Thursday, 16 November 2017


I had the privilege of attending a fine arts high school where I majored in visual arts.

My marks were fairly consistent until grade 11 when a new teacher shifted the focus of our study from technical skills to conceptual work.  

This teacher didn’t care how I drew something but why I drew it? Why was I using a pencil instead of a pen? Why that paper size? Why that subject matter? What was the motivation, the reason behind the piece?

I had nothing. No answer. At least none that seemed depthy enough to satisfy him. 

I felt lost. I had no clue what to make anymore and it showed. 

My grades plummeted. 

Then one day, mid-semester (while nearly-failing my major) I took note of the other artist in my house and inspiration hit.  

This artist had been creating work in my presence my whole life, though primarily at night. She had a designated room for it, straight across the hallway from my bedroom. I would often wake up to the sounds of her shuffling, tinkering, and stitching, well past midnight.  

I just never recognized what she was doing as art. 

A powerhouse business woman by day, my mother was (and still is) a skillful artist by night. She is a seamstress, embroiderer, crocheter, quilter... basically anything-'er' in the fabric arts. She does it all proficiently and with grace. It’s her talent, her gift. Something I’d never thought of as anything other than being hers, an intrinsic part of what made up my mother.

I had never in all of my visual arts studies heard that any of what she did was considered to be ‘art’. I’d only ever heard it referred to as a ‘craft’ or ‘hobby’. I couldn’t help but notice though, that this seemed inaccurate, insulting even. There was so much similarity in the skills she was displaying, to those that I was being trained in at school; the mastery of colour, composition, and line. 

I thought perhaps I had found something here. Using this medium, I had at least the start of an answer to my teacher’s question of why? My mother could teach me, that was why. My mother was my reason. 

I went looking for other artists using this medium and discovered a whole women’s history I had not (yet) been taught. I was introduced to the feminist art movement of the late 1960s and set on a path towards artists such as Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman. I couldn’t believe that in all my schooling thus far, I’d never even heard of these women. 

I was artistically invigorated by this new knowledge of my gender’s history and its ties to textiles, of the tensions in general surrounding what is considered to be ‘art’ vs ‘craft’ vs ‘trade’, of this categorizing of ‘women’s work’ through the sexual division of labor and the debates around its perceived value (or lack thereof) in the art world. My work shifted in reaction to all of this. My ‘why’s became more weighted and subsequently my grades increased.

Grades aside however, my teacher, (although he shattered my confidence for a time) did my art and sense of self a great service. His demand for ‘why’ resulted in a deeper appreciation and understanding of my mother, her artistry, her skill and it opened me to the start of what would become a life-long, on-going education in, and questioning of the politics surrounding gender roles in our society.

He may not have been my favorite art teacher but he was certainly the most influential.

- J

*J, I had a similar experience with regards to my mother's writing. - M

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© M&J
Maira Gall