Being a single mother and a graduate student would be difficult enough if Marla Samuel didn't also try to coax the human form out of unyielding stone.
"Sculpture's really important; I need to have it," says Samuel.
Art is important enough that Samuel, 45, recently hefted three tons of basalt, marble and other slabs collected around the world from Phoenix to a new home and studio in Ashland. Whether she's reconciling her cumbersome medium with an otherwise meager lifestyle, juggling school and part-time work in caregiving or exhibiting art with 6-year-old son Jacob in tow, Samuel anticipates an accusation aimed at women who crave creative outlets seemingly at the expense of all else.
"I pretty much fit the criteria of 'Who does she think she is?' " says Samuel.
The question is engendered by a 2009 documentary film that depicts the "problematic intersections of mothering and creativity, partnering and independence, economics and art" through the perspectives of five female artists. Confronting the same conflicts as the women in the film, Samuel and four other local, female artists make up a discussion panel following this month's Medford screening of "Who Does She Think She Is?"
"It's very empowering," says Betsy Lewis, coproducer of the July 30 event.
"Women artists are often isolated," adds Lewis. "We're not really supported by society as much."
Lewis, a 54-year-old visual artist and independent art promoter, planned the event after viewing and then purchasing a copy of "Who Does She Think She Is?" directed by Pamela Tanner Boll. A self-proclaimed activist, Boll co-produced the 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary "Born Into Brothels: The Kids of Calcutta's Red Light District."
Herself a child of activists, Samuel credits family for supporting her nearly 25-year sculpting career. Her chosen genre — classical and realist renditions of the human figure, typically attributed to men — makes life as a female artist all the more difficult, says Samuel. Although Samuel studied at UC Santa Cruz and apprenticed in the Italian village where Michelangelo once quarried marble, her skill has been dismissed in a single glance: Her hands aren't as battered as most stone sculptors'.
'When I told them I was a stone carver, they kind of looked at me and asked me if I had a man around," says Samuel.
She did before divorcing from local sculptor and painter Kevin Christman, who shares parenting of Jacob. But while Christman invested in his art career, Samuel put all her assets into a home and then a masters degree in social work that took "every drop of everything she had." It pains her that Jacob sees his father more as the family artist, says Samuel.
"I still define myself as an artist."
Samuel is joined by nearly 50 other local women exhibiting art at the Rogue Community College/Southern Oregon University Higher Education Center in conjunction with the film screening. Running through Sept. 1, the show invited women working in the visual arts, written word, music, performances and "all forms of creative expression," says Lewis.
"It just blew my mind," says Cynthia Gott, RCC art instructor and curator of the "Who Does She Think She Is?" exhibit.
Work submitted was of such high caliber, says Gott, that she couldn't reject anyone and accepted about 100 pieces to show. Then Gott, 40, lobbied for enough room to display it all. Warned that she'd never obtain permission to hang an art exhibit on the Higher Education Center's first floor — deemed "community space" — Gott lived up to the film's title and "didn't take 'no' for an answer" until she gained approval for the first art show in that location.
"There is so much more progress yet to go," says Gott of support for female artists.
Creating "strong feminist messages" through "female archetypes" and "goddess mythology," Gott is exhibiting a painting from her series "Venus Envy," based on the Paleolithic female fertility figure known as "Venus of Willendorf." When all 365 pieces in the multimedia series are complete, Gott has high hopes of displaying it at SOU.
Ashland, says Gott, has welcomed her work more than almost any other community over her 20 years as an artist. Acceptance, she adds, comes more reluctantly to artists like her, who depict femininity through powerful forces such as birth.
"I can hear the subtext of people looking at my art," says Gott.
Gott knows those mixed feelings often culminate in the familiar — sometimes rhetorical — question, which she and fellow female artists for one evening happily will answer.
"Who does she think she is?"