Reasserting a Right
Seven speakers and three performers will take the stage at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe Saturday, August 4. Each will explore, through the lens of the arts, the topic of women and power. “Reclamation” at Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center is the show from which these talks spring. Portraits of women, painted by women, and curated by women express joy, fear, solidarity, defiance, and wondering. Twenty-three paintings and two lithographs make an exhibit inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The art asks to be witnessed, celebrated, and discussed. Through these acts power is taken back, which is reclamation.
Reclamation also means “rescuing from error or returning to a rightful course.” August Burns lays out this fact in the gallery guide: “As late as 1962, the accepted scholarly tome on art history, ‘Janson’s History of Art’ included not a single female artist. Zero.” Another of the curators, Rachel Moore, adds to this as we walk through the show: “Now there are women, but it’s 46. Out of 3,000. It’s still close to 1 percent.”
Enter the gallery to see immediately Aleah Chapin’s aunts painted larger than life, smiling, and naked. The scene is gentle and joyous; Rachel sees “how they just glow … they’re gorgeous, and they’re soft.” Other portraits reflect times of introspection, sadness, or playfulness. Some subjects evoke solidarity, angst, or rebellion. Rachel shares a curator’s concern: they had to work to make sure the portraits weren’t “all here and looking straight at you.” Variety is a watchword. “In all of the exhibition we’ve got this huge range of age, and there’s diversity, there’s body type, there’s the type of woman represented — the mother, the daughter — whatever role that person’s in. Or the issue the individual is grappling with, whether it’s an eating disorder or being an immigrant.”
Pointing to Karen Offut’s “The Strength Within,” which hangs on a brick outcropping in the gallery,” Rachel allows another curatorial insight. “The last thing to fall when there’s a fire is the chimney. And there she is; and she’s so strong.” A woman in boxing gloves looks straight on, her expression muted. Muscled arms rest at her side.
Two paintings by Daryl Zang hang with others of mothers. In one, Daryl lies pregnant and contemplative on a couch. Rachel shares that the subject is wondering, “What’s going to change, what’s going to happen, and what will this child look like?” Peace and sweetness do not exclude other emotions. “There’s also a little bit of anxiety or exhaustion or something in there too. It’s a mix. It’s a blend of those feelings.”
In the other work by Zang, the artist appears with her child’s legs. Rachel knows the artist “struggled a little bit with being a mother and having to make those decisions between painting and spending the time with her child.” The painter realizes: “She is a mother and is responsible for this living being. She is their foundation. She is the roots for this person.”
In the same corner of the room, Nancy Hollinghurst, in a self-portrait, holds a long string of pearls tight to her neck. Rachel gets it. “You go to school, you work so hard, and you get this advanced degree in painting — the thing that you love.” The artist is forced to get another job to cover student debt. Will she have time to paint? Rachel knows this is “a very common struggle. This balance with women and life and choices.” Nancy Hollinghurst’s mentor (Ellen Cooper, also included in “Reclamation”) suggested sometimes it’s good to engage the noose — which inspired Nancy to paint about the problem.
Images of Hawa Bah, the mother of Mohammed Bah, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin (both sons are young black men shot by police), are from Sylvia Maier’s series called “Circle of Mothers.” Both hold a candle and stand before the words “United States of America,” “In God we Trust,” and “Liberty” in the way these phrases appear on a quarter dollar. Maier captures emotion on the face of Sybrina in a way that speaks to Rachel: “Here she is, feeling solidarity with all these other women who unfortunately have had all these other things happen. But her face is just so sad.”
In two rooms you wind through myriad expressions. Short films — also related to women and power — play in another gallery. Take time to see the paintings, listen to the talks, watch the films. Witness, celebrate, discuss.
— top left photo: detail from Daryl Zang’s “Roots”