Film Analysis | Film Reviews | Massachusetts

The Instinct to Create

1 Mar , 2009  

Written by Marilyn D. Pennell | Posted by:

Marilyn Pennell recommends the documentary Who Does She Think She Is?, screening this month in Vermont at the Green Mountain Film Festival and Women’s Film Festival.

In Who Does She Think She Is?, the images and sounds on the screen are big, bold and brilliant, and they are all created by women artists. The group includes two sculptors, an actor, a painter, a drummer and a filmmaker. They range in age from 27 to 65 and come from all over America, but their passions and struggles show a unity of purpose and spirit.

Unfortunately, as a society, we do not honor women such as these or their work, in the same way that we honor the art created by men. Not only that, as a society we put these women artists into situations where they must make tough choices between and among their creations, most specifically their children and their art.

This is the premise of the compelling documentary, Who Does She Think She Is? directed by Pamela Tanner Boll, who lives in Massachusetts, and co-directed by Nancy C. Kennedy. Prior to this film, Tanner Boll helped produce four other documentaries, including the Academy Award-winning Born Into Brothels.

As Maye Torres, a sculptor from Carson, New Mexico, and one of the main characters in the film, says at the outset, “Art is the soul of any culture and art is about being human.”

And, as this film shows so poignantly, women artists must dig deeply into their souls to create meaningful lives for themselves and their children.

The struggle and conflicts facing female artists is clearly symbolized in Torres’s work, most significantly in her “open sculptures.” One of these sculptures depicts a one-armed woman. Torres says the piece is a metaphor for women doing things against all odds, “with one arm tied behind their backs.”

One would think that in these times of post feminism the issues related to the value of women’s work and their roles as mothers and caregivers have all been tidily resolved. However, as the five artists portrayed in the film speak about their efforts to succeed as mothers and artists, a compelling narrative emerges.

For example, Janis Wunderlich is a sculptor and mother of five from Columbus, Ohio, who creates intricately, detailed multicolored fantasy figurines. Some have two heads. Some are animals, some are men and some are a combination.

Wunderlich says the two-headed women she creates symbolize her own conflicts between art and parenting, “I feel as a parent I have a good side and a side that caters to my emotions… the second head represents a side that I don’t really like.”

Torres also talks about the conflicts she feels between her desire to create art and pressures from others to let it go. She notes in the film that “Lots of people were saying that I was selfish to continue” with art.

As these women’s lives show only too clearly, there is a personal as well as a social schism that still exists for many women in America today, including, but not limited to, women artists. However, the filmmakers go far beyond the personal to the political, the historical, and the spiritual aspects of women who make art and the role of the women artists in society by tracing back to ancient civilizations where men worshipped women in “goddess cultures” and where “women’s bodies manifested both the scared and the divine.”

As drummer Layne Redmond says in the film, in ancient cultures women’s bodies were honored because “they had the power to create human beings.” However, the power that was attributed to the feminine changed with the rise of organized religions, which focused “on one god who is male,” according to Redmond.

Experts on art and cultures also speak out in the film, addressing the contemporary art world where a “gendered system of values” perpetuates what art expert Maura Reilly of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, calls “the institutionalized sexism of the art world.”

“Art about women has been ghettoized,” says Courtney Martin, a professor at Hunter College.

Yet, this film is not didactic or polemical. It simply tells the stories of the artists and states some telling facts about women and the art world, such as this from a male member of the faculty at a prestigious art school: “We have 80 percent female students at the School of Visual Arts. But in the real world, we have 70 to 80 percent of male artists in galleries and museums.”

Audiences who see this film, however, will also enter a world where women are heeding the call to make art and who find tremendous pleasure and gratification in the process.

As singer and actor Angela Williams of Providence, Rhode Island says, “I did feel selfish at first.” However, as her journey proceeds, she also says that art helped her to discover the “power of living on purpose.”

Torres is even more emphatic in the film about her drive to create art. She says that there is “a strong connection between mothering and art” and that she “had to birth this art” just as she had birthed her children.

“I thought that I was going to die if I didn’t keep working in my studio,” she reveals at one point in the film.

Directors Boll and Kennedy have made an important film that reminds us that despite all odds, women artists are listening to their hearts and following paths which lead to more fulfilling lives. The directors also ask us as a society and a culture to reexamine what we truly value in terms of women and their children.

See this film and bring your sons, husbands, and fathers with you. Show them who “you think you are.”

See the film’s website:

See the film's website: