Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On the Line with Nancy Spero

I’ve always wanted my art to be something that would not be acceptable in the usual daily, ordinary, polite way of ­communicating. ~ Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero
Sheela-na-gig at Home

Martha Miller
Untitled, 1984

Mentors show up in various guises at unexpected times and places, and we sometimes don't recognize a mentor until after the fact. I've recently been wracking my brain trying to remember Nancy Spero's name. One of my professors at MECA showed me pictures of a mural that she'd made. And when she died last year, I saw images from her riveting Maypole installation that have stayed with me. Today her name finally came up to the surface and when I researched her a bit, I found Sheela-na-gig at Home. Timely, in that I was taking pictures of my women ancestor portraits under the clothesline yesterday. While I've been working on these portraits of the older generations of women in my family, I've been wondering alot about the emotional truth of their lives, searching their faces for clues. What was it like to be a woman in the late 19th century? What loving habits and what painful dysfunctional behavior got passed down to my generation? Did these women yearn to be something other than housewives and mothers? I have struggled mightily with the duality of being a mother and an artist. When I was a young mother I had a fury inside that was so powerful I thought it would destroy me if I allowed myself to feel it. It frightened me terribly and I tried to keep it pushed down for years. It would not stay down and erupted as panic attacks and depression. I did not have balance in my life. I was not doing my art. Not the art that I needed to do.

Seeing Spero's work on-line today made me pull out this old painting of mine once again. I really need to attach it to a board - it's been folded up in my closet. This speaks to the level of shame I still harbour about creating it. When my father saw it years ago, it must have frightened him, because he looked at it and said, There is something wrong with you. This hurt. My father loved me, but he was a man of his generation. He was quite controlling of my mother, and she dealt with it by being passive and secretive and she went underground with her needs. I sometimes wonder, what would it have been like to have a mother like Nancy Spero? Someone who would have celebrated the imagery in this painting, which I made after the birth of my fifth child, and then found the courage to return to school and take this one class? But other mothers, and as I mentioned above, mentors, show up at unexpected times and places. I am amazed this morning to see Spero's sheela-na-gig's on the clothesline. I painted that crouching figure in my piece all those years ago without ever having heard of a sheela-na-gig. I painted her at the top of that doorway to say, See? See here: this is your destiny. I was trapped in the old patriarchal system, and raging to bust out. I wanted to be a mother, but I wanted to be an artist, too, and I was just starting to figure out that I could do both...


Susan Beauchemin said...

I had never heard of a sheela na gig--interesting that they go back to the 18th century?
Nancy's work and yours are similar in ways--all those cut out figures she's leaning on!

martha miller (it's all art) said...

oh, way older than that. i think i read that they first showed up in the 11th century...

Susan Beauchemin said...

Oh yes--what was I thinking...of course they would go way back in time--probably a celebration of creation. Wanting the spring and earth's life to come back--opening the door to creation--magic figures to make it happen. I wonder if there was a time when way back, humans didn't know of the changing seasons and feared the cold of winter would never end?
Reminds me of Lela pounding on our door in the middle of a down pour asking, with such fear in her eyes,if the rain would ever end!

Susan Beauchemin said...

We should have made her a little sculpture of a person sitting under the sun!

Dean Grey said...

I'm sorry to hear Nancy Spero passed.

Your older work is very powerful, Martha!

The fact that you overcame all that rage, anxiety, and depression gives me hope!