I’m in a two-woman reading group, just me and my friend Kelley. In December 2020, Kelley picked A Room of One’s Own to read because, she said, she wanted insight into being a woman and an artist.
Kelley has three children; she’s also an accomplished and determined painter. While she had and raised her three girls, now ages 11, 8, and 4, she painted whenever she could.
I watched her practice wane when she was in the thick of things, without time or space to create. Then I watched her practice grow as she regained time and created space.
One day at the end of December, I spent some time in Kelley’s studio, a simple but perfect space above the family’s new barn.
I’d dashed up to the studio in a small emergency; Kelley and her family had been showing us around their property, a tract of Michigan farmland, when my five month old had a meltdown.
Maybe it was the sight and smell of the three ponies who live in the barn under the studio (suddenly, through a baby’s eyes, ponies seemed unbearably huge). Or maybe it was the long week of travel, holiday celebration and new people. No matter the reason, Paul needed a break. So while everyone else kept exploring, I sat in the studio’s arm chair to calm Paul. He cried for a while, but eventually got down to eating, giving me time to absorb my friend’s studio.
About the size of a large bedroom, it’s longer than it is wide with a door and a window on the south end and a large window on the north end. Two large wooden easels stand near the north window, catching that magical, steady light. Each holds a painting in progress.
While I sat there, I’d hear once in a while a whiny and an equine foot stomp from the tenants downstairs. I could smell a very faint whiff of the hay and manure—a barn odor I love—mixed with stronger smells of oil paints, the new wood of walls and a tiny note of the tea tray which rested, with an electric kettle, near my chair.
The walls of Kelley’s studio are unremarkable white. Most of the room’s color comes from the paintings. There are the partly finished paintings on the easels and drawings tacked to the walls. There are also several finished, framed paintings on the west wall. The west wall has no windows. Instead, the rectangles and squares of color—most of them landscapes—are windows into many different places. A rolling green farm field. A wintery, sunlit forest path. A barn with round hay bales. A beach rioting with summer grasses, the distant ocean only an afterthought.
I recognize in these paintings the way my friend sees the world and the skill she’s developed in depicting them with her particular vision.
I enjoy especially two very different paintings displayed at two opposite ends of the studio. Near the door on the south wall hangs a small oil still life, a blue glass bottle spilling salt, which she painted during our college days. On one of the easels near the north window is a large oil painting of mountains, inspired by Kelley’s recent solo hike-and-paint trip to Glacier National Park.
The tiny and the vast, the early and the up-to-date: these two paintings bracket Kelley’s painting life…so far.
Kelley has built a room of her own.
In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf argues famously that in order to create, a woman needs a steady income and a room of her own in order to write. I see counter-examples to this argument; I write much better when I’m working full time to earn my own keep, for instance, and I know many women writers who produce beautiful work writing wherever they are.
However, my greatest take away from reading “A Room of One’s Own” in December 2020 is the realization of a deep cultural attitude. Men are encouraged and enabled to create, while women suffer all kinds of impediments. Childbearing and rearing, for one. But also inferior education, lack of funding and, under all, a cultural incredulity.
You want to what? the world Woolf describes says to a woman who wants to create.
All right, then. Try if you must, this voice says. But only in your off hours and in the corners of the room. On the dining room table when no one is eating or on the kitchen counter when you’re not prepping meals. And call it a hobby, not a calling, a practice or Art.
I’m familiar with this voice. I hear it in my own head constantly, loudest when I’m at my desk, writing.
So, Kate, you’ve had a room of your own for years. You call it your ‘study.’ What have you produced in there, huh?
In 2021, Kelley and I read 10 books together. Without meaning to, we chose and read 10 books by women, each set in a different part of the world:
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (January)
Motherland, by Leah Franqui (February)
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee (March)
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (April-May)
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (June)
Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy (July)
Outlawed, by Anna North (August)
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert (September)
Matrix, by Lauren Groff (October)
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk (November)
And we aspired to read The Other Side of the Sun by Madeline L’Engle in December but a pandemic surge, like a rogue ocean wave, pushed my reserved library copy out of my reach.
I don’t know how each of these women carved the space, time and focus to write, market and publish her book. But in each of these novels, I see the evidence of vision plus artistry plus determination that builds a creative practice. The way I see evidence of Kelley’s artistic practice on the walls of her studio.
I’m not a painter. I don’t have finished canvases to hang on the walls. This year, though, I will have the analogy of painting in mind as I press through the stages of writing a story: inspiration, research, drafting, revising. Applying finishing touches and sending the work out, as if framed.
Here, this is done. My vision of one part of the world.