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Dangerous Women: Pamela Tanner Boll Talks about Creativity, Motherhood, and the World of Art

“Your heart is the driver for creative work. It’s your emotional life that gives you the will to express.”

-Pamela Tanner Boll


By Kim Nagy | Wild River Review

Poet, painter, teacher, former Wall-Street trader and mother to three growing sons, Pamela Tanner Boll once wondered how other mothers went bout re-entering the world of the fine arts.

“I had no book or gallery representation to show for 20 years of making arts in the cracks of my caregiving. I felt empty,” says Boll.

What began as a nagging question led Boll to some troubling research, conversations with other female artists and writers that grew into the core subject of Boll’s most recent film, Who Does She Think She Is?. Called an “engaging documentary” by The New York Times and “a call to arms” by the Village Voice, Who Does She Think She Is? explores the under-representation of mothers in the arts and other creative fields.

An Academy award-winning filmmaker (for documentary Born Into Brothels) with a down-to-earth grin and bright questioning eyes, Boll was born in Texas and grew up in West Virginia, where her mother’s parents started a small business after the Depression. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont before she pursued publishing and business in New York City, and then started a family.

To Boll, creativity has a vital place in the life of every person (man or woman) and yet she points out that we often mistake the mysterious life-giving force behind creativity with the hard “proof” of material success.

“The practice of, say, writing or singing or painting keeps you open, and is hugely beneficial,” says Boll, “no matter if it brings material wealth.” She continues” “The problem is that we can easily quantify the value of food and shelter and gas-material necessities. We have a marketplace that operates pretty well to exchange those things. However, when we get into art, which feeds not just our bodies but our souls, we focus on the art marketplace- and it becomes less about, “Does this feed my soul?” and more about “Who Is the next big thing?”

Boll doesn’t separate the inner drive towards creativity from the mysterious nature of love (“We’re fed by love. If we try to keep things separate, we’re diminished.”), which she discovered anew with the birth of each of her sons.

“After I had my sons, as soon as I began to write, the old craving, to put the world into color came alive again,” remembered Boll.

When I spoke with Boll, she was on a whirlwind screening Who Does She Think She Is?, and though she had been on a different plane most days of the week, she was warm and energetic about the overwhelming response to her film- and the emotions it provoked in so many women.

“The most surprising response is also the most common one- women from all walks of life, from all stages of the artistic path, speak to how moving and inspiring they find this film,” she says. “Over and over we hear how much women need to know that they are not alone in this need to express themselves. Over and over, women speak about wrestling with the notion of 'selfishness' in the pursuit of their goals, whether they be artistic, corporate, bake sale or community activism, women with children are very rarely free of the guilt that they are not being ‘good mothers.’”

Boll’s film makes the important point that developing an audience and real outlets for creative work- are also a vital part of an artist’s growth. And this is perhaps where females are most excluded, at this juncture of developing a legitimized venue for their work.

As whodoesshethinksheis.net notes about the five mothers (ranging in age from 25-65) featured in Who Does She Think She Is?: “It is not accolades they seek, but simply the radical opportunity to live whole.”

WRR: Was your mother an artist?

Tanner Boll: Well, she didn’t think so. I think she was like a lot of mothers from her generation. She was always looking out for our talents. The dark side was that she pushed us pretty hard. When she got to be older, I found out that she had been taking drawing classes in a local community class. She became head of the Art’s Center and did fundraising. So she never gave herself full permission but she was always involved.

My mother was a stay-at-home mother. I have two sisters and one brother. But I must say she was extremely involved on a civic and volunteer level. She actually became a mayor in the 80’s!

WRR: In your director’s statement, you state your admiration for the work of creative women like Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath- but you also say that their lives scared you. Does creativity take us to a place that is a little bit dangerous- for both men and women?

Tanner Boll: Here’s the thing. I think that most people who pursue the arts do so out of a need. I can’t remember who said it, but “art is the attempt to solve a problem.” A lot of people turn to expression to fulfill this need. Perhaps in the best of all worlds you find that you are not alone in that problem. You might be saying things that a lot of people actually feel. Yet, when you voice them you are making yourself vulnerable to attack. That’s what an artist must do.

WRR: You were 32 when you had your first child, and write that at that point the curious and emotional side of you, “the creative” roared back to life. Can you tell me a couple of stories from that time of your life?

Tanner Boll: First of all, I knew I wanted to be a mother. But I had absolutely no experience with children. I had my first child a month early and I absolutely fell in love. I of coursed loved my husband. But the love that I felt for this tiny baby was out of all bounds. I couldn’t believe that anything could be that wholly engaging. It was the scariest thing I had ever done. Up until that point, I could always move on. With a baby that was no longer true. It was a huge frightening responsibility.

At the same time, here was this extraordinary love. Very quickly after my first, I had two more sons. I have to say it was the hardest job I have ever done. I needed to sort through these conflicting emotions of deep love combined with fear and exhaustion.

I began to write very seriously about this. I needed to make sense of it. And I began to write a lot. But writing didn’t capture the whole picture so I began to paint.

It was an amazing gift. I was more open-hearted after my sons were born.


WRR: Tell me about the experience of meeting artist and mother Maye Torres, and how you went about choosing the rest of the women you featured in Who Does She Think She Is?

Tanner Boll: Well, I had a lot of different ideas when I first began. I worked with a friend of mine who was 16 years older than me, so in some ways I saw her as a wise older sister. She was the one who introduced me to Maye Torres, an incredible artist. At first, we were just going to do a film about Maye and I present it to the New Mexico Board of Education.

But after that, I thought that her story was bigger—and really every woman’s story. I began to think that I’d like to find women from different parts of the country, ethnic groups, and different economic levels for my film. It was very important to me to show that art is everywhere—it resides in so many different people—not just in the quote unquote talented.

I didn’t articulate those things right away—but I began finding women from all over the country. I followed my instincts. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to explode our presumptions about what kind of people could do art. And to explode the assumptions about economics and art because each of these women work full time at their craft. So I wanted to make that point. And then people started coming to me.

WRR: Who Does She Think She Is? points out that many successful creative women—Georgia O’Keefe, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Janis Joplin—had NO children. Can you talk a little bit more about your feelings on choices women need to make in order to pursue a life of creativity? In one interview, you say And we “create a dichotomy between work and family” but point out “the best work comes out of that loving presence we give where you’re really paying attention to those you love.” I’d love it if you could expand on this.

Tanner Boll: That’s one of my rock bottom believes and I try to live it. First of all, work and family are too often at odds in this society. People seem to believe that if you aren’t 100 percent productive all the time than you are not worth anything. Yet, we have a culture that also says family is really important. Traditionally, family has been the place where workers can go and rest. Yet, the people who are making the family happen are working really hard. Typically, it falls to the women to organize all the dinners, children’s schedules, to communicate with all the relatives, organize events, etc. It’s hard work, but the thing is it’s not considered work.

But the question you asked is about something a little different.

I know from my own experience that when you open your heart and truly attend to the people you love, you actually release energy, that allows you to work in other areas of your life. Work and family stop being at such odds with one another. It’s a magical thing, actually when you can give out your full attention—and it’s a great way to collect the richest material as an artist. It may seem harder and it’s certainly messier but for the men and women who pay attention to those clamoring voices at the end of the day, in the end they get so much back.

We’re fed by love. The multiplicity of our lives—is in the long run going to enrich our work.

Why is art so important in our culture?

People in the mainstream world don’t want to look at the shadow side of things. Artists understand the notion that things are ephemeral, which can be truly frightening. In a sense we have a culture that’s a bit more invested in comfort than in truth. But frankly when people live cocooned lives, they stop feeling. So they turn to stimulus. Or drink a lot. They get real busy—or depressed or medicate or hide in their business.

Often times, it is the children who are wise. We need to encourage that wisdom in every child and in ourselves—because children are open. It’s important to stay open as an adult too.

WRR: What would you say to critics like the following anonymous online commentator: “Bogus is the notion that female artists are discriminated against.” And I quote…”There’s a trend towards female curators and museum directors. Inexorably women will be the norm in art shortly. Women often make a conscious choice to raise families. This doesn’t make it discrimination. Perhaps natural selection. Good art, no matter what gender its creator, stands out. Combat ignorance. Not false issues.” What’s your response to the idea that women being discriminated in the arts is a “false issue”

Tanner Boll: A good question. The critic is right—more and more women become curators and museum directors. However, just because one is female, does not necessarily mean that they are feminists. Many many women who are entering previously all male domains feel, that, to be taken seriously, they must subscribe to that culture’s values.

The second point “women often make a conscious choice to raise families.” Well, so do men. But, no one is asking them to put their career on hold or to work part time. Men with children continue to work, continue to earn a living. Women forgo a salary for the internal satisfaction of raising good children. Nice. But, is it a “real” choice to either leave your child with a day care center where the caregivers are paid minimum wages…so no one can earn a salary or to “stay home” with a child, and earn nothing?

Good art, no matter what gender its creator, stands out. Yes and no. If one is raising a family and has most of the child care responsibilities, one cannot devote as much time and energy to one’s career. Women often make the “choice” to raise their families, then then or fifteen years down the road, enter back into the field. But, at that time, the field has changed and their name is no longer known. “Good Art” requires an audience which requires promotion, advertising, word of mouth. One’s “career” in art requires attending openings, studio events, and meeting possible patrons, which is all just as important to success, as one’s inherent talent.

2010.01.10_Wild_River_Review_Interior_3.jpgWRR: Writer and Film-maker, Tiffany Shlain talks about the growing importance of the internet for empowering women. How do you see this phenomenon playing out? How has the online community changed the landscape for women? 

Tanner Boll: The blogging community is made up of women. I read somewhere that the biggest and most active group of bloggers were stay at home mothers. They are connecting in cyberspace and perhaps this will make a difference. So far, though, I don’t see a lot of these bloggers commanding a salary.

WRR: I read that you also worked on Wall Street for many years. Tell me about your experience there?

Tanner Boll: I graduated from college in 1978. I went to New York City. I first thought that I would go into publishing and I wouldn’t have to face that scary blank page. But I went into publishing and ended up answering phones. My best friend said, ‘Let’s get your resume ready.’

I started talking to all of my friends. I really wanted to stop doing secretarial work. There was a commodity trading company looking for college graduates to run the business. A friend of mine worked there and they eventually decided I should be in the trading room. I was put in with a guy who had been there forever. And he didn’t feel like he needed an assistant. I was the only women and the youngest. They would talk dirty on the phone to their brokers. I made them very uncomfortable. Every time I asked a question they felt like I was challenging them. I was miserable.

A couple of my superiors said, “We want you to run the new business and let him think he is running the business.”

However, I did make some friends there. A few friends in the business were supportive. I took up smoking—and I’d go out with the boys—and go out drinking.

WRR: I want to turn to another film you co-produced—the Academy Award winning Born Into Brothels. This film was about the power (and limitations) of creativity—in this case photography—in the lives of children who lived in the red light district of Calcutta. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in this film and the experience of co-producing it.

Tanner Boll: I knew of the film through a friend, Geralyn White Dreyfous who was, at that time producing it. Geralyn told me that if I was interested in profiling women who were dedicating their lives to their art, I should meet Zana Briski who had spent seven years on and off living in the Red light district to teach these children photography. So, I went to New York and did meet her. She and her co-director, Ross Kaufmann were in the final stretch of editing the film for Sundance. I spent a day talking to them and then watched the film. The film was NOT going to be ready for Sundance, because they had run out of money.

So, I decided to help them find the money, finish the film and lo and behold, it won the Audience Award at Sundance. I saw how powerful this film was—it made people laugh, cry and it was about the possibility to change people’s lives through art and through dedicated caring. These are my themes. So, I put my own idea aside to help them promote their film. It was film school on the fly. I learned a lot, had fun and encountered a world of people who cared about social injustice and were using their art. They used film-making to make a difference. At the end of the year, I was in a much better position to make the film I cared so deeply about—a film about the necessity of women using their caring to impact more than their own families…

WRR: I’d love to hear a little about your next project, Global Moms: Life on the Edge?

Tanner Boll: Global Moms is about Iran. Justine Shapiro is the Director. I continue on as Producer, but the film has changed to be an encounter between an American mother and several families in Iran. The idea is that, despite politics, we are all the same and can “meet” around our children. We’ve had interest from television. I’m also producing a new film by Tiffany Shlain which is to be called Interconnected about how all of life is…interconnected. I think this will be a great film, done in Tiffany’s trademark witty and associative style. Life on the Edge, about Doctors Without Borders has been making the Festival circuit for this past year and is doing quite well.

WRR: What can “everyday” people do to buck the trend against discrimination in the creative arts—when the roots of a male-dominated system seem to run very deep.

Tanner Boll: The first step is moving beyond it. Write about it. Talk about it. The more that the conversation gets out into the public, all over the country—into the Heartland and every small town—the better. As much as possible we need to get these conversations going in ‘normal households’. The other thing that has to happen is that our values really need to shift because we cannot continue to sit by when 70% of the people living in the direst poverty are our women and children.

Women tend to be better at looking at the bigger picture. And we really need that point of view. We need to be more holistic—“everyone is connected” point of view. And we can’t just be talking to women about this. We need to bring men into the conversation. Men need to be given permission to be less aggressive, less angry, and they need it. And women need their respect.

This article was originally published on Wild River Review:   



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