By Melissa Starker
Each year since 1987, the month of March has been devoted by Presidential decree to a commemoration of women in our society.
An outgrowth of the International Women’s Day, which sprouted from the U.S. labor movement in the early 20th century, Women’s History Month centers on a different theme each year, as set by the National Women’s History Project. For 2014, it’s “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment.” According to the project’s website, it’s intended to celebrate “the extraordinary and often unrecognized determination and tenacity of women.”
This description is well suited to women devoted to creating fine art. Although this is a challenging, courageous path to follow regardless of gender, women artists throughout history have persevered while stuck in the shadow of their male counterparts. The situation has changed for the better over time; now there is room in the canon of great American artists for the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Kruger and Ann Hamilton. Yet to this day, works by men far outnumber contributions by women in the country’s museums, and male artists garner much higher prices at auction.
Columbus benefits from a community and an infrastructure that creates room for women to play as important a role as men in shaping the city’s cultural profile. Women hold high-ranking positions in all of the city’s major visual art institutions, and a snapshot of the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s most recent grants cycle reveals that individual woman artists are receiving funding support on par with men in virtually all categories.
Credit for the prominence of women artists in the local scene is due in part to the efforts of some of them to band together in groups and develop strength in numbers, whether through organizing exhibitions or simply sharing feelings of empathy and camaraderie. Three all-female groups are currently active in Columbus, and in the coming days, local art lovers will be able to see the results of their work in several of the city’s galleries.
The oldest of these, Mother Artists at Work, a.k.a. MAW, began in 2005 as a way to connect women trying to maintain a fine art practice while raising children. Over a dozen artists working in a variety of styles and materials are currently in its member base.
As founding member Alissa Head explained, “I happened to be friends with artists with children. Some of us were homeschooling moms and a lot of us were trying to get back into making art while having kids at home. Having the support of other mothers was really helpful.”
In addition to meeting monthly and organizing group exhibitions, MAW members also get together to work on special projects. Most recently, they contributed a collaborative piece to the “Hearts United: One Billion and Rising” project organized by member Mona Gazala through her home/gallery space Second Sight Studio in Franklinton.
Launched in 2006, Creative Women of Color (CWC) gathers its membership of 24 African-American female artists for regular meetings and networking, and maintains a commitment to present four shows of members’ work each year.
“It was actually formed quite some time ago as more of a social group. Then we decided to have much more structure, particularly around exhibiting and community outreach,” said CWC steering committee member Janet George.
The largest of the groups, Creative Arts of Women, or CAW, has been around since 2009. Through monthly meetings of its steering committee and quarterly get-togethers for the whole group, it offers support, promotion and a variety of show opportunities to female artists in Columbus.
“When we first started, I thought we would have maybe 15 people in the group, and we were meeting in Wholly Craft,” recalled co-founder Helma Groot. “Then the meetings got so big we had to move. We were up to 60 people after the first year, so there was definitely a need for it.”
The three groups share certain similarities, particularly a focus on exhibiting work and an easy point of entry for new members. Female artists wishing to join need only sign up online or attend one of the group’s regularly scheduled meetings in person, and agree to pay a nominal annual membership fee.
But each group also has singular strengths. As a result, there are numerous examples of women artists joining more than one.
Mixed media artist Catherine Bell Smith is a member of CAW and MAW. From her viewpoint, “Each of these groups really has something to offer. I don’t think I’d feel complete with just one because they feed two different parts of me.”
“MAW is the smaller group and there’s more of an emotional bond,” she said. “Support is the largest component of what we do, and the priority is family and finding a balance. But we also try to encourage making art to exhibit and going to see art together. It’s so easy to say, ‘But I’ve got to do laundry,’ but when you have a deadline [set by the group], it has gravity.”
On a deeper level, Smith feels MAW provides a forum to discuss concerns and fears that are specific to mother artists and can be difficult to share. “It’s important to feel accepted when I feel I might be failing. We have those conversations in MAW.”
It can also help with more tangible needs, Smith noted, such as reliable childcare when a member has to devote more time to her art practice or other work.
“With CAW,” she added, “there’s a certain camaraderie, but it’s more about professional development and organizing.”
Lisa McLymont, a professional designer and fine artist who also crafts the jewelry line Coppercurious, belongs to CAW and CWC. With a smile, she said, “I’m not in MAW only because I don’t have kids. I’d love to be with those ladies but I just have a cat.”
For her, CAW hearkens back to the sense of community and political awareness she found as a student at The Ohio State University, when she publicly came out and discovered a new group of supportive friends.
“When I was in design school, I didn’t do art for myself. I shut that part down,” McLymont said. “CAW has a lot of lightness and humor. It’s been great for helping me develop my voice, and being involved has pushed me to do that.”
With membership in CWC, she believes she helps keep a focus on the importance of women of color in the local art community. The group has also provided her with an opportunity to be mentored by artists such as Janet George and CWC co-founder Queen Brooks.
“For shows and other experiences, I love what’s happening with that group,” McLymont said.
Another CWC member with whom she’s developed a bond is April Sunami, who’s in the unique position of belonging to all three groups. As a mother of two young children who’s working to make art a full-time career, Sunami sees distinct benefits in all of them.
“I guess the biggest challenge for me is probably the most obvious – trying to balance everything,” she said. “As a mother, you try to make sure your family comes first. At the same time you have to put in some real hours doing art-related things.”
Sunami also pointed out a specific commonality she’s witnessed: ”Everyone is really devoted, and each group has some really fantastic artists.”
Describing her view of what distinguishes them, Sunami said, “I think MAW is a little more relaxed, and more of a support group. With CAW, we really get to talk about our process.”
“CWC has a lot of new members right now, and it’s really devoted to helping and encouraging them,” she continued. “The biggest things I get out of it are a theme and a deadline. It really pushes you to be creative, and some of the work we’ve created for shows has prompted me to make a whole series.”
Sunami also praised CWC for cultivating more hands-on projects through the group’s community outreach efforts, to support upcoming generations of women artists of color.
According to George, CWC has worked to mentor African-American girls through the Rise Sister Rise Research Project, an Ohio-based survey centered on the resiliency of young black women, and through the Franklin County Children’s Services’ Malaika program.
“We’ve got a project coming up with the Malaika program,” she added. “Each year, Franklin County Children’s Services has an art auction to raise money for special needs for kids – glasses, braces, things that are a little outside of what can typically be provided. We work with girls on a piece or two of art to go into auction, and it gives the girls a chance to give back to the community, too.”
CAW is also starting to make inroads in community outreach with Exchanges, an exhibition opening March 3 at the Shot Tower Gallery in the Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. An exploration of the dynamics of outcomes of mentorship, it offers works made in collaborations between member artists and Fort Hayes students. Artists who were unable to fit student visits into their schedules were included by being paired off to work together, like McLymont and Sunami, who each contribute portraits of writer Alice Walker to the show.
“This came out of conversations about giving back. It’s good that we create opportunities to show together and grow, but we felt we should be doing more,” Smith explained.
“It’s a new process and we’re just learning,” she added, “but when we started working with the students, the response was so overwhelming. They were really engaged, and from that moment on we knew we must keep doing this.”
CWC will also take over a local gallery this month. Beginning March 13, the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Carnegie Gallery will host the group’s latest member exhibition, Visible/Invisible, which concentrates of the seen and unseen things that make up our world.
In May, it’s MAW’s turn to showcase the work of its members. The exhibition Patterns, opening May 4 at Tacocat Cooperative in Grandview, will present a selection of pieces centered on the role of patterns in creating order, marking time and measuring progress.
While these groups focus on the local scene, one of the co-founders of CAW, Stephanie Rond, is also endeavoring to create awareness and a sense of community among like-minded female artists around the world.
A fine artist and feminist who makes work for the street with paper and wheat paste, Rond has forged partnerships with local businesses and property owners to bring new creativity and mindfulness to the act of tagging buildings. When she went to research other street artists, she was dismayed to find that “the female experience was missing.”
“That missing piece is what kept me up at night,” she continued. “I knew I was not alone. I wanted to meet women globally who were thinking about the same things that I am wrestling with.”
With more digging, she found the information she sought, and developed a drive to build a database for others.
“I needed to create a space where anyone who searched ‘women street artists’ on the Internet [could discover] women doing art on the street, with great examples of their passion,” Rond said.
Her site now features the work of more than 50 women street artists working in places from Argentina to the Netherlands, as well as select male street artists and male-female teams.
In pursuing her commitment to this subject, Rond has also helped raise the profile of Columbus and its art scene among artists with international recognition.
As she said, “I’m amazed at the superstars of the streets who talk to me.”
For their successful organizing efforts, and the frequent sightings of their work in galleries, Rond and her fellow group organizers also fit the superstar bill – at least on a local level. But with the healthy support network they’ve formed, it seems only a matter of time before Columbus’ female art stars will rise and shine beyond the city limits.
|Via Brasil at the Wexner Center for the Arts|