My name is Elisa Shoenberger and I am working on an oral history project on female and female identified artists in Chicago. Since July 2014, I have been interviewing female artists from a variety of fields including visual art, performance art, literature and music. I want to get a diverse group of experiences of women in the arts. I aim to talk to people who identify as female, work in some capacity in a creative field (though not necessarily as their full time job), and live in Chicago or a neighboring suburb. I'm interested in talking to women of diverse practices, ethnicities and races, religions, ages, and experience in the art world. I record the interviews with the participants, get the audio transcribed. Ultimately, the interviews will be compiled into a book, tentatively called It Will Keep Your Heart Alive: Conversation with Female Artists in Chicago.
Many people might wonder why I have undertaken this project. It would all start with the Great Studs Terkel. I read "The Good War:" An Oral History of World War II and it changed my life. I felt that a lot of history had been written about great white men doing things. This text of Studs presented a whole new vision of history. Many voices, many dissenting ideas. It was beautiful.
Fast forward several years. In college and graduate school, I had become quite interested in women in the arts. I had written my theses on women in popular media, namely Chilean Socialist comic book propaganda and Cuban poster propaganda. I learned a lot about the women's movements in those countries, along with other countries in Latin America.
After graduation, I started working with Jan Lisa Huttner, Feminist film critic extraordinaire, to help with her initiative WITASWAN (Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now) that asks people to make conscious consumption decisions about the arts. In other words, it asks people to think if the films, books, etc they are consuming feature the voices of women and other groups. Out of this came SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now) at the end of March where women artists are celebrated for their work. 2015 is the 8th International Day! I worked with Jan on events and became interested in supporting and promoting women's voices in the arts. I moved from writing about it to trying to do something about it. In the past two years, I've also started directing and producing AAUW Chicago's Jane Addams Day celebration where I play Jane Addams in a historical reenactment. I mean it when I say that we have to celebrate women's voices.
So this past year, two forces came together to produce this project. First, I had gone to see Judy Chaikin's The Girls in the Band, a documentary about female jazz artists. It's an incredible story about women in jazz in the 30s, 40s, 50s to the present day. It's one that I had not even known about. It was such a clear example of how women can be written out of history. Thankfully for Ms. Chaikin, these amazing artists were being brought into the fold. What was especially concerning was that I had played alto saxophone for 10 years, and I had never known a single female horn player. Crazy.
Then the University of Chicago put on an incredible three day Studs Terkel Festival. It brought various organizations from all over Chicago and the US that were doing work inspired or in the spirit of Studs. After the festival, I felt energized that it was time for me to do an oral history project of my own. Eventually, it became obvious that I needed to talk to women in the arts in Chicago. And so I am embarking on this grand oral history project to talk to some of the most amazing female artists in Chicago.
In Winter 2016, I wrote, interviewed and produced an eight minute audio piece through Vocalo's Storytelling Workshop through support from the Chicago Community Trust. You can learn more about the audio project.