Who Does She Think She Is? two nights only!

Five women and the delicate art of balance

Documentary sheds light on women juggling art and motherhood

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Who Does She Think She Is? ****

Directed by: Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy C. Kennedy (documentary)

Playing at: Mayfair Theatre, March 8 and 9

Special attraction: Director Pamela Boll will be in attendance at the 7 p.m. screening Sunday.

In the documentary film Who Does She Think She Is?, a couple of guys are stopped outside an art museum and asked if they can name five female artists.

One of them begins to stumble out an answer. The other one just says, “No.”

Few people can: women comprise 80 per cent of the students in art classes but only 20 per cent of working artists. At the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, only 11 per cent of the collection is by women; at the Tate Modern in London, it’s two per cent. Women in general earn two-thirds of what men do in the U.S., but female artists earn only one-third.

All of this is part of what Who Does She Think She Is? is about, the background noise to the stories of five female artists — four visual artists and a singer — who are trying to make their way in the world, often balancing art and motherhood. The title is repeated several times in the film, occasionally ironically.

Co-directors Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy C. Kennedy have assembled a lively and diverse group whose experiences are a lot closer to the ground than you might expect. Janis Wunderlich, for instance, is a wife, mother, and world-class sculptor living in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and five children.

After seeing her kids off to school, she plays with her two youngest girls, then takes the toddler to preschool, times the trip home so that the infant will be asleep, and then has what she calls “my special, beautiful time” in the studio. Sometimes she gets an hour.

In that time, she produces whimsical pieces of fairy tale sculpture, some of them showing women with dozens of little babies attached to them from head to foot. Some of the women have two heads, representing what she calls her good and bad sides.

We also meet Maye Torres, who lives in the wilds near Taos, New Mexico, where she produces sculptures and drawings. She has three sons and lives on $24,000 a year. “I was really torn because I wanted to dedicate myself to my kids, but I wanted to be in the studio all the time,” she says. She is divorced.

The stories are both ordinary and surprising: for instance, two of the women profiled are very religious. A professional singer named Angela Williams was also co-pastor with her husband of a church, and Wunderlich is a Mormon whom we see telling a rambunctious child with a toy bow and arrow, “There is absolutely no weaponage at the dinner table.”

The movie weaves their stories with expert opinion about the history of female power, some of it illustrated with old TV footage or clips from movies. Watching a young woman kneel with moony adoration beside a man as he plays the piano in the 1948 Joan Fontaine-Louis Jourdan movie Letter from an Unknown Woman speaks volumes about the way women were viewed as accessories in the world of ideas.

Who Does She Think She Is? is something of a feminist call to arms to correct an injustice, but it is not a manifesto. It makes its case with telling detail, mostly in the lives of the artists it profiles, people like Japanese-born artist Mayumi Oda. She talks about how her devotion to her art eventually led to her split from her husband. “I need a wife,” he told her and Oda remembers that she replied, “I need a wife, too.”

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