it’s as though she’s just caught the notes of the lark’s song. It’s a moment of rapture that seems to encapsulate perfectly what Thea has lost.
But there’s also the joy that you can only get from discovering something new – it can’t last or be repeated again and again. The experience has to be new every time. If you were forever in that same moment of rapture, you’d be in a state of stasis. There would be no progress, and progress is something that Thea is hell-bent on. It’s part of what makes her so good, and so accomplished. So, it’s a loss, sure, but I think it’s a necessary one.
Let’s move on to Katharine Weber’s True Confections, a multigenerational saga about a family-owned candy company, now in crisis. It seems, on the surface, like a bit of a jump from the other two books. How does this fit into the women artists theme?
True Confections is probably the most fun book on my list, and not only because it’s about candy – which is a huge draw for me as I’ve secretly always wanted to open a candy store. The main character is Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, who has married into a very prosperous but very fractious candy-making family in New Haven, Connecticut. She becomes the most passionate member of the business, becoming very close to her father-in-law, the patriarch, and learns all about the business. And she becomes closer and closer to it as her marriage falls apart because she has married a man who is not what he seemed. She has a rotten relationship with her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law, too – she’s a classic outsider.
“The way she talks about chocolate and about boiling and tempering candy, those are the tones of an artist – chocolate is her medium”
The most striking thing about the narrative is that, like Gertie Nevels, Alice Ziplinsky would never fancy herself an artist; she imagines herself as a business woman. Yet the way she talks about chocolate and the way she talks about boiling and tempering the candy, and how you know when you’ve got a really good bar of chocolate – you smell it first, and it smells kind of whole and sweet, and then you break it and listen for a healthy, neat little snap that denotes high quality chocolate with just the right balance of cocoa and fat – those are the tones of an artist. She’s talking about something she loves to make; chocolate is her medium as an artist, and that, on a personal level – maybe because I have such a fondness for candy – sounds kind of like music. It evokes sensory memory, it’s a feeling that you can’t quite put into words but it has the ability to pull you back to a certain place and time where you felt pleasure and a sense of wholeness that is very hard to find in life.
The passages where she raves about the Twix ‘Java’ bar – a coffee flavoured bar that was only on the market for a short time and, man, I really loved it – are really beautiful. The real heart of the story – because the story of the marriage and of the family are kind of on the surface – is in Alice’s desire to make a wonderful piece of candy, a ‘true confection.’ That’s a really meaningful part of the story which culminates in her development of a candy called the ‘Little Susie’ that, among other things, contains white chocolate and flecks of deep, earthy vanilla bean.
So the art in the book is Alice’s chocolate creation. But her narration is pretty creative, too: she’s an unreliable – or artistic, if you prefer – narrator. Interestingly, from an ethical point of view, she’s taking someone else’s story – that of the family she has married into – and moulding it, re-packaging it, for her own style and for her own ends.
She is a very unreliable narrator, in many ways – and the effect is kind of fun but also kind of spooky. The deeper you go into the story you’re not quite sure whether or not Alice is telling you the entire truth as to how she eventually claimed control over the Ziplinsky family business. There is something unsavoury about the whole thing.
I guess the question is, bluntly, what right does an artist have to adapt someone else’s story for her own art?
A lot of the story is about interpretation – who has the right to interpret. There’s an interesting subplot in that respect: there’s a great doubt as to whether the patriarch of the family business had, in fact, stolen the original recipe for the ‘family candy’ on which the whole business is based. So the theme echoes throughout the book, and it underlies this ‘pure’ intention that drives Alice – her desire to make something that is entirely hers. In a way, she would like to own at least one part of the story for herself and for that story not to be something that requires manipulation. That’s something that every artist feels – they want to make something that’s wholly theirs.
Your next book is Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo. The book blurb hinges on that false dichotomy between life and art: ‘Anna Brundage is a rock star…. an immediate indie sensation. And then, life happened.’
This was another book that I read a few years ago and revisited because, in a sense, I wanted to see what it was that hooked me so deeply about it. I think, when you’re writing about artists, about people who make something, it’s a compounded challenge because you have this responsibility to not only convey the characters in a way that is honest and whole, but do the same for what they’re making. And if it’s really central to the story then whatever they’re making also has to be a character – it has to be just as alive and take up just as much space on the page.
“As a writer, you have a responsibility to not only convey the characters in a way that is honest and whole, but do the same for their art”
Wonderland really achieves that, particularly when, in the early part of the book, Anna is describing how she made Whale, her first album. And, really, for her, just like with Thea, the book starts out with this joy-pinnacle – what it felt like to make something that really took flight and took you with it – which you then spend the rest of your career, the rest of your tenure as an artist, trying to reclaim but falling short every time. It’s almost a question of whether that moment of elation was worth all the years following where you just try and fail over and over again.
And the next question, I suppose, is what would you be willing to do to get that feeling back? Success at what price? A key moment comes when Anna decides to sell a piece of her famous father Roy’s art to finance just one more album and a comeback tour.
There’s this tone when she’s talking about selling Roy’s work where her perspective seems to be, basically, ‘Well, I should be horrified, and there is a part of me that is horrified with myself, but it was a foregone conclusion that I would do this’. She knows that she would pay any amount of money, any amount of sentiment, to be able to reclaim that one moment where she’s making Whale and she feels as if she’s caught in this perfect warm sandstorm. Her production partner is playing the drums and he’s wrapped athletic socks around the drum sticks and he’s making this soft repetitive drum track… And it feels to her that she’s as close to perfection as she will ever come. The way that scene is written, it doesn’t then come as a surprise to the reader that she sells off her father’s art to fund her tour – I mean, who wouldn’t want to get that feeling back?
There’s a kind of addiction involved – not only do you get addicted to making art, you also get addicted to the feeling of having ‘made it’, of being successful in the eyes of others.
Oh yeah, absolutely, and what I really found interesting about Wonderland is how that idea of value was complicated by this thing that she has made being put on the market. Anna has made three albums – two of them she loved, the third she didn’t love as much. It hurt when the third failed but, in a way, that maybe made more sense than the failure of the second one, because the third wasn’t as big a part of her. The name of the second album was Bang Bang – and it’s fitting because there’s a certain kind of double heartbreak that you feel if something like that happens. It’s one thing to be in your own little cave working on a project and feeling a private joy, but it’s a whole other to feel the abject terror when what you’ve made has been put out into the world and it’s suddenly a product for other people to buy.
From that point, whether or not you are able to make more art in the way that you like is contingent upon whether or not the product is palatable for other people, for consumers. If they don’t like it that hurts, and it means you can’t make more, which really hurts. It’s a terrifying prospect.
Making art is a very intimate thing to do, of course, especially because you’re making yourself vulnerable to other people’s often whimsical tastes. You’re asking people to connect with you and they are quite likely to turn you down.
It’s petrifying and it’s a huge risk. When it translates into anxiety it can really snuff out the sense of joy that’s inherent when you make something but also your sense of instinct, as to what you’re making, what you’re doing. That’s a big part of the narrative with Anna. It’s the saddest part of the narrative. There’s so much of the book that takes place in memory, in flashback; so much of the meat of the story is these instances from her past in which she has made something that she believes in and it feels good to her. But it’s the past, and her present, in the meantime, involves struggling through this tour and fighting with her band mates and sleeping with her band mates. This tour-story carries one part of the narrative along, but you’re aware, as Anna is, that the real thing lies elsewhere.
Another detail of the characterisation is that Anna’s parents are both artists in a bohemian non-conformist vein. How does this shape Anna’s own identity as an artist?
It’s interesting because you’re not quite sure if it’s a burden for Anna or something for which she is grateful – as though her parentage gave her the internal wiring necessary for her to pursue her own art. But the way she talks about almost being able to see herself, to see her origins, in a big centrepiece created by her father – a work in which he splits a train open down the middle – makes you feel the relationship as a burden. I guess most artists yearn to claim themselves – so having artists for parents could seem like a hindrance. I felt, as a reader, that it was burdensome for Anna.
As though by design, the protagonist in your final book is called Harriet Burden; she’s at the heart of a novel – The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt – that makes no secret at all of its woman-as-artist theme. So, tell us about Harriet – how is she portrayed? To what extent is she in control of her own image?
I unabashedly love Harriet Burden, if anything because she sees herself very firmly as an artist and she’s mad as hell that the rest of the world doesn’t. So much of the narrative is built upon that anger.
Harriet is a widow in her 60s and, when we meet her, her husband, who was a really influential New York art dealer, has just passed away. She has made installations for most of her adult life, she’s practised her art since she was in her 20s, but what she’s spent most of her days, most of her life doing, has been ignored by the art community. Not only because of who her husband was and because she’s only just emerging from his huge and flamboyant shadow, but also – she is convinced, I think rightly so – because she’s a woman.
I should say that I’m not a visual artist – I just don’t have the aptitude – but I have friends who are and I always listen with great interest to them when they talk about that world, the world of galleries and getting your work placed. Women tend to encounter some very specific difficulties, and we find that with Harriet. And so, in her 60s, Harriet decides that she is going to try an experiment – she calls it her ‘masks’.
It’s a project that, she thinks, will expose an anti-female bias in the art world and uncover the complexities of human perception – how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a work of art.
Exactly, and so she launches three separate works and for each of these works she recruits a man to pose as the creator and to claim it as his own, do the interviews etc. The work is presented under his name. The plan backfires when, on her last project, the man – and again the reader is never quite sure what happened, we only get Harry’s view – refuses to remove the mask; he refuses to admit that it isn’t his work.
The book is itself formally creative.
The structure is very interesting – it’s told from multiple perspectives, from those of her children, her lover, her friends. And it’s also pieced together from Harriet’s journals, in a way that makes her similar to Sharon in my novel. In all of these books, there’s this contrast between the private space in which you feel free to work and produce honest work, and the more public space where you feel more confined, by your gender or your class or how others see you, and you feel a bit gagged. Harriet and Sharon both find refuge in private journaling.
“Women lead lives of suppressed chances, lives full of roads not taken because they weren’t really an option”
In part, Harriet’s story is told from the perspective of a biographer, Professor Hess, who is writing a study of ‘Harriet Burden: woman artist’, and he is basically doing detective work with her journals – which are funny and well-written and brightly coloured and alive – and he’s trying to find missing pages, missing details, and so on.
There’s this portion of the novel when Harriet says it’s no wonder that the overwhelming percentage of patients with multiple personality disorder are women. It’s because women lead lives of suppressed chances, lives full of roads not taken because they weren’t really an option. And so women foster in themselves these little intricate lives in which they can exist on other planes and it’s all because, in their reality, those lives are not possible for them.
And the whole collage effect – where various people in various media discuss Harriet and her work – also brings us back to that question of whose story is it to tell, who has the authority, who decides how to do it? The names Harriet gives to her triptych – ‘The History of Western Art’, ‘The Suffocation Rooms’ and ‘Beneath’ – make it pretty clear that this problem of women’s agency is as old as time itself. And of course she gets a lot of hate for it – people are quick to label her ‘angry’ and a ‘feminist’ (as though those are bad things…).
I was reading an interview with Siri Hustvedt and I was really interested to hear about why and how she had created Harriet in the way she had, particularly when it comes to her age. Her being in her 60s seats her very firmly in second wave feminism – she would’ve been in her teens in the 1950s and ‘60s and her early 20s in the late 1960s. It’s a very specific time because gender roles were so much more rigid then – I mean, if you were coming of age in the 1950s and you went to your doctor to complain that you were having period cramps, the doctor would say that it was all in your head. That seems very telling. And so, after a lifetime of this suffocation, Harriet finds a kind of freedom in the private act of journaling and also, in the public sphere, she finds a kind of liberation in wearing masks, in passing as a man, or rather, passing off her work as that of a man.
If you contrast that with Sharon and Mel in my book, they’re ‘80s babies, so they’re very much products of third wave feminism – they find their own sort of liberation with one another. They have, with their friendship, established a neutral zone where a lot of the social forces that would otherwise dictate their identities and how they present themselves and their work don’t exist. The normal parametres are shut out. Their studio is a private space just for them; each person is the other’s audience – it’s just them and their art.
So, really, in both cases it’s the story of how making art becomes part of a protective mechanism for these women. And, with Harriet, we then see Professor Hess – and we’re never quite sure if it’s a he or she – trying to navigate through 60+ years of self-protective mechanisms.
Harriet situates herself in a long line of overlooked female talent who often use male pseudonyms in order to get somewhere in their work (George Eliot, to pluck an obvious example); she finds a heroine in the 17th-century writer Margaret Cavendish, an experimental writer of science fiction – also a traditionally male space – whose utopian romance gives its title to Hustvedt’s book. Have your characters broken from this line?
If I’m looking at it as an optimist, that Mel and Sharon can write so brazenly about themselves denotes a certain amount of progress. The brunt of their material comes from their lives and their histories, in part because their pasts have become stories that they tell to one another. So, in the little world that they have created for themselves, their own lives make up a kind of alternative canon that they share access to.
“A woman can be the visual focus of a piece of work, there for the gratification of the beholder, but if the woman claims ownership it’s somehow harder for many to swallow”
The fact that, with each other, they feel emboldened enough to own these stories, to take them and put their own faces to them, or, at least, a mask of themselves that they have created, is a sign of progress. That shows ownership of a voice that is very much female, I think – the story that they choose to put out into the world isn’t an easy one, but it’s the one that they have chosen and so they do it. As a writer and as a reader, I always feel buoyed when I encounter really great memoirs by women, or other stories about women artists – women who choose the story they want to tell and do it on their own terms.
I still have the impression that ‘confessional’ is more often a criticism levelled at women’s writing, though.
It’s always a surprise kick in the stomach to see that complaint still being so disproportionately directed at women. I guess a big part of it is that women were for so long, and still are to an extent, objects; a woman can be the visual focus of a piece of work, there for the gratification of the beholder, but if the woman claims ownership for said piece of work it’s somehow harder for many people to swallow.
Because the muse has become the artist.
Exactly – and that’s why I was so keen to choose what seems like a bit of a niche theme, basically ‘women making things’. That sense of ownership makes me so glad when I encounter it, as a reader, as a writer and as a viewer; it makes me so glad to see those stories. They give me a sense of hope, and I like to sink down in that and keep reading.
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