The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There is No Crying in Baseball!

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.

To get a little perspective on the importance of someone like Hillman, one must realize that in 1968 horse racing was the most popular American sport.  It attracted more attendance than football, baseball, or auto racing. Most notably, it’s long history and traditions precluded women from ever becoming professional jockeys. They were considered the weaker sex. A director of the Jockey Club said, “They’re not strong enough to be good riders. They’ll freeze. They’ll panic.”  Another trainer continued “ ....  all women are like housewives. If you watch a woman at a stop-light, she’s the slowest one to accelerate because her reflexes aren’t as good as a man’s.”  It took a lawsuit regarding sexual discrimination to change that pompous control and in early 1969 the Sport of Kings became fair game for either gender.

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:

To follow the production of the movie Jock, visit:


savagegoldie said...

I can see Donna blushing now...:-)

Irelock said...

I sent it to her before I posted, just to be sure she was ok with me speaking about her. I think she did blush, and she's as humble as ever. What a gal!

rogle_99 said...

A personification of the label, 'gifted' - perhaps an over-generalization, but it seems like artists connect well with animals(?)

Irelock said...

Hi, rogle_99 ... both gals were tremendously gifted. More than that, they were some of the hardest workers you'll read about. I've seen photos of Dorothy's legs/hips scrubbed raw from sliding into home in skirt. I've seen Donna's leg, today, where the muscle is separated from the bone. The pain of gain ... wow. Not everyone can do that! As for the artist and the animals? I think artist connect well with whatever drives their interest to the point of capturing on canvas, film, book, clay, or whatever. If the viewer can't feel a genuine love and connection, then the artists is faking it!

Peggie said...

A great piece with enough "food for thought" for many days. You wrote about 2 outstanding women whose driving force can be summed up as "commitment." As a reward for their hard work, pain, and sacrifice, they attained the gratification of fame, some monetary compensation, and a legacy that will last long after their passing. I think it's worthy of note to also understand that their success was also a result of being in the right place at the right time with that "commitment" that sealed the deal. My applause also goes to the thousands of our moms, grandmothers, and aunts that came before us that pushed, prodded, and nudged their way up the lower rungs of the ladder with no less "commitment" but whose timing just wasn't right. They're all my heroines.

Irelock said...

Amen! I still live by the notion that a gal has to be twice as good for half the recognition, so that means the women I wrote about were truly the best of the best. I respect and admire them both ... I tip my hat in honour!

jess said...

Both Dorothy and Donna should feel honored. What a beautiful tribute to such extraordinary effort, commitment, and determination. I tip my proverbial hat as well!
Commitment is such a powerful word,... in 3 syllables, it embodies the recipe for success in any endeavor. I stand in awe at the courageous women who revolutionalized the world and made a name for women in not just the world of sports, but in so many other facets of life, and perhaps most importantly in art. To do that requires a thorough understanding of oneself, which I believe is an ever evolving journey of a lifetime, but ultimately the most rewarding one we will ever take.
Everyone posesses creativity in some form, for me it is in writing, for others it may be on the canvas or through music, but commitment to excellence and honesty to oneself in every created work is what, in the end, both captivates and changes the world.

So to all the Dorothy's and Donna's out there, keep fighting the good fight!

Irelock said...

Beautifully said, Jess! Every word you wrote is true and it's heartening to see a young woman who understands the strife girls like Donna and Dorothy endured. I've had lunch with Donna after I wrote this, and found her humbled even more ... which I didn't mean to do to her. She's finally being recognized for her efforts, not just on my blog, but in the up-coming movie and multiple news and magazine articles. In the future, there will be a book coming about her, too. She's such an inspiration to so many of us!

Carol Rhodes said...

Olivia,you are truly a very gifted writer as well as artist. You really brought to life how Dorothy and Donna contributed to making life better for women by opening doors for the future.

It is women like them that changed the way men view a women’s place in this world.

I appreciate your gift as a writer. I enjoyed reading this very much. Have your written books?

Thank you for adding our website for people to view Donna’s work. That was very thoughtful. I truly appreciate the link.


Irelock said...

Carol – thank you very much. Women like Dorothy and Donna did much to help establish an honest look at a woman's place in the world. I am grateful to them for their excellence.

And, thank you for your compliment regarding my writing style. It's something I do when I'm not painting ... actually, I think of it as painting with words. It's challenging at times, and always enjoyable.

I have written a couple of books: Of Fur & Feathers - An Artist Passing Through (full of art instructions, history, and such) and Shaun & Christopher's Guide to Wilderlife - An Easy-To-Use Guide with More than a Dozen Full-colour Illustrations, Expressing Residents of Nature's Deepest and Less Traveled Regions. Sort of. (a satire field guide of fantasy animals and imaginary scientific fact) And, Donna and I are now talking about me writing her biography in my own, silly style. That sounds like a challenge worth attempting and I think we will be doing it. For sure, she and I have talked so much over the past 8 years or so that I have a good sense of what she is and how she got here. It's a truly fascinating story that should be told. Funny what a blog post can bring about, eh?

Thank you again for your comment on my post, and for your ever constant support of Donna's artwork. Patrons of the arts are our breath ... Olivia (Irelock)

in2books said...

Wow! Olivia, you are a fantastic, engaging writer. From a distance, this piece about Donna, and Dorothy seems to be long and time consuming. However, once one begins to read this blog post, one discovers that suddenly there is enough time to read it all and keep reading.

As a former professional jock from the late `70's, I too can identify with the essential attributes of grit and determination blended with a right spirit within.

Yes, Donna has it all, and to then bridge that creativity gap as a professional race-rider, onto a successful career in art, enhanced by a powerful gene pool (I had no idea that Joan Barclay was her mom, and I am stoked!), one sees that the world is Donna's oyster, and the possibilities are endless.

Thanks so much for a good read and I'm now reposting on my FB page too. <3

Blessings to you both,
Sandy Koster

Irelock said...

Thank you very much, Sandy! I have been scolded all my life for writing too much but, to me, the story needs to be as long as it needs to be. These two women are such inspirations and their the story holds interest very well. I am delighted to know Donna, and will forever wish I could have met Dorothy.

You were a jockey too, eh? That is cool ... it had to be tough. I have always admired people who could climb on an animal that large and not freak! I grew up in the wilds of Alaska where there were no horses to speak of. There were plenty of very large animals, but we made a point to stay clear of them and most of them served an entirely different purpose for us.

Thank you again, Sandy. I appreciate your comment and interest.
Olivia (Irelock)