2014 Changemakers: Women’s Art Institute

Is it a statement? Or, a question?

It was the title of an art exhibit in February and March at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University.

It is also the overarching question that Elizabeth Erickson and Patricia Olson have been exploring with groups of student artists each summer since 1999 through the Women’s Art Institute. Over 200 women have studied in the 4-week course with Erickson, now professor emerita of the College of Art and Design in Minneapolis, and Olson, an associate professor of art and art history at St. Catherine University.

Each summer at the institute, a group of about 15 students develops a collective set of seven questions about what it is to be a feminist artist. Then they explore their individual paths through artwork and journaling, guided by the questions. The class setting is both supportive and challenging with critical thinking about their work and roles as artists.

Eleven students from past years were invited to exhibit their artwork that Erickson and Olson felt addressed what they called the “über” questions – ones that recurred over the years in their institute classes. Their ages ranged from 24 to 57, their artistic media ranged from painting, sculpture, fiber, artists’ books and video installation to performance art.

“The exhibit was very complex and very accessible,” Erickson says. “Many who came were really touched by the artwork, its breadth. It presented possibility for the rich inclusion of ideas, points of view, opinions, materials – it was just very deep and wide.”

“Sassy and provocative,” Olson says. “It showed what contemporary women artists are thinking about and doing today. The exhibit touched on a wide range of the concerns of women artists. The questions such as ‘Who decides?’ or ‘Who cares?’ are relatable across all curriculums. The questions struck people as ‘Yes, these are my questions.'”

Part of naming the exhibit “How to Be a Feminist Artist” was “tongue in cheek,” Erickson says. “There’s no way to tell you how to be a feminist artist, but come and find out with us what you think a feminist artist is.”

It’s all about the questions

Who is my audience and what do I want to show them? What does success look like for me? Hend al-Mansour, a Saudi-Arabian-now-Minnesotan artist creates screen prints and installations whose interpretations vary depending on the cultural context of her audience. Laurie Phillips, a graphic artist, displayed a series of small books she produced using digital photos with hand-inked drawings, called “Suicide Survivors’ Club: A Family’s Journey Through the Death of Their Loved One.” Kat Corrigan paints colorful, thoughtful portraits of cats and dogs.

How can I unlock my toolbox and truly express my authentic creative voice? A “still” image from Sarah Kass’ video, “Hay Breath” is featured on this month’s cover of the Women’s Press. Her 2.5-minute performance video – which ran continuously during the exhibit – explores the challenge to speak about the personal experience of abuse. Carolyn Halliday uses traditional fiber arts of knitting and stitching with nontraditional materials – copper and dried animal guts – to create large sculptures.

Where can I find a supportive community? How can I support others? Camille Gage’s installation, “Presence of Loss,” has hundreds of embroidered words on sheer fabric that she and a colleague collected from people contemplating what they have lost. It calls for reflection by the viewer on society’s losses.

What is good, bad or beautiful? Who decides? Who cares? Nicole Drilling’s intensely saturated, abstract watercolor paintings explore the question of who gets to decide the value and beauty of art.

What does it mean to have a woman’s body and make art? Is the gender question over or just beginning? Paige Tighe uses performance art and street theater to challenge cultural codes. A collection of photographs in her book, “Walk with ME,” documented her experiment of holding hands with a variety of people and their reactions. Karen Wilcox works with imagery of the feminine and masculine and their blending in her paintings and sculptures.

How do I keep working in the studio, using my artistic skills and materials to express my intentions? Rachel Breen reclaimed the sewing machine as a tool for artistic expression in her piece “Let’s not Leave it to Chance.” During the exhibit’s opening, Breen engaged those in attendance in a community art-making sculpture, sewing together their contributed dollar bills.

Is feminism a conscious practice that I bring to my art? Do I have a responsibility to historical and contemporary women’s art? Anna Garski’s self-portrait, “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” examines the male scrutiny felt by women.

“I think it is my duty to make sure as best as I can that my audience is more aware of my history and my experiences in the contemporary world,” Garski said in an interview with Erickson and Olson.

Interviews with each artist and “their” question were transcribed for a book accompanying the exhibit.

How do you become a Feminist Artist? “Study the history of women, and women artists, whole heartedly,” say curators Elizabeth Erickson and Patricia Olson. “Cultivate your authentic voice through the work.”

FFI: The Women’s Art Institute: www2.stkate.edu/studio-art/wai or email: wai@stkate.edu

Want to read more about Feminist art?
Elizabeth Erickson and Patricia Olson provided this booklist:
After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott
The Power of Feminist Art by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, editors
WARM: A Feminist Art Collective in Minnesota by Joanna Inglot
The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott
Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick
Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art by Griselda Pollock
Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist by Judy Chicago

“My work draws from my own memories of domestic violence and child abuse. My paintings, drawings, prints, installations and performances present these stories through the universal language of human emotion. Though my personal experiences are known to me alone, the feelings may be reflected in many viewers. I strive to promote the acceptance of open and honest expression.”
– Sarah Kass
See the “Hay Breath” video at vimeo.com/16676215