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Experimental Lines: Impressionist and Postimpressionist Drawings

Experimental Lines: Impressionist and Postimpressionist Drawings

The Impressionists, and later the Postimpressionists, were both lauded and...

Staging Art Nouveau: Women Performing at the Turn of the 19th Century

Staging Art Nouveau: Women Performing at the Turn of the 19th Century

Discover the incredible careers of female performers who became the...

Willie Anne Wright

Current Story

Willie Anne Wright

Explore the life of Virginia artist Willie Anne Wright and...
Current Story

Benjamin Wigfall

Benjamin Wigfall

Explore the life and work of Virginia artist and educator...

Elegance and Wonder

Elegance and Wonder

Elegance and Wonder: Masterpieces of European Art from the Jordan...

Conversations in Art

Conversations in Art

Explore connections between works of art from across time and...

Gee’s Bend Quilters

Gee’s Bend Quilters

Explore the quilts of Gee’s Bend and discover how they...

The Pattern and Decoration Movement

The Pattern and Decoration Movement

Explore the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the mid-1970s -...

Eight Views of Omi: Japanese Woodblock Prints by Ito Shinsui
近江八景の内 伊東深水 木版画

Eight Views of Omi: Japanese Woodblock Prints by Ito Shinsui
近江八景の内 伊東深水 木版画

Explore the ancient Japanese province of Omi through the woodblock...

Words Matter & Untold History

Words Matter & Untold History

Words Matter underscores the diversity of contemporary Native experience, highlighting...

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

“The South got something to say.” André 3000 Explore the...

The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection

The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection

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Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop

Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop

"Thus it is valid to state that the Kamoinge Workshop,...

American Land, American People

American Land, American People

Native peoples’ philosophies on land insist that land and people...

Traverses: Art from the Islamic World across Time and Place

Traverses: Art from the Islamic World across Time and Place

Cutting across continents, cultures, and a millennium, this Installation Story...

The Black Photographers Annual

The Black Photographers Annual

From 1973 to 1980, a group of African American artists...

Lillian Thomas Pratt

Lillian Thomas Pratt

Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s extensive Russian decorative arts collection...

Alphonse Mucha: Paris 1900

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Willie Anne Wright

Explore the life of Virginia artist Willie Anne Wright and discover how her innovative approach to artmaking and selection of subject matter offers new perspectives for looking at the world.

For more than sixty years, artist Willie Anne Wright has created alluring, witty, and provocative pictures that merge past with present, coaxing hidden narratives from the surfaces of reality. Born in Richmond in 1924, Wright studied psychology and art at William & Mary. In 1946, she married John “Jack” Wright, with whom she raised three children, all while taking art classes at night. In 1960, she entered the MFA program at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), where she met and was mentored by its founder, Theresa Pollak.   

Wright quickly forged a distinctive style that merged a contemporary Pop Art sensibility with canny references to a longer history of art. Her paintings reveal a fascination with changing roles of women and new forms of media, like television. She exhibited work all over Virginia, notably in a 1967 solo show at VMFA’s Robinson House, and as part of a major survey of American painting at VMFA in 1970.  

In 1972, Wright took a photography class and learned how to make a pinhole camera. This simple box with a tiny hole and sheet of photographic paper or film changed her life as an artist. Over the next four decades, Wright produced a revelatory body of photographs, from imaginative self-portraits and witty still lifes to studies of Civil War reenactors, somber landscapes, and complex photograms invoking Victorian culture. This Collection Story was created in conjunction with the special exhibition Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist (on view at VMFA from October 21 – April 28, 2024). This is the first museum exhibition to celebrate the full sweep of this artist’s remarkable career.    

To learn more about the exhibition please visit the exhibition page.

ABOUT WILLIE ANNE WRIGHT

Born and raised in Richmond, Wright attended William & Mary, where she audited art classes while pursuing a degree in psychology. Although she exhibited a few paintings as a student, Wright did not pursue art seriously until 1960 when she—by then a married mother of three—enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). Read more about key moments in Wright’s life in the timeline below. 

 

 

Hear from the Artist!

PAINTING & PRINTMAKING

Wright’s fascination with new models of female identity and contemporary cultural forms, including television and popular music, emerged most strongly in a series of paintings depicting the female singing trio the Supremes, including One Night at Jimmy’s We Saw the Supremes on Color Television, ca. 1965-1967 and Green Supremes, 1969. These joyful paintings, some of which were based on photographs Wright’s husband Jack made of television sets, capture the novelty of color TV, Motown music, and the cultural impact of the glamorous Black superstars, whose frequent performances on the mainstream Ed Sullivan Show during the height of the Civil Rights movement crossed the color line. One of three works selected for VMFA’s 1967 Virginia Artist Biennial, One Night at Jimmy’s won the museum’s purchase award and an interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch described Wright’s work as “Art for Now.” 

“We’re living in an exciting period—a period of change. Value patterns are changing and to me it’s fascinating.”—Willie Anne Wright

Silkscreen

Wright began to explore the silkscreen process in 1969. This was a natural fit for an artist already working with collage, flat, broad areas of color, and appropriated imagery. Here too Wright culled source material from photographs, including magazines, advertisements, and snapshots made by her husband, Jack. She was especially interested in imagery of waves and clouds, which she abstracted and repeated using thick (and at times florescent) paint to create pulsing canvases that evoke vibrations and movement. One of these works, For Heraclitus, 1971, is named for the Greek philosopher who proposed that reality is a constant state of flux. It’s a concept that suits Wright, an artist who has always embraced innovation and change.        

“I had been painting as if I were silk screening and then decided to learn silk screening itself.”—Willie Anne Wright

For Heraclitus, 1971, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Silkscreen on canvas, 48 x 72 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2022.244

Introduction to Photography

In 1972, Wright took an introductory photography course with the goal of learning how to use a new 35mm camera. The first assignment, to construct and use a pinhole camera, immediately entranced Wright. Although she continued to paint and make prints throughout her career, by the mid-1970s lensless photography had become her primary creative medium. 

Wright was initially drawn to pinhole photography because she felt it connected her more directly to the past and especially to the nineteenth-century photographers she had long admired. An early series of ethereal, sepia-toned gelatin silver prints of young women in Victorian gowns, artfully posed in the gardens and ornate interior of Richmond’s Maymont Mansion, consciously invoke the work of nineteenth-century British photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden.

 

(Left) Willie Anne Wright with her William Morris Pinhole Camera, 1978, gelatin silver print, Willie Anne Wright Artist Archives (VA-02). Gift of Willie Anne Wright. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia, VA02.04.14.006. (Right) William Morris Pinhole Camera, circa 1978, Willie Anne Wright Artist Archives (VA-02). Gift of Willie Anne Wright. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia, VA02.05.1.001 

WILLIE ANNE WRIGHT & THE 19th CENTURY

Wright’s work displays a deep understanding and appreciation of art history, and especially nineteenth-century British photography. This is evident in her still life homages to photographers William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Roger Fenton (1819-1869), Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-1875), and Nadar (1820-1910) seen in the section above. One of her most significant inspirations, however, was the British portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Wright clearly aligned herself with Cameron, whose portrait Wright holds in Homage to Julia Margaret Cameron. Though the homages to Talbot, Fenton, and Nadar are posed as still lifes, Wright created a more intimate setting in her self-portrait collage, holding the portrait of Cameron while above her a mirror reflects the same image. Always drawn to twinned and double imagery, Wright saw herself as a modern Cameron, an innovative female photographer confronting the male-dominated photographic field.

 

(Left) Homage to Julia Margaret Cameron, 1976-1978, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Silver dye bleach print, 7 15/16 x 9 15/16 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2022.315. (Right) La Santa Julia, 1867, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Albumen print, 11 1/4 × 8 7/8 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 75.15

Still Life

In the early 1970’s Wright made still lifes, a genre that could naturally accommodate the long exposure times (up to six minutes) demanded by the pinhole process. She also used still life to update the long tradition of vanitas imagery in both painting and photography. The abundant piles of fruit and flowers in her Fruits and Flowers Homage to Roger Fenton are clearly inspired by the older photographer’s work (she even tucked Fenton’s inspiration photo in the middle of the composition) but they pulsate with rich, deep colors that Fentonworking in the limited palette of albumen printscould not have imagined.  

Wright also began to assemble quirky still life compositions, bringing together incongruous objects to create inanimate dramas. These surreal constructions merge humor with the uncanny. In contrast, the homages to her mother and aunt, as seen in Memories of Anne and Evelyn – Backyard #3 who both died in a car accident in 1982, carry deeply personal meaning, and remind us that photography has always been an art of memory.   

 

(Left) Fruits and Flowers- Homage to Roger Fenton, 1983, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Silver dye bleach print, 16 x 20 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Willie Anne Wright, in memory of Etta Bethel, 2012.51. (Right) Willie Anne Wright Setting up a Still Life, 1981, color photograph, Willie Anne Wright Artist Archives (VA-02). Gift of Willie Anne Wright. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia, VA02.04.14.001 

Women and Water

In the early 1980s, Wright began photographing pools, beaches, and amusement parks. These modern sites of leisure allowed her to take advantage of brilliant sunlight and capture subjects at rest. While swimming pools created unusual geometries and effects, including reflective surfaces and rippling, drifting water, beaches offered interesting configurations of bodies. Sometimes the extended exposures captured moving figures as ghosts, infusing these pictures with a sense of mystery. Wright also photographed beaches and amusement parks in fall and winter. Her poignant pictures orchestrate light and space to convey the immensity of the ocean and the loneliness of these temporarily abandoned sites.   

 

Municipal Pier

The intensity of light and the environment of relaxed abandon of beaches, boardwalks, and seaside amusement parks worked well for making slow and deliberate pictures of bodies, space, and time. Even in bright sunlight, many of the pinhole photographs required an extended exposure time that rendered moving figures as ghosts, infusing these sunny scenes with the heartbreak of late summer and the poignant realization that time is running out. In the work Municipal Pier, which was captured in the off-season, a backward welcome sign (in a pinhole camera the image is laterally reversed) marks a place where time itself seems to have slipped out of joint, no longer anchored by the rituals and activity of seasonal tourists. 

Colonial Beach-Municipal Pier, 1981, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Silver dye bleach print, 15 7/8 x 19 7/8 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2022.290

Civil War Redux

In 1987, Wright stumbled on a Civil War reenactment in Richmond’s Capitol Square. Fascinated by the spectacle, she documented it with her pinhole camera. Over the next nineteen years, Wright attended forty-four reenactments on battlefields throughout the South. She depicted both Confederate and Union troops and was especially interested in the role of women and African American reenactors in these theaters of war.  

The Civil War was the first major conflict to be thoroughly documented in photographs. Although nineteenth-century cameras were not fast enough to capture battles, nearly every other aspect of the war was photographed, including portraits, scenes of camp life, views of cannons, and moving (sometimes staged) views of death. Wright, who studied Civil War photography, found herself capturing reenactments of many of the same scenes. Yet she was equally fascinated with visible anachronisms, such as a Dodge truck parked at camp, because they revealed how reenactments, like photography, fused past and present. 

"...even for someone not sympathetic with the Lost Cause, being part of a grand-scale walk-in intersection of the past and present was an overwhelming experience."
—Willie Anne Wright


Southland Series

While documenting post-Civil War reconstructions, Wright began photographing graves, historical sites, and markers she encountered on her travels. This culminated in her first extended landscape series, Southland. Made in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Virginia during the 1990s, Southland conjures what Wright described as “evidence of lives lived and ways of life vanished.”  

When referring to this series, Wright frequently invoked William Faulkner’s well-known quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Wright’s photographs of abandoned homes and derelict structures seem to visualize Faulkner’s concept of the persistence of history. 

CHANNELING THE PAST

Starting around 2000, Wright began to explore the photogram process, one of the earliest forms of photography. Made by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive papers and exposing them to light, photograms capture the physical trace of an object. Wright incorporated a wide array of Victorian-era items—like nineteenth-century photographic portraits, pressed flowers, and bits of antique lace—into her photograms. She was especially interested in vintage clothing and created ghostly evocations of christening gowns, gloves, and baby bonnets to forge connections between photography, memory, and the passage of time.    

“I capture the aura of the departed by using a pinhole camera to photograph the garments left behind. These intimate possessions, which enveloped the living body, are used to create tableaux that recall the activities of former lives.”—Willie Anne Wright 

Gracie with Dress

In Gracie with Dress, a sheer gown and a single bloom float on top of a blurred photograph of a child’s grave, invoking the Victorian fad for spirit photography, a practice that long fascinated Wright. Years earlier, Wright had made a picture of a friend standing at the grave of William D. Latané, the only Confederate soldier killed during J.E.B. Stuart’s ride around General McClellan’s army during the 1862 Peninsula campaign. Upon printing the image, she discovered a strange, skull-like apparition hovering above the shoulder of her companion—perhaps the ghost of Latané himself out to avenge his death—and started researching the phenomena of spirit photography.

Gracie with Dress, 2005, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Gelatin silver print, 16 x 19 15/16 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2022.436
Brug Mania

In 2006, Wright was given a Brugmansia plant, which she named Bobo. Enamored with its fragrant, pendulous blossoms, Wright began to make photograms—cameraless images made by placing objects directly onto photosensitive paper and exposing them to light—using different parts of the plant. She printed many of these photograms directly in sunlight, which gives them rich pink and violet tonalities. Wright, who was interested in Victorian scrapbooks, also began to incorporate the blossoms into collages with antique photographs, lace, jewelry, and other floral designs.

The Tarot: An Homage to Pamela Colman Smith

In 2016, Wright incorporated the brugmansia plant in her series Channeling the Tarot: An Homage to Pamela Colman Smith. Wright was intrigued by Smith (1878-1951), a British artist, writer, editor, occultist and suffragist who collaborated with mystic A.E. Waite in 1909 to design a tarot deck, known today as the Waite-Smith or Rider-Waite deck and created a photogram portrait of Smith. 

Illustrated in the British Arts and Crafts style, this popular deck merged Christian symbolism with inspiration from Arthurian legends. Wright, who created her series after the deck’s 22 Major Arcana cards, must have delighted in the fact that the brugmansia plant’s colloquial name, “Angel’s Trumpet,” lent itself so well to Smith’s design for the card of Judgment: an angel blowing a trumpet. Simplifying Smith’s elaborate designs, Wright’s version combined the angel’s hand on the instrument with a single brugmansia bud. Wright continued her examination of the plant’s relationship with the cards through the different ways she overlaid or dissected the plant to complement Smith’s imagery. 

Explore the series below.

Judgement, 2016, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924), Gelatin silver print, 10 x 13 3/16 in., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2022.483

ACQUISITION OF THE WILLIE ANNE WRIGHT ARCHIVE

Willie Anne Wright Personal Papers (VA-02). Gift of Willie Anne Wright. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

In 2016, Wright donated a portion of her artist archives to VMFA. In 2022, she gave the remainder of her archives to the institution. The collection is comprised of correspondence, checklists, invitations, posters, handbills, photographs, publications, press clippings, and other manuscript material. The collection covers the years 1944-2020, with the bulk of the material dating from 1964-2003. 

The collection documents the career of renowned painter and photographer. Comprised of correspondence, exhibition files, research notes, travel sketches, work prints, and information about gallery representation and art sales, the collection traces the evolution of her artistic journey over seven decades. It documents Wright’s activities as an artist, as a leader of the Richmond artistic community, as a champion of women artists, and as a national figure in the pinhole photography movement.  

The donation of the archive accompanied an acquisition in 2022 of more than 240 photographs and 9 paintings by the artist. With this material, VMFA is uniquely poised to represent the full range and depth of Wright’s extensive and groundbreaking career.

 

Explore the Archive

M.LiT: Museum Leaders in Training 2023–24 | A Reimagined World

The 2023-24 M.LiT program participants developed an audio tour inspired by the special exhibition Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist exploring themes in the artist’s work to create connections in the permanent collection. Click through the playlist below to hear from the M.LiT students. 

In addition to the audio resource, participants created a zine entitled A Reimagined World. A digital version of the students’ zine pages (created solely at their discretion) can be found on the Musem Leaders in Training webpage.

 

RESOURCES

The 2016-17 Museum Leaders in Training (M.LiT) program participants examined the exhibition files and records of artist Willie Anne Wright between 1964 and 2003. The work of participants resulted in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Willie Anne Wright Artist Archive.