Interview with Founders Jenn Dierdorf and Kelsey Shwetz
The roots of a tuft of wild grass pulled up from the ground form an intriguing network of living fibers, interlaced with earth. This tenacious nest is a fitting visual for the perennial phenomena of women’s grass roots art collectives found around the world. Springing forth in the ‘70s collectives such as SOHO20, Artemisia, Women’s Building, Guerilla Girls, Las Damas de Arte, and WARM have provided support and opportunities for women not otherwise readily available in the staunchly patriarchic art world. In the subsequent decades women’s art collectives have proven to be a fertile, popular and diverse multi-purpose force, although unfortunately mainstream institutions have under-acknowledged their impact. Art Historian Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, observes, “[The] numerous exhibitions devoted to feminist art in the last decade or so [devote] little attention to collectives, and [there is] a lack of historical studies of collectives and their influence on contemporary art practices, which continue to be influential to the present day.” This exhibition, “Slečny od maliarskeho stojana,” which translates as “Ladies of the Easel,” presents an opportunity to document the origins of a thriving women’s art collective called LP (formerly known as Lady Painters) founded in 2015 by Jenn Dierdorf and Kelsey Shwetz in Brooklyn, NY. When conceiving of the show, curator Juliana Mrvová used LP as a resource for selecting work. Paintings by Dierdorf and Shwetz, among others, are included in the exhibition, which is presented from June to November 2019 in four cities in Slovikia: Bratislava (the capital), Banská Bystrica, Trebišov and Rimavská Sobota. As an early and on-going member of LP, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to interview Dierdorf and Shwetz about their motives and goals for the LP collective.
Anne Sherwood Pundyk is a painter and writer based in Manhattan and Mattituck, NY. She stains, crops and sews unstretched canvas to construct her work calibrating the interplay of spontaneity and control. She is a proud member of LP.
ASP: Why did you create LP?
JD: Kelsey and I were both working in arts programming at the time. I was the Co-Director at A.I.R. Gallery and she was the Panel Director at BACG (Bushwick Art Crit Group.) At least for me, I was really fatigued by so many artists asking for “community” but then not really participating when the opportunity arose. As an organizer it was really frustrating because we knew something wasn’t working but we weren’t sure what the solution was. Kelsey and I decided to try a different approach, with our goal being to get to know more women working in the field of painting. It was an effort to create friendships and really get to know people.
KS: I had recently moved to New York from Montreal and was missing the tight friendship group I had there. My friendships in New York were constellational; I would hang out mostly one on one and meet at a bar or public space and none of my friends knew each other. It was very disparate. I didn’t know what the inside of my friends’ apartments looked like. I recognized the environmental factors of New York at work here: it’s a vast city, everyone lives in different neighborhoods and everyone is working a lot. It’s hard to have spontaneous dinner parties or to settle on one bar that everyone shows up to as a matter of course on Friday night. Openings were a great place to see familiar faces and feel like part of a larger group, but not necessarily the most fertile ground for a sustained conversation. For me, the creation of LP stemmed from a desire for connection and friendship and the idea that you understand so much more about a person’s work by really knowing the person.
ASP: What were the conditions for creating the idea for LP both personally and professionally?
JD: I think some of our initial concerns were that we create a diverse and informal space to get to know about each other’s work. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable, even though they might be showing up to a gathering where they know absolutely no one, including the hosts. We spent a lot of time putting together guests lists and contacting artists individually in order to emphasize how much we appreciate their work and what they do. It’s a priority that the group be diverse in age, race and studio practice. We decided to keep the gatherings small in number so there was the opportunity to speak with everyone who attended. Sharing food and drinks together is a big part of each gathering. The name of the group belies some of our intention too, as we are not so strict about participants being either solely “ladies” or “painters”. We embrace queer, non-binary and trans artists in addition to various mediums and art practices.
ASP: When did you first get the idea?
KS: I was a moderator for a panel about strategies for women in the arts and had invited Jenn to be a panelist. Shortly after I met her at A.I.R. gallery, and we both expressed the desire to be a part of a community of women painters — I think the book Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter by Patricia Albers came up — and we had the idea that if we wanted this surely other people wanted it too, so maybe we could get the ball rolling.
ASP: What was your original concept and how has it evolved?
JD: At first I think we were really winging it. We invited some artists whose work we absolutely loved and were shocked when they accepted. We knew when we first started that we wanted to plan events that would be small enough that you could talk to each person at the party and it wouldn’t feel too big. We wanted to eat together and make the artists feel like we appreciate them and their work. We wanted everyone to talk and have a good time together and make connections. Basically we wanted to be matchmakers. We have definitely evolved since the early events; we now include a brief slideshow so everyone gets an opportunity to say a bit about their work. Each event is hosted by a different artist or group of artists and we vary the locations from an artist’s home to occasionally a studio or even a gallery. Kelsey and I meet every so often to assess how things are going and do what we can to steer it in a positive direction. Personally I think one of the difficulties we face is that a lot of artists hear about the meetings and want to be involved, which is great, but keeping each event small is really important to the dynamic and overall function of each gathering. We’ve tried to resolve that by also hosting two annual events, a summer BBQ and a holiday party, where we invite everyone who has ever attended a party and anyone else who is interested. They are fun events and usually about 50-plus artists that come out for those.
ASP: What are your current goals for the LP network?
KS: I’m thinking about how we can make some structural changes to our organization so trans and non-binary folks feel welcomed- we have struggled with the name that we chose (somewhat ironically and certainly with tongue in cheek) five years ago, Lady Painters, because it’s alienating to artists who don’t feel that descriptor fits. I think about why we started this whole thing, why we invite only women, and the crux of it is that we want to create a space of support and relief from being talked over, interrupted, sexually harassed, dismissed, etc. How are we honoring that original impulse if artists who also want a break from all of that feel excluded because they don’t identify as a “woman” or “lady”? Small changes like shifting the organization’s name to an acronym and using inclusive language in our invites is a start, but the big goal is to make the LP gatherings functionally welcoming and supportive. A second goal is to continue to expand to places outside of New York. So far we’ve had gatherings in LA and Slovakia, and plans for Mexico City and Canada LP gatherings are in the works for 2020.
ASP: Do you have a few favorite outcomes so far from the project?
JD: Each gathering is a completely new experience based on who attends and the energy everyone brings. Most of the time they are incredible and you leave feeling like your floating on air. The opportunities that I personally have gotten out of the LP events have utterly stunned me. I have traveled to Cuba, Slovakia and Croatia through women I came to know through LP. From exhibitions and residency invitations to some really dear friendships that I adore, I couldn’t be happier to have these women in my life. And it’s not just me! There are loads of stories about artists finding a studio or apartment, participating in solo and group exhibitions, invitations to collaborate and/or be part of residencies, making friends and traveling nationally and abroad.
ASP: Would you like to see other exhibitions take shape through LP?
KS: In short, I think what’s so special about the LP community is that it feels pretty egalitarian; there are no “levels” of membership or anything like that. Basically if you’ve attended a gathering you’re welcome as part of the LP community, and if you want to do studio visits and go to shows with and curate exhibitions that include the other folks who have attended gatherings that’s great and the whole point of it. Or maybe you just see a familiar face the next time you go to an opening alone. The point is, everyone who wants to be is equally a part of the LP network. To that end, Jenn and I made a website that serves as an archive of our events and also as a database that curators can draw from, but we aren’t necessarily interested in organizing LP exhibitions. What I love about the gatherings is that competition feels absent; we’re sharing work and spending time together, which feels like a sufficient end goal.