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LADYFEST – What does it mean to be a woman in the Arts?

-Written by Jas Swilks

“Women in The Arts: What difference does it make?” was an afternoon of discussion and laughter hosted by LadyFest at Brisbane’s Zoo bar. Throughout the afternoon we were introduced to a group of amazingly creative, unique and passionate women who work across the Arts, including Green’s candidate/Bollywood dancer/writer Rachael Jacobs, musician Seja Vogel, prosthetic limb artist Priscilla Sutton, erotic writer Krissy Kneen, tattoo artist Aureole McAlpine and screenwriter Michelle Law. Leading the discussion panel was the vibrant and bubbly Marlin Othman from LadyFest.

The panel was a great mixture of inspiring advice, hilarity and honesty; delving into both the challenges and triumphs associated with being a woman in creative arts. Over the span of 2 hours, the six women shared deeply about their lives as female artists, and the choices which have lead them to their passions. We also discovered how their careers have been the result of both deliberate choice, chance stumbling and even romantic twists of fate!

IMG_0556“[My career] all started because I fell in love with a boy – it’s really cliché!” laughed Priscilla. “I started hanging out at gigs, pretending I could help, doing the door…really shitty things. After the love faded away – which was quite quickly – I found out that gigs were really fun. I started to manage bands, and ended up living in Tokyo…working with with Japanese bands.”

After years of working in event management, Priscilla came to a point where she decided it was time for a new direction. Having had elective surgery during this time to correct a bone issue in her foot, Priscilla soon found that she had an abundance of prosthetics (including her nude ‘date leg’ and some other more colourful designs) that she no longer used. It was from here that she came up with the idea to turn other people’s spare parts’ into artwork.

priscilla“I was cleaning out a cupboard at home when I pulled out a couple of legs I had which I couldn’t wear anymore. I thought, this is crazy… I need to channel my hoarding – or I’m going to end up on Hoarders!” she laughed.

“It started off with a thought that maybe I could give them to some of my friends who are artists…then I realised, if I’ve got this many legs in just a few years imagine how many other legs and arms are in people’s cupboards! And that’s where Spare Parts was born. To give parts of ourselves as amputees a second chance at life and to turn them into artwork.”

IMG_0554Meanwhile Lust For Life tattoo artist Aureole shared how she developed an interest in creative arts from an early age. Having grown up in New Zealand where tattooing was a natural part of her culture, it was at the age of 14 that Aureole took a serious interest in designing. She also discussed some of the stereotypes surrounding tattooing, and how she didn’t let these adversities phase her.

“There’s all these myths…like that you have to pay off all the bikies and all that hoo ha.”

“I’ve always thought: just follow your heart and you’ll be okay.”

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Having studied a Bachelor of Arts myself, I was excited to listen to other artistic women sharing their advice; and soon discovered that that there were some universal challenges we all face – both as women and creative beings. In particular, doubt.

IMG_0548“There is a lot of self-doubt that stops people who are worthy from contributing to the Arts,” explained Rachael.

“But you are capable and you do have it within you. Stand up every day, throw it down and say, ‘I am worthy’. It’s tough but you’ve got to go through that to get the glorious ending”.

I was touched to hear that, just like me, every one of these women had at some time in their lives struggled with their confidence – yet they continued to push on. Listening to their stories was particularly personal, as I often feel like this myself. Struggling between knowing that I was born to be a creative type, and yet constantly doubting if I have enough talent.

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However, as emotionally crippling as self-doubt can be, Michelle noted that it is also a very important part of being an artist.

“Everyone I’ve met who is great at what they do is constantly questioning themselves,” she admitted. “But if you don’t have self-doubt you’ll be a pretty shit artist”.

So, what are some of the positives of being a woman in the Arts?

“We’re more organised!” laughs Rachael.

“I’m the polar opposite,” admits Krissy. “I’m very unorganised. But I like the pace of not being a perfectionist, especially when I’m writing.”

For others such as Aureole and Seja, they shared how a need for perfectionism in their work has been both a blessing and a curse.

“This is a little bit of a generalisation, but Aureole and I were talking earlier about being quite introspective about our art. I think women worry a lot more about if we are pleasing our customers,” said Seja. 

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Alongside these emotional obstacles, there are also many other challenges that we face as aspiring female artists. Career versus motherhood, gender and racial pressures, sexual harassment, financial struggles, online trolling…these are just some of the many unique issues faced.

For Rachael Jacobs there have been many different challenges, from the gender and racial attacks associated with working in politics, to having to fight the cultural stereotypes of a traditional Indian family.

“I find it really interesting that most of the trolling on my page is sexually-based…calling you a whore or a slut. Anyone who thinks there’s no gender issue in politics, you need to take a long hard look at quite a few indicators that we’re dealing with,” she said. “The instant reaction from everyone is that you have to be really thick skinned…but I’m not. I find the race stuff particularly hurtful but I’ve never been able to pinpoint why.

“It is a shame, because you spend so much time deleting, deleting, deleting…when you could be spending your time talking about really amazing things!”

However with each adversity faced, Rachael has always made the choice to counter it with tenacity and grace.

 “My dad once told me, ‘If you’re going to do this, you better be good at it!’ I decided I would take that challenge and run with it!” she stated. “I’ve always taken great pride in flaunting my differences.”

IMG_0577Meanwhile Seja (who has played with Regurgitator) shared with us some of the hardships of being a female musician, which has also included being the target of harassment and sexism.

“Sometimes I think it went the opposite way to what people would expect,” she explained. “I would be at a festival and someone would get me in a headlock and be like ‘Yeah! Fucking ‘gurge!’. I’d have to remind them, ‘Ah, I am actually a girl,” she laughs.

Somewhat more soberly though, Seja admitted that she has also dealt with sexism and harassment on a more serious level.

“In the first Regurgitator show I played, there’s was this lyric ‘you can get what you need just get down on your knees’, and a guy in the audience pointed right at me.

“There was also another show I played with Regurgitator in Perth just this year, and there were 5 or 6 dudes that were drinking cans of rum and barking at me like a dog throughout the whole show. It was weird for me as a woman; at first I thought ‘oh maybe they’re just barking because they’re having a good time’, (laughs). But I don’t think they would have barked at the other guys. I felt they targeted me.”

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Passing the microphone over to Priscilla, the prosthetic artist explained that even in her line of work she has come across some rather disturbing online harassment. Although Priscilla can now tell these stories with a smile on her face, she admits it was at first quite confronting.

“Over the years I’ve gotten quite tough and I don’t take any crap anymore… Spare Parts really opened my eyes to a whole heap of fetishes that I had no idea about. When I started doing Spare Parts in 2010 I was really shocked at the graphic messages men would send me. Asking for photos and —” 

IMG_0615And what? we all cried. With some probing from Marlin and the audience, she divulged our curiosities…

“Well…” she began somewhat tentatively.

“It was all the things they’d like me to do with my stump.”

Ewww.

“I tell you what, I just want my stump to have a nice massage and a rest at the end of the day. It does not want to do anything else!”

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We all burst out laughing at this, trying not to think of the visuals that came to mind. 

“Great story – I definitely DID not know about that”, joked Marlin.

Although Priscilla is now able to joke about these experiences, it’s also somewhat sobering to realise that we live in a culture where harassment of women is such a norm; something which many male artists wouldn’t even have to think about. “I’m pretty sure men weren’t getting the same messages I was,” Priscilla noted.

So how can female artist’s deal with serious issues such as these?

For each of us, it’s very different. When it comes to giving advice to female musicians, Seja admits that she finds inspiration in strong women like Adalita Srsen from Magic Dirt.

“I remember when Adalita had a guy yell at her to get her tits out…and she just got rid of him. Like, she actually made him leave the venue! I just think, if someone is barking at you… just fucking get them out of there,” she stated, to which everyone applauded.

Meanwhile, Michelle noted that she tries to avoid becoming a target of online harassment by consciously making her social networking profiles as ‘de-sexualised’ as she can.

“It’s unsettling that I feel I have to do this – but with public profiles I try to desexualise myself,” she began. “I think it’s strange that I even have to consciously think like that, but I do make an effort not to seem like a target. I use twitter more as an outlet for jokes. When I do get targeted it generally is gender or race-based harassment, but the best thing to do is let it sit and not respond.”

Although things such as online-harassment are universal, the extent to which women are degraded on a daily basis (often solely on the basis of their gender or appearance) is something many men will rarely have to even consider. Anyone with half a brain can see the inequality of the situation, but still, it’s a legitimate problem we continue to deal with in 2013.

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The whole afternoon was an eye-opening, inspiring, and personal experience. It was brilliant for women and men in our community to be able to connect with others in the creative arts, and certainly opened our minds to the possibilities on offer to us as creative individuals. There was so much more from the event that I just wasn’t able to cover in this article, however here are five final pieces of advice on offer from the LadyFest panel discussion:

#1 – It takes time to hone your craft

Seja: “It took a long time to be comfortable playing live.”

Krissy: “You have to be really interested in writing from an early age. There’s not a lot of money involved for many writers…you have to be passionate.

“It’s wonderful these days to see that there are paths that writers can take and mentors available. 20 – 30 years ago there was no help available to others. I think that’s why there was a long period in the wilderness for me. I was writing book after book, almost getting published, entering competitions…at one point I thought to myself, what is it that people really respond to in my work?

“I realised that my dark and bitter and twisted literary books that I’d been writing all contained some sort of a dark, sexual heart…and people really responded to the sexuality of the books. So I decided to stop writing just more of the same and focused on writing work that was sexually-based. That really was a breakthrough for me.”

Rachael: “I came from a long line of accountants. I wasn’t encouraged from an early age to develop my [artistic] craft. Everything came backwards for me…”

#2 – Find something that is unique and meaningful to you

Priscilla:“I couldn’t believe how many [art pieces] sold! I thought it was weird, but there’s a real gap in the market for this sort of thing” she mused. “Last year I had an exhibition in London during the Paralympics, and an amazing woman who works for the UN in New York…came along and bought an artwork. Now this little girl’s leg sits on her desk, in the UN in New York. It makes me really proud that a little piece of spare parts has gone so far.”

Krissy: “Blindly and without really thinking about it, I went ahead with the ideas that I found interesting – which were always very oddly sexual. People really seemed to connect with that…and sexuality was such a fundamental part of my life.”

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#3 – Make use of government funding like art grants

Michelle:  “Government funding can be great, and is basically [open to] any arts practice. I’ve had a lot of luck with them. With the grant I applied for, you just had to show them that you’d graduated within a certain number of years, and that you’re actually making an artist of yourself. They’re happy to support people who are in the creative arts.”

#4 – Don’t give up! Have faith in yourself.

Priscilla: “You need faith…especially as an independent artist. No one is going to fight your battles for you. Treat your art as a hobby and enjoy it, rather than a money-making venture”.

#5 – Make time to help other creative people around you

Krissy: “I think it’s really important that when you get a leg up that you bring someone else up with you. If you see someone who’s struggling, and you’ve managed to get a foothold, don’t just run to the top. You do need to look behind you and help them up too. I think that’s vitally important.”

Seja: “I had someone who emailed me today with technical questions and even though I’ve been really busy at the moment I took the time to write exactly the advice that I would have liked to be given. If you ever in a position where people come up and ask you for advice it’s so important to give them the time of day and say thank you. There have been certain people I’ve talked to who haven’t done that, and it’s really important to say thanks.”

Priscilla: “I really agree. When booking events there are so many people who … are just shit (audience laughs). They’re just so, so bad…but I’ve always tried very hard not to say ‘you’re just shit’. There has to be something [positive]. And even if it’s just that they’re giving it a go, you can talk to them about that and give them some other positive ideas. I once sat down and had a chat to a guy about how he could develop himself as an artist, and he said ‘Look, I know I’m shit but thank you for giving me the time of day and actually listening to my music.’

“Even working in disability, people will write to me asking advice…At the end of the day they are coming to you as a fan, because they like your work.”

Aureole: “At least once a week I get an email from someone who wants to be an apprentice. At the moment I’m not taking on apprentices, but I will definitely guide them in the right direction. I also encourage them to embrace art, not just tattooing, because tattooing is a little bit narrow and there are so many other options. I’ll say ‘Hey, check out this life drawing’, or ‘this is fun, try this’. Or I will also recommend them onto another studio who may be hiring.”

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This was the second last event for the year from LadyFest Brisbane, and it has certainly been an incredible year full of music, art, and workshops across our city. They will be holding a farewell Rock n Roll BBQ on September 15th in the Valley, and all are welcome! If you’re free, come along for a beer and help celebrate with LadyFest. Check out their facebook event for more information!

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