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Kathryn Bigelow‘s first love was painting. She studied in her high school years at the San Francisco Art Institute, and then as part of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent study program in the early 1970’s. Though she worked with and knew prominent artists, such as Philip Glass and Susan Sontag, she was relatively anonymous. Then came a conversation with Andy Warhol, with whom she had a mutual friend.
“Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art—that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” Bigelow tells TIME Magazine in its new cover story. Walking into an art museum around the same time provided a similar realization.
“A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context,” she explains. “And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.”
It also meant that, eventually, she could find spiffier quarters than the converted basement bank vault in Tribeca that doubled as her studio, or the condemned Manhattan seaport building that she crashed.
“Tribeca, SoHo—those concepts didn’t really exist in the early 1970s,” Bigelow says. “You actually couldn’t get a cab to take you down there. So I’d be down in the freezing bank vault in a sleeping bag, hearing gunshots up top quite often. But none of us students were worried for ourselves. It was a great community that formed.”
Ultimately, a short art film she was working on reached the director Milos Forman, who liked it enough to give her a scholarship to Columbia. About 30 years later, she became the first woman to win the Oscar for best director.
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