An Army of Productive Sisterhood

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The Weight of Absence

Baltimore Ladies Draw (BLD) is an Endeavor to Modernize Creative Female Camaraderie by Rachel Bone

I’m sitting with Rachel Beckman and Marlena Murtagh, sipping sparkling summer drinks at a Charles Village cafe. As we chat, Beckman (a full time artist and crafter) and Murtagh (a high school photography teacher, with a part time craft business) pull art supplies and drawing pads out of bags, arranging them on the table in front of us.

The two MICA alumni are the brains behind the rebelliously wholesome phenomenon that is Baltimore Ladies Draw. The event is a monthly series of informal get-togethers inviting “woman identifying” artists to join picnic-style gatherings in rotating locations. The idea is to sketch or craft together, support each other, and just talk.

At this moment in history, that last part feels so overwhelmingly important, that there ought to be a trophy in their hands. Sure, we’re all doing a lot of collective shouting on social media, but we aren’t always getting together as humans. The ability to communicate in person is imperative to healthy communities.

A lot of us get our best talking done when we’re doing something with our hands to lighten the burden of eye contact or physical attention. Beckman and Murtagh spent few months testing that theory on a small group of friends, then made their events public. Using only social media to advertise, their first public meet up filled every chair at The Bun Shop in Mt Vernon. An army of productive sisterhood was formed.

Passed by are the glory days of the quilting bee, but Baltimore Ladies Draw (BLD) is an endeavor to modernize that same creative camaraderie amongst women.

Why the hell aren’t smart, creative women sitting together in large numbers, talking to each other and making things? It turns out they are.

BMore Art: How did Baltimore Ladies Draw begin?

Rachel Beckman (RB): After graduating MICA, we were looking for excuses to get groups of friends together to make things. We saw some illustrators in NYC had formed a collective called “Ladies Drawing Night.” [The NYC group meets up in apartments, often with a a guest artist, and draws together] and we loved the idea. We wanted to find ways of getting together and forming bonds with other woman artists in Baltimore.

We were talking to our friend, Juliana Brion, who is a successful illustrator based here in Baltimore. She asked “Where are all the really cool illustrators in Baltimore? Where do all the local artists hang out?”

Marlena Murtagh (MM): [BLD] is somewhere to come and meet other people in the art world. It’s great to feel like we are that place for women who are new to Baltimore. We were talking to our friend, Juliana Brion, who is a successful illustrator based here in Baltimore. She asked “Where are all the really cool illustrators in Baltimore? Where do all the local artists hang out?”

RB: We were like… “What if that’s us? What if we were the cool local people?” So we took the initiative, and started the events, hoping there were more like minded people, and there were. The intent was to make meaningful connections with women. The friendships feel authentic and normal. The group is low commitment, no one has to be there, but everyone is so gracious. Often people will come once, and hug us when they leave. That connection feels so genuine, even if they never show up again.

Describe what happens at an event. Are they structured or casual?

RB: Basically, we show up ten minutes early, I spread my drawing supplies to make it obvious something’s happening, and post on social media that we’re there. People slowly show up with all different supplies (not just drawing, but crafting too). It usually lasts three hours, until we all have to pee or get hungry.

MM: Our last event was in Mt Vernon park, and the rain plan there is The Walters. We usually have about a dozen people. Usually we have at least one person new, and they come right up and introduce themselves. It’s great. Sometimes we do gentle prompts, when people request that, but otherwise it’s casual.

I love the image of women making creative work together. Women in every culture seem to find ways of socializing while being productive. In US history, we have ladies sewing circles, quilting bees, knitting clubs… Can we draw similarities between those and BLD? Is that something you thought about?

RB: I definitely did. I used to organize something called “Crafternoons” with friends. Just an excuse to get all my friends to hang out in one place. They brought weaving, knitting, drawing…and it was so nice to have a reason to be sitting around together. I find I’m better at conversation when I’m doing something with my hands, so I liked that. Crafternoons fizzled out because it was only friends, and they all ended up working weekends, or having kids, or moving away.

MM: The idea was in the back of my head, but I didn’t know how it would play out or how important it would be until we started experiencing it. Now I definitely see it. We also like that in the winter, we can use our events to help promote a local business by using it as our venue.

So much of the history of craft in our country belongs to women, but so much credit in the history of fine art has been given to men. Do you identify with one more than the other, or think we need to differentiate between the two?

MM: I think we both have strong options on that.

RB: My senior year at MICA, Glenn Adamson [curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, at the time] was visiting, and I was chosen for a critique. I was thrilled… but he hated me. The way he spoke, I could tell he came in with a bias, and was willfully drawing connections between my work [fibers based] and traditional textiles. I carried that bitterness for a long time. Then Marlena and I started getting together and making work, and we found joy making work that made us happy to make. We realized “why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?”

I want to make work that’s meaningful. Don’t get me wrong, but…

MM: It’s better work when it’s what you want to make. When it means something to you.

RB: It’s hard to make work without ego. I think a lot about Glenn Adamson. He didn’t destroy me, or stop me from weaving, but I took a pause and wondered if my work was too basic.

But my goal is not to be in the Victoria and Albert museum. I want to make work because it’s what I’m compelled to do. Everyone should.

On the other hand, I walk into Target and they have weaving kits. the weaver in me is so glad it’s accessible to all. But the fine artist in me is pissed, at the cheapening of my medium. Then that makes me feel pretentious. but what can you do? I am trained in weaving, and I know how hard good quality craft is.

MM: I feel similarly. I’ve taught drawing, painting, photo, illustration, all ages. Ceramics. fiber.

What I try to convey to students, and what I want to take to heart, is whatever you’re making is art, and it is precious. It’s all following your passion, and your drive. If you try to hard to place a distinction, you’re missing the point of making.

RB: everyone has an audience. there’s one for everything. even if it’s just you. and that’s so ok. that doesn’t make your work more or less. People get so wrapped up in the title of artist, and are afraid to call themselves that.

If you happen to enjoy playing tennis, but aren’t a tennis pro, you can still say you’re a tennis player. 

RB: EXACTLY! Everybody calm down!

BA: You’ve made a safe space for women to form new friendships. You both run small businesses selling your work. When thinking about empowering women, and the leadership roles women take on, tell me your reaction to phrases like “Girl Boss.” Do you find being singled out for your gender  in that way empowering, or patronizing?

(both groan)

RB: If I like it, I’m going to support a woman-owned business no matter what, but that term is a turnoff. I don’t think there needs to be that qualifier. You’re a boss. there doesn’t need to be a qualifier. It makes me think of wonder woman. Did you see that? She had to prove herself to all those WWII Men!

Girl Boss sounds patronizing, and infantilizing. Maybe it’s a cultural thing…It feels counter to the mission to feel repulsed by it.

MM: Yeah, but I don’t wanna be called a girl boss, like, ever. Maybe it is a cultural thing and what young women need right now. Constantly I have to remind my high school students (all girls) they are leaders. Women aren’t raised that way. Maybe some of us still need that term to feel counted, and legitimate.

RB: Maybe it’s more about the women coming up behind us. They still need to be told.

MM: My mom was breadwinner at our house. She was told not to go to college, but she did and was successful. I had a strong role model in that way. But even so, when someone says “doctor,” or “fire fighter”… I think of a man first. I just do.

So maybe we still need language. But maybe there’s a better way to do it, because the term “Girl Boss” isn’t the best. We just need it until we come up with something better.

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