It’s hard sometimes, being a woman artist. We don’t get called “poetesses” any more or have to write under male pseudonyms like the Brontes, but if you read the comments on any interview with a woman writer most of them will probably be about her looks rather than her books.
Women artists get judged a lot on their personas, too. If you’re confident and egotistical you’re criticised for being “too much”, but the quiet and reserved JK Rowling has been attacked for being “cold”. So as an antidote to this weirdness, here’s my celebration of shy, quiet, introverted, reserved women artists.
I’ve missed out Emily Dickinson (who probably had social anxiety, and rarely left her room) only because she’s probably the poster woman for shy female artists. Here’s my top five:
1. JK Rowling
JK Rowling doesn’t need an introduction: the author of Harry Potter is one of the richest and most famous women in the world, adored by millions of people. But she has a surprisingly low public profile, and the first time I heard a radio interview with her it struck me how soft-spoken she is. This wonderful article explores how Ms Rowling has been criticised for her quietness and reserve (Gawker’s Caity Weaver wrote that it made you “not want to hang out” with JK Rowling). JK Rowling is an affirmation to shy, introverted women writers everywhere.
2. Dora Carrington
Known as Carrington, she was a painter and decorative artist who was friends with the Bloomsbury Group after World War One, and had a long and probably platonic relationship with the gay writer Lytton Strachey. Although she is often seen as a hanger-on around more famous people, Carrington was a distinguished artist in her own right, and her paintings hang in the Tate to this day.
Carrington was a tomboyish, bisexual woman who was painfully shy. The artist was self-conscious and often found it easier to communicate with animals than people; she “suffered from physical awkwardness, turning her feet in and hanging her head”.*
3. Alice Walker
Alice Walker is an American author and activist, known for her novel The Color Purple and other works dealing with themes like racism, equal rights, abuse and redemption. On being asked if she “screams the truth”, she replied “I never scream and I think that silence is the best way to get real attention.”
As a child, Walker was shot in the eye with a BB gun fired by her brother. When a layer of scar tissue formed over the wounded eye, she became painfully shy and self-conscious. The scar tissue was removed when she was 14 and she later became valedictorian and was voted queen of her senior class. She says that she drew value from her injury when she realised it had allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out”.
4. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor is a Russian Jewish American composer, pianist and songwriter. She is probably best known for her radio hits like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, but has composed thousands of songs. A CNN profile said that “in person, the classically trained pianist is shy and soft spoken”. Spektor tours a lot, but keeps a low public profile and rarely shares much about her personal life; she sometimes releases interviews, but seems to prefer staying in the background and out of the public eye.
5. Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a Scottish writer and the author of short stories and novels, such as Hotel World, The Accidental, and How to Be Both (which recently won the Baileys Prize). She creates beautiful, playful, inventive fiction which explores themes like love, loss, and justice.
Ali Smith has described herself as “quite shy” and prefers to talk about her work in interviews, rather than herself. A Guardian profile said: “Smith has always believed that an author must remain as anonymous as possible or risk impeding the fiction for her readers. Too much biographical information “diminishes the thing that you do” she says. “You have to remain invisible.””
*Virginia Woolf’s Women, Vanessa Curtis, 2014