Red Cliffs at the Chiricahua
Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank
Two Women Who Paint the Southwest Landscape
Kate O'Neill, Ed. D., LPC, © 1998
Essay · Gallery · Bibliography · Artists
We cannot bear connection. That is
our malady. We must break away, and
be isolate. We call that being
freed, being individual. Beyond a
certain point, which we have
reached, it is suicide.
- D. H. Lawrence
I met Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank when I first moved to Taos, New Mexico in 1993. They met one another and began painting together in 1973 in a landscape class at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch on the high desert mesa just north of town. At that time Barbara was working at Dori's Bakery, a popular café where locals gathered to share conversation, read their mail, and drink fresh-brewed coffee. After work hours she was a printmaker and painter. Alyce had just started painting after many years of raising three children and collaborating with her husband on making films and dealing in Native American and Spanish Colonial art and pottery.
I would not have predicted that these two painters, fifteen years apart in age, significantly different in temperament, trained in different styles, and worlds apart in terms of their personal and generational experiences, would find themselves painting together out in the land for over twenty years. Both women have serious art careers, and their paintings sell well. Each manifests her individual vision, and yet the two support, influence, and encourage one another. Their relationship is remarkable in its simplicity, inspiring in its combination of work and play, and stunning in its longevity.
Barbara and Alyce evoke the heartbeat of the land in their paintings. The stark silhouette of a tree against a slight angle of skyline. A huge lilac-red-blue sky radiating through the bare smoke-white branches of a stand of cottonwoods. A gold foreground of leaves against an orange-blue background of mountains. A red outline of cliffs nudging up to a swirling stroke of smoky sky. Nothing extraordinary, just two women out painting the land. And yet, in relation to the canonical storyline, especially in the history of Western landscape painting, they are unusual.
In a culture where the model of the "lone artist-genius" still looms large, this kind of creative partnership, especially between two women, is rarely acknowledged, validated, or presented as a viable option. Doubtless there may be others, and yet, our model of successful artists emphasizes rugged individualism rather than creative partnership.
Barbara and Alyce's painting friendship defies every notion of separation versus connection, creativity versus relationship, and hierarchical versus mutual influence between painters. They are women who work as a pair; they also paint alone and with others; they have painted together for over twenty years; they both have partners and families; they are both active in their community; they acknowledge their mutual influence on one another; and they simultaneously create their own bold work and enjoy separate successful careers.
There are numerous examples in the history of Western art of hierarchical relationships, such as between masters and apprentices. There are also many examples of painters who have worked together, at least for a time, in schools or groups, such as the Fauves or the Impressionists. A few male and female painters, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, have forged both personal and artistic partnerships as well. Pairs of male painters have also worked together for brief periods of time, such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Bracque or Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Despite these occasional examples of the confluence of creativity and relationships, pairs of women painters who have worked together, side-by-side, mutually influencing one another and simultaneously producing bold, creative work for over twenty years, are not often described in the art historical record.
My purpose in highlighting the creative partnership Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank share is the promise that their connection holds for others who seek viable alternatives to the lone artist-as-genius model. This is particularly true for women artists, for whom the message has historically been that they must choose between creativity and relationships. The evidence shows, however, that the type of relationships are the crucial factor. In other words, tending the needs of others (such as children or partners,) is the kind of relationship presumed for women. The shift which Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank's friendship embodies is a turning toward other women for friendship, support and creative companionship. This involves being challenged and encouraged by other creative women friends. Rather than being a unidirectional tending relationship where women may feel as if they don't have enough energy for both relationships and their creative work, these relationships are mutually beneficial and reciprocally tending.
Since the 1970s in the United States, women artists have brought relationships more to the forefront of creative work in various formats. For instance they have emphasized collaborative installations, such as "The Dinner Party" (Chicago, 1975). However, even though these works were created by a large number of people, one artist, such as Judy Chicago, is commonly credited or associated with the project. The names of the many other co-creators are often ignored or forgotten.
It is as if the individual dissolves into the collaborative, becoming either hierarchically subsumed, as with Judy Chicago's collaborators, or mutually blended, as with artists who work in unison on the same piece. I am fascinated by Barbara and Alyce's simultaneous joint collaboration and individual originality. They seem to move through a multifaceted individual and relational process which energizes each of them and expands their possibilities for creative output and expression. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Creativity often involves a uniqueness of expression, but this has often been confused with relational isolation. Interpersonal relationships may be more integral to the creative process than we have historically acknowledged in Western culture. This is not to say that solitude is an unimportant aspect of the creative process, but simply that we value and valorize individuality over relationship in most models of creativity.
Psychological approaches to the study of creativity often pay no attention to the crucial importance of relationships in the creative process, but rather emphasize the intrapsychic nature of creativity. My work is very much rooted in the tradition of socio-cultural psychology and is not based on any notions of essentialism, or the premise that biology is destiny. My desire in this work is to describe these two women painter's experiences of creativity in the context of their relationships, and to thereby move our models of creativity, within the field of psychology - and in women's lives - toward a fuller representation of genuine lived experiences. As women become more attuned to the importance of listening to our own voices, the models of creativity will, of necessity, begin to more profoundly change.
Barbara Zaring and Alyce Frank's Painting Process
All text © Kate O'Neill, Ed.D., LPC.
All images © Barbara Zaring or Alyce Frank as indicated.
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