Why the women of Abstract Expressionism still matter

     In the spirit of Women’s History Month, Artworks has invited guest blogger Charis Lillene Fleshner to write a brief blog post about Joan Mitchell, a woman artist who made a name for herself as a second generation abstract expressionist painter and printmaker. Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago, IL in 1925 and died in France in 1992. Although much of her career took place in France, she leaves a legacy as a major player in the American Abstract Expressionist movement. 

     Charis Lillene Fleshner is a mixed media collage artist currently working towards her MFA in painting and drawing at the University of New Mexico. Before starting her MFA, Charis earned an MA in art and design from the University of Northern Colorado, studying abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell using a/r/tography research methodology and assisting student teachers in the art education program. Before starting graduate studies, Charis earned her BFA in art education from University of North Texas and spent 7 happy but exhausting years teaching elementary art. Charis loves teaching art, snowy days, mountains, coffee, baking, hiking, and Goober cat, the best studio assistant cat ever. View her artwork at charismakesart.com.

Charis Lillene Fleshner

 

For my May 2015 M.A. thesis exhibition at Artworks Loveland, I had studied and sought inspiration from the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell.  I found myself drawn to Joan Mitchell not only because her work takes my breath away, but especially because she possessed eidetic memory and synesthesia.  Eidetic memory is almost like a photographic memory but you vividly remember incidents and memories from life, like a movie in your head. Synesthesia means a person’s senses are wired in such a way that they intertwine more than the average person’s.  Mitchell could literally see sounds in color.  Describing her painting process, it was said that “a sort of peacefulness came over her as she started working, a kind of silence.  I felt in her manner of working something like a soloist beginning a piece by mentally emptying herself.” As an artist myself, I can relate to this emptying.  There are issues, thoughts, feelings, struggles that as a human, and further, a woman, that I empty into my work.

     Now as a MFA student at the University of New Mexico, I often hear that the abstract expressionism ship has sailed already and that the artist’s mark simply isn’t enough anymore.  My professors are pushing me to grow and push myself, which I appreciate.  I often think to myself, however, that we take the breakthroughs of the abstract expressionist women for granted.  They aimed, not to be great women painters, but great painters, challenging limitations that the male dominated painting field presented them with.

     In the fiercely competitive world that is art, and also in tough critiques of my work in the MFA program, I often find myself thinking that my ideas are “silly” and feel self-conscious.  I cannot separate emotions, perceptions, and personal experiences from my work…and don’t see myself changing this anytime soon.  I still find inspiration and strength in Joan Mitchell’s words: “I use the past to make my pictures, and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every lover I’ve ever had- every friend- nothing closed out.  It’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it- the dreams- and paint it.” All of me- the joy, the a pain, the silliness, the love- it belongs in my work. In a world that often feels cold, calculated, and full of obstacles, I’m thankful for the women of abstract expressionism for opening doors for me, for being vulnerable enough to empty themselves into their work, and for striving to be excellent artists above all else.

 

Joan Mitchell, Sunflower III, 1969, oil on canvas