London born and raised Katy Hessel, took every opportunity she could to visit a gallery during her school lunchtimes. An art exhibition that had a profound impact on her as a child was Louise’s Bourgeois’s installation ‘I Do, I Undo, I Redo’ in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. She finds a child’s appreciation of art an interesting subject, as it shows how accessible and universal art can be: “Art is for everyone. It’s the most democratic subject in the world in a way. Anyone (who can see) can be part of it, or you can feel it.”
“The Great Women Artists focuses on today’s trail-blazing, talented women artists, as well as female ‘Old Masters’ of the past.”
The 26-year-old art curator and historian is the voice behind The Great Women Artists podcast. Named as one of British Vogue’s best podcasts of the year, The Great Women Artists focuses on today’s trail-blazing women artists, as well as female “Old Masters” of the past. Hessel interviews art historians, art curators, writers, and art lovers about their favourite women artists and also chats to current female artists about their works and careers. It is empowering, engaging, and Hessel’s enthusiasm for art bleeds through the speakers. “I probably get far too into it,” she says. “Not at all,” I reply, “it’s fantastic”.
Hessel graduated five years ago from University College London. She studied art history, a course that she recalls “opened [her] eyes up to this kind of activist side of art history which [she] just loved”. She had many wonderful tutors at UCL, some of whom are featured on the podcast, but she only noticed a lack of women represented in the art world when she left the university and felt she could hardly name any female artists. This realisation was the impetus to starting her Instagram page, @thegreatwomenartists, in 2015, which now has a following of over 150,000 people.
“With the podcast, Hessel does the important task of reinserting female pioneer artists into the art history canon and giving female artists of today a platform.”
Last September, Hessel decided to create a podcast of the same name. One year on, she’s had four seasons and 50 guests in. She was inspired to begin the podcast by all of “the amazing conversations with people” she was having — it was “an excuse to talk to some of the most incredible people and ask their opinions, a way to kind of dig deeper”. With the podcast, Hessel does the important tasks of reinserting female pioneer artists into the art history canon and giving female artists of today a platform. Be that as it may, she still manages to make the conversations fun, fascinating, and full of life.
I have never had a formal education in art history, but I do love a visit to the gallery or museum. Even as a very casual art lover, listening to The Great Women Artists podcast makes me want to jump up and run to a gallery to admire some ground-breaking artwork. Hessel’s mission is not only to engage with the talented and the knowledgeable of the art world, but to inspire and introduce those who are not familiar with art history to the colourful and vivacious community’s conversations: “I really hope that it is really accessible to people, and I hope that literally you can listen to it without knowing anything, that even people who have never even stepped inside museums can listen to it and feel like ‘okay, actually, it is for me.’ It’s for everyone.”
“In early episodes, she chats to some people she knows well, like art curator Eleanor Nairne, artist and stage designer Es Devlin, photographer Juno Calypso and author Ami Bouhassane, the granddaughter of the great Lee Miller.”
Hessel finds it exciting to talk to artists and art lovers she admires. In early episodes, she chats to some people she knows well, like art curator Eleanor Nairne, artist and stage designer Es Devlin, photographer Juno Calypso and author Ami Bouhassane, the granddaughter of the great Lee Miller. Since then, she’s talked to some big names, some who she will admit she was nervous to meet. “I interviewed [British painter] Cecily Brown for Season 4 and I was petrified!” Hessel admits. She remembers her sleepless night before interviewing Frances Morris, the director of the Tate Modern, despite having met her before: “But it’s so worth it, because then you come out of it and it’s wonderful.” Hessel loves that she has the chance to understand artists of the past through the lens of her guests, or to talk to an artist she admires, like Lubaina Himid, who Hessel has loved since she was a teenager. “I’m just fascinated by people,” she says.
The art historian has had a very diverse range of guests; current artists from Lagos-based artist Nengi Omuku to French painter Julie Curtiss have featured. As well, “Old Masters” from British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington to Argentinian surrealist Leonor Fini have been discussed by the likes of journalist Joanna Moorhead and art historian, and Trinity alumnus, Alyce Mahon, respectively. Hessel has also spoken to literary writers on their take on female art. She has interviewed Olivia Laing about three of her favourite female artists and Jessie Burton on Frida Kahlo, one of the most famous painters of all time. “Looking at Frida Kahlo from a literary perspective is so fascinating and one that I would never really think about,” she admits.
Two episodes that I enjoyed discuss the enthralling lives of Elizabeth Catlett and Hilma af Klint. Catlett was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, creating political art that reflected her fight for civil rights and social justice. Hilma af Klint, on the other hand, was an abstract artist beyond her years heavily influenced by spiritualism, only releasing her art to the world twenty years after she passed away. Listening along, I started believing that an interesting life story was an essential part of an artist’s life, but Hessel believes that it is not the only thing that makes an artist: “I think it’s totally dependent.” She likes to bring context into the conversation for listeners to get their bearings. “Sometimes the life story can work really well, and I do love it, because I just love stories. You don’t necessarily have to have a crazy life to be an artist at all.” In the podcast with Jessie Burton on Frida Kahlo, Burton says: “I’m always very wary of not falling in love too much with the woman and the person and the personality, and forgetting the creativity and the skill involved, because I think that happens a lot with women.” Despite many historical artists’ works, especially Kahlo’s, being primarily autobiographical, Hessel’s podcast succeeds in balancing the life story with the creativity of the artists discussed.
I ask Hessel if she has Irish guests in mind for the podcast as I loved her conversations with Alyce Mahon and Wicklow-based artist Genieve Figgis. Writers Sally Rooney and Colm Tóibín are on the tip of Hessel’s tongue: “I’m really fascinated by Irish literature, I guess. I just love Brooklyn and Normal People — I feel like such a cliché. I’ve been to Dublin and I love it — I loved visiting IMMA.” As well as bringing in more Irish writers to The Great Women Artists podcast, she would love to return to Dublin to get more into the art scene there.
“2020 has been a difficult year for the arts, Hessel has noticed a rise in listenership since the pandemic began. She has been longing to do the podcast in-person, but has taken advantage of the opportunity to talk to people from all around the world, through virtual interviews.”
While 2020 has been a difficult year for the arts, Hessel has noticed a rise in listenership since the pandemic began. She has been longing to do the podcast in-person, but has taken advantage of the opportunity to talk to people from all around the world, through virtual interviews. She has found the process to be a satisfying form of escapism, a chance to forget about everything. “There’s so much noise going on, and then when you’ve listened to someone speak about an artist that has had such a wonderful life and has really trail-blazed and paved the way, it can be such an amazing and uplifting way to escape,” she says.
At the end of every episode, Hessel asks her guests the same question, so I thought I’d put it to her: If there was a female artist, dead or alive, who you would most like to meet, who would it be and what would you say to them? The American expressionist portraitist Alice Neel is her quick, natural answer. The episode in which Hessel chats with art curator Helen Molesworth on Neel is one of the most exhilarating: “The episode is only an hour, but we chatted for two.” Painting the faces of Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York, as well as male and pregnant female nudes, Neel was ahead of her time in style and content. Hessel’s dream would be to return to Neel’s Whitney 1974 opening, to work with her and to see how the public reacted. “She died with hundreds of paintings in her flat and I don’t know how that was possible. I want to know why she carried on painting the same thing that she did.” Hessel would just love to get to know Neel and find out “why people didn’t respond then, and why people respond to much of her work now.”
How does a great woman artist qualify to be featured on Hessel’s podcast? “I have to absolutely love the artist.” she tells me. “There are certain artists and artworks that I’m so intrigued by and so drawn to, so it’s really that.” She has a long list of people she hopes to talk to, some dream guests, but they ultimately have to be really special to her: “There are so many fantastic artists out there but… I can’t like everything. I’m a human, and I can’t understand everything.” Her advice to budding female artists is to “create something that you really believe in.” Hessel interviews creators who “have some kind of purpose with their art and really know it, and know why they’re doing it.”
Hessel has an exciting line-up for Season 4 of the Great Women Artists: “We’ve got a great assortment of painters, some big names, and some really, really great stories.” Make sure to tune in.
The Great Women Artists Podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.