On Role Models, International Women’s Day and Georgia O’Keefe

I always knew I wanted to be an artist.

Sure, if you look back at my early college transcripts you’ll see my major listed as “biology”, then “journalism”, then “anthropology”, then “education” -- and it would be obvious I was floundering. I was looking for a place to land and exist, while attempting to find the art practice that would carry me to where I wanted to be.

I remember the first time it hit me as more than a knee-jerk reaction to that question all adults ask anyone elbow height. (No shame, I’ve started asking kids what they want to be when they grow up too...) I was in the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe with my family, right after my freshmen year of college. I was standing in the main room, taking it all in when my dad suggested I purchase I sketchbook from the museum shop. I know it’s cliche, but that was a lightening bolt for me. I had always been accustomed to telling people I wanted to be an artist, and equally accustomed to their resulting chuckle because I was *always* drawing and painting -- but this was the first time I really, truthfully knew it for myself. I would purchase a sketchbook, because this meant something to me, something slid into place, a puzzle got the final piece.

I told my parents the next day expecting a kindly worded admonition; the “artists can’t support themselves” talk - but it went more along the lines of, “ Good. Finally. We knew it, now stop changing majors.”

And though there were a lot of other factors leading into that moment at the museum in Santa Fe, just being there in the presence of art from a woman was an absolute tipping point.

Growing up most of the art I was exposed to came from men. The major exhibits I saw, all from men. The books, papers, and studies I read were by and large from men and about men. And I had a really hard time inserting myself into that narrative; into how this could possibly play out for me. Granted that probably says a bit about the limitations of my imagination, but that is what was so supremely moving about my experience in the Georgia O’Keefe museum. It was all her. This whole building was hers. She wasn’t a traveling exhibit, she wasn’t sidenote in the alcove, or an afterthought in a paragraph. The sketchbook I purchased in the giftshop? Had her name embossed in the back. And right at that moment I knew I could try to make this work for me - provided I worked really hard at it.

And though this is just a snippet of an anecdotal moment, it does speak to a larger quandry found in not only the art world, but the world as a whole.

Role models are everything.

Having someone we can identify with, doing the thing we want to do is so incredibly powerful. Not to provide a template, or a way to reproduce their success, but as a subtle nod - that silent encouragement; “I did it, so can you.”

Today is International Women’s Day and I am grateful for all the strong, resilient women I’ve known and admired throughout my life. I’d encourage you to consider where you are in the world and who might look up to you; we all could use a little inspiration, a little nudge of hope and you just might be someone’s Georgia O’Keefe.

EH Sherman in the Studio