Female artists find recognition in a new documentary

Quick — name five women artists.

OK, any lesbian worth her toaster oven knows Georgia O’Keeffe and, thanks to Salma Hayek and an acclaimed movie, we know Frida Kahlo.

I came up with Judy Chicago, because I saw her exhibit when it was on tour, and Henriette Ronner-Knip, whom I adore because she adores cats. (This one looks like the kitty of my heart, Freckles, who died a few years ago.)

Of course, we can’t forget Jodi Lerner. What? You mean The L Word isn’t real life? Dang. All right.

Shirley Ann Thomson, an Oklahoma artist whose work I know because my family’s regular Sunday afternoon activity when I was little was going to the Gilcrease Museum to look at Western art. (I wore my holster with my church dress. Yet, my parents were shocked to learn that I’m a lesbian. But I digress.) Thomson was the first female Western artist I knew.

My guess is that most of you can name five female artists fairly easily, too. But no one around here claims to be typical. Most Americans are hard-pressed to name even one woman artist — an untenable situation to Pamela Tanner Boll, director of the new documentary Who Does She Think She Is?

Boll introduces us to five women whose work challenges the assumption that the life of an artist must be a solitary one. Boll explains in an interview with Women & Hollywood:

Even though I wrote stories and painted and had exhibits and readings — the work was always done in the cracks of family life. And I felt guilty, torn, never in the right place … so I set out to see how other women had handled this.

The five artists Boll features in Who Does She Think She Is? are fascinating women with rich lives and remarkable talent. One of the most fascinating artists to me is Mayuma Oda, who was born in Japan after the Vietnam War, when girls were taught to be subservient. She was able to develop her interest in art by studying traditional Japanese fabric dying and learning to make colorful custom kimonos. Her goddess prints, such as “Mamala the Surfrider,” reflect the colors she used in her early training.

At the other end of the spectrum, background-wise at least, is Janis Wunderlich, a Mormon mother of five who sculpts dark, semi-gruesome figures while her children play in her studio. This one is called “Family Time.”

Who Does She Think She Is? reveals the not-so-latent misogyny in the art world, which is numerically dominated by women, despite their obscurity. The statistics in the film are disheartening but not surprising: 80 percent of students in art schools are women, but only 20 percent of working artists are female. Only 4 percent of the new shows at the Museum of Modern art in New York are by women. Only three of the 30 artists in ArtReview’s 2008 Power 100 are women.

Perhaps the dilemma is summarized best in the film’s press release:

The film invites us to consider both ancient legacies of women worshipped as cultural muses and more modern times where most people can’t even make a handful of female artists.

Hopefully, Who Does She Think She Is? is a step toward changing that.

Can you name five female artists without Googling? What is your perception of women in the art world? What draws you to certain art and artists?