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TORONTO DAILY STAR, Sat., Feb 1, 1969
These three women want you to accept them as artists, not ‘women artists’
By GAIL DEXTER Star staff writer
“An artist friend once told me that I was the greatest woman artist in Canada. That was a terrific compliment. But then I began to realize that I’d never thought of him—or anyone—as a great male artist.”—Milly Ristvedt, 26, professional artist holding her second one-man show at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery this week.
“People look at the pastel colors in my paintings and call them “feminine.” But when a man—like Jules Olitski, say—uses pastels, it’s not feminine. It’s his art” —Eleanor Mackey, 37, professional artist. married with four children aged 10 to 18 preparing her second one-man show for the Isaacs Gallery.
“Being a woman artist is awful. It’s a degrading unnecessary label. And it means you have to work twice as hard just to be accepted as an artist.”—Carol Conde, 28, professional artist. married with two children aged 6 and 10: holding her second one-man show at the Phase II Gallery this week.
When a woman decides to be a professional artist, her life is revolutionised. She has broken out of the myth that women find their fullest satisfactions as wives and mothers. She has dropped out of the social category called “women.”
Like most women who take their work seriously, the artist has little interest in coffee klatches. the PTA or homemaking in the normal sense. She has neither the time nor the money to be the conspicuous consumer of useless gadgets. She shuns the suburbs, despite the benefits society tells her it gives her children. And she’s likely to live in a draughty loft in the Industrial section of the city where there’s plenty of room to work.
That’s the life chosen by three of Toronto’s most successful avant-garde artists, and it’s a remarkable development in Canadian art. It shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is. For though these three artists have dropped out of the social. category called “women,” they find themselves still plagued by this category in a new form: woman artist.
“When you say you’re an artist, men kind of look at you as though you’re the type who takes out her little canvas an Sundays and paints roses.” says Milly Ristvedt, “You know the first dealer I met in Toronto could only look at me and say. ‘I hear you’re a great legal secretary.'”
“I had a terrific hassle when I was studying at the New School,” says Eleanor Mackey. “I was marked as the “older woman hobbyist” type. I can remember being very aggressive The teachers were amazed when they realized I was serious and good.”
Carol Conde insists that women artists suffer hundreds of male put-downs. “People come to the house to see Karl’s work (sculptor Karl Beveridge is Carol’s husband, and then, as an afterthought, they ask to see mine. Well, it’s hard to know if that’s because his work is better, or if it’s became I’m a woman. In this show now I’m using cotton cloth as a medium. And damned if people don’t ask if it’s because I’m a woman and I sew.”
A society that perpetuates the image of women as helpmates and playmates undermines their confidence in working. Milly, Eleanor and Carol agree that the biggest hurdle in their creative lives has been developing work discipline and taking their art seriously.
When you realize how few women have rated mention in the art history texts, you know how tough it in to escape the myth that for a woman creativity begins and ends at home. Even today, there are at most a dozen major female artists in North America. Few woman believe themselves capable of producing anything important—except children. Thousands of women “take art” at recreation centers across the country, but the number of successful Canadian women artists can be counted on one hand.
“When I was In art school,” says Milly, “the first-year class was divided evenly between men and women. By the fourth year, men outnumbered women four to one. After school, when you had to work on your own, the women disappeared. They marry, help their husbands buy art and decorate their homes.”
Milly and Eleanor are both color painters who work on oversize canvases up to 20 feet long. Their art involves a lot of hard physical labor, as well as tough thinking. In the five years that Carol has considered herself a professional artist, her style has changed radically from hard-edge shaped canvas painting no recent ribbon constructions. She, possibly more than the others, sees the need for competitive innovation and pressure. For that reason, she and Karl plan to spend half years in New York and Toronto starting next September.
The problem of being married to an artist compounds the “woman artist” syndrome. “Karl often asks what would happen if I turn out to he a better artist than he. He thinks that If I don’t make it, it doesn’t matter became I can always fall back on being a woman and a mother. He has nothing to fall back on. But then neither do I. In my first marriage, I was just a wife and mother—but I always wanted to be an artist.”
“Men think that being a mother Is everything,” says Eleanor. “There are times when I’ve just wanted to run away from my family. My husband really understands me—but he’d have to be a god to understand my drive to be an artist.
“It’s perfectly respectable for male artists to free themselves of responsibilities. Many have left their wives and kids for that reason. My family has helped we to overcome that problem. But it makes me mad when the men artists look down on me because my studio happens to be at the same address as where my family lives—they don’t think I’m serious because I can’t spend all my evenings drinking at the Pilot.”
“Most of the men artists I know,” says Milly, “are supported by their wives who have to work in the most boring office jobs so their men ran create. Then these men tell me I don’t have to worry about my work because some guy is going to come along to support me and wash my socks. I don’t think it’s that easy.
“At least, I’m on my own feet. I know that when I’m doing secretarial work, it’s for me. Sometimes I work in offices for four months just to pay for three months’ painting. But I know I’m a painter. There’s no question in my mind.”
When a woman says that, she becomes an individual who perplexes both her male and female friends. They wonder what will become of this crazy woman who has dropped out of her proper place. Who will marry her? Or will her husband tolerate her? Or will her children be freaks?
“There are times when everything Is chaos.” says Eleanor. “The laundry isn’t getting done and the meals aren’t ready, I’m depressed and I can’t understand why my husband puts up with me. So he says, well, he likes me around.”