You grew up in Oregon and Nebraska. What was that like? How did it influence your desire to be an artist?
Well I lived in Oregon twice growing up, and Missouri for a few years as well. Most of my upbringing was in Omaha, perhaps twelve or so homes/apartments total. My upbringing was the foundation for myself and art, so it in fact impacts it quite a lot, in ways I really can’t even express, remember or understand. But perhaps here I can start with this fact—moving frequently—kept me on my toes, taught me to see and understand ways of living differently. I was also raised with foster children and foreign exchange students. My parents are from opposite ends of the United States, and my extended family has always been spread around the states as well, so constantly seeing different ways of living made me recognize and accept different perspectives. I’ve always been an introvert, always listening and seeing. As both of my parents are creative in their own ways, as well, I learned to define “artist” broadly. My brother was often lauded the “talented artist” growing up, drawing clever comic strips and caricatures. I actually fell into theatre and loved it, starting my own “theatre club” in elementary, which I directed for a few years. In high school my shyness took over, I didn’t even want to draw in front of people, but I enjoyed journalism, and sewing, where “coolness” or “being the best” didn’t take precedence. Maybe it was all in my head. Anyway, the actual lands of Oregon, Nebraska and Missouri, I can’t actually articulate their environmental impact on me any more than my traveling anywhere. It has been more the people and direct experiences—perhaps though, the Midwest instilled in me a strong work ethic—which, if you’ve lived anywhere else, you will then appreciate. And, there is nothing like the Oregon beach, the coolness, the breeze, the free feeling it brings and back down to earth.
Who were the artists you admired when you first started making art?
Well, way back when I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was Anna Sui. I loved her quirky, dark designs—culturally inspired and beautiful for being edgy. When I read about Marcel Duchamp in high school art history class, I fell in love with the whole Dada art movement (or non-art, effectively). When I switched to being an art major in college, I was really inspired by Jim Dine who is considered part of the “Neo-Dada” movement, but I didn’t think technicalities. I loved his expressive line quality, his personification of robes, hearts and tools. I still do. I also admired Alice Neel, her very real and patchy portraits of her friends and family, not prettified, just existent. I’ve always loved the expressionists, too. Oskar Kokoschka was one of my favorites who played with the female body, as were Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse. (Of course here I’m talking purely aesthetically, not of their personalities or personal lives.) Different artists impact me now more specifically, but those were the artists I looked to from the start. Quite honestly, since women are notoriously skipped over in art history books I did not learn of many women in art until I began doing the work myself! I never was a huge fan of Georgia O’Keeffe until recently (perhaps because in eighth grade my teacher had us try to draw a flower like her and I was so frustrated mine turned out to look like a pink chewed up piece of gum), or Judy Chicago even. My parents had a “Women in Art” coffee table book, and perhaps a Mary Cassatt print on the wall, growing up, but I didn’t really appreciate that until later. After undergrad and when I came back to drawing, Omaha based artist Wanda Ewing was (and continues to be) a huge inspiration for me artistically and personally (see my writing about her on Les Femmes Folles here).
How do you start a new series—with a theme, an image, a question or with a material, a technique, a color? Or something else?
With the collaborative work I’m doing with you, that starts with reading the poetry! J I suppose each series is different and depends on what is going on with my life personally, and what art supplies I have on hand. With my self-portrait series I did in college, I don’t know if I knew I was doing that. It just ended up being what I drew over and over, before I was assigned to do one. I was my natural subject since I guess I was also “finding myself” in a matter of speaking. After my hiatus and having babies, I came back drawing my babies over and over.
Yearning to get outside of baby-mode for a bit and try to almost re-find my Self and my Own Body, my next series doing body prints was another form of self-portraits. I came to this after doing some art-modeling and seeing an exhibit of Yves Klein’s “Anthopometries” series. I used my children’s finger paint and whatever paper I had, and went at it. This was also the same time I started my journal Les Femmes Folles, interviewing women in art, as I enjoyed hearing about other women’s work and their finding their way, I began to find my own. With this first series I call “Voice” (after the group exhibit I co-curated with Megan Loudon Sanders) I used some of their quotes and texted them onto my body prints to put another layer on the series. Upon the first exhibit of this series, I found more people querying about my role as mother and how my artwork might impact this, rather than the work itself. Thus was born my next series “What Will Her Kids Think?” again with body prints and text from famous and infamous women artists who are mothers about this very issue.
My children were growing as well. I would color and paint with them. I became interested in their very gendered imagery from their children’s books, as well as their lovely, carefree brush strokes and color choices. Again, I used what I had and began drawing figures on the many “leftover”/ “recycle-pile” pages.
Most recently with this next collaboration with you for Leave of Absence, I began with your poetry on the topic of trees. I knew I wanted to utilize body prints but in a different way—more twisted and more abstracted parts of the body and maybe some leaf-prints as well. I knew I wanted to also incorporate some of my children’s playful imagery too. So, once again, I began with what I had—taking stock of my paper, paint, and pages from my kids’ “recycle art” pile. I found paper that would work, and laid out the colors of paint I had, and went out in the yard quick to find some interesting leaves with my kids, and just painted and printed the whole pad of 30 pages. With these and with the pile of kids’ art, I sift thru them over and over to see in them—where a figure might lie, or text, or another small illustration to add to it.
I find the “use what I have” helps me focus—as you know, Madeline, I start many works at once, leave them, start others, and keep coming back, changing, many times until they are done. So having just a certain kind of paper and media, helps me focus just a little bit, enough to get an idea formed and out into space. So I suppose, all of that having been said, a new series starts with an image (body) and then with the material.
You’re starting a masters program in art history at the University of West Virginia with a teaching assistantship, correct? How do you anticipate teaching art history will impact your work?
Tenfold. It will help me with interviews like this, at the very least—ha! As one of the professors said to me, I have all of these ideas and projects, and this will help me understand and articulate them much better. In college, I minored in art history (and English) but really only touched the surface of what I’d really like to dig into—women in art, feminist art movements, modern art, art about the body—and how they did it all (theory/methodology). I am so excited (and nervous!) to dig into the books and inner workings of artists I have never uncovered before, to seek more inspirations and find new ideas and hopefully share them with others as well—continuing the spirit of Les Femmes Folles in a bigger, broader way.
How does motherhood inspire your work? Do you create art with your children? What’s that like?
Inevitably. I am so fortunate to have healthy, happy, supportive kids and husband, and I am still alive. I am so lucky to be able to practice my art while being a mother. It helps me make and create by not having time. It makes me appreciate it when I do. It brings me down to earth and around it—further enhancing my understanding and empathy for humanity, I’d like to think (most of the time). It makes me think of the future (with this next series about environment for instance), and stick to the present (process).
Yes, I create art with them, most of it just playful and process-oriented, but sometimes something comes of it, as I discussed above. Basically, it’s on the fly; what should we paint on today? Yesterday we found some rocks to paint on, the other day they painted on every one of their toy trucks and cars and examined each of their tire tracks. Sometimes it’s just coloring books or a piece of scrap paper in my purse. At the park, my daughter likes to gather things and create “sculptures” out of sticks, rocks, leaves, whatever she finds. Sometimes I’ll get out some toys in the corner of my studio so I can get a few things done, or let them work with my pastels on the floor. It works for a few minutes but mostly they like to see what I’m doing!
I am so thankful to be able to practice my art, do what I love, and see it from their point of view. These crazy little monkeys. Too, I hope they see part of what I do intrinsically in a feminist fashion—appreciating and accepting femininity and the female form, and me being a strong (when I can) woman doing what she loves. I recently read this quote by Maya Angelou: “I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” Says it perfectly; I think of this while I work and aspire to it. So yes, motherhood is a constant. It would be hard to separate these living beings I am literally a part of, and am responsible for their well-being’s.
Were you ever scared to experiment in art?
Oh yes, definitely. In college, I only used charcoal for the longest time, as I was afraid color would ruin my work. I would draw and erase for hours the same line with charcoal. Then when a professor “insisted”, I would only use 1-2 colors per piece. Then in another class, we “had” to use our whole palette, and mine turned into a mess, and after that I think I just sort of let it go. That is perhaps why I love the body prints, they’re just (mostly) uncontrolled expressions in paint. I still get that hesitation with drawing though, each stage I get worried I’m going to ruin it if I go further. I still love black and lots of white. With pencil I let it all out, as I love erasing and seeing the lines underneath. But it’s different with pen and paint (when I’m hand painting). Usually when I’m drawing with pen or paintbrush in hand, I just have to take a deep breath and pull it out.
What do you think is at stake when people make art that challenges notions about the female form?
Everything and nothing. This is such a big question! Women have been utilizing the female form for eons but only recently (within past 50-60 years) has their work been brought to light (and still not very brightened light). I get asked “why don’t you use the male form in your work?” and right now, I just am not drawn to create work about the male form (but actually perhaps in the near future)—but maybe that is because I have seen so many nude females in art history, the subject is ingrained in us. Maybe, on this same note, I have seen so many nude females depicted in art history by male artists, I want to contribute alongside other women artists, to show our own perspective of our own bodies. Art plays a major role in history and defining and describing our culture, and also by challenging current and past conventions. Thankfully, artists like Lorna Simpson, Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneeman, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Hanna Wilke, Michalene Thomas and Wanda Ewing have used the nude female form to take on issues of identity, race, sex and class. With all of the negative imagery of the female form in media, add-to, the quieted and cloaked-over women-defined female form, alternative views are necessary to create a feminist, accepting world for women—as we are women by our bodies first.
With two young children, is it difficult to balance family life with making art?
Oh sure, “how do we do it all?” or whatever. There isn’t really “balance” just being and doing. Sometimes I get obsessed with a project or idea and I can’t focus when I’m present with the kids. Sometimes when I’m blocked artistically I’ll endlessly sit at my studio table looking at pictures of my kids or just play with them in the studio. But I figure, if at least I get one line drawn, one paragraph written or chapter read, I did something. And I try to make moments count with family, as well, sometimes blending the two. Everyone has to balance so we all make those choices, I suppose, though it is different when other’s lives’ are at stake, whether children, elderly or other loved ones. Again, thankfully I have healthy and supportive children and husband. Still, at times, it can be a guilt-game, either way.
What is inspiring you these days?
Along with your poetry for this upcoming project, fresh air. Though I don’t think about living in Nebraska necessarily impacting me thru its plains, living in West Virginia seems to thru its hills. When I was growing up, I dreamed of being a fashion designer living in New York with a flat and a garden on the roof. I never thought I’d be living on two acres in the hills of West Virginia with two children and a husband J. But now that I’m here I feel it suits me—I’m a bit rough, gritty (not to mention of course I love my family), and the hills constantly remind me of how small I am in the world. Really, I am still alive; why is that? Why am I so lucky? I am thinking; what artwork am I really supposed to be creating, what projects am I meant to be doing? I look at the trees and breathe in each moment, my kids learning to ride bikes, my husband painting the house, pause, and wonder.
How are you trying to get better as an artist?
Going to graduate school, for one. Visiting art shows, reading about and interviewing other artists, listening to people’s critiques (getting reviewed!) and I suppose, just keeping at it!
Number of art pieces you own: I have no idea! Maybe 20-30 (this does not count my own, and does count small pieces).
Number of art pieces you admire: ? Infinite!
Ways you promote and serve other artists: All right let’s toot my own horn some more! My journal, of course, Les Femmes Folles, promotes artists of all genre/media (poets, performers, activitsts however you define) and the Les Femmes Folles Books promotes writers and artists via the anthologies, and the series of collaborative books that begun with our collaboration, Intimates and Fools (stay tuned for more!). I curate exhibits, readings and other events. I write reviews and articles for other publications of visual art exhibits, projects and news, and book reviews, exclusively (as of late) art and books by women. I’m constantly pitching story ideas to new publications about art and writing by women. I would like to do more though.
Where you spend your art earnings: That’s a laugh, isn’t it. The money is already spent on its frame! Any art earnings are spent on the gas to get to the gallery, or future art supplies, or lunch for the family, or a cocktail afterwards. As for LFF Books, I do donate a portion of the proceeds to the University of Nebraska-Omaha Wanda Ewing Scholarship Fund, to honor my late friend, mentor, stellar artist and inspiration behind Les Femmes Folles. (Donate at nufoundation.org.)
Your artist wish: Just one? Ha. I don’t know, perhaps that art would be more of a mainstream thing like football—then we can really make a difference—I guess on top of that, that women’s perspectives seen through the art with which is on the front page regularly, would make a major difference with respect to women (and thus men) in everyday life. Could you imagine (most) people reading about (and thus perhaps appreciating/taking part in) non-violent expression every day? Dreamworld.
Residence: West Virginia
Job: Artist, Editor, Writer
Education: BA, University Nebraska-Lincoln; MPA, University Nebraska-Omaha
Bio: Sally Deskins is an artist, writer, mother, wife and feminist enthusiast. She is a Teaching Assistant in the Art History Graduate Program at West Virginia University. Deskins’ art explores womanhood, motherhood and the body via body-prints, drawing and text from her life and others’. Her work has been exhibited in Omaha, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Ohio and Chicago; and published in Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, and Painters & Poets. She has curated exhibitions, readings and performances centered on women’s perspective and the body. Her writing has been published internationally. She is founding editor of LES FEMMES FOLLES an organization supporting women in art. She has published three LES FEMMES FOLLES anthologies of art and writing. Her first illustrated book Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, was published in 2014 by Les Femmes Folles Books. She is currently working on her second collaborative book, Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection. She is also currently exhibiting in a group show at Taylor Books’ Annex Gallery in Charleston thru July 31; and will be exhibiting a solo exhibit at Future Tenant Gallery in Pittsburgh in August.