Panelists discuss women’s evolving role in the arts and media at Mt. Airy Art Garage

“I come from a long line of feminists – or, as they used to be called, ‘pushy women’,'” said Mt. Airy Art Garage’s (MAAG) resident quilter, Sarah Bond, at MAAG’s Sunday afternoon discussion panel in honor of International Women’s Day.

MAAG co-founders Arleen Olshan and Linda Slodki set a welcoming, informal tone for an event titled “Women in the Media and the Arts,” a conversation that explored women’s past, present and future roles in creative fields.

Instead of a table for the panelists to sit behind, a group of about thirty people – speakers and their audience – sat in a large circle of chairs.

Panelist Janet Mason, poet and author of Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, was “thrilled” to attend, saying, “I feel like the [feminist] community is not as connected as it used to be.”

Mason wondered aloud if women artists suffer marginalization in the art and media fields.

“Yes,” she concluded – a feeling filmmaker panelist Nadine Patterson confirmed with statistics from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media revealing that for every 4.8 men working behind the camera in the film industry, there is only one woman.

NewsWorks’ Jeanette Woods, also a member of the panel, added that women are often underrepresented at the top levels of media and PR organizations as well, which affects young female professionals seeking role models and mentors in their fields.

Olshan, who has been an artist and custom leatherworker for over 50 years, pointed to a dearth of female instructors at contemporary art schools, even though at least half of the modern student body is now female.

But Mason, who described coming out as a feminist and then as a lesbian in the 1980s, urged her peers not to be discouraged by a lack of representation.

“It’s important to keep getting our work out there,” she said.

Other panelists spoke to racial divides in the women’s movement. Nathea Lea, who with a long career in arts administration and cultural work is currently the managing director of Kùlú Mèlé African Dance & Drum Ensemble, spoke to the experience of African American women in the sixties and seventies, whose jobs were essential to their families’ survival, while white women were fighting to join the workforce.

“Give me the ‘right to work’?” Lea said, echoing the white feminists’ rallying cry. “Give me a break [from work]!” she said she imagined black women replying.

Panelist Sharon Katz, whose world-famous musical humanitarian effort, “Peace Train,” was launched in her native South Africa in the early 1990s to fight the lingering effects of Apartheid, also spoke about overcoming racial barriers.

“My humanity felt insulted,” she said of the growing up in the Apartheid era. She described discovering John Kani’s underground Serpent Players at a time that he, Athol Fugard and many other collaborators risked arrest for their anti-Apartheid plays.

Coming to Philadelphia’s northwest in the 1980s to pursue a degree in music therapy, Katz said West Mt. Airy seemed like “proof that multicultural societies can exist.”

Listening to the breadth of experiences both panelists and listeners shared, Bond said she was struck by “how much we as women are living so many lives.”

“This is mine,” Bond added, of enjoying the personal creative space she’s found in a rented studio at MAAG.

Germantown Artists Roundtable member Adrienne Morrison seconded the need for women to carve out their own space in their lives at every age.

“People have very strong stereotypes of people who are older,” Morrison said, especially older women, who are expected to stick to rocking chairs and babysitting.

She didn’t want to offend anybody, she added, but she had to say that there is more to life than putting on a “women’s day” at church – and then staying afterward to clean up the mess.

“Do something for yourself,” she insisted.

Slodki asked the speakers to explain how they’re using the arts or media to advance social changes they’d like to see.

Flying Kite magazine publisher Michelle Freeman touted having a venue for stories about progressive local businesses or individuals that other media outlets miss. Patterson announced her new theatrical exhibition coming up at the Painted Bride Art Center, “If She Stood,” which will celebrate the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833.

Lea described using dance in schools as a way of “integrating art and social consciousness,” giving African-American children a way to reconnect with their ancestral roots by connecting modern hip-hop dance with West African culture, noting the value of showing children that “people who look like you are creators of an art form.”

Slodki rounded out the discussion by emphasizing the relationships between participating women.

“I truly believe that moving forward is about connection,” she said.

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