October 10th, 2012
Margaret Niven

MNiven_headshot (1)

photo: Geoffrey Nelson

Artist and arts-educator Margaret Niven lives and paints in her loft at the Tannery Arts Center. She teaches at Monterey Peninsula College and (along with a small group of fellow volunteers) produces the Tannery Arts Lecture Series, a monthly program of lectures, panel discussions and performances. You can see her paintings, prints and sculptures at


“Are you religious?”

While I was chatting with a new friend at a local drinking place, the conversation turned to a question about religion. I asked it: “Are you religious?”

(Something to do with the drinking, I think.) He gave me a very thoughtful and honest answer summed up with “Its a mystery”. It was now my turn. I gave him my historical answer, the one about not being raised with religion, about how the generation before me had come to decide to live without it and about how I didn’t feel drawn to it. Then my friend asked “Are you spiritual?” and I gave him an answer about making art.

I did not say that art is my religion, or that I feel the spirit grab me, or that making art is my spiritual practice. None of those answers would be true.

What I did say is true. When I make art I feel connected to something bigger than myself, bigger than “all of us”. It is the thing I do, of everything I do, that feels most important.

What do I mean by “being connected to something bigger than myself”? Is it not enough to make a good, well-crafted painting about an interesting idea? Yes it is. This may be where the feeling of importance comes in. Making an object that has an intrinsic value based on time, skill and effort feels great. Yet, when I get the opportunity to stand before a great painting by a long-dead master like Van Gogh or Rembrandt, or a distant living master like Anselm Kiefer,

I am connected to something bigger. When I return to my own studio and paint I am connected to something bigger.

Is something bigger spiritual? My friend and I decided it is a mystery. A big mystery.

Eric Fischl show at the San Jose Museum of  Art

This week I took my community college students on a field trip see the Eric Fischl show at the San Jose Museum of  Art. While we were there, surrounded by hundreds of wonderful paintings, prints, sculptures and drawings done by a man, one of  my students asked me “Do you think that women artists get the same attention as male artists?”

She began contemplating this question last week when I told my class about the current Jay DeFeo(1929-89) show at SFMOMA. Among the many things I told them was how glad I am that Jay is getting the recognition she deserves. Too bad it came after her death.

I was surprised by the force of my answer. No came out without hesitation, clear, calm and full of frustration. Frustration because the question was posed to me in 2013 and the answer in 2013 is No.

Women artists get more attention than we did a generation ago when, in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls began their  humorous and scathing protests. But how much more attention? The famous GG poster “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. museum?” in its 2011 edition states “Less than 4% of artists in the modern art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.” (For the record, Eric Fischl’s paintings have as many, if not more, male nudes than female.)

More women artists are represented by major galleries, at the big international art shows and at auction, but in relation to the number of women making art, the representation is appallingly slight. For contemporary women artists, the glass ceiling may be a few inches higher than it was in 1985 but it is still there. It is not there for Eric Fishl and it was not there for him in 1985.

For more about the Guerrilla Girls go to

For an article about the discrimination women artists face go to,

For more about Jay DeFeo at SFMOMA got to,

For more about Eric Fischl at SJMA got to

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