Katy Malone (KM): Welcome to the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I am Katy Malone, Curator of Academic Programs, and for this virtual tour I will be joined by three members of our Student Advisory Board. Colby Sain is a Geology major. Lisette Morris is an art history major, and Sara Gaddis is a communications major and religious studies minor. Together we are going to show you Women’s Work, an exhibition that explores the under-representation of women artists in museums. Now may I introduce Sara Gaddis.
Sara Gaddis (SG): Women art makers have been historically excluded based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or artistic style. While the McClung Museum has many works of art by women in its permanent collection, only a fraction are signed or have been exhibited. Women’s Work allows the McClung Museum to hold itself accountable as it begins to rectify disparities. The art on display is from the Museum’s permanent collection and these pieces show how women artists’ work can reflect or go against female constraints, experiences, and agency.
KM: The exclusion of women from museums can be the result of a few things. Mainly, collections are driven by the taste and preference of collectors who buy and then donate the art in the first place. In this exhibition, the majority of works were donated by female art collectors, who play a central role in supporting women artists. Now let me introduce Lisette Morris, our art history major.
Lisette Morris (LM): This particular painting is called Yannick (Breton Boy). It was donated by Eleanor Swan Audigier and her husband, Louis, in the 1930s. The Audigiers donated several important works that became a cornerstone of the McClung’s Art and Culture Collection.
KM: Yannik (Breton Boy) is an oil painting by Elizabeth Nourse. It was created in the early 1900s. Born in the Midwest, Elizabeth Nourse moved to Paris in the late nineteenth century and never left. Nourse who rejected marriage and other social norms of her day, chose to focus on her career as an artist. She was a realist painter and she explored themes of womanhood and children, as you can in this painting. Nourse’s artwork especially appealed to Eleanor Audigier. Now to hear from Colby Sain.
Colby Sain (CS): Many women historically lacked access to formal education. They acquired skills through community traditions or by becoming self-taught artists. The art that they created may be described as craft or tourist art, and it was often undervalued by collectors and museums.
Lucy George learned basket-making so she could sell her work to tourists to support her family. She was innovative and pioneered the unique “button motif”. She also used honeysuckle vine in her baskets rather than customary river cane—as you see in this basket.
KM: Baskets, like the one Colby has highlighted, led to economic and creative success for George. At the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a Cherokee artisan co-op, Lucy George instructed others in her unique decorative motifs and materials. This particular artwork was created in the 1950s. Now we return to Sara.
SG: Before the art in this section was acquired, the McClung Museum had few contemporary works by women of color in its collections. Even when a woman of color is extensively trained and accomplished, their art is often forgotten or ignored in museum settings. By adding more art by women of color to its collections, the McClung Museum is seeking to rectify this absence by incorporating new and needed voices.
This lithograph is called Perfect Works. It was created in 2014 by Althea Murphy Price. During the Victorian era, hair from a deceased loved one was often used to create “mourning jewelry.” Murphy-Price’s print was inspired by this practice, and considers hair’s role as a signifier of cultural identity. Murphy-Price often incorporates synthetic and human hair into her art as an expression of identity, drawing upon her experiences as an African American woman.
KM: As in other arenas, Education can determine who is included and who is excluded in the art world, and historically, women’s access to education was limited. Well into the nineteenth century, women were discouraged from pursuing higher learning.
Of note, this lack of access impacted women botanical artists who were denied formal artistic AND scientific training. Instead, these women had to turn to experimentation and their extended community to hone their skills. Let’s go back to Lisette.
LM: Elizabeth Gould worked with her husband, naturalist John Gould. Her husband was not a skilled draughtsman, so he relied on her to illustrate scientific publications. Even so, Elizabeth’s substantial artistic and academic contributions to his ornithological work received little to no credit. All but one of the Goulds’ publications credited “J. & E. Gould” on the prints but many modern scholars argue that Elizabeth was the sole illustrator.
KM: The support of families can help women artists a variety of ways. Making art with family members allows women to collaborate and improve on new forms and techniques. It also can provide both practical and financial support, which allows an artist to produce more work and to be independent.
Maria Martinez was a San Ildefonso Pueblo ceramicist who received international acclaim. She experimented with different techniques to recreate and preserve the art of Pueblo black pottery. Her painted blackware became very popular on the market. Now back to Colby.
CS: Martinez did not develop black-on-blackware entirely on her own. While she formed and burnished her ceramics, her husband Julian painted the ceramics with designs. She then taught others in the community to paint her blackware.
Of note, Martinez taught her son, Popovi Da, to paint ceramics and he was considered the finest painter to work with her. These particular plates are signed “Maria Popovi,” indicating that they were created by mother and son. By working in partnership with her family, Martinez was able to support her community through her art.
KM: While surrounding themselves with other women could offer financial and intellectual support for women artists, it could also offer desired intimacy and companionship. Assigning contemporary LGBTQ+ language to historical figures is a complex undertaking, especially when trying to decipher relationships that were not public. Women featured in this section elected to remain romantically unattached to men while maintaining close, emotional bonds with specific women. When we look at how some women intentionally flouted societal norms and instead sought out other women, we can infer that some of their relationships were romantic. Here again is Sara.
SG: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth is one such artist who never married and instead surrounded herself with other women. Her sculpture was influenced by dance and she often employed dancers as models.
Slovenian ballerina Desha Delteil worked for Frishmuth for over ten years between 1916 and 1927. She was the model for Frishmuth’s depiction of the Roman goddess, Diana, in this bronze sculpture. To capture Delteil’s form, Frishmuth photographed and retained extensive nude images in various sensual poses. This artwork was created in 1921.
KM: When women artists were excluded from full participation and acknowledgment, they have created spaces of inclusion through networks of colleagues, friends, and family. Because women artists were often not treated equitably by fine art institutions and museums, building and maintaining supportive communities allowed them to continue to sustain themselves. In this way, women artists created their own opportunities to pursue art. Now let’s go back to our students one last time.
LM: As Women’s Work shows, the art making of women artists is expansive, innovative, and rich. The McClung and other museums can continue to rectify the exclusion of women by collecting AND EXHIBITING more of their art.
Thank you for exploring the exhibition with us. This has been Lisette Morris, Sara Gaddis, and Colby Sain from the Student Advisory Board of the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. See you soon.