I think we need to have an intention behind what we’re aiming for. This sounds very obvious, but everyone wants success and only some people point themselves towards an intention. Something that serves something greater than just ourselves. For me, my work isn’t about me. It’s about the connections that happens with its audience. This is what art has meant in my life and this is why I make art.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Laura Jane Petelko.
Laura Jane Petelko is an internationally exhibited and collected photographic artist living in Toronto, Canada. Her work explores the psychology of connection and identity and has been featured by galleries and art fairs across the globe. Most recently, Laura Jane participated in Cube Art Fair, the world’s largest public art fair, where photographs from her Soft Stories series were showcased. She is currently represented by Cavalier Galleries and her artwork can be seen across its locations in New York, NY, Nantucket, MA, Greenwich, CT and Palm Beach, FL.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Thank you for inviting me into the conversation. I grew up in Toronto as an only child of an Irish mom and Ukrainian dad. They were both creative and from what I can tell, were even glamorous back in their day. My dad sang in a swinging 60’s music group and travelled the world with his band. He then transitioned to a life of cigarette executive; he was basically a real-life Don Draper. My mum was a hair and make up artist for film and television. Life in the changing 70’s got the better of them, after divorce and the soul affecting disco days, it seems they were left slightly broken. That’s about where I came in.
I was left alone a fair bit and there was plenty of drama. It was a rocky childhood to be sure. However, I look at this time as one that shaped and informed me. While they weren’t stable times, they were speckled with unique experiences and characters — artists, musicians, and a generally eclectic, urban upbringing that later I could draw inspiration from.
I found connection through my love of music, art, and photography. I spent time visioning and imagining through the lens of coffee table books including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Sarah Moon. The soundtrack of my world began to form through lucky encounters with music loving adults who introduced me to David Bowie, Roxy Music and Brain Eno. These inspirations became something I could align with, transport myself, discover beauty and eventually, cumulatively; become a bit of a guide map to a world in which I wanted to belong.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
My love of art and music grew as I did. I feel very lucky to have met people along the way who took the time to introduce me to new things and ideas through art. As an adult, I’ve never forgotten the power of what this sort of attention can provide. You just never know when you’re inspiring a child or planting a seed of inspiration. So, I suppose the groundwork was laid pretty early on for me.
I gravitated to creatives through school and though I had to begin working at an early age, I explored photography creatively, using the money I had from my record store job to rent a studio in Vancouver (where I lived at the time). From there, I went on to photograph bands and album covers, creative work for punk zines and then on to magazines and literary publications. Eventually, I was creating exhibitions. At the same time, seeking mentors and beginning to work with an incredible and inspiring collection of west coast photo based artists. I feel very lucky for the many wonderful examples, moments big and small, I’ve had to resource along this adventure in art.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My favorite story so far is that way back when I was a teenager, struggling and working to find my creative path, I was inspired by the music and message of punk musician and speaker Henry Rollins. He had and has a way of encouraging young people, and I’d even say young women in a specific way. At that time, girls were not as encouraged to make their way in the creative world in the way boys were. To honour their unique voice and give themselves to their work and passion despite and maybe even because of their hardships. Not letting confidence or feeling inadequate due to whatever lack is perceived, be it pedigree, social status, sexual orientation etc. It spoke to me as a 17-year-old.
I was able to see him live and oddly found myself sitting next to him before the show. Almost a decade later I’d find myself having completed my first solo exhibition, which turned out to be surprisingly successful at the time. Through it, I met a wonderful Canadian filmmaker, who became a collector and then dear friend of mine to this day. One day the filmmaker calls me to have dinner with himself and…you guessed it, Henry Rollins. So, we’re sitting beside each other talking about music and books we love and all I can think of was that it was his encouraging words that lead me to plant the first seed. The seed that grew and transformed and lead me to this dinner and the life and career I was nurturing. It was a beautiful, full circle moment. Also, I’m a sucker for this sort of nostalgia.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Well, I’m an artist, and business is certainly a part of that process.
For me, I’ve had a unique path. I believe we all do. Our unique experiences provide a sort of a chemical way in which we see and translate the world around us, whether though our art or anything else we practice. If we’re bringing our true selves, we’re bringing the authenticity that can connect us to others and grow an awareness or culture or business for that matter into something much greater. Authenticity is at the core or true connection.
In terms of success, I suppose I would also have to mention work ethic. This is something that I feel was instilled in me from my dad and his parents before him. When I was starting out, I didn’t have the opportunity for the connections and formal education that I would have wanted; the path that is valued in my industry. So, instead I worked on all levels of production. Finding my way, from another route and just paying dues, learning all the way. This, from an early age not only gave me a unique access to the artistic paths and processes of many great photographers, artists and galleries, but it also provided so much education and perspective into the inner workings of production, behind the scenes planning and the importance of solid relationships within the industry.
Integrity. This goes hand in hand with the work ethic. It’s all about exceeding people’s expectations. Working from a place of honesty and with the intention of wanting others to succeed just as you would want for yourself. Also celebrating those successes. More than what I want personally, in terms of my work and achievements, I want to work and live within a thriving and supportive community and to share in those moments with others.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
Unfortunately, this still seems to be true. I’d say more and more, I do see women in the arts supporting each other. Twenty years back I was labelled (not that I minded) a “Feminist “ for being a woman in the arts and one who often had women as their subject. While I was simply a woman telling stories in my way, it was seen as innately political to do so. Men tell stories of men all the time. It’s what most books, movies and television are. I think that’s changing now, but there is still just as much division in this industry.
Certainly, women are still very underrepresented in the arts. We are still less likely to attain top tier representation or billing, by enlarge. I believe the bar is much higher for us and the hoops greater, on many levels. The ‘why’ still lies in the structures of power that have been established so long ago. Structures that affect not only women, but many communities. We have been in a time of upheaval and learning. Thank goodness. Much has been brought to light, challenged, and assessed. We, as a society, are a work in progress. I feel so much is shifting now and I’m hopeful.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Living and working in this industry for several decades now, I have many stories and moments. Most of all it’s an ongoing dialogue and a landscape that provides these added challenges. In my time, I’ve been harassed, or simply not let into the process or conversation, more times than I could recollect. It could be a moment as mundane as a well-known artist asking to speak to a male worker (under my management) because he would rather speak with a male colleague, to straight up being chased around a studio like some sort of terrible comedy skit. I’ve seen it all.
When I meet younger women who haven’t had these experiences, then I know we’re on the right track. I know we’ve collectively spoken up, taken up space, created space, and slowly things get better for us all. It’s the lack of these experiences that makes me sigh with great relief and feel the beauty of that change.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
I hear this question as a human one. When I’m in any situation where someone might feel uncomfortable, I look for the connections, the common ground. We are all human. We are all the same but making our unique choices with what graces and challenges we’ve been given, that takes us on the adventure of our lives.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Staying on the human theme here. Yes, I’ve seen women in powerful positions be sort of punished in society and I’ve also seen women use their power and influence in beautiful ways. I think it’s the idea of division that might create the unease or resentment. If I see someone doing well, having influence, affecting change in the world, I see a human succeeding.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
Its true. So many ridiculous and uncomfortable situations that a man would likely not have had to endure. I’m not sure I want to describe them here…or maybe I can’t pick just one, but suffice to say, there’s a lot that women should not have to navigate to do the work they love and belong to the industry they have a right to belong to. When I was younger and complained, I was met with a warning to never to complain again. To learn to navigate the bizarre, uncomfortable, and often ridiculous etc., if I wanted to stay in my industry. These stories are coming to light and the environments are slowly changing. My aunt was an airline attendant in the 60’s and 70’s. She has stories I can’t fathom, and I have stories that 30-year-olds can’t fathom. This is the sign of change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There’s so much one could say here. For instance, why must we keep women in the physical realm where judgement comes from every angle? If you enjoy and celebrate your face and body through your style or adornment, you might be seen as not serious in your industry. If you don’t or you’re not smiling all the while, you might be labeled a BS#S%. This is one example. Of course, there are many other ways we judge women and their competence, but again I see this changing. For the most part, it seems men can focus on their work or creative realm and look like whatever they want to without it negatively impacting their success. I’m speaking generally of course.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
Yes. I think everyone can relate to this. Since becoming a mum six years ago, I actually find I have more purpose and energy than before. Don’t get me wrong, I have way less time, but I use that time more efficiently now. This might not be the case for everyone and we’re all different. I think with raising a child, you become used to a faster pace, earlier mornings. You learn to do many things at once.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I think flow. When I’m at my busiest, I work more efficiently. My time and days have a flow that I personally enjoy and get an energy from.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I’m fascinated by beauty. It’s a central theme of my art. As a younger woman, in my personal life, it was more of a struggle. I didn’t want to feel looked at or judged. I did different things to subvert any kind of attention. This was before social media, and I can’t imagine the pressures now!
It’s a cliché, but now that I’m older, people pretty much don’t care. You’re neither a threat nor of particular interest in terms of beauty. I’m finding this process to be wonderful, in that now I can explore more. I wear what I want, and people know me for my work. But to answer your question, yes beauty has value. It can come in the form of physical grace, youth, wisdom, vulnerability, powerful charisma etc. I live to seek and celebrate it!
How is this similar or different for men?
I’m not sure. It’s just my opinion. I think my experience could be just the same for a man or any person. I guess it’s just one way to see things.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I think we need to have an intention behind what we’re aiming for. This sounds very obvious, but everyone wants success and only some people point themselves towards an intention. Something that serves something greater than just ourselves. For me, my work isn’t about me. It’s about the connections that happens with its audience. This is what art has meant in my life and this is why I make art.
- Community. We don’t succeed alone. I’m in a very tough industry, my colleagues and I all share this experience together. I celebrate the successes and struggles of my colleagues like I do my own because I know what it all feels like. Even if it feels like we’re working on our own, things only connect and happen when we communicate and share, collaborate and grow together.
- Gratitude. Ok, sounds cliché again, but really. If we don’t stop and appreciate what we’ve got and how we’re doing, we’re likely not going to be able to enjoy our progress and point ourselves in the right direction. This goes well beyond our work lives. Gratitude for being here and getting to do what we do. It’s everything.
- Show up. Again, and maybe this isn’t for everyone, but I do believe in showing up with all you’ve got everyday. We can have this feeling like we don’t know where to start with our plans or ideas sometimes. I’ve been in this place and then I just began. I didn’t know all the answers or where it would go. There were and are hurdles but it’s amazing how things have a way of flowing once we get started.
- Share the love. Connect with your fellow humans, your colleagues, your competition if you have that. Let’s help each other succeed and grow and create greater understanding and empathy along the way.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have so many people I admire. I’m basically a mixed tape of my absolute love and admiration for those that have inspired me creatively and I pretty much wear this on my sleeve. If my work somehow brought me naturally into the orbit of designer Susie Cave or artist Laurie Anderson, I would be blessed indeed. Until then….onward!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for speaking with me! To get in touch or check out my work, readers can follow me on Instagram and Facebook @laurajanepetelko, on my website http://www.laurajanepetelko.com/, or at www.cavaliergalleries.com.