This Woman’s Work
For most of civilization (and even now), the question was never what women could do — it was what we were allowed to do. Make art, live alone, have children, don’t have children: A woman’s choices are often circumscribed by the era in which she is born, and then again by how tolerant, encouraging or generous the men in her life — beginning with her father — are. Poor women’s lives are circumscribed further; women marginalized because of their race, sexuality or ability, further still.
I suspect many women, in America and around the world, feel they’re in a state of whiplash as they’ve witnessed hard-won freedoms and rights become imperiled in recent years. I always say that history is not a line but a loop, and it’s been dismaying and frightening for many to watch as we tumble down the other side of the curve. Yet if being a woman means always looking backward — to remind us of where we were, what we must avoid and how our predecessors managed in their own difficult circumstances — it means looking forward, too, as part of the ongoing exercise of hope that is also intrinsic to womanhood.
For this issue, we asked 33 mid- and late-career female artists and creative people (the majority of them over 45) to identify a younger female artist who inspires them. It didn’t have to be someone from the same field or discipline; it didn’t even have to be someone they knew — it just had to be someone who gave them a sense of hope, and in whom they saw either their younger selves or, in some cases, the self they wish they had been. Many of these older artists faced overt sexism or discrimination (when she began her career in the 1960s, the 83-year-old writer Margaret Atwood was told, “Well, of course women can’t write”); their very presence, not to mention their accomplishments, is a testament to their perseverance — an undercelebrated but necessary quality in an artist’s life. I was struck as well by how many of these artists’ younger counterparts see the lives of those who picked them as models of self-possession and assuredness, even as the older artists themselves claim this wasn’t the case: “What I think we all saw in Margaret was confidence,” says the 34-year-old comedian Atsuko Okatsuka of the 54-year-old actress and comedian Margaret Cho. “I often wonder what it must feel like for her, knowing who she is since she was born.” But “if I go back and look at my comedy sets from the ’90s, my voice was all over the place,” Cho says (in a separate interview). “[Atsuko] has a strong sense of self that took me a long time to develop.”
Many of these women speak lovingly and movingly of the importance of mentorship — “Mentorship’s not a candy store; it’s a relationship,” says the 72-year-old playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith — which, it’s worth clarifying, is not the same as mothering. But we also talked to seven artistic mother-and-daughter groups, ones defined both by blood and, in the case of the writer and illustrator Sybil Lamb, 47, and the writer Imogen Binnie, 44, by kinship: trans women who found inspiration, comfort and understanding through each other’s work.
Artists, all artists, never stop searching for ways to live and ways to be, for lessons from other people’s lives — “Oh,” you think, “if I had her bravery, if I had her tenacity, if I had her industriousness, if I had her lack of self-consciousness, then who might I become? What might I be able to create?” History is a loop, and time is short. We’ll find instruction from whatever source we can, whether looking back or looking forward. The march goes on. — HANYA YANAGIHARA
At top: Katy Grannan and Yumeng Guo (Joan Baez and Lana Del Rey), Carolyn Drake (Marlee Matlin and Teyana Taylor), Alima Lee (Margaret Cho and Atsuko Okatsuka), Nick Perron-Siegel (Danai Gurira and Dominique Thorne), Hart Lëshkina (Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning), Chase Middleton (Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham), Flora Hanitijo (Anna Deavere Smith and Michela Marino Lerman) and Melody Melamed (Margaret Atwood and Mona Awad).
Covers, clockwise from top left: Chiuri and Xa: Photographed by Hannah Starkey. Chiuri and Xa wear Dior clothing. Baez and Del Rey: Photographed by Katy Grannan. Salt-N-Pepa and Rae: Photographed by Renee Cox. Styled by Ian Bradley. James wears a Vince dress, $425, neimanmarcus.com; Zana Bayne belt, $290, shop.zanabayne.com; Christian Louboutin boots, $1,495, (212) 396-1884; David Webb earrings, $62,000, necklace, $74,000, and cuff, $44,000, davidwebb.com; and Tabayer ring, $13,000, bergdorfgoodman.com. Rae wears a Proenza Schouler dress, $2,690, proenzaschouler.com; Stuart Weitzman sandals, $475, stuartweitzman.com; Lisa Eisner earrings, $3,000, lisaeisnerjewelry.com; Bulgari cuffs (from left), $27,000 and $17,100, bulgari.com; and her own ring. Denton wears a Versace dress, $3,475, versace.com; Bottega Veneta shoes, $1,600, bottegaveneta.com; and a Van Cleef & Arpels necklace, price on request, vancleefarpels.com. Tsang and Klein: Photographed by Delali Ayivi. Watts and Fanning: Photographed by Hart Lëshkina. Styled by Tess Herbert. Watts wears a Bottega Veneta dress, $6,600, and boots, price on request; and Ana Khouri earrings, price on request, anakhouri.com. Fanning wears a Bottega Veneta dress, $20,000. Cho and Okatsuka: Photographed by Kanya Iwana.
Digital production and design: Nancy Coleman, Danny DeBelius, Amy Fang, Chris Littlewood, Carla Valdivia Nakatani and Jess Vanam.