There are those who will dismiss you because you are a woman. But I never let that get in my way. I was determined to become my own person, reliant on no one to do what I do.
Donna Frost / Singer-Songwriter / Age 58 / Hendersonville, Tennessee
Donna Frost was born into a family gospel group and hit the road with them at two weeks old. She decided she wanted to be a performer at age six after witnessing the Beatles phenomenon on the Ed Sullivan Show and she has been a full-time touring artist for the past 23 years.
I sold Christmas cards at the age of nine to make my own money to buy a piano. My aunt gave me my first guitar. Later on, when I was older, she paid for me to go to Belmont University to study music. She also bought my brother and I a van and an equipment trailer for us to tour in when we were older with our rock band.
Donna was influenced by all kinds of artists in every genre but became attached to one in particular–one of the first women to achieve major success as a solo artist in the country music industry. Skeeter Davis’ hit single, The End of the World, is still a favorite today and I can definitely hear her influence in Donna’s music.
As a child, my first hero was the late Skeeter Davis, who was my idol and became my mentor when I was an adult. I sang with her the last eight years of her life in the 1990’s – early 2000’s.
Donna also found steadfast support from her mother–the “rock” of her family–and her aunt, Mary Lynch Jarvis.
(Jarvis) was a pioneer…for women who worked in the industry. She was Chet Atkins’ right hand at RCA for 20 years and blazed a trail for women in the music industry.
Being a woman in the music industry is certainly difficult. There’s the Good Old Boys club; there were the occasional dominating males I worked with in some of the bands who tried to push me around…I’m very independent. Now it’s the ageism thing sometimes. But, overall, I’m very blessed. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been with my music, and, as I said…I’m self-reliant. I perform and tour by myself most times. I book the gigs, I drive, I roadie, I play and sing, I do everything for myself. And I like it that way. My experiences with my bandmates through the years have been great overall, especially the bands I have played in with my brother and with my good friends. I’m fortunate.
How do you define success?
To me, success is loving what you do, doing what you love, and I see myself as successful because I have been doing this since I was a teenager. I have been a full-time touring artist since 1993 and I have had so many rich experiences, so many wonderful people in my life that are my friends…friends I would not have had were it not for my music.
Back when I was younger, I was like everyone else. I thought a major label deal and becoming a big star was what I wanted. It didn’t happen that way. And the older I got, the more my priorities and expectations changed. I have learned there’s more to life.
I also am involved in several programs that help others through music. In addition to my shows as an artist, I play several shows each month for Music for Seniors, which brings music to the elderly (some of them are Alzheimer and dementia patients). I am an ambassador for Ukulele Kids Club, which places ukuleles in hospitals for sick kids. Prior to that I was with Musicians On Call for five years (We brought live music to hospitals and hospices.) and Songs of Love for five years (writing and producing songs for terminally ill children).
Being able to give back with my music is very important to me. That means more than any record deal or fame and fortune. I am quite happy with my life. I’m thankful that I’m so busy at age 58 and still able to go do my thing!
A couple of years ago, life threw Donna a curve-ball and it turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in her music.
I’m currently promoting my 5th CD and first all original Ukulele music album, Ukeabilly Mama, which came about when I was recovering from my accident (broken arm) and surgery two years ago. I had to cancel six weeks of shows but I was playing my Ukulele, writing music and rehearsing. When the accident happened, the doctors said I would not be able to perform for 6-8 months but I proved them wrong. The Ukulele saved my life and gave me a cool new angle to my career. It has opened some new doors and set me on an amazing journey.
What are you working on next? Is there something you’d still like to see happen in your career?
I’m always writing new songs and hope to get in the studio to record my 6th CD in the months ahead. I’ve written close to 300 songs and have only recorded about 60 of them. I am currently writing my first book, Guitars, Ukes and Sequin Boots-My Life in Song, which I’ve been working on for a couple of years and hope to have out soon as well. Something I would love to see happen would be having some of my songs placed in films and TV shows. That is what I would like most!
Which actress would play you in the movie of your life?
Bette Davis or Diane Keaton.
You can hear Donna’s music, check tour dates and more on her page at REVERBNATION.
There is an ageism that women in the arts face that men don’t. Granted, no one ever sees my face in association with my work unless I want them too, but there is still the pressure to look young, think young, be fresh and hip with my ideas.
Melissa Dyanne / Visual Artist / Age 38 / West Hollywood, California
As is the case with so many artists, Melissa Dyanne first discovered her calling at a young age during some family turmoil–her parent’s divorce–that led to a certain displacement and shuttling back and forth between airports and apartments in Seattle and Spokane. She learned to sketch at age four from her dad’s renditions of Star Wars characters and escaped unwelcome situations with a sketch pad.
She was dating and I hated the current guy so I would hang out outside with my drawing pad. There was this older women who would come out and sweep the sidewalk all the time and she did it in this very mechanical, efficient manner, back and forth like some crazy sweeping robot.
I would try to capture her motion in my sketches. I think this was the beginning of the underlying theme in all of my work, time, movement, memory. I’m always mashing realism with abstraction, photo and film….and no matter what series I am working on, I always have this obsession with the idea of moving paintings. I am positive I started it then. Even though I am a painter professionally, I grew up wanting to be an animator. I’m sure that sweeping woman started the idea.
Although art can be a calling and an escape, the very conditions that create the artist also have the potential to destroy her–a real dilemma for most artists including myself.
… I had an extremely abusive childhood so the question was never really about growing up to be an artist, it was whether or not I would grow up at all. I suffered from severe depression, eating disorders and some drinking/drug use (all before the age of 18) so art was really an escape for me. I was talented, but honestly never cared. I’m still of the belief/thought that talent means nothing, it is work ethic and the ability to center yourself.
There are also positive and negative sides to using art as an escape. Positive side is that you always make art, you never need to seek motivation, negative side is that you cease to be objective and project oriented with your work. I think that has hurt me professionally in some ways; I’m pretty scattered with my studio practice. I work a ton, but really only like to work on what my emotions are attached to…focusing on a series or getting a body of work ready for a show is difficult for me.
Melissa received her BFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, WA and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Some of the obstacles she’s encountered in the academic and professional world are financial, and some of them are related to her gender.
Money is always an issue as an artist, until you have enough money not to consider it an obstacle anymore. I grew up with limited financial resources, which restricted the amount of risks I was willing to take in my development/career. Great art really demands that the artist take risks and think outside of the box. I’m also the only person in my family that has pursued art as a career. It can be very difficult to have a family, that is supposed to be a support system, seem more like a judge, jury and executioner when it comes to your personal and professional decisions.
My undergraduate degree was from a state school, so there were other students in my position, which made for very little comparison of the haves and have nots and more comparison based on skill, work ethic and teacher approval. The graduate school I attended, however, was private, so there were more students there that came from wealthy families. While I was amassing great amounts of debt, my classmates were getting their tuition paid for, apartments and houses, etc. I felt a ton of stress just trying to scrape together enough money to buy groceries, pay rent, and so on…and it definitely affected my work those two years.
I also graduated in 2008, during the recession. So, again, when my wealthy classmates walked out with very little debt, able to decompress and “figure their lives out,” I had to immediately go and wait on tables full time since my student loans were kicking in. That was scary, depressing and utterly demoralizing.
One thing that I also learned both in undergrad and graduate school, was that if you were a young female artist of little means, talent, and good looks, there were many male professors that would offer you hope, in the form of praise and sometimes connections. This always came at a price though, you had to worship them as well. I bucked that system in grad school and definitely paid the price. I actually had one male critic/professor ask me if the “paint brush was too heavy since many of my strokes looked weak” on a large scale (8 x 10 foot) painting that I was working on. I still tell that “joke” when anyone mentions discrimination in art, and even though I just blew that comment off at the time, that type of sexism always lingers in your brain a bit.
When I moved to New York I experienced the sexism in the painting world full force. Male artists just naturally assumed you wanted to sleep with them, and they would garishly offer you the universe if you did (“I’ll make you a star!!”) Of course those things rarely happened (success via sleeping with someone slightly famous) and if it did, those relationships ended horrifically with things always falling in favor of the man offering you the moon. Bad part is that instead of the moon, you get your ideas and paintings ripped off plus the opportunity to accidentally meet their wife at an art opening. Being lured into these unfortunate relationships can definitely be considered set backs. I do know women in stable, double artist relationships, but they do still concede and/or prop up their male half’s career, even if they are the more successful artist.
Unfortunately, all these obstacles I mentioned never go away, but I believe you learn to navigate around them. Creating a good support system through personal relationships helps! I find as time goes on, I seek out friends in my industry less and less, and look for those who are inspirational and interesting, no matter what their profession is. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I seek genuine connections rather than ones that would potentially get me somewhere. Doing that tends to rule out all the BS by default. Setting realistic goals helps as well. I can only control what I do with my work, reaching out for opportunities etc…I can’t control how it will all be received. I continuously grow thicker and thicker skin so I don’t cower from rejection and become the worst kind of road block, which is a road block to yourself.
An artist Melissa greatly admires is David Hockney, for his joyful and independent spirit. I love hearing her talk about Hockney as he is one of my very favorites as well. His experiments with video collage, where he explored creating depth and dimension on film, was so exciting to me back in the days when I was directing.
When I am teaching, I always show my students a few of his interviews. I think he is the embodiment of a true artist. He lives life his own way, makes work his own way without any bitterness or competition. His approach is just sheer joy and the love of discovery. He has also shifted his work many times in the course of his career with no guilt or explanation, and ventures into areas that people raise their eyebrows at, but he makes it happen. He’s the only artist to date, that I know of, that has had a show of iPad paintings. No one liked it, but he made it work, and I personally think he is on to something. Hockney is definitely a hero of mine.
What is your definition of success?
That’s a tricky one. For me, it would be quitting my “day job” and painting full time. I’m guessing that requires me selling my work for a good amount of money which also requires my work being noticed by the general public and be shown in major galleries. I don’t consider many gallery artists very successful in their work, a ton of it is horrible, but many of them quit their “day jobs” so they clearly have something I want, and the public considers them successful. If there was another way to quit my day job and paint full time, I would do that.
What has changed and evolved is the attitude I have towards my quality of life while striving for success. A tiny studio apartment and the single life just don’t do it for me anymore. I do actually think about the bigger picture, which includes comfortable living space and a family of my own. That is one of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles rather back to New York when I felt the pull of a larger art scene (Seattle is pretty small). I knew my living situation would be much better and my goals would be achieved in a more relaxing fashion.
I tend to look at past accomplishments as relative, (in the sense that I might of thought of it as great then, but am not so sure now) so I would say any accomplishment that I would be proud of is most likely recent, and small. I just learned how to use digital painting software and stop motion animated a painting for the first time. It was crude, but I was very excited that I made it happen. I also think it is an accomplishment to be a tactile artist for as long as I have been, but now be able to make whatever I want digitally…it feels liberating. An older painting of mine, one that I really liked, just sold at an auction so that gave me a bit of pride as well, and the verification that I am not commercially dead 🙂 I was also recently added to the Rembrandt’s Dog list, which is an internationally curated list of 1000 of the most influential painters working today. I was honored to be included.
What keeps you going day after day, particularly in times with no visible signs of progress or success?
Routine. I always have projects swimming around in my mind, so I set goals to finish them. That art making habit is already ingrained in me, so I get irritable and upset if I am not working on something. I do get frustrated when I have no shows lined up, it feels like I am painting into a void, but I try to remedy that by telling myself I will finish a new body of work and “get it out there”. That relieves the feeling of nothingness a bit.
How do you move past society’s limiting beliefs and lack of opportunities for women in the arts?
I said a lot about this in the question about setbacks/obstacles, because sexism in the arts has always been, and still is a serious issue. One thing I have avoided in my work is to make it overtly female as to garner attention. I had very explosive, gender specific work when I started out, which I don’t think was a problem per se, but can be when used as a crutch. I also feel like there is an ingrained acceptance for women who make feminine work (and in this I mean, nudity, sex, boobs, innocence, beauty, etc.) but when they step out into larger, less gender specific themes there is less acceptance. I have heard minority artists speak of this as well. If they aren’t talking about being Hispanic, African American, Asian, so on and so forth, then no one wants to see it. I don’t want to feed that machine.
What advice do you have to offer to other female artists?
Stay committed to your work and be good to your female peers! It’s difficult enough to navigate a male dominated profession, and when women don’t prop up other women, even worse. Realize that we are a still a minority in the field, but there is power in numbers.
Which actress would play you in the movie of your life?
Amy Adams! She’s lovely, and has studied playing a female painter since she was in Big Eyes 🙂
What are you working on right now and what vision do you have for what you’d like to create next in your work?
I’m illustrating a children’s book! For a friend. It is a project I put off forever so I’m happy it is “back on.” Two painting series are in the works as well, one focuses on a trip my boyfriend and I took to Ocean Shores, WA. and the other is a contemporary mash up of Rococo paintings.
I’ve started playing with the idea of putting everything through a digital filter. I make sketches, work them up in Corel Painter and Sketch up, then copy and re-paint on canvas or panel, retaining some of the computer generated look. This requires more spray paint than I normally use in my underpaintings and other technical adjustments, so I am still trying it out/working out the kinks. I’m also going to work to perfect my stop-motion animated paintings and diorama paintings (large scale backdrops with cut-outs I attach with Velcro).
To connect with Melissa and view more of her work, please click the following links (I especially love her vibrant Instagram account):
Hollywood especially is dog-eat-dog, and when the competition is fierce among the men, you know women will be required to fight like hell to get in the room. So fight like hell. And if you get in the room, open the door for another woman who is still in the hallway.
Jo Hannah Afton / Screenwriter / Age 51 / Mars Hill, North Carolina
I met Jo Hannah Afton online over a year ago when I was looking for a feature film script to develop for myself. I read hundreds of log-lines, synopses and scripts over the course of a year and was discouraged by the material coming my way…until I found Jo. Her writing blew me away and we formed a pretty immediate connection in terms of our taste and passions.
The first writer that I really connected with was Sam Sheperd. I don’t know why, but his stark, simple sets and underlying messages about family, life and economic hardship resonated with me. I still enjoy reading his work. Even bumped into him in a deli years ago but couldn’t get the courage up to say anything. Now, I think I most admire the writing of Joel and Ethan Coen. Their complex stories, dark humor, and outlandish characters are fabulous.
Jo is a fierce advocate for women in film and writes wonderfully compelling female protagonists. She’s just started the second draft for my feature and I’m so excited about how it’s turning out.
EXT. SADIE’S LOUNGE - AFTERNOON LAYLAH (30’s), a hard-working woman in cowboy boots, steps out of the Chevy. Her sweated-soaked hair clings to her neck. It could use a wash. Sadie exits, her hands on her hips. She wears her muffin-top like a blue ribbon.
Jo Hannah has been incredibly inspiring to me as an artist because of the way she began to pursue her dream in earnest after her children were out of the house and for the sheer volume of work she has churned out over the past couple of years. She started taking screenwriting classes in 2014 and is currently being mentored by Chris Soth, who has consulted on our script.
I…largely gave up on being a writer while I was raising children. It wasn’t until I married my second husband, and he encouraged me to write again that I took it up in earnest (in my 40’s!). His support has been pivotal for me in making a full time commitment to writing… both financially and emotionally.
Having babies was my biggest obstacle to writing. It’s hard to write when children are underfoot. As Virginia Woolfe reminds us… we need a room of our own. I tried. I wrote a novel and began a screenplay during those years, but rewriting, concentrating and getting the mental space to think without distractions was impossible. So I gave up and enjoyed my kids while I had them with me, and that was a good decision. They’re grown now and I miss them like crazy and don’t regret setting down my personal ambitions to be a Mom.
And oddly, the largest challenge I’ve had to date – the financial crisis of 2008 and the loss of everything I owned and my business – turned out to be exactly what I needed to start over as a writer. It was like a giant punctuation mark on my life that begged me to re-invent myself. And so I did.
As the Dalai Lama says… sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of good luck! So to answer the question about how I deal with obstacles is this: I deal with them by seeing them as opportunities, not obstacles. There is something to be gained in every life situation. I like to look for that something.
A friend asked me if we’d set a deadline for our second draft and I basically said that Jo doesn’t need deadlines because you can’t stop this woman from writing. A prime example: during one of our conversations she told me about some scheduling conflicts that would prevent her from writing for a week or two…and then the next day she sent me 50 pages.
Right now, I write a new script every two to three months and that feels like a healthy goal to have. But I’d let myself off the hook if I was busy on a film project or if I needed a vacation for a bit. I don’t punish myself with strict deadlines but I don’t slack either. I don’t prescribe to the “write every day no matter what” either. Some days I need to sit still. Or visit with family. Or stare off across the horizon and daydream. The writing comes easily to me and I don’t get “writer’s block” so to speak. And I think that’s because I’m fairly relaxed about how I go about it… and I don’t let excuses stop me from going about it. If that makes any sense.
I asked Jo how she handles those times when nothing seems to be moving forward, as well as the limitations and lack of opportunities that confront women in our culture.
I just love to write. I’d do it regardless at this point. Even if everyone I knew told me my work sucked and walked away from it, I’d still write.
I spend as much time as possible becoming a better writer. And then I tweet #stormthegates on feminist film articles. Lol. I also make my own opportunities, and try to involve and support other women in their projects as much as possible. I donated to more than 10 film projects in the last year, and am hosting a women’s only writer’s retreat at my house next month. I think it’s important that women help each other through the process instead of competing with each other. So, I’m doing that.
Have there been any women in your life who have set examples for you?
My mother, of course, was a good example for me in many ways. She values creativity and free expression herself, and is never short on encouraging me to live my own dream. My younger sister has been a fascinating example for me in perseverance and feminist grit. She might say the same about me, I don’t know. I think we both inspire each other to keep going. My other sister is an artist, and she’s been a good example for me as I watch her navigate her own challenges related to her career in the arts. I also had a friend years ago who taught me to write something every day just for me… she playfully created poems for fun and to share with others, and she was a tremendous lesson for me in learning to create for my own enjoyment, as opposed to writing for the purpose of publishing or earning money from the work.
How does Jo Hannah define success for herself and what does she have her sights set on in the future?
I measure my success by my happiness mainly. When I write, I’m happy. So, there is never anything to regret about doing it. But I also would like to see one of my scripts made into a film someday, and that would also make me happy. So I’ll say that any day I wake up and write for a short bit or a long bit, is a successful day, but my goal is to be produced someday.
I would like see my work produced, and when it is produced, I would like the people that watch it to enjoy it. That’s all. And if it gives them some insight into their own lives, or causes them to pause and think about life a tad more deeply, then that will be icing on the cake.
Which actress, dead or alive, would you like to play you in the movie of your life?
Oh Dear God. Please don’t let there ever be a movie of my life.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any current projects you’d like to talk about or promote?
I have four optioned scripts right now and you’re going to star in one of them! That’s all I can say about those, but I can say that I’m working on a tent pole fantasy for girls right now to help me showcase my imaginative side. If anyone would like to read my latest script, EMERALD QUEEN: RIVER OF TEARS, a fairy tale for girls, please message me privately and I’ll send it out when it’s done.
To learn more about Jo Hannah or to contact her about her work, please visit her website: www.johannahafton.com