Debunking the Artist Myth

In the opening scene of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” we see a poet, a musician and a philosopher with an artist in his spacious, window-illuminated garret, burning a manuscript for warmth and spending the rent money on libation and carousing. Although the story is set in 1830, such a romantic notion of the bohemian lifestyle continues.

How does the life and the studio of the real artist differ from the mythical images presented by The New York Times, the New Yorker and other media?

These are the questions asked by the Brainstormers in a site-specific installation titled “Real Time” at the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, Mabel Douglass Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, through Dec. 9.

”Many believe the ‘artist’ to be a self-destructive genius who spends each day in the studio caught up in the frenzy of inspiration, challenged by the extremes of addiction and poverty or the pressures of fame,” the Brainstormers say in their prospectus. “‘He’ is an outsider, free from the responsibilities of employment, relationships and the common aspects of daily living.”

Using public performance, exhibition, publication, the Internet and video, Brainstormers investigate topics ranging from power structures in the art world to gender inequity in contemporary museum and gallery exhibitions.    Founded in 2005, in response to statistics showing that while graduate art students are 70 percent female, exhibiting artists in commercial galleries and museums are 70 percent male, and women’s artwork sells for one-third of what men’s artwork sells for, current active members of the group are Maria Dumlao, Elaine Kaufmann and Danielle Mysliwiec. Graduates of the Hunter College MFA Studio Art Program, all three maintain individual studio practices and actively exhibit work internationally.

In order to debunk the artist myth and convey a more accurate portrait — 87 percent of artists actually have jobs they go to, according to their research — Brainstormers invited hundreds of contemporary artists across the country to share the intimate details of their daily lives. Artists contributed their daily records and studio photographs anonymously.

In the three rooms of the gallery space at Mabel Douglass Library, daily records are presented on shelving at desk height. On the opposite walls, 4-by-6-inch photographs of artists’ studios are displayed. In addition, there are video monitors with live feed from Brainstormers’ three studios, and there is a monitor showing “Real Time” Twitter feed.

Some artists fit an extraordinary amount into a day: One did 10 drawings, cardio training at the gym, wrote a short story, read Erich Fromm, met with a Chelsea gallery, went to the post office to mail a studio residency application, printed a resume, thought about her ex, sang and ate chocolate. Another artist started the day pulling the top off maple sap barrels, started a fire in the sugar shack, cut firewood, expanded the garden, planned out the tool shed/chicken coop, cut a stump, ate beets and greens, then cooked down the sap for maple brew.

Others go into the details of their ablutions, many accountings are as personal as the contents of a person’s handbag, and lots are funny. Some, such as dealing with a schizophrenic son’s psychotic episodes and treatment, are heartbreaking.

Since the artists are anonymous, so are their locations, but there are references to Beacon, N.Y., Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

On flower-printed stationery, one gives an account of her diaper-changing and nursing schedule, inclusive of such detail as whether the child fed on the right or left breast. In the corner is scrawled “in car I call midwife about bleeding. She says I’m over-doing it and have to rest more. How?!”

In fact, child care consumes many of these artists. When I try to schedule an interview with the Brainstormers, it takes a few days because they have to make child care arrangements. In a Skype interview — they live in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — I remark how this is a radical departure from the feminism of my era, when women had to be hush-hush about children and child care if they wanted to succeed in business, or the business of art.

The Brainstormers remind me that this is the mythical image of artists they want to debunk. Says Ms. Kaufmann: “Many, many artists, female and male, choose to have children. Many of the participating artists’ daily records reflect the challenges of parenting and art making. It’s integral to so many artists’ lives and we wanted it to come through in the show.

”I do think there continue to be career risks for female artists who have children just as there are for female artists who identify themselves as feminists,” continues Ms. Kauffman. “Stories of so-and-so getting dropped from a gallery after she had a baby haven’t gone away. We’ve imagined each project in a way that is consistent with the belief that feminism isn’t only for women. We’ve made sure that men are visible participants in each project and this show includes many male participants.”

One of the artists writes: (after a day of caring for baby) “take a hit of pot with hubby … surf the web and boil a sweet potato for baby for tomorrow. I am going to the studio alone and leaving him with hubby.”

The studio shots remind you that hardly any artists work out of Martha Stewart or Metropolitan Home-type environments. Some may have windows, some have desks and shelves with art supplies lined up, or books neatly stacked, or even artwork hung gallery style, but most are chaotic with projects in process. In fact many aren’t whole rooms, but an improvised space in the corner of a home, or a corner of a table. If you’re looking for organizational and design ideas for your studio space, you’re unlikely to find it here.

”Artist studios are often empty during the day,” says Ms. Mysliwiec. “We go to our studios at night.”

‘Real Time,’ a site-specific installation by the Brainstormers, is on view at The Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, a program of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art, in partnership with the Rutgers University Libraries, through December 9 in the galleries at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Gallery hours Monday through Friday 9 a.m- 4:30 p.m. and weekends by appointment.

This story originally appeared in The Princeton Packet.

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