Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Which would you choose: your Art or your Life?

Giant matchsticks flank the entrance of the Brett Whitely studio.  It’s a former t-shirt factory in Surrey Hills, near downtown Sydney

The other day I got an invitation to answer a survey for globetrotters like me, . “Give us some of your hard-won advice by women, for women aged 18-30,” it said. This should have some good questions, I thought. Then I scanned them. Disappointing. They were written for someone a generation older than me. Someone who felt they didn’t have many choices.

For example, Which do you believe is true?

* Women can have it all
* Women can’t have it all at once
* Women can’t have it all

Germaine Greer has written about women artists a century ago who abandoned their careers:

“…these women were faced with a choice which does not necessarily face a male painter…. The choice was between art and life. A male painter can have both. First of all, he’s allowed by the tradition to invest his esthetic sense in an external person who will be the muse, his love, or whatever, and who will marry him and — apart from fueling his imagination — wash his socks. He can have children, he can live in a house, he can eat three meals a day, he can have friends, he can have escapades. Women have nothing like that…There wasn’t one of those girls from the Slade [art scholarships] who, when the chips were down, decided that art was more important than life.”

My experience has been quite different. I would never, ever consider for a second the thought of giving up my career to support my partner’s. Would never have stayed with a man who didn’t respect my choices, and I once left someone because he called me a “mediocre artist” (he’s full of sycophantic praises these days though). My family disapproved of my choice to study painting, so I paid for my own BFA degree.

But no one becomes successful without a lot of support. And for male artists, it’s most often been the women in their lives:

Van Gogh would’ve been just another pale Dutch painter, his chunky French landscapes littering the back rooms of antique shops after his death, if it weren’t for his sister-in-law Johanna.

An important influence on Rodin’s work was his mistress Camille Claudel.

Brett Whiteley’s wife was an artist who sacrificed her career for his, though she had more talent than he did. Without her critiques he wouldn’t have succeeded as he did. The travel scholarship that bears his name was 100% funded by his mother.

My supporters have often been male: most of my collectors, my publisher, and collaborators. But this is changing, with more contacts on social media like Twitter, and LinkedIn, and a wider range of my work to be available over the next year, ideal for different wall-sizes and budgets. Last night I sent out a special edition of my newsletter to collectors. Within minutes, one had written back from the Middle East: “You are an inspiration!” He’s sent my work to his university-aged daughter in the past; she’s interested in pursuing art and film. My work has been a bridge between his interests and hers.

I never listened to people who said I had to choose between my goals with my art and with my life, whether they were my teachers, would-be gallerists, or lovers. Though I’ve some hard decisions to make in coming years, the binary of  Art vs. Life, “having it all” vs. “giving it up” is illusory. It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that, complicated with possibilities, not dead-ends. And it’s up to each of us to create our lives rather than have choices dictated to us.

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