Bloom spoke with novelist and SPEEDWELL contemporary gallery board member Debra Spark about celebrating mid-to late career women artists and maintaining stamina over a long writing career.
Leah De Forest: Tell me a bit about Speedwell and how you came to be involved.
Debra Spark: Speedwell’s mission is to show the work of mid to late career women: Visual artists who’ve been at their art for decades and may have not received the kind of recognition they deserve, given their accomplishment. The woman who founded Speedwell, Jocelyn Lee, did a show at a fundraiser, highlighting all the artists she had been exposed to. Not a single one of them was a woman.
Although I think things have changed for 20 and 30-year-olds, maybe even 40-year-old women, a generation got left out when things turned around. You will occasionally see a really big show of an older artist—for example, Portland Museum of Art just did a show of Katherine Bradford, who’s around 80. She wasn’t showing in big museums earlier, but she should have been. Speedwell is devoting itself to woman or woman-identifying artists who deserve that kind of attention and deserve not only a one-person show, but to have their work really seriously documented. Each of Speedwell’s shows is produced with a video of the artist and a catalog—a kind of retrospective. They also do artists’ residencies. But in general, the mission is to show older women: women who have been out there and working and just not represented the way they should be.
Jocelyn Lee and I went to college together, so that answers the second part of the question. We’re the same age (60). Jocelyn is an extremely talented photographer. Her last book was of nudes of older women. In one of the photos, a 90-year-old woman is covering only one part of her arm, because she doesn’t want to show the number that was tattooed on her at Auschwitz. She has a body that’s beautiful, and worn, as bodies are. And then there’s a beautiful image of two women, an older woman and her niece, who has this luminous skin. You see the older woman and the younger woman, whose body will change. I think Jocelyn is trying to change notions of what beauty is with her work.
LDF: I’ve seen some of the portraits on Jocelyn’s website. They’re beautiful.
DS: A lot of her work has the theme of time passing. She often photographs the stage of life she is approaching. Before she had a child, she was photographing pregnant women, for example. She’s curious what’s going on with bodies that might be her body soon.
LDF: What are some of the passions you see on display at Speedwell? What keeps people going?
DS: As artists or as people supporting artists?
LDF: Let’s take a little of each.
DS: This isn’t quite answering your question, but I happened to read two books by Molly Peacock. She’s a poet, and she also wrote a beautiful memoir, and two biographies about artists. One of those artists, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, was an 18th century artist who started her career in her seventies. And she’s now shown in the British Museum. Her work is amazing. She made collages of flowers that are incredibly lifelike; they’re actually mosaics. And one of the things that I really found fascinating about Mary Delany (and I find fascinating about Speedwell as well) is how much her friendships enabled her to do her art. Literally she had a friend who supported her financially; and also, the emotional support that she got from friendship. And I would say for me, the emotional support I get from my writer friends—all of them, and particularly the ones who are exactly where I am in life—has been invaluable. Just having a supportive community that appreciates what you’re doing is, so … I mean, I’m not saying anything earth-shattering! But it matters. Jocelyn and two other artist friends and I zoomed once a week through the pandemic. I thought, I am so lucky to have these women in my life. Sometimes we were talking about other things, but a lot of times we were talking about, our work, what was going on, what was hard, you know, that kind of thing.
LDF: This also goes to the question of longevity. How does one keep going? What sustains you?
DS: Me personally? Or the artists?
LDF: Well, both.
DS: I think sometimes you do feel discouraged and like you want to quit. I always feel like if you just get a little bit of encouragement at the right time, you can sort of push through all the negativity … all those times you hear, No, I don’t want it. No, I don’t like it. Here’s your rejection letter.
LDF: I think part of the answer is community, right?
DS: That’s part of what I’ve always loved about Warren Wilson [where Debra teaches writing in the MFA program]. Here’s a group of people who value exactly what I value. People get excited about favorite books or even ideas related to writing. I sometimes think, even if you don’t publish, you get to have that life, you get to make the work, you get to be in a community of other writers who were making it and thinking about it.
LDF: What sort of obstacles do you see for writers and artists later in life?
DS: Well, rejection. If you’re a writer or visual artist, you have to know how to deal with rejection, both external and internal, which is not saying anything new. I think everyone struggles with that at times. I mean, it’s going to get to you and you’re going to feel crappy. I was telling a friend recently about something she’d written that I loved. She said, “Oh, thank you so much.” And I told her—this is really embarrassing! I have a little folder in my email called Ego Saves. If anyone says something nice about my writing it goes in there, and then when I’m down, I take a look at it. It’s embarrassing to admit, especially to this friend who is a Buddhist. But I think it helps to be reminded that someone valued or liked your work. Just before I got on this call a rejection came in for a piece I worked really hard on. I thought, Okay, maybe that one’s not going to work out. But I loved writing it, I loved everything I learned writing it.
LDF: I love the Ego Saves! I’m going to do that. Can you talk a bit about writers giving themselves permission to spend time on their work, and how that might change through life?
DS: I think when you’re really young you want to prove to your parents that it’s okay, right? I was very lucky in that when I was young I had a story in Esquire. I actually went back and read it: I thought, I hate this story. How did this story get me so much attention? But it did. And then, you know, I had the same bad luck that everyone did for years. But that little bit of success gave me some permission.
Later, you’ve got other responsibilities; you’ve got to pay your mortgage. It’s so complicated. Even if you’re really successful, most people aren’t financially successful, right? So it’s always something you’re really doing just for the love of it.
LDF: In what ways do you think being older is well-suited to staying the course as an artist?
DS: I just think a lot of us are better when we’re older. Sometimes I think it’s so funny that I, when I was young, I had this luck of getting attention and I still had no idea what I was doing. My better books definitely came later. Maybe that’s not true for everyone. But I think as you learn more, you’re better. Maybe that’s more true of writing than visual art. Writing is so dependent on life experience.
LDF: Right, and that experience is like having more colors in your palette.
DS: Yes. With visual art, in a retrospective, you often see early work that is really imitative. The artist is either painting like their teacher or a painter they greatly admire. But then there’s a moment where artists start doing what they do. A good example is Rothko: his early work doesn’t look like Rothko. But then all of a sudden everything looks like a Rothko. I feel like that’s probably true of a lot of writers, too, that for a while you’re just, I’ll try this, I’ll try this. Then at some point maybe you settle into the kind of thing you do, and no one else does. That is what grabs people, makes them want to read your work.
LDF: I have one more question, which as you know, since I warned you in advance, is kind of left field. If you could have any kind of superpower—as a writer, or otherwise—what would it be?
DS: I do have an answer for this, and it’s embarrassing: invisibility. Because I want to go places and hear stuff I’m not supposed to hear. I wanna snoop. I mean, that’s terrible.
LDF: As a writer, it would be the ideal superpower.
DS: (Laughs). Right, right.
Debra Spark is the author of four novels, two collections of short stories, and two books of essays on fiction writing. Her most recent books are the novel Unknown Caller and the essay collection And Then Something Happened. With Deborah Joy Corey, she co-edited Breaking Bread, a book of food essays by Maine writers to raise funds for a hunger nonprofit. Four Way Books will publish her fifth novel, Discipline, in 2024.
A graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Debra is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
SPEEDWELL is a contemporary non-profit art gallery that promotes the work of women who have made a lifelong commitment to their creative work. Their programming includes solo and group exhibitions, residencies, free community events, and the publication of documentaries and catalogs.
The gallery’s next exhibition, Deep Fake by Greta Bank, opens on March 10th at 5pm. Visit Speedwell’s web site for more information.