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Who Does She Think She Is?

Documentary, panel explore women successfully navigating the mother/artist divide

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The work of Janis Wunderlich as seen in Who Does She Think She Is?

Who Does She Think She Is

Directed by Pamela Tanner Boll

Screens at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson March 25 at 7:30 p.m.

About halfway through director Pamela Tanner Boll’s documentary Who Does She Think She Is?, musical actress Angela Williams says something so ordinary that its profundity takes a few moments to knock you off your feet. Boll introduces Williams as a Providence, R.I., mother of two girls and a co-pastor with her husband at their church, where she works with the choir. Only after seeing a musical did Williams get the idea to try professional singing and acting herself, and after winning a few roles through auditions, she says something that sounds like a light bulb going off inside of her: “I began to understand the power of doing something on purpose.”

It’s a moment that captures what Boll’s Who does well. An exploration of women navigating the sometimes contentious societal line that separates mother from artist, Boll’s documentary follows five women—New Mexico-based sculptor Maye Torres, Ohio-based sculptor Janis Wunderlich, Massachusetts-based painter Camille Musser, Hawaii-based artist Mayumi Oda, and Williams—who have, to varying degrees, successfully navigated the path of being both an artist and a mother in a cultural climate that has often asked women to choose one over the other. In interviews with scholars and through a few unfortunate comments from the men in these women’s lives, Boll presents a situation in which it hasn’t always been easy for women to be both. Footage from a 1981 Bill Moyers television news program runs down lists of famous—and childless—women artists who, it suggests, had to choose art over motherhood.

“It’s not an either/or,” says Leslie King-Hammond, MICA’s graduate dean emeritus and the founding director of the institute’s Center for Race and Culture. She will moderate a panel discussion about art and motherhood following the screening of Who Does She Think She Is? this week at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson that features fellow artist/mothers Ellen Burchenal, Rain Pryor, Edna Emmet, and Najwa Al Amin.

“Ironically, in past histories, women saw their lives as either/or because I think there was a lot of social pressure applied and there were certain urgencies to which people felt they had to bend toward,” King-Hammond continues during a phone interview. “I think nowadays, especially in the advent of the women’s movement and the feminist issues that have risen to the fore, women feel as men do—that this is a life and I need to figure out how to negotiate all those things that mediate and give meaning to my life.”

Here King-Hammond echoes Williams’ sagacity above; what’s striking in Who are all the social roadblocks that try to conspire to make the artist-mother bridge so difficult. It’s here that Boll stumbles a bit, as her efforts to give that situation a rich context feels a tad rushed. She cursorily attempts to chronicle the sidelining of women as the gatekeepers to information in indigenous cosmologies and rushes into women’s underrepresentation in Occidental art history. Both are pertinent discussions, but she moves so quickly that it becomes a stream of frustrating stats and figures. Interviews with some members of the always fabulous Guerilla Girls provide some much-needed passion for the intellectual argument, but what makes the artist/mother divide unique doesn’t feel all that different from the gender gap in the workforce, salaries, and all those other inexplicable contemporary male/female imbalances.

Much more compelling are the profiled women’s individual stories, and Wunderlich, in particular, clings to the brain. The petite, bespectacled, short-haired Mormon mother of five at first glance looks like any other suburban mom. In interviews Wunderlich runs down her usual day, which includes an extensive list of family maintenance that is every wife/mother’s life. She then mentions the short time she spends in her home studio, and when Boll finally cuts to her sculpture, it’s almost shocking: Wunderlich creates arresting animal/human figures of strikingly and intensely dark psychological complexity. These aren’t the hobbyist creations of somebody who does something crafty in her spare time; these are the serious forces of an artist who has to get something out of her head.

“I think basically what we’re going to talk about is how does a woman negotiate between an artist, a mother, a lover, a wife, a teacher, and still stay true to herself,” King-Hammond says of Friday’s panel discussion. “I think we’re also going to talk about what are some of the strategies of how to navigate those difficult waters.

“And it’s going to be a very individual approach,” she continues. “There will be no one singular answer. I often tell artists and my students there’s no magic bullet. Sorry, just doesn’t exist. OK, so what works for you? There are ways—this is doable. It will be nontraditional. It will be atypical. It may be anomalistic. It may have its paradoxes and enigmas. And there is no quote, end quote, norm to it. You have to find your own norm. That means you have to find your own center of gravity in the midst of the madness.” ■

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