One artist began to paint after her mother was murdered by her brother when she was 14 years old. As an adult, she's obsessed with drawing circles, a infinite shape that begins but never ends.
Another woman, also a painter, depicts barrier after barrier: wooden fences and chain-link fences, closed doors and shutters. But she also depicts the air pockets between those metal links and the holes in the slabs, rendering not just the impediments but a way through them.
A third thinks of herself as a builder, someone who makes things. For her, shaping one of her muscular sculptures from wooden two-by-fours is not unlike molding a child — an attitude that she fears might have harmed her career.
The three artists —Shana Goetsch, Mary Anne Arntzen and Rachel Rotenberg — are among the 21 women and one man featured in an "GUTSY: Taking the Fear Factor Out of Feminism," a mixed-media exhibit running through Friday at Gallery CA in Station North.
"GUTSY" is the inaugural show of the newly formed Baltimore chapter of The Feminist Art Project, an international group based at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Feminist Art Project was formed to combat the marginalization of female artists, who occupy just a small fraction of gallery space worldwide, even in museums of contemporary art.
"It's hard to be a female artist," Rotenberg says. "It's hard to get representation. It's hard to get your work seen and taken seriously – and there are a lot of fantastic woman artists."
Visitors touring the exhibit get a sense that each of the 22 regional artists included in the show has a rich story to relate. What, for instance, was the inspiration behind Ingrid Nuttle's "Mom," a papier-mache tree that is visibly pregnant and that unfurls not just leaves at the tips of its branches, but also eyes?
Or, what did the group's only male artist, Crissìan Chen, want to explore when he put together a 75-minute wordless video of men and women putting on and taking off makeup?
Goetsch, Arntzen and Rotenberg recently got together to talk about how their experiences as women have shaped their creative output. Some of their thoughts are summarized in the vignettes below.
Gallery visitors will have a chance to continue that conversation Friday, when the artists will be on hand for a public reception.
Shana Goetsch was just 14 when she watched her mother bleed to death on the floor of the family's Wisconsin home.
It was Nov. 8, 1989, and her 19-year-old brother had driven home in the middle of the night from the university where he was a college freshman. Chad Goetsch shot his mother in the heart with a bow and arrow, grappled with his legislator father, and beat up his little sister when she brandished a knife to protect herself.
The murder and subsequent trial made national headlines. Chad Goetsch was sentenced to life in prison, his sister says, but will be eligible for parole this fall.
"I think everyone thought I had it handled," Goetsch, 39, says. "My dad wasn't very much into head doctors, and it didn't look like I needed help. I may have had a few sessions. But the therapists were shocked by my shocking story, and that made me feel like a freak. I instinctually needed an outlet for myself, and I just started painting."
For "GUTSY," Goetsch, who lives in Baltimore, contributed "Sole Intention," a watercolor featuring an uneven circle in blue and green, surrounded by orbs of color that morph from pink to yellow to orange-red.
Goetsch, who has two master's degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art, doesn't confine herself to one medium or to depicting just one shape or form. Her projects range from fiber art to using creative impulse to heal social ills. As a community artist, Goetsch works with neighborhood groups and schools and also is a co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of The Feminist Art Project.
But she thinks of her series of circles, which she started in 2002, as the most intimate, contemplative and personal of her creations.
"I'm drawn to the tension in circles," she says. "There are circles in the body, in nature, in space and religion. All the saints have circles around their heads."
Before she begins working on one of her circles, Goetsch often deliberately brings up painful memories by reading old newspaper clippings. Within four years of her mother's murder, she says, both of her grandmothers died.
"After I lost all the women in my family," she says, "one of the key questions in my head was. 'How do I be a woman?'
"I didn't know what that meant anymore. I think I'm still trying to figure it out."
Mary Anne Arntzen
Spend enough time contemplating Mary Anne Arntzen's architectural oil paintings — some abstract, others more obviously identifiable — and they begin to take on an almost autobiographical quality.
It's not that the artist ever depicts herself (or for that matter, any other person) in her paintings. She describes her preoccupations as color and space. But Arntzen, 32, is present in her artwork. Viewers feel that they're standing just behind the artist, gazing at the painting from over her shoulder.
"I'm interested in the idea of peering through something," Arntzen says. "I'm interested in how shadows behave. Being in the middle of an experience doesn't interest me so much. I resonate much more at looking through a surface at something."
It's not so clear whether the doors and the shutters in the 2013 artwork that Arntzen has titled "Red Thing" function as a prison or as a protection. Who's being kept out — the artist or the people presumably living inside that abstract house?
The artist isn't aware until it's pointed out to her that the green door in "Red Thing" can be opened with a small yellow handle.
"Oh, that's funny," she says. "I just thought that was a smudge that I incorporated. But I totally see the handle now."
She developed the habit of observing the world from a slight and somewhat blurred remove while she was growing up in Riverside, Calif.
"We spent so much time in the car," Arntzen says. "I got used to the way landscape appears when you're looking out at it through a car window."
That's a preference that can come in handy for young female artists, who are outsiders almost by definition. When Arntzen was studying painting at Boston University in the early 2000s, male classmates asked a professor why there are so few famous female artists.
"He told these guys that men were just predisposed to being artists," Arntzen says. "He was super old-school and he's definitely either retired or dead by now. But I still wonder how much little twigs of that stayed in those guys' brains."
Though Arntzen, who lives in Baltimore, doesn't consciously set out to reflect feminist themes in her artwork, she acknowledges that her obsession with physical barriers also is a form of subtle protest.
"My work isn't specifically feminist in its imagery or motivation," she says, "but there's definitely some unconscious mirroring going on."
In the summer of 2011, Rachel Rotenberg ran headlong into an example of art-world politics every bit as painfully unyielding as one of her massive cedar sculptures.
The artist, now 56, was a finalist for the prestigious Sondheim Artscape Prize and didn't win. But that wasn't the discouraging part.
"Afterwards, I was wondering how they selected the winner," she says. "I was told, though not by one of the judges, that I shouldn't have said in my interview that I have five kids. I should have been much more professional because the judges were concerned with how the winner would come across in the greater artistic community."
The insidious thing about all forms of discrimination, she says, is that it puts nagging doubts into your head that can't be resolved. Rotenberg will never know if she lost the prize because of the winner's merits or arbitrary considerations.
"It had never occurred to me that I shouldn't talk about my kids," she says. "When I work, I work from who I am. When I mother, I mother from who I am. And when I friend, I friend from who I am.
"My pieces are my children. They're in a different category, but they are my children, too. I don't know that a man would speak that way."
Visitors to Rotenberg's Pikesville studio often remark upon the contrast between the 5-foot-2, 109-pound, delicate-boned artist and her creations, which are large and imposing. It is immediately apparent that power tools were used in their construction.
Her work, which she shapes carefully from cedar two-by-fours and four-by-fours, is not easily overlooked. It does not sit quietly in the corner of a room but demands to be part of the conversation.
For instance, the piece in "GUTSY" is titled "Toda," the Hebrew word for "thank you." It stands nearly six feet tall, with rounded shapes that evoke a waterfall or human buttocks. A long piece of tightly twisted wood — Rotenberg thinks it might be wisteria — arches from the top and cascades toward the base.
"Sculpture is the place where I discover myself," Rotenberg says. "I'm a woman and a friend and a mother and a lover and a person who likes things and who hates things and it all comes out in my work. That's what an artist does.
"I'm a much more interesting person through my sculptures than I am in conversation. As I create things, I'm creating myself."
If you go
"GUTSY: Taking the Fear Factor Out of Feminism" runs through Friday at Gallery CA, 440 E. Oliver St. The public is invited to meet the artists at a free reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. For details, call 410-528-9239 or go to galleryca.org.