I am not a feminist. I am an artist who happens to be a woman. I am the movement.
Thus spoketh Louise Nevelson, one of the most influential woman sculptors of the twentieth century. Her work was monumental when women artists were not considered a significant part. Even her industrial assemblages were labeled “masculine.”
Susan Rome now takes on the role of this legendary feminist artist in Theater J’s production of “Occupant,” written by Nevelson’s friend, the playwright Edward Albee.
Rome prepared for her role by scouting out as many works of Nevelson as she could, visiting pieces in Kansas City, New York City and Washington, D.C. She watched videos of her, focusing on her mannerisms, both physical and vocal; and read several biographies, along with Dusks and Dawns, a book compiled by her long-time friend and assistant, Diana MacKown.
She also has gone to assemble set pieces to get a sense of what it might have been like in the studio where Nevelson worked. In the process, she has discovered, much like a biographer who researches by actually doing some deep psychological analysis of the character she is playing on stage.
“Nevelson’s creative fire was so fierce!” Rome told me in an interview. “She inspires through her constant curiosity and commitment to crossing disciplines. She engaged in many different art mediums, yes, but she also took singing, piano, acting, and dance lessons. Her sculptural work is presentational and performative, and her physical persona was definitely a work of art.”
But despite her great talent and persistence, Nevelson did not have things easy. “She didn’t really find her thing, the signature Nevelson assemblages, until she was firmly ensconced in middle age,” Rome explained. “Her persistent belief in herself as an artist is especially inspiring to me, and I think to any artist whose love affair with the work goes though periods when it feels unrequited.”
What does that mean for women today? “It is meaningful to me, and I think to many other artists, not just women,” Rome said, “that visual and performing artists are still struggling with many of the patriarchal constraints and assumptions Louise fought against in the 1950s and ‘60s.”
This extends beyond the canvas, of course, to the stage and other artistic venues. “We don’t get as many shows, we don’t get paid what we’re worth, and there is still a stigma against strong, unapologetic women in any field,” Rome said. “Her work and her approach to her own celebrity seem very current and relevant today.”
That has a lot of meaning, even in today’s larger sociopolitical climate. “I don’t think that every work of art we create has to be a political statement, but our artistic choices have echoes and reverberations,” Rome reflected. “We have something to say. I think it is vital, necessary, for us, as Louise says in the play, ‘to occupy our space.’”
Edward Albee’s “Occupant” is playing at Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J through December 8.