Updated: Sep 18, 2020
Artists make work. It’s what we do. We do it whether the people who have the money and opportunities to dish out want the work we make or not. We have to.
It’s really, really hard. It doesn’t have to be that hard.
In 1928 Virginia Wolf wrote the essays that formed the basis of A Room of One’s Own. In it she argues that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". She invented a character, Shakespeare’s brilliant sister Judith who was denied any opportunity to develop and apply her gifts and eventually committed suicide. There have always been exceptions, often the daughters of male painters including Artemisia Gentileschi and the fictional Marianne in the recent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Without male allies it has been fiendishly difficult for women to carve out careers, although perhaps lots of wonderful things that never saw the light of day were going on behind closed doors. Griselda Pollock argues that many practicing women artists were simply ignored while their male contemporaries became celebrities. Mention abstract expressionism and you think of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock – not Elaine De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Perle Fine … and the list goes on. The patriarchy is systemic and runs across all disciplines as we know all too well. Writers have fared better, perhaps because writing doesn’t require much space or expensive materials although you do need time to think and let your thoughts roam freely.
So, as I said, the lucky ones can give ourselves permission to do our work anyway, whether anybody pays us or takes any notice. But it’s really, really hard. It doesn’t have to be that hard.
In 1979 after years juggling painting with being a single mother, working in a hospital kitchen and political activism, I was awarded a bursary of £2000 by Southern Arts. That was more money than I had ever seen in my life. The first thing I did was spend about three hundred pounds on a washing machine. I loved that washing machine. No more hours fishing around for change, trudging up the road carrying black bin liners full of dirty laundry, sitting there watching it go around and around and then finding more coins for the drier, folding and walking several blocks back home. (Obviously I had never been able to afford a service wash). It was a release from drudgery, not just the time I spent doing it but the time I spent thinking I ought to do it and I gratefully spent those hours painting. Around that time, a male artist I was friendly with, came to congratulate me and ask how I planned to spend the money. I pointed proudly at the washing machine. He was genuinely horrified and accused me of misusing public funds.
“Well who does your washing?” I asked.
“My girlfriend”, he replied. I rested my case.
I bought a cheap plane ticket to New York, slept on someone’s floor and walked around MOMA and all the little galleries and it blew my mind. Back home, I quit my job and spent the rest of the year concentrating on my own work – two grand went a very long way back then.
There are material benefits to getting a grant to buy you a washing machine, materials, time, whatever you feel you need but there is also the intangible benefit of being seen. Working alone can literally drive you crazy, constantly treading that lonely and difficult line between self-sustaining vanity and crushing feelings of doubt. Some real, external validation of your practice is like a hand reaching out to hold yours for a bit of your journey. And we all need that.
Penny Woolcock is primarily but not exclusively a filmmaker making feature films, television documentaries and fiction. She has directed operas, on film and on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the English National Opera in London and is also a practicing artist.
You can find more information and connect with her via her website pennywoolcock.com.