Atlanta artist Deanna Sirlin had one female art teacher in high school and then never again, not through her many years of college and grad school. It's a dearth of institutional female mentorship, influence, and lineage that Sirlin seeks to remedy by meeting and profiling eight living female artists, the ones that have been most influential and inspiring in her own career, in her new book She's Got What It Takes.
Sirlin, an established and accomplished visual artist herself, is also an arts writer, a former contributor to Creative Loafing, and now founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning arts blog the Arts Section. As a writer, Sirlin dispenses with the broad pronouncements, technical jargon, and forced cataloging and categorization that we often associate with art criticism. She always observes, reacts, reflects, and writes as an artist. In the book, she describes her first encounter with the work of sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard this way: "I felt the work in my body before I really saw it with my eyes ... I felt immediately as though the air had been sucked out of my lungs." Words are not for classifying the aesthetic experience, but for stabbing at the inarticulable immensity of it. There's a wide-eyed, almost newborn openness in her responses and a forthright daring in her descriptions. She speaks of not just wanting to touch the surface of a Joan Snyder painting but to somehow reach into its interior. Later she encapsulates the strange balance of toughness and sweetness in the painter's work by drawing comparisons to Mallomars cookies and atmospheric humidity.
Sirlin visits each of the artists in person, most often in the setting of home studio. There are lots of warm welcomes and friendly smiles, and artists are referred to by their first names throughout. Some readers might long for Sirlin to encounter an unwelcoming, unfriendly, or stern sensei. But the closest she comes are the abrupt, riddle-like answers of painter Jennifer Bartlett: "When I asked about how she begins a work, she said, 'I begin the work.' What sizes do you work in? 'Small, medium, and large.'"
Sirlin has a practical approach in examining the ways in which biography, medium, and personality act to inform each other and ultimately to inform artistic style. It's somewhat surprising then that Sirlin's chapter on ceramicist Betty Woodman doesn't consider the suicide of her daughter, renowned photographer Francesca Woodman. I imagine empathy, which is among the writer's many strengths, led to a choice not to delve into such painful subject matter, either in the interview or in the essay itself. But Francesca's current position as one of the most influential and written about contemporary female artists, as well as her sad end, may have merited some contemplation in this context.
Sirlin isn't primarily seeking to come up with all-encompassing conclusions or broad pronouncements about feminism or the unique challenges facing women artists. She's Got What It Takes is essentially eight smaller conversations forming a larger one: Sirlin seeks a consultation with the adepts and the oracles, and she finds only sphinxes. They smile sweetly, answer her questions articulately, often beautifully, but they can't say which is the best road to take. Sirln describes how Rydingsvard begins one of their talks: "She tells me exactly what I do not want to hear: 'This does not get any easier.'"
She's Got What It Takes by Deanna Sirlin. Charta. $37.50. 122 pp.