Minds Wide Open: 400 Years of Women Artists

Image: Sally Mann, Jessie #34 (detail)

Image: Sally Mann, Jessie #34 (detail)

In 2010, Virginia initiated a statewide celebration called Minds Wide Open, honoring women’s contributions to the arts and culture.

VMFA participates in the celebration with an audio tour titled 400 Years of Women Artists that features sixteen of the nearly 300 women artists from the Renaissance to the present in the VMFA collection.

Audio Tour

On October 29th, 1952, I placed a 7 by 10 foot piece of untreated canvas on the floor of my studio to begin the largest painting I had ever undertaken. Jackson Pollack’s approach appealed to me enormously, that dance-like use of arms and legs in painting, being in the center of the canvas, relating to the floor. After roughing in a few charcoal marks as a guide, I poured highly thinned oil paint from coffee cans directly onto the canvas, as if I were drawing with color. I had no plan, I just worked. At the end of the afternoon, I climbed on a ladder and studied the painting. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but I was sort of amazed and surprised and interested. I had discovered a new way of making art. I called it soak stain, and people said that it gave a sense of perpetual movement, while at the same time joining image and ground.

Mother Goose Melody in some ways alludes to childhood. I started a picture, and simultaneously – and one is fortunate when these magic moments happen – I was caught between the making of an abstract picture and the emergence of certain images. Suddenly this goose shape seemed to appear, and I needed three black verticals, and the picture was balanced in a very imbalanced crazy way. I knew at the time that these three vertical shapes were the three Frankenthaler sisters. The red and black lines make a sort of stork figure – the whole thing had a nursery rhyme feeling. At the same time, though, it had nothing to do with my youth. I was in some sort of fairy tale, and I was essentially just making a picture.

I call many of my paintings well-ordered collisions, where shape and drawing become one. My decision making process is wholly unregimented. There is no “always”, No formula. There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go. I want to create beautiful works of art – art that is beautiful because it moves you, art that adds to life, art that can shock, at first, but also give a sense of order, or recognition. I believe that art and life are separate, yet intertwined. You can try to be perfect in art but being perfect in life is impossible. I think everybody has to accept one’s own journey. Does life get better? Of course, one hopes one becomes more and more experienced, or profound, or stronger. Perhaps the work isn’t better intrinsically, but I hope it reflects a combination of age, the worlds I have seen, my attitudes, fears, pleasures, and relationships. Every facet of one’s reality is in one’s work: age, height, weight, history, nationality, religion, sex, pains, habits, attraction. And being female is one of many in this long list for me, but has never been a specific issue by itself. What you call “female quality” is a serious fact that I enjoy, and part of a total working picture.

Art is like the wind. It’s not something that should be about one thing or another. Different things are always moving you, or telling you to pay attention. Art is about being curious. About knowing how things hold meaning – trying to make sense of one’s self, one’s environment.

I like to make art about the body. I think I chose the body as a subject, not consciously, but because it is the one form that we all share; it’s something that everybody has their own authentic experience with. In making work about the body, I’m playing with the indestructibility of life, where life is this ferocious force that keeps propelling us. At the same time…you can just pierce it and it dies. I’m always playing between these two extremes. The body is also always under the siege of ideologies, the church, politics. To understand the body, you have to go under the surface and look at the entire system. It is a hologram that contains all the information for the rest of everything. Our bodies have been broken apart bit by bit and need a lot of healing; our whole society is very fragmented…Everything is split, and presented as dichotomies – male/female, body/mind – and these splits need mending.

In some ways, my work with the body is about trying to reclaim it from society for the individual, trying to separate yourself from these ideologies that your head is packed full with. Consciously you may not even be aware that most of the things you think are historical, that you’re just a product of what people were thinking five hundred years ago. In trying to look at the form without any of this moralistic stuff that’s dumped on it, hopefully one can get a more detached view that’s free of all that baggage. I know, in my life, I feel oppressed a great deal by all these ideologies that I’ve either internalized in my own psyche or am politically and socially confronted with every day. Your body is like Everyman, where all these things are played out and you’re like a hemophiliac just trying to keep your blood in while all these external forces, these vampires, are trying to get at it.

In 1991, when a Neolithic man was found frozen in an Alpine glacier, I fashioned Ice Man as a commentary. The piece, showing the unclothed man in the frozen position in which he was found, is modeled life-size and cast in bronze, which creates a color very similar to the dead man’s skin. The work is hung slightly above eye level, attached by its back. For viewers, it becomes an object of curiosity, a specimen, just as the frozen Neolithic man was for the people who discovered it.

I think of the marks I make in my paintings symbolically, as agents that have character and behave in certain ways, as though they’re constructing or deconstructing societies. Humans create and occupy many different kinds of spaces, and my works seek to evoke the varied atmospheres and energies that characterize such constructed places. I take into account both the life of the individual and society, synthesizing the complex interplay of biography and history, the personal and the social, the local and the global. The narratives come together to create this overall picture that you see from the distance. As you come close to it and the big picture completely shatters there are these numerous small narratives happening. They become the focal point, and again as you back up, you lose the specificity. Those marks disappear into the larger context of the whole.

I’m intrigued by the stadium – it’s become the arena for everything that happens and that we consume. Having spent time in Istanbul, Germany, Australia and then back in the States, I was really interested in how our whole experience of viewing the world and the Iraqui war was mediated through the television and newspapers. It feels almost like following a match or a sporting event. Then right after that was the build-up to the summer Olympics in Beijing – it was super strange and ironic. I was interested in the kind of discussions everyone was having; we were talking about it as if it was happening in this massive arena. It felt like the whole world had been reduced to that kind of space. I just kept wondering, how could that happen, how could that look, how could I build that feeling? I started collecting stadium plans, as many as I could, built or unbuilt. I brought them all together in the studio and tried to build one mega-stadium out of all the drawings, tying and weaving them together. I was interested in the stadium as a place for sport or entertainment and in the spectacle of nationalistic frenzy, but there are many other ways those stadiums were used, like when the national stadium in Santiago, Chile was used for executions in 1973, or the Superdome in New Orleans as a place of refuge and suffering in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. This kind of container can hold us, yet it can break down very easily, like when people get smothered to death in the intensity of the crowed. You can feel that tension, and that’s part of what makes the stadium so exciting. We’ve always had that type of arena as part of who we are.

The desire to focus in on stadia was also about trying to accept what’s happening for me subconsciously in the studio. I was trying to make sense of how this visual language keeps growing and also make a formal link with what I’m actually experiencing. All this stuff is layered inside me, all these parts of who I am. Two sides of me do battle: the conceptual side and the visual side. But there’s always an underlying narrative. I’m interested in the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity.

I began with very formal training at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. I chose to study miniature painting, an ancient form that has fallen out of fashion, and that I’d despised as a child. I had this hateful relationship with it because it was such a tourist-kitsch art form, and yet I couldn’t get it out of my system. When I was growing up, you either rejected it because it was very traditional, or you proclaimed it as “This is our heritage”. I found both very extreme. In my paintings, I want to frustrate meaning by maintaining that edge of multiplicity and contradiction. My challenge is how to develop something which is neither personal nor cultural, but somewhere in between. People do not necessarily need to understand in-depth miniature painting to understand what is happening in my work. I maintain the method of the miniature, burnishing handmade paper and making my own vegetable dyes, but I insert contemporary forms into the miniatures to create fantasies that combine art historical, mythological, religious, and personal imagery, in an aim to highlight some fundamental issues of resistance, misrepresentation, and cultural exploitation.

I had worked in Pakistan for many years, focusing on very formal aspects of art. When I came to America, it was about the experience of living, claiming lived experience, and trying to interject that into the work. I think of myself as an American, but I also feel that I have a privileged place from which to express things through art. My art deals to some extent with women’s roles. I think that has a lot to do with my personal experience with my extended family. I feel very lucky, very privileged to have had this experience because my grandfather was very encouraging towards careers for women – my cousins, everybody, all the girls in the family did something with their lives. I’ve also had a lot of freedom in understanding Islam. I cannot relate to any sense of oppression from the religion, and here in the United States, anything and everything associated with Islam is either terrorism or oppression for women. For me, art is not a conduit to politics, feminism, or religion. It is a ticket to experience…no matter how transcending, liberating, or empowering an artistic act becomes; boundaries always exist, be they economic, cultural, national, religious, political, geographical, historical or psychological. As an artist it is essential for me to understand and address such boundaries, if only to then break them down, to open up discussions, to raise questions, or to articulate their shifting nature.

I never planned on doing any of this. Going to art school was a shot in the dark. So is art making. I had several starts in more sensible careers, but when I finally got to art school, I rushed to figure out high art. It was like being in this constant sponge mode. Ever since, I’ve made art about how people soak up foreignness of every kind.

In 2001, I went to Japan. I discovered that they were fascinated by hip-hop culture. Sure, I’d seen white youth in the U. S. hang out with black youth, adopt the pimp stroll or gait, the slang, and go the whole nine yards, but the Japanese youth were trying to be as black as they could. This was something different and new. It’s called ganguro, and they imitate African-American hip-hop culture by darkening their skin and frizzing their hair into afros, perms, and dreadlocks. I’m flattered that our music and style is so influential, but have to say that I find the ganguro obsession with blackness pretty weird. My paintings come out of trying to make sense of this appropriation. This translation or transmutation of hip-hop in Japan was a very strange awakening for me. It was a peculiar mix of performance or theatre for some and a real way of life for others. The way it is at home.

I call my paintings “Afro-Asiatic allegories”. They’re hybrid images that explore issues of race, gender, and the construction of identity. I appropriate imagery from samurai culture and Japanese art history, using the aesthetics of 19th century Ukiyo-e woodblock prints – then fuse them with hip-hop images – gun wielding gangsta rappers, dreadlocks, and other elements of hip-hop culture. I see parallels between the glamorous, fashionable clothes and decadent excess portrayed in ukiyo-e, and the high fashion, celebration of material success and love of bling-bling that you get in hip-hop. Not all hip-hop music is flashy – it’s not all about diamonds and cars and doing women. But the flashy aspect of hip-hop is what gets marketed. That’s not the core of what hip-hop or black people are about. My work is about that.

For me, photography is an instantaneous thing – a matter for the instincts. The difference between a good photo and the mediocre is a gut reaction, and you can trust your instinct implicitly. It’s almost a love-match between you and what you see through the lens, not really the knowledge of technique, but the intelligence and apprehension of life, of the whole of it, its drudgery and its gaiety and its weariness and its hopes. The way I go about making art is just to start, to start with nothing. I’m almost like a blind man tapping along, sort of. I’ll take a picture and then I’ll say, huh, that’s interesting. And I’ll just follow it along.

When I started doing the family pictures, there was originally a documentary impulse. It wasn’t even conscious. Something would happen and I would reach for a camera, because of the power of what was taking place. As I continued the project, that impulse expanded – I was after the whole all-encompassing concept of childhood. The camera was ever-present. It was always set up. And the children knew that if there was some drama or if there was something alluring or engaging or interesting about what they were doing, a picture was likely to be made. I wanted to depict them in such a way that they transcend just our house at our time. The pictures are not about the things that surround childhood so much as they are about the ideas – the idea of being a child and a family member, the complexity of it. But in order for me to convey the complexity, I wanted to reduce it.

I had kids around me most of the time. They always presented me with new images, just in the way they slept or in the way the dressed. Every mother has seen everything I’ve photographed, probably countless times. I’ve always been interested in taking the everyday slice of life and making art out of it. That’s particularly true with the pictures of the children. I was just another mother with three children under foot. The place is important; the time is summer. It’s any summer, but the place is home and the people here are my family. Even though I take pictures of my children, they’re still about here. The slow, wet air of southern Virginia in July and August exerts a hold on me that I can’t define – nothing happens during the other seasons. I suppose I could do a normal domestic picture of the kids doing their homework. But that’s not what I do.

I don’t remember how I first became interested in photography. I started when I was 17. When you’re that young you just sort of fall into things. I think I have always had a good visual acuity. My father used to call me “sharp eyes”. Plus, photography was just easier than writing. I always wanted to be a writer, except I wasn’t good enough. There are parallels, though, between photography and writing. I think a lot of what I’m doing is evocations. I’m trying to stir some deep memory in people. I want to use it as a sort of spiritual and emotional inquiry to establish photography’s connection to our lives in a meaningful way. I’m trying to insert some affection into what I see as a rather passionless art world.

My landscape pictures aren’t that different from my family pictures, really. They’re sort of background. I began to notice that I was getting ambushed by my backgrounds; I would go out to take a picture of my kids, and the way that often worked was I would find a really nice background and put the kids in front of it. I began to find that I didn’t need to put the kids in front of it anymore…the kids began to get smaller and smaller in the picture.

My pictures are about heat and they’re sultry and hot and steamy. I believe that the work has that ineffable southern quality, whatever it is. Oh, the obsession with place, with family, with both the personal and the social past, the susceptibility to myth, the love of this light which is all our own and the readiness to experiment with dosages of romance that would be fatal to most late-20th century artists. Our history of defeat and loss sets us apart from other Americans and because of that we embrace the Proustian concept that the only true paradise is a lost paradise. Shelby Foot, in his novel Shiloh, said, “We are sick from an old malady, incurable romanticism, and misplaced chivalry.” We were in love with the past, he said, in love with death. Loss and memory are the twin poles of the artist’s sensibility. I think my subject is the first cousin of loss and memory. My subject, ultimately, is time and love, how the physical familiar evanesces into shade and shadow.

I often try to put together many different styles of mark making on the same page. I look at spontaneous mark making and imagine creatures or shapes quickly, solidifying a kind of Rorschach response to incidental form in my work. I strive to create readable, coherent moments, which at the same time appear busy and chaotic. Emotional involvement is important for my work. Even years after completing a work, I often remember what specific thought process of emotion I went through while creating it. I engage emotionally with images, colors, concepts, forms, and especially in the difficulty of translating my thoughts into two dimensional, pictorial spaces. Much of the strength in my work, I later find, is in the accidental capture of moments, which reveal themselves only through later, careful development.
Much of my work focuses on the cultural references evoked by specific combinations of color. I like how different styles of mark making bring different meanings based on diverse cultures. I try to work with my color choices that way. I often choose colors to work with certain associations, or based on different cultural references. For example, if I use dark green and red, Christmas-like colors, it is challenging to use them in such a way as to not evoke that mood. This thought process leads my work, melding the familiar within unfamiliar frameworks, hopefully creating a new experience for the viewers. My color choices have become much more specific now than they were a few years ago.
Another element of navigating and changing meaning is line. I think of the line as a leading actor in my work. It changes its character from one gesture to another. I have been deeply influenced by Korean folk art and temple painting, Renaissance sepia drawings, pop cultures and contemporary design. What I try to do is sort of nonsensical…like trying to put in old and new imagery at the same time, or being in between Heaven and hell, or being very serious but still very funny, very personal but at the same time global. I like to think that these combinations are possible.

There is one great function – all the arts are messengers to us, messengers sent out to bring us the unknown – the Mystic. To satisfy the craving of the soul for what Nature trains and stimulates it to desire. The painter’s art must be powerful – magnetic enough to make us linger over a simple reserved rendering of an aspect of a person we do not know – have never seen and perhaps would not have noticed if we had seen. It is not in the least necessary to give the subject qualities it does not possess – this, in fact, instantly vulgarizes it. For it is the Imaginative Insight, not borrowed plumage, that is the painter’s strength. The artist, then, deals with the absolute – furthermore, he has leaped a chasm – not crossed a bridge. For he does not join soul with soul – mind with mind – but soul with body – emotion with bronze – ecstasy with a mixture of white lead, linseed oil – and a crushed weed – and the mysteries of light, with a certain application of varnish – at the right moment.
Imagination sees secrets hidden from the ordinary mind – and the truly imaginative artist in every field of art sees charm, interest, beauty, in subjects as well as objects, where the ordinary mind sees nothing to linger over. I have learned what style there may be in simplicity, what subtle beauty in rude forms. I learned that a whole people, their coast, their rocks, quays, houses and streets, skies, color, costume, and occupations may be faultlessly unified and “en style”. I learned the power of essentials and discord. I learned that a fumbling or uncertain conception, and above all a low vitality, were crimes in Art.

This portrait of Alexander Harrison, a fellow Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Alumnus just two years my senior, is one of the two paintings I produced in Brittany. Harrison was very tall, very handsome and distinguished, with dark hair and gray eyes, and a long, dark moustache – and the worst cold, blasé expression! He looks at one as he would a horse! Yet, during our summer together in 1888, he taught me much, and we became friendly colleagues. He advised me to lighten my palette and offered constructive critiques of my work. When his portrait was completed, Harrison commented that I had the right stuff to become a painter, the stuff that digs and thinks and will not be satisfied and is never weary of the effort of painting nor counts the cost.

The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters. But it takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve. A kind of nerve, and a lot of hard, hard work. I found that I could say things with color and shape that I couldn’t say any other way – things that I had now words for. I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning, but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experiencing of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.

When I first started painting the big flowers, Steiglitz, my husband, stood and laughed, “I don’t know how you’re going to get away with anything like that.” Sometimes, I have resisted painting something that seems to me so ordinary, hardly worth doing. But when I do it and it’s done, its different from what other people see. It is ordinary to me, but not to you. When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I wanted to give that world to someone else.

A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still in a way nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers. Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t…I fancy this all hasn’t much to do with painting.

The first time I saw the work of Edgar Degas was in the window of a Paris picture dealer on the Boulevard Haussmann. I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it. It was the turning point in my artistic life. When Degas first asked me to exhibit with the Impressionists, I accepted with joy. I hated conventional art. I began to live. At last I could work in complete independence, without bothering about the eventual judgment of a jury.

Everyone has their own criterion of beauty. I confess that I love health and strength. I believe that a woman should be someone, and not something, and that the vocation of a woman in life is to have children. I intend to capture the charm of womanhood, and if I have not conveyed some sense of that charm, in one word, if I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed.

Almost all my pictures with children have the mother holding them, would you could hear them talk, their philosophy would astonish you. The children are neither angelic nor idealized, they fidget, snuggle and stare, just as they would in reality. I look for a natural sympathy and ease between the woman and child , seeking the qualities I value in every aspect of a woman’s life – competence, grace, and sympathy.

There are two ways for a painter, the broad and easy one or the narrow and hard one. I don’t know how to write, and have a horror of print, yet I work, and that is the whole secret of anything like contentment with life, when everything else is gone.

At a very young age, I would watch my aunt making pots, after my chores were done. Although many women in my pueblo knew how to make pottery, it was no longer part of daily life. I practiced with pottery, and in 1919, my husband Julian and I invented a style that people wanted. Our reservation had a special kind of clay, which mixes with volcanic ash, then combined with water in small batches. After a batch of clay is mixed and has set for a few days, a “pancake” of clay is formed and pressed into a puki, or a bowl-shape, which begins the process of building a pot. We bake the pieces in a manure-smothered fire to carbonize the clay black. I make the pieces, and Julian paints the design – one of our favorites is the puname, an eagle-feather design that is featured on this platter.

At first, I didn’t understand why my name was important. A white man once told me to sign the bowl, maybe on the bottom, on the flat place. He told me to write Marie instead of Maria, because white people are more used to saying “Marie”, and it would be easier for me to write. I told him that it was all San Ildefonso, pottery; it doesn’t make much difference who makes something. It all comes from here, it’s all made the same way. It doesn’t matter if it’s mine or somebody else’s. “Maybe not to you, and maybe not to the other ladies, said the white man, “and if people come here to the village for pottery, they know whose they’ve bought. It doesn’t matter to them whether the piece is signed or not. But people who by away from here want to know.” I laughed. “Always white people are showing me about selling pottery. We can do that, I guess. We can try.” It worked. They tell me that the pottery Julian and I made saved the pueblo village.

When I see a pot I haven’t seen for awhile, I run my hand inside, matching the pot to my palm to be sure it is mine. The pots for us are people – our children, perhaps. They have gender. Some are called women. Some are men. And they have personalities. The pots seem to be doing different things. We’ll say, “Look at those men pots over there with their wide mouths, they’re all singing. Or look at those women pots with their slim long necks. So when we haven’t seen a pot for a long time, well, it’s like an old friend who has to be greeted and examined to be sure she hasn’t suffered in the meantime. We remember our pots, though they have gone far away. 

I, like my father, Orazio, follow in the footsteps of the great Caravaggio. You may feel sorry for me, because a woman’s name raises doubt until her work is seen, but I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works. You will find the sprit of Caesar in this soul of a woman. In none of my pictures is there the slightest repetition of invention…not even a single hand.

While I was unable to study at the academy because of my sex, I learned straight from Caravaggio how to make Biblical and mythological characters come alive. One of my favorite characters to paint, however, is Judith, as nothing succeeds like excess, and violent scenes never cease to please patrons. Finding models, however, is a challenge. In some of my paintings I must use many models, as one must paint various kinds of beauty. When I find good ones they fleece me, and at other times, one much suffer their pettiness with the patience of Job.

I never show my drawings, though, because people have cheated me. I found myself in the situation that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gate, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way, because when the concept has been realized and defined with lights and dark, and established by means of planes, the rest is a trifle.

My work is my obsession – I aim to show the Great Princes and Most Illustrious Lords what a woman can do. I dislike being treated like a novice, and I keep my letters of favor from my patrons with me constantly to ensure that no one gets the wrong impression of me. I urge you all, stimulate those creatures in pursuit of fame to improve their skills as much as possible, so that they may dedicate their efforts and thus achieve those honorable ends that they seek. I shall not bore you any longer with this womanly chatter – the works will speak for themselves.

Berthe Morisot,
Young Woman Watering a Shrub (Jeune Femme Arrosant un Arbuste)

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Work is the sole purpose of my existence. Men are inclined to believe that they fill all of one’s life, but as for me, I think that no matter how much affection a woman has for her husband, it is not easy for her to break with a life of work. My mother once told me that whenever I work, I have an anxious, unhappy, almost fierce look. I do have a mania for lamentation. To me, the act of painting is like being engaged in a pitched battle.

Being a woman, I was barred from the state-sponsored schools that produced the most successful artists. I was instead trained informally by Jean Baptist Camille Corot and Edouard Manet. I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal. My works have been refused again and again by the salons, simply because I am female. I am not permitted to join my colleagues in the cafes, nor can I walk with the flaneurse, the famous gentlemen strollers of the Paris, as they take in the novelties of life along the city’s boulevards. But I continue to work to prove my equality.

My subjects are women, of course, as I could not dare offend society by entertaining a male model. I usually have one of my sisters, or my daughter, Julie, pose for me. To me, women are not the animals that Degas makes them out to be, nor Renoir’s frothy creatures of pleasure. Even with their backs turned, at their dressing tables, doing up their hair, they are real women, fully aware of the mundane texture of their lives. I like to paint them lost in thought, as I am while I am painting them, taking up my brush, leaving it aside, taking it up again, in the same way as a thought will come to us, vanish, and return. They turn away or gaze into the distance. My pictures are about looking, and my subjects gaze at something they alone can see. I focus on the detail, but leave my paintings unresolved. It describes the fragmentary nature not just of modern experience but of reverie. The questions of painting interest me more than the answers. How can I integrate figure and ground into a loose webbing of brushstrokes? What happens when this darker blue rubs against that lighter blue? Shouldn’t my struggle leave a trace?

To create, one must first question everything. I want to design that which is possible, but which no one is doing. I began studying painting, but abandoned it in order to redirect my energies into making more useful objects, although I had no formal training in furniture-making. I am guided only by the subconscious. Anything I ever did came from it and I suppose that is why I am so inarticulate and when I see friends there is always a sort of tension, attempting to express myself and often failing. That is why, in the conscious world, difficulties seem so insurmountable and become such a worry. The unconscious dreads pain, humiliation, fatigue. It bends ceaselessly to avoid them…Solution – act as if it were impossible to fail. I want to impart a vision of my times and my world, as if realty were mirrored at peace in my consciousness at peace. All one has to ask of artists is to be of their time. All it takes is to choose a material beautiful in itself and worked with sincere simplicity…A beautiful work speaks more truth than the artist.

This Pirogue (or Canoe) Chaise Longue is similar to one designed for the apartment of Madame Matheiu Levy, also known as fashion designer Suzanne Talbot, and was inspired in part by the Ballet Russes Scherherazade. I designed the entire apartment, allowing me for the first time to design objects that would not only be part of the décor, but design the décor as well. I have never ceased meditating on furniture designs. And every work is symbolic. All art is symbolic, really. It conveys, it suggests the essential rather than representing it. It is up to the artists to find, in this multitude of contradictory elements, the one that gives intellectual and emotional support to both the individual and the social man.

While I was a drawing student at London’s Slade School of Art in 1898, I happened upon D. Charles’ shop at 92 Dean Street, and there was a sign advertising the repair of old Oriental lacquer screens. I was very interested, because I’d always wanted to learn lacquer, and so went in and said, “I suppose I could never come here and work”, and they said, “but you can – of course you can. Start Monday if you like”. By the time I returned to Paris in 1906, I was obsessed with the art of lacquer, and had been introduced to a young lacquer craftsman, Sugawara, who came from Jahoji, Japan, a village famous for its lacquer work. He agreed to teach me, and I studied with him for four years.

This screen, made of swiveling lacquer panels, is based on a wall treatment and screen I put in the entrance hall in the apartment I designed for Madame Mathieu Levy, which consisted of wood blocks each lacquered in black and textured with powdered stone. The entrance hall, like all the elements of the apartment, was not just a matter of simply constructing beautiful ensembles of lines, but part of creating an entire dwelling place. Formulas are nothing, life is everything. Nowhere did we search for line or a formula for its own sake, everywhere we thought of the human being, his sensitivity and his need. Entering a house is like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you, or like the sensation of pleasure when one arrives with a boat in a harbor, the feeling of being enclosed but free to circulate; the movement in building should follow the walls in such a natural way that the pictorial objects inside reveal themselves gradually to the spectator. Let us not forget the vivid forces nature can give us. We are born surrounded with buildings and have broken the tie which allows us to communicate with those things which make our strength, like leaves in a vase.

As a small girl, I knew that my parents would frown upon my illustrations; they regarded them as mere frivolities, so I began hiding my artwork in the hedges as I walked home from school, retrieving it later when I felt that it was safe. My schoolteachers, however, understood that my yearnings were not in the least frivolous, and they spurred me on to apply to art school. In 1892, I registered as a full-time day student at the Glasgow School of Art. I believe in the vital importance of fostering one’s own creative vision throughout one’s life.

In Glasgow, I quickly formed friendships with a number of young women artists, including Margaret and Frances Macdonald. We called ourselves the roaring crowd, and we all dressed in highly individual fashion, tossing out the deplorable corset, an insidious male invention intended to restrict our full participation of life. We also pioneered original concepts in the decoration of three-dimensional surfaces, rejected the self-denying stance of femininity, and had a mighty good time while we were at it. Later, in 1914, I returned to Scotland and formed Green Gate Close, a small community for women artists. Some of them lived there year round, and others, in the words of a contemporary writer, came “as birds of passage with the spring and summer”.

I was offered a teaching post in the Glasgow School of Arts Department of Book Decoration and Design, but worked part time there, while also working on commissioned pieces for a Berlin Department Store, who wanted me to devise a range of items in the new Scottish style. Though I still focused on book illustration and jacket design primarily, I began other projects – designs for wallpaper, jewelry, ceramics, posters, fabrics, and metalwork. Liberty and Company accepted some of my jewelry designs, which were floral and similar in style to my book designs, and W. H. Haseler’s of Birmingham had samples made. The shapes and designs of my book decoration became jewelry, and I receive commissions for necklaces, pendants, brooches, clasps, buckles, and even buttons, made in enameled silver and gold, with the occasional pearl or semi-precious stone as ornament. My designs have a magico-mystical base – I see them vividly with my inner eye before ever setting pen to paper.

I began my work in what was an almost forgotten, overlooked medium – gesso. It was a method used by ancient Egyptians and Greeks, then later by Italian artists to give relief to certain portions of their paintings, like halos and wings. A canvas surface is prepared with a mixture of gilders’ whitening, glue, and linseed oil; the gesso, somewhat the consistency of thick cream, is applied to the surface. One the surface has been prepared, it can be colored and glass jewels or semi-precious stones can be added.

My studio abounds with gesso panels. Major Huston, when he visited, describe it thusly: “in the midst of so much that is incongruous and debasing, there is a little white home, full of quieting and beautiful things, with a big white studio empty of everything but her Gesso panels, all prepared and made beautiful for her by her artist-husband, who wants her genius to have a fitting home, and her exquisite, quiet art congenial and fitting surroundings.”

The Four Queens were set into the wall of the card room in Ms. Catherine Cranston’s Glasgow home, Hous’hill. My husband I decorated her home, and my pictures and gesso works filled her tea rooms. In the four panels, each queen represents a suit of cards and her suit – hearts, clubs, diamonds, or spades – is reflected in her dress, and sometimes in the shape of her face and hair. The queens are not merely decoration – they express the purpose of the room. The panels together, alternating red and black, echoed the checkerboard patterns in the tables, and together, my husband and I produced a whole interior to be viewed as a three dimensional work of art. While the contents of Hous’hill were removed and sold off, these panels offer a glimpse into what our card room was like.

The Actors

VMFA thanks the Virginia actors who volunteered their time and talent giving unique voices to the artists’ own words.

Kim Schenk (readingMaria Martinez) has a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Adult Education and Human Resource Development from George Washington University. Over the last 20 years, she has provided leadership development and skill-based training to various groups. Currently a Human Resource Analyst for the County of Henrico, in her spare time Kim enjoys doing voice-overs, is active in the arts, and performs with the Henrico Pops Chorus.

Anne Marie Brooks (readingMary Cassatt) has performed Gilbert and Sullivan with the Pittsburgh Savoyards, sung with the Pittsburgh Oratorio Society, and toured with the North Carolina Opera Company as a chorus member. She also has acted in Henrico Theater Company productions. She is delighted to be a part of the Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts initiative.

Irene Ziegler (reading Berthe Morisot) is a professional actor, writer, and voice-over talent. She has had recurring roles or guest starred in many notable TV series and films including Runaway Jury, Premonition, Dawson’s Creek, and Three Rivers. As a voice-over artist, she has recorded books on tape; narrated the documentary film, Word and Deed; and is the voice for Richmond’s talking buses. She is also the author of the novels Rules of the Lake and Ashes to Water. Her play, Full Plates, had its world premiere in March, 2010. You can contact her at IreneZieglerVoiceOvers.com.

Pamela Bradley (reading Sally Mann and Eileen Gray) was born and raised in Virginia. She makes her home in Richmond and works in the Human Resources field. In her spare time she performs with local theatre companies, sings with the In the Mood dance troupe, and volunteers with the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre.

Barbi Parlow (reading Georgia O’Keeffe) has used her voice talents extensively with the On The Air Radio Players, a local radio theatre group that produces old-time radio shows from the 1940s and 50s. Also a local actor in the Richmond community, she has appeared most recently with the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre and with the Jewish Family Theatre. In real life, Barbi plans dream vacations as a leisure travel agent.

Jasmine Coles (reading iona rozeal brown) is a fourth-year Theatre Performance major at Virginia Commonwealth University and is honored to be a part of this audio tour! At VCU she has performed in Ain’t Misbehavin, A Raisin in the Sun, and For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Jasmine has also performed in several The Conciliation Project (TCP) productions whose mission statement is “To promote, through active and challenging dramatic works, dialogue about Racism in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.”

Carroll Andrews (reading Kiki Smith) is delighted to be a part of the VMFA exhibit celebrating women artists. She has performed at Henrico Theatre Company, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, and Dogwood Dell Festival of the Arts. Other projects include On-the-Air Radio Players’ productions and readings for the Richmond Playwrights Forum.

Jacqueline Jones (reading Helen Frankenthaler) has originated dozens of characters including those in world premieres of Theatre IV’s Hugs and Kisses, celebrating since 1983 the prevention of child sexual abuse; Barksdale’s Songs from Bedlam, giving voice to the mentally ill, and Firehouse Theatre’s Birth, painting a portrait of childbirth in America. Jacqueline’s voice graces the Science Museum of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Maymont Park Nature Center, and national venues, including the Smithsonian Institute. “She’s one of the few actresses who can make a slow walk across the stage a riveting theatrical moment.” (David Timberline, STYLE WEEKLY) www.JacquelineJones.net

Hunter Parker(reading Cecilia Beaux) is a Richmond native and alumnae of both Saint Gertrude High School and Virginia Tech, where she earned her BA in Theatre Arts. She has experience working in various capacities for Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre as well as teaching theatre for CYT, Goochland Parks and Recreation, and Goochland High School, where she spent several years building their theatre program. She currently resides in Athens, Georgia, where she is earning her MFA in Dramatic Media from The University of Georgia’s Department of Theatre and Film Studies.

Kyla Thomas (reading Artemisia Gentileschi and Jessie King): Kyla’s voice has been a familiar one in Richmond radio for over a decade as well as in promos and commercials heard across the country. She volunteers her time at the Virginia Voice for the Print Handicapped and Maymont and has worked with the Read Center and Henrico Theatre Company. She has a passion for art, travel, and cooking, and is always ready to volunteer time to improve our community.

Maggie Bavolack (reading Shazhia Sikander) recently received her BA in Theatre and Dance from James Madison University and has finally become a grown-up! Although the “real world” is a little scary to her, spending her first few months as a post-grad in her hometown of Richmond is comforting. She has loved VMFA since she was a child and is excited to be a part of this exhibition! Maggie is a lover of all forms of art but her passion is acting. She hopes to one day make a living performing on screen, on stage or behind a microphone.

Bernice Baker (reading Julie Mehretu) has been involved in theatrical, television, and film production in Richmond for years. Although dance and music are passions, she has always cherished language. This opportunity to voice an artist’s thoughts and descriptions is a special honor.

Karen Bullard (reading Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh) is a local part-time commercial print model/actress, full-time mother, artist and business owner. She and her husband, John, a classical musician, live in Goochland County with their two children and several furry creatures.

Marilen Sarian (reading Jiha Moon) is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and has worked in the entertainment industry since 1996. Her credits include professional theater performances with Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV, and Richmond Triangle Players, among others. She is currently based in Newport News where she runs her own artistic company named Artinspired Studios. She also manages Amy’s Dance Studio in City Center of Newport News and is a ballroom dance instructor. For more information regarding Marilen, visit www.ARTINSPIRED.com.