As I was looking over the news the other morning I was caught by the headline “Player portrayed in 'A League of their Own' dies.” I really did enjoy that movie but, more than that, I enjoyed the portrayal of women who stood in the face of criticism and followed their dreams. In their day there wasn’t much opportunity for that but it seems like when opportunity did arise, some gals went beyond just being good at something ... they excelled. It’s true, the movie was a fictional account, but the characters in the film were composites of real ball players living through real incidents. One must still understand that the original players who consulted for the film, or who spoke in interviews later, all agreed that Dorothy Kamenshek was the main inspiration for Dottie (played by Geena Davis).
Dorothy was the clear superstar of the real women’s league and was chosen as one of the Top 100 Female Athletes of the Century by Sports Illustrated. She played first base (in the movie she played catcher position) and was a slugger of a batter who could hit with power, or bunt gently when necessary. She was a smart, tough, player who stole 109 bases in 1946, and was so beautiful that she did wind up on the cover of Life magazine. She would perform stunts (like doing the splits when catching a ball) and that helped drive the popularity of women’s professional baseball to the point of tens of thousands of folks filling the stands as the women played.
The evening after I read that Kamenshek passed I dug out the old dvd and watched the movie again. I wouldn’t have thought a film like League of Their Own would hold up so well over time, but it does. It is kind of sentimental storytelling, and sitting through anything with Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna is a tough concept to anticipate. Still, both were likable back then and the story of women’s strength is powerful as ever. It is funny and thought provoking and those are wonderful traits in any film. Actually, this movie was well cast and if you read about what was removed for the sake of time, you’d probably agree that editing was superb.
I often wonder how young women today feel about characters like Dorothy and her team-mates. Is there any concept of the strife and pain the gals faced? Of the physical and mental demands? As a female who grew up in the middle of women’s movement, I was ‘first’ girly in a ‘man’s’ job and was picketed by folks who objected. I had things thrown at me and was taunted daily about how I should stay in the kitchen and make babies. Today, young women can work pretty much anywhere they want, and their wages closer reflect what the male counter-part makes for the same sort of work. Like it or not, women such as Dorothy Kamenshek made that possible.
There were more than Dorothy, though, and many of them are nearly lost in hubbub of our fast-paced entertainment industry. I’m going to introduce to you a woman who performed well in the Sport of Kings – who helped open the doors for generations of girls with a dream. She had the strength of character to ignore the taunting, to perform through broken bones and spills while she kept flashing that winning smile, appearing in commercials for Lady Clairol, Dutch Masters Cigars, A&W Rootbeer, and Burger Chef. She was also featured on To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line and was written about in popular magazines including People and Sports Illustrated. It seems especially notable that in the dirty world of sports it is important for the Powers That Be to include and promote the pretty ‘girly’.
When this lady was tops in her sport she was known as Donna Hillman, and was one of the first generation professional female horse jockeys. As it was for all women racers, she struggled to get mounts and traveled from track to track until, in Atlantic City, she had the leading win percentage of all riders. In Jamaica, during three months there, she rode twelve races a day and won many daily doubles, earning her the nickname “Double Donna”. In 1973 she represented the USA in the Inaugural International Ladies Race in Australia. Hillman rode professionally from 1971 through 1976, and is justly being recognized for her efforts in an upcoming feature length documentary titled Jock, which is about the first generation of female jockeys who, in the late 60's and early 70's, fought for the right to ride professionally.
The United States became the first nation in the world to allow women professional status as horse jockeys and to run against men. Of course, the male ego was threatened and they boycotted. They threw rocks and bricks at the ladies. They held back opportunity and mounts. But ... it was only a matter of time. Those pioneering women who blazed the way tolerated the intense pressure that they stay in the kitchen and played by the rule that they had to be better and more perfect than any man. As gals, we need to tip our hat to them.
Surely, there are those asking, “What does this have to do with creativity?” The answer is simple. As I stated in a previous post, I’ve met a lot of different kinds of creative people – one thing they have in common is an intense desire to be the best they can be. They don’t follow the normal rules set up by those that run the society ... and those that run the society seem to believe that the more creative we are in our thinking, the worse off society would be. Well, I don’t agree with that at all and I think our general urge to be creative and different is something that struggles for realization all the time. Pay attention to the traits you find in creative people and look for any relationship that ties perfectionism and purpose to creative product. Music. Movies. Writing. Painting. Performance. What you will find as relationship is worth understanding.
In the case of Donna Hillman, let’s first call her by the name she is known by today. It is Donna Walsh and she is a good friend of mine. I love to talk racing days with her but, beyond all that, we enjoy discussing painting (both hers an mine) whenever we can. Donna began her relationship with horses through her love of art. She, at the age of 14, sold her first two paintings and bought a horse, which lead her to the race track, and on and on. That is not normal behavior for a 14 year old kid. But, Donna did not grow up with normal boundaries of society. Her mother was a movie starlet in the ‘30s and ‘40s known as Joan Barclay. As typical, creativity for Donna didn't fall far from the family tree.
When Donna retired from racing she devoted her energy and time to painting. Over the years she’s developed a style that is charged with passion, holding a delightful grasp on that most wonderful thing known as value. In laymen’s terms, her sense of dark to light is strong and exercising that quality in a controlled manner does give each two dimensional work a delicious sense of depth. I would wish for everyone to meet Donna on those days when she emerges from her studio, still smeared with paint from head to toe and pacing almost nervously as she chats on about whatever is exciting her at the moment. You can see her brain working, feel the energy of a person who is bursting with desire to express charges that are racing through her mind. When she focuses that energy to accomplish an end, it’s powerful.
Over the years it has been my job to meet artists, help them become better at their craft, critique their handiwork, seek inspiration, and explore ways to self-promote. When I consider all that I’ve met, I have to say that Donna is the most tenacious, always eager to drift in another direction if it appears a better route. I know she understands very well that there are many paths up that proverbial mountain, and the view from the top is still the same. She will do whatever needs done to get there. Most importantly, she constantly works on fine-tuning her skill with the brush so every painting she makes seems to be better than the last. That is the ideal state for an artist.
When I view Donna’s body of work I find I am drawn to two paintings in particular. One, called Hawg Dawg is an oil showcasing her dog, Peetie, looking like he’s ready for a ride on across country. Her love of animals is evident in many of her works, but this one brings that notion home just a little bit stronger. Her point of interest is in our face, and I like that. I’ve met Peetie.
The second work that strikes me as prime is a piece she calls Horsing Around. Lighting in this, as well as Hawg Dawg, is supreme and well controlled. A level of nervous energy emits from both, too, by means of confident brush work and design. When I see these art works, I see Donna’s persona shinning through. That is how it should be in art.
I know there are many who like to believe that we painters should be reflecting what is happening in our society .... I think that is more like social journalism and nothing more than reporting what is outside of ourselves. Then there are those that believe we painters should be simply searching for expression that is not recognizable by representational things – few can paint that way successfully, I think. Those sort of artists must be a chaotic mess of expression to reflect that in a painting (previous post Jackson Pollock is a perfect example of that concept). When I study the timeline of art and honestly search the human element of painters and personalities, I’ve come to believe that our art works really need to reflect who we are as individuals. As people. As thinking and feeling beings. Some of us love beauty and struggle to express it. Some seek perfection. Some are inventive with expression and explore unique approaches of application. The best of them all are honest with themselves.
Donna Hillman-Walsh is honest with herself and worries about her work being misunderstood. She never wants to come across as a fool, though if you see her at any public function you’ll marvel at her level of confidence and never see the apprehensions she probably feels as you look over her intimate paintings. Knowing her, I do believe we are watching the training her previous career has given. Think long and hard about the difficulties she stood up against back in the racing days and realize her drive is a trait every one of us should possess. As I told my girls many years ago. Never give up. Never surrender. Never say die. Be the ball. It is true you must be twice as good for half the recognition. That was reality in the early-girly horse racing days, and in the days of Dorothy's baseball momma-drama. It’s doubly as true in the world of art today. Let’s tip our hat to Donna and Dorothy for blazing trails many years ago, and especially to Donna for honestly sharing her drive with all of us today. Beautiful art is a beautiful thing.
To view Donna Walsh’s work online:
HIPART.COM or TMFINEART.COM
To follow the production of the movie Jock, visit: