The Fight in Women between Security and Adventure—
Is There a Beautiful Solution?
The way I could stay
home for days, organizing
arranging clothes in order of color, alphabetizing my record
seemed miles apart from how I felt driving my 1967 Mustang down the
singing as loud as I could “Born to Be Wild.” Like many women, I
associated security with being at home and adventure with going out,
exciting things. But these were in such a fight in me that when I
was “out” I felt I had to get home, then getting bored, I felt I had to
break out. I didn’t feel at ease either way. Increasingly
I saw as adventure was being unrestrained—with men, driving fast,
taking drugs, which left me disgusted, unsure of myself, and resolved
the less I had to do with other people, the more safe and secure I
Aesthetic Realism taught me that we are born to know and like nothing less than the whole world—this is the adventure of our lives, and where we go away from that purpose we have to feel insecure. In this paper I tell what I learned, and to show how the solution every woman is hoping for is in art, I will discuss some aspects of the life and work of the 20th century American sculptor, Louise Nevelson.
Growing up in Springfield, Missouri I went back and forth between “welcoming the variety of reality” and not being interested in things. My father Don Ellison raced thoroughbred horses, which my mother Beverly Burk helped train. The world of horseracing is very exciting. We would drive cross country in a truck, with camper and trailer. I loved seeing the land change from place to place—how it got flat in Kansas, how the earth was red in Oklahoma, how the early morning fog hung over the mountains in northern Arkansas, and how the air in Kentucky was sweet with the fragrance of wild honeysuckle. Though I didn’t know it then, I was liking the world as I was affected by the earth itself as both various and unified.
Meanwhile, though I was moved by the horses, their power and grace, I gave my parents the message that I was miserable and often sat in the camper alone playing solitaire. Sometimes instead of going on these trips, I chose to stay at home with my grandparents, who made much of me, and where I didn’t have to compete with horses for attention.
When my parents bought me a set of encyclopedias I was in awe of how many things existed in the world. I wanted to begin with volume A and read one thing each day, all the way through Z. But feeling this was an over-whelming task and took too much effort, I instead would lounge on the sofa watching TV shows like “The Dating Game” and “Lets Make A Deal.” I always felt I had let myself down and was ashamed. Years later in an Aesthetic Realism consultation I began to understand what was driving me when I was asked:
There was! And I learned that this false way I went after security affected how I saw everything, including love!
Life took on a whole new adventure when Kent Breshears gave me his ID bracelet in 7th grade biology class. What we were looking at under the microscope didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t feel that learning about amoebas and protozoa had the same zip and tingle as getting the adoration of boys and later men. And as time went on my determination to get this often made me careless.
For example, when my friend Ginger called to say there was “some cute guys at the river” near my home, I picked her up in my parents’ car. The fact that I was 15, didn’t have a driver’s license and was driving on a major highway, was part of the thrill. At the river as I was showing off at the wheel, Ginger fell off the hood of the car where she was sitting. What began as an adventure, ended up with me feeling horrified when I later learned that Ginger had a broken arm. “How could I be so reckless,” I asked myself? “Adventure without security,” explains Mr. Siegel, “is only showing off” and “security without… adventure is a dry hollow thing.”
Meanwhile I also was increasingly interested in art--photography and sculpture. When my art professor in college said in order to be an artist you have to look at things as if seeing them for the first time, I felt hopeful. As I looked through the lens of a camera I became aware of and affected by things I had been oblivious to—like the reflection of a whole street in a hubcap, architectural details on buildings that I had walked by for years and never really saw. But this did not change my purposes with the world as such, or with people, including men.
I judged men on how much they were smitten by me and if they weren’t, I pretended they were in my mind. In high school I had a crush on a salesman who worked at a downtown shoe store. Every Saturday as I “shopped” for shoes I was really shopping for David. I spent hours trying on shoes, inwardly fantasizing about romantic adventures we would have, with David professing his love to me. Meanwhile I felt painfully unsure, ashamed of myself and nervous.
Like many women I hoped marriage would bring me both security and excitement, and when I was 17 I married a man I’ll call Mike O’Neal. He was a college student studying economics, and from Kansas City which to me was an exotic place compared to Springfield, Missouri. But my desire to have a man utterly devoted to me was fierce. At my job as a secretary, I often had adventures in my mind daydreaming that Mike would sweep me away to a romantic weekend retreat. When this didn’t happen—he needed to study for an exam or make extra money to help with the bills—I angrily felt “what about me.” Once for a gift, I gave him a silver dog-tag style necklace engraved with my birthday and our anniversary so he would never forget. I felt his interest in sports, which I once saw as exciting, took time away from me. And I didn’t understand how at times I felt I didn’t want to go anywhere without him and at other times felt I wanted to go off by myself and be free. Increasingly feeling trapped, and furious with each other, we divorced.
I would still be making the same painful mistakes had I not met in Aesthetic Realism the kind understanding and criticism I so much needed. In consultations, which I had by telephone first from Missouri then here in person, I began to learn what I was desperately looking for, and didn’t find in the women’s magazines that boycott Aesthetic Realism. My consultants asked:
I speak now about a few aspects of the life and work of the 20th century American sculptor, Louise Nevelson, who lived from 1899 to 1988. Her life can be useful to us because it shows the turmoil a woman can be in about security and adventure. Meanwhile, I think that as artist, Louise Nevelson did a much better job with these opposites. She once said, “I’ve always been a searcher;” “Almost everything I have done was to understand this universe, to see the world clearer.”
Louise Nevelson is most known for her large sculptural environments made of wood. In a talk he gave in the Terrain Gallery series Art Answers The Questions of Your Life my colleague Steven Weiner took up this work by Nevelson titled: “Sky Cathedral-Moon Garden + One” of 1957 -60, one of many in her Sky Cathedral series, and showed how the artist saw meaning, mystery, and possibility in objects she found on New York City streets. He said:
In Dawns and Dusks: Conversations with Louise Nevelson, the artist tells Diana MacKown how these objects have had adventures all their own:
At the age of 33 when Louise Nevelson decided to work professionally as an artist she was adventurous. “I’m going into areas I don’t know,” she said. “I might just fall right down… [but] I’d rather do it and see what its about. I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” On a trip to Europe in the 1930’s she was greatly affected by Cubism, and it encouraged her to find a new sense of structure she was looking for in her work. “I began to understand the cube,” she said, “and it gave me the key to my stability.” After this she began to build constructions made of food crates she had found. The box, she said “gave me a better sense of security” and it also freed her “to try the unusual.”
Yet the same person who felt “Creation...is...always a surprise,” also said “There are not many surprises in a life.” “The actual world is too much for me.” “An artist,” Mr. Siegel explains, "has a fight between the artist in her and just the person. Art tries to honor reality. We, simply as selves, may want to honor only ourselves."I believe that Louise Nevelson had this fight between wanting to honor reality and wanting to honor only herself.
Born in Russia to Isaac and Minna Berliawsky, Louise was 3 years old when her father came to America, hoping soon to send for his wife and 3 children. His leaving, writes biographer Laurie Lisle in Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life, was traumatic for the young Louise. She felt such a “violent sense of desertion” by her father and to some extent her mother who was occupied caring for a newborn baby, that Louise refused to speak for half a year. Lisle writes:
Was the young Louise going after the security of shutting out life as she refused to talk?
When she was 5 the family joined Isaac and settled in Rockland, Maine. They were poor and as Russian Jews whose dress, language and religion were different from other people in this New England town, they met prejudice. In Breaking Traditions: The Story of Louise Nevelson, Natalie Bober describes how the young Louise had a “growing sense of isolation and loneliness… [she] hid behind a proud bearing and retreated more and more into herself.” “I felt like an outsider,” Louise later said and defiantly added “I chose to be an outsider.” Surely she met injustice, but I believe she made a hurtful choice, as I did, in feeling, as Mr. Siegel describes, “If I can make myself asbestos and heavy gloves and a statue, then I’m going to be safe.”
She also had a passion for art. As a girl she spent hours both drawing the furniture in the Berliawsky home and visiting her father’s lumberyard. At age 9 she told the town librarian “I’m going to be an artist. No, I want to be a sculptor.”
When she was 17 she met Charles Nevelson. He was 15 years older, from a wealthy Russian shipping family and lived in New York City. On their first date he proposed and she accepted. All of what Louise felt about Charles Nevelson is not known, but it seems she felt he would enable her to leave Maine to study art in New York. He offered her, writes Natalie Bober, “protection, comfort, security [and] agreed they would not have children.” But, Louise she continues, “felt little of the excitement… that generally surrounds a bride-to-be.” Louise and Charles were married on June 12, 1920.
In New York City, Louise appeared to be the “beautiful young society woman.” She was free to pursue her love of art and began to study painting and drawing. Yet she said “I recognized right from the beginning that I didn’t have very much in common with my husband… I was… in a highly nervous state.” It seems they fought about money and sex, and Charles suspected that she had affairs. When two years into their marriage, Louise became pregnant and gave birth to a son, she went into a deep depression. Of this time she said “I had no freedom.” “I didn’t feel like living,” and she felt, “I can’t stay here because I’ll do something desperate.”
After eleven years of marriage Louise left her husband. Just what Charles was like as a person is unknown, and we can be sure there was criticism of him. But we can ask did Louise Nevelson receive and give pain in her marriage, and later to other men, because she had a false notion of security, utterly opposed to the artist in her, that the only way to maintain herself was to shut out other people? I think she did. She said:
The fight in Louise Nevelson between seeing meaning in the variety of the world and wanting to maintain the intactness of her self, made her feel painfully insecure. Weeping, she once told a friend she had never known true love and likely never would. “I’ve been so lonely,” she said. And she also doubted the best thing in her, once saying, “I don’t know if what I do is sculpture.”
Art critics praised her work, yet out of snobbishness and anger they had so much to learn from Aesthetic Realism they withheld the knowledge that would have enabled her to understand her life and art. And she also was hurt by her own snobbishness. She could have heard questions like those I was fortunate to hear in consultations that made my life more integrated and continues to.
This is the great education I was receiving as I came to know Dr. Jaime Torres, originally from Puerto Rico and who is a podiatrist. For the first time in my life I felt knowing a man, not owning him, was an adventure. My consultants gave me the assignment to study the opposites in Jaime and in a painting in relation to Eli Siegel’s Fifteen Questions, “Is Beauty The Making One Of Opposites?” I was affected by the world’s opposites in Jaime—he was forthright, thoughtful, practical and energetic—liked to see new things, dance and had a sense of humor. As he too was studying Aesthetic Realism, he encouraged me to be more sure of myself and free through liking the world. He swept me off my feet. I love him for being a critic of the way I wanted to put limits on how much I’m affected by things. For example, one Sunday he wanted to go to a Spanish Dance performance and a Brazilian street fair, but I insisted one thing was enough, I can’t do both. When he asked me why, I didn’t have any good reason. He kindly insisted, we went and had a wonderful time! I am happy to say that we will soon celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary, and that our education continues as we study together in classes taught by Ellen Reiss.
Eli Siegel is the critic who explained that “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And about Louise Nevelson he said in an early issue of The Right Of, that her sculpture “continues the everlasting presence of passion and materialistic proportion or control.” The opposites of control and passion are related to security and adventure and these opposites are wonderfully together in her “Sky Cathedral” of 1958. It is also, I believe, a beautiful oneness of freedom and order.
Its overall structure is created from stacks of rectangular boxes that are a variety of narrow, short, tall, wide, and square. Yet placed securely within these boxes are intricate arrangements of a multitude of wooden shapes and forms, having tremendous variety. They are thin and thick; straight-edged and curved; textured and smooth; some recessed into the depths of the box, others coming forward; crowded together and spaced apart, abstract shapes and recognizable objects--all contained within those individual boxes that are stacked high and wide. And all the multitude of the whole structure is unified with black paint.
Our eye goes on an excursion as shapes reveal themselves within the shadows and we begin to see objects we know—carved stair railings, banisters, chair legs, wooden spools, a bowling pin. All these shapes and objects are not secure through isolation or free through exclusion. No! Each individual shape and form is both more free, and more secure through its relation to other shapes and forms. Look at how the bowling pin, a little above center, with its proud uprightness and graceful shape, seems to insist on its relation to the tall cylinder to its right. It is secure in its place and free. This is how we want to be!
In his essay Art Is Free and Orderly, Mr. Siegel writes:
Originally presented at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City.