Today I celebrated International Women’s Day by taking part in artist Melissa Vogley Woods’ first drop-in workshop at the Riffe Gallery. Anyone familiar with Melissa’s work, from her videos (e.g Boxed) or her paintings (e.g. Consequences), would instantly know that these workshops would be messy, tantalizing, thoughtful and inspirational.
Planned in coordination with the exhibition I curated Come Along With Me, Melissa has developed a series of six sessions on Wednesday lunchtimes that combine her own practice as an artist and teacher with the work in the exhibition. Here is the schedule, with each workshop running from 11am-1pm:
March 8: Poetic text and collage
March 15: Folded book making
March 22: Interactive mail art
March 29: Personal narrative tree project
April 5: Stitched book binding workshop
April 12: Narrative-based collage project
In the workshop today, Melissa asked the participants to combine key words that were generated from engaging with 2-3 artist’s works, mixed with discussions of metaphor and my own brief account of the exhibition and then brought together in a collage process, printed and pasted black and white photocopied reproductions of the work with snatches of colored paper. The experience was simply incredible for all involved, but especially for me, as the curator of the exhibition, as it not only made me look and think about the work of Come Along With Me in a totally new way (that is, not as completed, organized art works, but as starting points for new practices and conversations). But it also reminded me of a key aspect in the early planning of the exhibition as a whole.
When coming up with the ideas at the heart of Come Along With Me, I was obsessed by the connection between two women – Eva Hesse and Shirley Jackson – and how I wanted the exhibition to somehow bring their stories along with those of my own work on ancient ethical handbooks and contemporary feminist debates. Let me explain.
I curated Come Along With Me to expand my interests how ancient ethical handbooks and guides were written out of the lived experiences of the philosophers who compiled them and were set to engage their audiences with dynamic and persuasive ‘guides’ for their lives. I wanted to map this ancient philosophical phenomenon onto a contemporary art context, and so during my studio visits, I asked the artists how their artworks were not only created from the artist’s life and experiences, but, like the philosophical handbooks, also communicate life lessons for their audiences to follow. As part of my explanation of the themes of the exhibition, during these same studio visits, I would relate the life stories, experiences and creative works of two incredible women working in the mid-twentieth century: the artist Eva Hesse and the writer Shirley Jackson.
During her trip the Germany in 1964-5, with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, Hesse experienced a crisis in her own art, abandoning painting but not yet transitioned to becoming the maker of objects for which she would become renowned. During this period, recorded in her diaries and agendas, she rails against the domestic constraints imposed upon her by married life, while at the same time experimenting with a series of drawings that involved the interplay of arrows and boxes.
At the same time, Hesse was not only reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, but also the novels and short-fiction of the American writer Shirley Jackson. Famed for her shocking 1948 story ‘The Lottery’, as well as her uncanny gothic novels, Jackson’s last work, written in the same years that Hesse was in Germany, was the unfinished and posthumously published novel Come Along With Me. (Here is the collection of the same name in artist Dan Jian’s kitchen – the first artist who I did a studio visit with, covering Epictetus and alongside examples of Hesse’s work).
The story follows a woman who, when her husband (described as a ‘terrible painter’) dies, proceeds to pack up her house, erase her name and catch the first train out of town. She then rents a room in a house and starts leading séances, at which point we discover that while she was married she suppressed her ability to commune with the dead, but now, ironically, her husband was among their number!
I loved the serendipity of the connection between Hesse and Jackson – imagining Jackson writing what would be her final work about an eccentric woman’s new found freedom (from her dreaded painter husband) while Hesse was reading her in Germany, as she broke from from her painting work (and her oppressive marriage) to blaze a new trail.
It was out of the stories and work of these two women that the overt feminism of the exhibition emerged. This feminism is not merely apparent in the simple fact of the ratio of female to male artists (14:4), but also in how I understood both Hesse and Jackson (and by extension the artists in Come Along With Me) to be challenging two entrenched misogynistic stereotypes. First, the idea that women artists are somehow making work as a form of personal therapy out of the material of their lives, leaving the polemic interventions in society to male artists. Second, the idea of ‘mansplaining’, whereby men occupy the position of bestowing their wisdom and life-lessons on the passive, female listener.
To return to Melissa’s workshop, her role as an artist and an educator, leading the group through the poetic and creative processes of making their unique collages, bringing words, image and colour all together, while at the same time telling stories, explaining concepts and exuding care and enthusiasm, all of these aspects of Melissa’s workshop brought me straight back to why I curated this exhibition in the first place, back to Hesse and Jackson.
While, as a Classicist, I am committed to the seed idea of the ancient ethical guides, I am also excited by how Melissa’s expansions of and interventions in the exhibition demonstrate practical, thoughtful and lasting lessons in feminist action. Working with Melissa today made me think what it would have been like to have been a student or a follower of Leontium the Epicurean or Hipparchia the Cynic? I would even go so far as comparing her workshop today to the experience that Plato describes Socrates having with Diotima in the Symposium (Melissa does have a recent print series called Profane Love)! I am grateful to Riffe director Mary Gray for inviting Melissa Vogley Woods to lead these workshops. They are dynamic machines at the heart of the exhibition, blending the themes and works of Come Along With Me and I cannot wait to learn more and more from each and every one of them. I encourage you all to come along with her too!