Art Works Blog

Under the Influence... of Women Artists, #2

Holly Bass is a multidisciplinary performance and visual artist, writer, and director. A Cave Canem fellow, she has published poems in numerous journals and anthologies. In April of 2014, she will pilot a year-round creative writing and performance program for adjudicated youth in Washington, DC. In honor of Women's History Month, we asked Bass to share with us five women artists who have influenced her art practice and life as an artist. Here's what she had to say...

Gwendolyn Brooks is my first favorite poet. When I was 18 or 19, I sent her a small batch of my poems. She wrote back with handwritten comments and encouraging words, but more surprising the manila envelope had been returned twice by the post office. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she didn’t give up. That’s just how she was. Brooks once said of her first book, “I wanted to dazzle the critics.” (Or at least that’s how I recall the anecdote.)  I love how she was aware of her gifts and yet still so generous. I love that she listened to younger writers and that she consciously chose black community over prestige positioning. She’s the type of person I want to be when I grow up.
Sonia Sanchez is fierce in her compassion and in her literary rigor. From studying with her I learned that to be an excellent teacher is not so much about dispensing literary craft as it is about teaching human-ness. I will never forget workshopping a poem with “Mama Sonia” my first year at Cave Canem in 1997. How she expertly dismissed the first 90 percent of what I had written, and her delight upon arriving at a line worth saving. “There! Your poem begins there.” And it did. She also told us to make our beds every day, something else I haven’t forgotten.
Louise Bourgeois just seemed to get more and more badass the older she got. I love that. And the fact that she was working right up until the week before she died. She was prolific and far-ranging—hard sculptures, soft sculptures, hand-made books, drawings, prints, paintings, small works, mammoth works. The work is honest, sometimes whimsical, sometimes terrifying, striking, intense, beautiful, and grotesque. She mined her childhood traumas and memories, ignoring artistic fashions and fads, until the rest of the world finally caught up with her.
I first came across Valie Export’s work in the book Angry Women. The photographs blew me away as did the description of her performance actions. I finally saw video footage of one of her best known works, 1968’s Tap and Touch Cinema in 2012. The work came even more alive for me then. And although I tend not to use nudity in my own work, Export’s way of presenting the female body in ways that are both disarming and challenging to viewers is a technique I blatantly steal on a regular basis.
In her expansive body of work, Lorraine O’Grady pointedly challenges art world racism and sexism without disavowing her identity as woman and black and artist. I’m most enamored with her work from the 1980s, public interventions like Rivers, First Draft, which took place in Central Park and her critical persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. But my favorite piece is “Art Is…” from 1983. “You are the art,” she proclaimed, joyfully highlighting brown faces and bodies in (pre-gentrification) Harlem with gilt frames. Her work proves to me that community art is not lesser art and that black folks and the avant-garde go together like a hand in a white glove. 
Liked Holly's list? Check out our list of five artist sheroes by NEA Literature Fellow Maureen Seaton



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