In an episode of BuzzFeed's Women Of The Hour podcast, Lena Dunham talks with her mom, artist Laurie Simmons, about coming up in the New York art scene in the mid-1970s.
Talking with Dunham about her decision to leave the suburbs to work as an artist in New York City, Simmons explains that her father tried to talk her out of it.
"I visualized whatever my idea of a bohemian life was. And as you know my father was a dentist and he was my dentist. So he used to hold me captive in his dental chair and he told me that if I didn't get married and I was an artist that I would probably live in a cold water flat - a walkup. He sort of outlined the life I would have if I chose to be an artist and chose not to get married. And actually, compared to my suburban background, he didn't realize how glamorous he made it sound," she says.
Simmons' mother didn't quite get it, either. "I asked her once if she expected me to do what I was doing," says Simmons. "And she said, 'You know, I really thought that you would marry a doctor or a lawyer and show your art at the synagogue art shows,' because when I grew up the local temple hosted an art show every year, and that's when the Sunday painters or the ladies who made art put their work in the show… To me, as a little kid, it was pretty inspiring, but I think that my mother couldn't visualize anything beyond that."
When she first arrived in New York, women were gaining respect as members of the art community, but Simmons' chose to distance herself from them. Instead, her awareness of sexism in the industry drove her to compete with her male peers, and to develop a style of photography that would make her work stand out against theirs.
"I do remember feeling super, super competitive and thinking, I want to hang on the wall next to these big-guy-dude-painters. I feel like that's my right," she says. "And at the time I was making really tiny photographs and I thought, well one way to do that, I think I'm gonna make giant photographs that can hang on the wall next to these giant paintings… It all seems so simplistic when I remember what I was thinking at the time."
Dunham asks Simmons how her relationship to success and failure has changed as she's gotten older. Simmons says, "you know I'm 66 years old and I thought, at this point, if things went well you'd be like a high flying bird. Nothing would bother you, nothing would touch you. But I think it's really important to know that it is possible to feel disappointment. It is possible to feel rejection. And what changes is the recovery time and the ability to talk yourself out of it. But it's always there."
And then Lena Dunham brought up a question I would love to ask everyone, but probably could not even talk about with my own mom: "Are you scared to die?"
Simmons says, "I think I've thought about dying every single day of my life since I've learned what dying is. And some days are different than other days. Some days I feel more prepared. Some days I feel less prepared… The days that I feel like I have so much to do, those are the days I feel more scared about the end approaching because I just think, god, there's so much to do."