One of the things I often think about is how work begets work, whether that's making stuff or seeing stuff that catalyzes thought, and then action. Feed the beast and the beast can feed others.
I also have been thinking a lot about something Jerry Saltz recently posted (I’m paraphrasing) on how art inherently reflects its times (so stop sending him links to art about Don the Con). A few days (or hours—who really knows, time is weird on social media) later, he posted “fun fact: the National Gallery has 2,300 works in its collection and as of today, 21 of them are by women.”
It hardly bears typing: The inconsistency between, say, the percentages of art school grads who identify as women versus the percentages that reflect male-bias in the art world. Back to the notion of hunger, in this instance, I’d suggest that as a culture, we are hungry for those stories that decentralize the cis-male’s claim to genius, etcetera and blah blah blah.
Luckily, in NEFLa right now, there are more than a few very capable female artists, and against the backdrop of MOCA Jacksonville’s current show, A Dark Place of Dreams, playwright and director Kelby Siddons is mounting an immersive theater piece, Women’s Work. It is a site-specific play, performed against the monochromatic assemblages of Louise Nevelson and contemporary artists Chakaia Booker, Lauren Fensterstock and Kate Gilmore.
Siddons has an impressive résumé. She got her degree from Northwestern University (2009) in dramatic literature. There she studied in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences with playwright Laura Schellhardt and “looked at scripts from a literary perspective.”
These days, Siddons teaches English at The Episcopal School and focuses on her own work, which has included original plays like Madame Bonaparte, directing Macbeth, and rewriting, adjusting and updating existing plays.
In fact, that’s how she came to the attention of JaMario Stills, founder and artistic director of Phase Eight. “Great, let’s figure out something you can write,” is what Stills said to Siddons in 2017, when she helped with rewrites to portions of Love’s Labour’s Lost—which Stills directed. After that, he approached her with the idea of doing a play in the galleries of the museum. “It’s a terribly, wonderfully specific show to the space. You really can’t perform it any other time because you have to have the exhibit that is currently there and you have to have the specific museum that is in Downtown Jacksonville.”
I caught up with Siddons just as the final adjustments were being made to the production and talked about how to approach a project like this, and what important things Siddons wants to communicate. She explained that the play is centered around “Three freshman [college] art students, who are taking an introductory level course and they go through the semester. They start with the day they receive the syllabus—that’s the first act; the second act is them giving their own tours of the gallery, and the third act is them presenting their own final project. So they’re looking at women in the past and trying to channel and reply to that in their own work."
With the focus on women artists, the inevitable question is: “Are we looking at this as work or as women’s work?” Staged throughout the museum’s exhibition space, the barrier between the actors and audience becomes a penetrable membrane. In addition to watching the action, the audience will also be considering the artwork, and possibly forming their own replies to the students’ conceptions; because that delightfully slippery art world dog-whistle “pretentious” does make a winking appearance.
In our conversation, Siddons hinted that there is tension between at least two of the students, because of differing approaches to art and art-making. It is an understatement to say that art world rivalries can be rewarding for artists and art historians. Legendarily, sculptor Louise Nevelson was charismatic, hard-working and focused to the exclusion of almost all else. She saw herself to be on par with Pablo Picasso, and had a fractious relationship with the only other contemporaneous female artist who could be said to be her equal: Louise Bourgeois.
“If you look at the work that I’ve written/directed/produced in the past, you’ll see—as JaMario saw—a theme, a concern about female characters, their likeability, and how we perceive them based on their femaleness,” explained Siddons of the complex and contradictory leitmotifs she explores in her work.
When she was discussing her approach, the playwright discloses with a laugh, “I kept describing it as a theatrical parfait.” Meaning that, as the play moved through its acts, the actors and the audience move through all five floors of the institution. “Can you ever really be artistically neutral, or is identity central to what you end up creating?” asks the playwright. “There are things we can’t answer in an hour and a half. But I think the goal is to bring questions and characters into the space in order to energize the audience’s conversation and response to what they are seeing."
At a time when our government is literally decrying mothers’ milk in favor of formula, it's critical that artists and audiences demand and engage with weighty, nuanced ideas. Nourish us with the real thing, not pablum.