The Problem with Mentors

Glinda and Dorothy

Every time I read the following passage from my manuscript on Hannah Wilke, I think to myself, the feminist art historians are going to ream me:


I believe Hannah’s affair with Claes Oldenburg was her most important professional relationship. He was older and more established when they met, brilliant and prolific. He served as teacher and role model, as well as lover and source of financial support. Her achievement was her own, to be sure. Her work grew out of who she was at core. But the relationship with Oldenburg pushed her to manifest her gifts. He set the standard –for monumentality and for public recognition — to which she aspired her entire adult life.


Ascribing some measure of Wilke’s success to a male role model is controversial, but when the two artists met in 1969, who else would mentor her? How many women had not only achieved his level of success, but were also willing to share time and experience with a younger colleague? Especially one who wasn’t content to make it in the feminist margins, but sought status equal to her famous lover.


Twenty-six years after Hannah’s death, in our supposed post-feminist world, women still struggle to find other women to mentor them.


When the subject of mentorship came up during my interview with Barbarba Bash, she expressed hesitancy to take on the role without pay. ‘”I wonder if women navigate a more complex path around mentoring,” she suggested, “because of our early caretaker training.” We have given away so much time and attention to our families, we are careful about spending the precious time and energy left.


As I prepare for the upcoming course on The Heroine’s Journey, I’ve been considering the archetypal role of Mentor in the traditional Hero’s Journey. He is usually an old, wise man, often a former hero (think Dumbledore or Obe Wan-Kanobi), who bestows wisdom and confidence for the hero to get the job done. In contrast, young women get fairy godmothers, who appear magically and help them out of the clutches of evil stepmothers, or in the case of The Wizard of Oz, make peace with a boring childhood (Do young girls really long to be content at home?)


In the 21st Century, we need more than a pretty dress or a pair of magic slippers to negotiate our lives. Even if we have a mentor at work, who will show us how to manage our multiple roles as artists, breadwinners, and caregivers?


Since beginning the Art/Life Mentoring project, I’ve found that women seek at least two kinds of support:

  1. We need help with pragmatics. How do we find the physical, temporal, and psychological space for creative work? What steps can we take to bring that work into the world?

  2. Women long to be seen by someone who understand the fullness of their lives. We need another woman to acknowledge the daily conflicts we experience as we try to negotiate art, life, and livelihood, especially when children are involved. We need an empathetic nod when we express the physical and psychological exhaustion we experience daily.


Every month during the Creative Mix meet-up, I witness women providing this for one another. This multi-generational group of artists and writers shares ideas, inspiration, and support. When someone raises her hand and says, I’m struggling, someone else chimes in with what has worked for them–or at the very least some sympathetic acknowledgment. No one tries to fix anyone. We share, we see one another, we are grateful.


During the Heroine’s Journey course we will have a similar opportunity to see and share as we write through our lives and quest for wholeness. We’ll look at previous role models and mentors (or lack thereof) and see what of their values we aspire to. And we’ll think about ways we can make the transition to from seeker to mavens ourselves.


If you’re curious about the program, you can see a sneak peak of what’s coming here.


Who have been your role models? What kind of mentoring situation do you seek?



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