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D is for Diversity

‘Diversity’ has become something of a buzzword as has its usual companion ‘inclusion’ - with good reason. Reflecting back on my time at school it has struck me that so many of the texts I studied in literature were by men. In fact, Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is the only book by a female author I can recall studying, and black writers were a completely unknown quantity.

Undoubtedly our creative experience is impoverished if we do not experience a range of voices. Voices from different ethnicities, genders, social backgrounds and even life experiences (the world can look very different if you are short of money, for instance).

In the arenas of art and photography there was a recognition in the past that ‘the pram in the hall’ could be a blight on creativity. Despite that, there are female artists and photographers (to look at just one area of diversity) who have profoundly enriched my experience of art. I have highlighted a few below which are well worth exploring.

Frida Kahlo

(1907 - 1954)

Frida, now firmly embedded in the national curriculum but not on the radar in my 60s childhood, was a painter inspired by the naive folk art style of her native Mexico. She painted Mexican artifacts and the striking natural world of Mexico as well as many portraits and self-portraits. Her self-portraits are particularly well-known. Not only did she have to contend with racism and being a female artist at a less inclusive time, she was disabled after a terrible bus accident when she was 18. She suffered from chronic pain all her life and was unable to have children. She expressed this pain in her paintings. Her bold and vibrant colours reflect her passionate approach to life and her environment - she is not an artist you can feel neutral about. She knew about ‘girl power’ long before the phrase became common.

Georgia O’Keefe

(1887 - 1986)

A contemporary of Frida Kahlo’s, also bewitched by landscapes. Her sensual pictures of large flowers, her images of New York skyscrapers and the scenes of New Mexico all make her an artist worth investigating.

Mary Cassatt

(1844 - 1926)

Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania but lived most of her adult life in France where she befriended Edgar Degas. She exhibited with the impressionists. Mary expanded the subject matter of artists by painting women, both in their social lives and their private lives. She painted some touching portraits of women with their children.

Tracey Emin

(1963 - )

A confessional and multi disciplined artist who works with sculpture, film, painting and textiles, Tracey was once the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Young British Artists of the 1980’s. Her famous work entitled ‘My Bed’ split opinion and was radical in its day for its unflinching portrayal of a difficult time in her life. She later became a Royal Academician.

Fay Godwin

(1931 - 2005)

An artist of a different medium - photography. Interestingly, Fay found her way into photography through family snapshots in the 1960’s and had no formal training. She is known for her black and white photographs of landscapes. These reflect both her love of walking and her acute awareness of the ecological crisis we find ourselves in.

Eve Arnold

(1912 - 2012)

Eve Arnold described ‘curiosity’ as the word which drove her career. She was at home both with photographing intimate portraits of stars such as Marilyn Monroe and with a more documentary-style of photography. She began by studying photography under Brodovich, the art director at Harpers Bazaar. As well as believing women photojournalists were under-represented, she was also concerned about the need for empowerment. Her images of the civil rights and black power movements make her a worthy candidate for a blog about diversity. Eve Arnold was the first female member of the Magnum Agency, an internationally renowned photographic co-operative.

Vivian Maier

(1926 -2009)

Vivian, an American street photographer, took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, mostly of the people and architecture of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

Maier's photographs were unknown and unpublished in her lifetime so, poignantly, she was not recognised until after her death. Her life and work have been explored in several books and documentary films. Finding Vivian Maier (2013) is a good place to start to find out more about her.

Gertrude Jekyll

(1843 - 1932)

Although known mostly as a garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll was also a craftswoman, photographer, writer and artist. She is probably known best for her partnership with Edwin Lutyens, an architect and fellow member of the Arts and Crafts movement. Although she only lived until her late 40s, she created over 400 painterly, impressionistic gardens in the UK and abroad and influenced many others. Additionally, she wrote over 1000 articles! Gertrudehad a particular fondness for large herbaceous borders whose colour schemes ran from cold colours (white, blue) to hot colours (orange, red) and back to cold again. She remains influential to this day.

Barbara Hepworth

(1903 - 1975)

Barbara Hepworth was primarily a sculptor. In what was then a male-dominated world, she fought her way to a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art in London gaining a diploma there. With her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, she moved to St Ives just before the second world war and remained there for the rest of her life. You can still visit her studio and a beautiful garden adjacent to it full of her sculptures and complementary planting. Motherhood is a recurring theme in her work which exemplifies modernism. She juggled raising four children (almost single handedly) with producing sculptures considered some of the most enduring of the twentieth century.

"A woman artist", she argued, "is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) – one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one's mind.”

Clarice Cliff

(1899 - 1972)

Clarice Cliff’s fame and success in the 1930’s are hard to appreciate now but she was very much a pioneer in her day in her chosen field of ceramics. At that time there was no such thing as ‘career women’. As a young girl she used to visit her aunt who was a grade 1 hand painter in the pottery industry. From the age of 13 she began her own career in the potteries, and had the ability both to hand paint her designs and create the shapes of her pottery which distinguished her from other designers. One pottery factory owner recognised her talent and sent her to the Royal College of Art as well as, later, marrying her.

Her designs were full of colour, innovative and very much influenced by the Art Deco style. She remains highly collectable and the vivacity of her work resonates in her comment, “Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist”.

So all I can say is, “Thank you” to all the lady artists that have helped shape my creativity as an artist. I know that my creative side is from my mother’s side of my family - my Mum, and her Mum. I am grateful for being enabled and encouraged by them both.

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