Okay. He didn’t say it exactly like that. This is my concise title of a discussion that went on for several minutes. We had just met on holiday in a sweet little cabin in the Highlands. Discussions turned to ‘what do you do’ basically. I mentioned my illustration work and teaching Art History. He then said I didn’t seem the type to do the latter. He didn’t mean it in a rude or unkind way. He was just a little surprised.
There are some very good things about growing up in Nebraska (and many very bad such as rattle snakes and tornados but thankfully not all wrapped up in one giant grotesque thing…although that might make for a terribly good horror flick). I was never told what I should like. Not really. There was space, lots of space, to figure out who you were, go to the library and pick up Steinbeck and a Vivaldi record, wonder what they were all about, the photos on the front enough to draw you in. Many of the kids in my school were into sports. I tried volleyball, tennis, middle distance running and was crap at all of them. That really didn’t matter too much as we were all there to have fun, be curious about the world and pick up an after school and weekend job working at Pizza Hut. Okay. This seems very specific to me but many of us had similar stories. Sure, some kids had Pepe jeans, or Guess tops or ripped up shoes or clearly bought all of their clothes as Walmart of thrift stores. There was still freedom to carve out your own identity and that was cool. Social media wasn’t around to tell you you weren’t good enough. It was pretty freeing.
When I entered my Liberal Arts Institution, the world became a bit broader and expanded out on all sides. It was here that I discovered I really liked Art History. I was such a nerd about it. I aced my exams and became a tutor (helping others to prepare for their exams). It was the storytelling that grabbed me. I have little interest in history (what?!) but if you can tie that into what the artists were doing at the time, I will totally follow the trail. There are great examples of perseverance, courage, overcoming obstacles, heartache and love. Do you know who encouraged the popularity of oil pastels? Matisse was mocked way back then but now we love him. Who was Berthe Morisot and why isn’t she as well known as Claude Monet?
What I found our recently through my own reading, is that Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a bit of a dick. I’m currently researching information for my upcoming Art History and Wine chat, all focused on Suzanne Valadon. You can see her in the image above, embraced by a man sporting a beard style that is currently popular in these parts.
“Though he gave women a beguiling appearance in his paintings, and gave charm to those who had none, he generally took no pleasure in their conversation. With a few exceptions, he only liked women if they were susceptible to becoming his models.” George Rivière. Oh Renoir. It’s such a good thing that Valadon wriggled out of the tight embrace and went off to become an artist in her own right.
I like Valadon for so many reasons. She became a single mother at age 17, working hard in various jobs to make ends meet, watching the artists from one side of the easel then finding her way to the position as artist behind her own easel. It’s interesting that she went from The Observed to The Oberserver (not the newspaper. You know what I mean).
So I ask you, who is this story for? When I hear people talking about History of Art or presenting History of Art they generally are not people from a working class background. Art is for everyone. These stories aren’t for a select few. I’m a huge fan of Grayson Perry as he throws History of Art into many of his presentations. The past informs his present. His art school during the pandemic was a happy place for this household to tune into. It was accessible to my seven year old and to both my partner and I.
This Saturday, September 4, in my Art History and Wine class we will learn about the astonishing Suzanne Valadon. For our project we will create our own silhouette in a frame with a groovy patterned background for pizazz. Everyone is absolutely welcome… especially those of you who were told you were bad at art in school (why do teachers do this?!?!?!) or if you haven’t picked up a drawing pencil in years. This class is for you. You can book your tickets through the Birchwood Art Studios Website.