Who gets to be a geek?
Creative Women Mini-Con boosts local artists in a scene that’s historically unwelcoming to women.
Self-described “geek fan” Heather Merrifield says she once struggled to call herself an artist. At comic conventions, she and her friends were quizzed by men who had taken on the mantle of geek gatekeeper, challenging women to answer fan trivia to suss out whether or not these women actually “belonged.”
An experienced metalsmith and photographer, Merrifield met the same resistance from acquaintances when it came to pursuing art as a career. She says they had a tendency to benevolently diminish her work, calling it “cute” or a “great hobby,” but not anything to take too seriously.
“Men in the same field are much more likely to be encouraged to submit to galleries and make art as a job,” Merrifield notes. “It’s disheartening, to say the least.”
Merrifield and 19 other local artists will be showcasing their work this Saturday at the fifth annual Creative Women Mini-Con, held at Empires Comics Vault in Arden Arcade. The prerequisite for a place at the table? Being an artistically talented woman. That’s why there will be such a wide array of genres: jewelry, comics, paintings, sculptures and books, all by women at different stages in their careers. The event emphasizes creation, not geek culture—even though the event is at a comic store—and that’s an essential component of why Creative Women Mini-Con has been so popular over the last five years, and what sets it apart from other local art conventions or Sac-Cons.
Sarah René Kraft has been pursuing art professionally since 2009 and has participated in CWMC since its inception. Her playful, dark renderings with pencil and paper invoke dreamlike journeys that are both surrealist fantasy and deeply personal—her friends like to call it “pastel goth.” As an avid participant in geek culture, Kraft says she’s witnessed sexist bias in the art and geek communities, but now, those who once controlled the dominant narrative—namely, white men—have been asked to make room for other voices and perspectives.
Kraft is quick to point out that women in the industry have already made considerable contributions to the history of comics and arts.
“The difficulty is in finding the same spotlighting traditionally afforded to male creators, especially without the scrutiny and online abuse experienced by so many women in the geek community,” she says.
Creative Women Mini-Con gives women artists a platform to expose their work to the public without the gatekeeper-mentality exhibited by some fans. Controversies like Gamergate—a massive, coordinated attack on women involved in the video game community—may grab headlines, but it’s not a singular event. Women artists say they often experience attempts to intimidate them out of creative spaces and that they receive harsher criticism than their male peers.
Historically, comic-book stores are the gatekeepers that control geek culture. By holding this convention, Empires Comics Vault acknowledges that women are a legitimate force within its community.
“Creative Women Mini-Con is necessary for helping to set the example of what a welcoming space looks like,” Kraft says.
Ben Schwartz, the owner of Empires Comics Vault, sensed that same need for a figurative welcome mat five years ago. After talking to several female customers who also happened to be artists, he realized they weren’t showing their art to the public. Schwartz says he recognized that Sacramento has a considerable number of women artists underrepresented at other conventions. He thought to himself, “Well, why not use this space?”
Schwartz notes that many former guest artists come back each year, but he is especially proud to spotlight newbies who may have been nervous to publicize and sell their artwork.
“We try to keep it open to the up-and-comers, so they have that springboard,” he says. “I want to make sure everyone has a chance to have their stuff seen.”
Merrifield recalls the excitement she felt when Schwartz encouraged her to apply. “I didn’t expect him to accept me, honestly. I showed him some of my work from my phone, and he seemed interested.” As one of the newcomers this year, she is looking forward to showcasing her art and getting her name out there.
Schwartz concedes that the convention world is in the midst of a significant change, but maintains that CWMC is unique to the scene. “Anything you can imagine that fits within ’creative,’ we’re going to give you a table.” He adds that customers of all genders attend, making it his second biggest event of the year behind free comic book day. For some attendees, it’s their first time coming into a comic book store.
In the event’s first year, Jen Monson visited as a customer and knew it was something she wanted to be part of. She was inspired by the camaraderie she saw among the artists. Monson says she struggles with anxiety and depression, so participating in CWMN has helped her to connect with the arts community. “I felt so comfortable here that I was able to branch out, get to know other people in the world and get into things like Sac Anime or River City Marketplace,” she says.
This year, Monson will be bringing back her resin-painted koi bowls to CWMC, as well as debuting a few paintings. Although Monson says she hasn’t experienced firsthand bias in the art world, she says Mini-Con makes her feel more comfortable and acts as a needed morale boost in a culture that is often dismissive of women.
“I guess it helped me to not be so afraid to try because there were other women doing it,” she says.
Even in the face of adversity, Kraft says, women will continue to tell their stories, and events like Creative Women Mini-Con will help them tell it. “These events say to young girls, ’Your work is relevant. People want to see it. We want to see it. We want you to make it.’”