In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the
Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection
throughout the month of March.
From across a gallery, Focus
No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might
appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face
does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving
closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the
portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further
obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and
gender seem ambiguous.
This work is part of the Focus
series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself,
family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her
artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and
the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal
association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of
unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters,
tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives
Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2
While the thread in Focus
No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the
central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic
act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might
think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair
braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises
the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by
their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.
With President Carter’s announcement that the nation must mobilize its vast coal resources to solve the energy crisis, we are entering an era of potentially irreconcilable conflict between the pressures of energy and the pressures of environmental concern.
– John D. Spellman, Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, 1979
We find ourselves in a critical and precarious moment: our impact on the environment has caused irreparable harm. With this in mind, it is incredible to look back nearly forty years ago, when the King County Arts Commission brought together a roster of internationally recognized artists to re-imagine post-industrial sites in King County, such as gravel pits, surface mines, and abandoned airstrips. The 1979 initiative and its attendant symposium—Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture—was a progressive city-backed project meant to envision earthworks as a tool for environmental recovery.
Among the group of accomplished artists—which included Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Mary Miss, and Herbert Bayer—was Beverly Pepper, who worked with the University of Washington to develop her proposal for Montlake Landfill, part of the University of Washington’s East Campus.  Measuring approximately 80 acres, the landfill site proposal contained two main elements: the first, rendered in the lower right-hand corner of the plan, a 100-foot circle of white-capped posts that would, over time, reveal changes in land levels and be a resource for University of Washington students; the second, an intervention into the landscape that would reveal (through a glass wall) decades of waste disposed at the site, as well as a layer of gravel to again indicate the earth’s movement over time.
While it is not the responsibility of artists to respond to political, social, or cultural events, it is often the case that artists are in the unique and privileged position to call attention to contemporary issues, respond to our increasingly complex world, and, most importantly, effect change. Though Pepper’s Montlake Landfill proposal never came to fruition (Robert Morris and Herbert Bayer’s plans were selected by the jury panel), it remains a radical gesture that will hopefully serve to inspire future artists, environmentalists, and civic leaders alike.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator
Images: Engineering Drawing for MontLake Landfill Proposal, 1979, Beverly Pepper, Collage of graphite on vellum, 30 1/4 x 54 3/4 in., King County Office of Cultural Resources, 98.3.47, Beverly Pepper. Cover of Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture catalogue, 1979.
 The Montlake Landfill operated as a burn dump and, eventually, as landfill between the years 1926 and 1966. In 1971, the landfill was closed, and covered with two feet of clean soil. According to a report published by the University of Washington’s Environmental Health & Safety Department, “Municipal solid waste, primarily consisting of residential wastes, was disposed in the landfill. Some limited amounts of industrial waste that could be considered hazardous were also disposed at this location.” As for the location: “Although the exact limits of the Montlake Landfill are not definitively known, available documentation suggests that the landfill is generally bounded by Montlake Boulevard NE to the west; NE 45th Street to the north; Laurel Village and the Douglas Research Conservatory to the east; and Canal Road, the Intramural Activities Building, and Union Bay to the south.” For the entire report, please see: https://www.ehs.washington.edu/system/files/resources/montlake.pdf
The goal is for museums across the country to share information about women artists—their histories, birthdays, quotes, and more—using the hashtag #5womenartists to highlight works in their collections and exhibitions made by women.
The impetus for the project? According to the campaign’s press release:
“Through #5womenartists, the Women’s Museum hopes to help the public answer the question—without hesitation—‘Can you name five women artists?’” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “By calling attention to the inequity women artists face today as well as in the past, we hope to inspire conversation and awareness.”
We all know the artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right? The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.
We’re going to share more than five women artists here, and here is the first: a collaboration by artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven (under the group moniker DAFT KUNTZ) called SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN. The piece tends to speak for itself in terms of why we’re highlighting it first, and it was a comment made by a male colleague to the artists. How you choose to view it—as a compliment, or as a statement highlighting the fact that the art world still defines most achievements as defined by men—is up to you. But we love the work because it confronts the fact that there is a significant gender imbalance in the art world, (their representation, and exposure to them and their works) head-on.
Frederick and Nelson advertisement, The Seattle Times, November 1, 1953
Let’s face it: women were not exactly free to challenge the system in the 1950s. Donna Reed was the ultimate hero for women of that decade; the perfect example of what a housewife and mother should be. Other examples of these women are found in the Seattle Times’ historic archives, where engagement announcements, sorority fundraisers, and art show reviews mix and mingle on the society pages. Advertisements proudly display the latest fashions and gadgets that can help the average housewife “wow” her family and friends with her ability to clean the house, cook a full meal, and still look like she just stepped out of a magazine (note: this usually involved a girdle).
Frederick and Nelson advertisement, The Seattle Times, July 19, 1959
This decade has been picked apart in retrospect by television and film, but not many have explored the art and history of this time period better than Mona Lisa Smile. Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an art history professor at Wellesley College in 1953, challenges her female students by asking them to reconsider everything they’ve ever been told about “the roles they were born to fill.”  Katherine Watson pushes them to think beyond marriage and the expectations of the time.
Frederick and Nelson advertisement, The Seattle Times, July 19, 1959
For those who have seen this film, you might remember the scene where Katherine Watson comes to class with slides featuring the latest advertisements for girdles and kitchen appliances. Women were expected to go to college to find a husband and receive their “M.R.S.” degrees, and clearly Ms. Watson had had enough of students disappearing from class to get married. In this particular scene, she asks:
“What will future scholars see when they study us? A portrait of women today? There you are ladies: the perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate, Magna Cum Laude doing exactly what she was trained to do…I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband’s shirts? Now you physics majors can calculate the mass and volume of every meat loaf you ever make!”
It is revealed in the film that Katherine’s mother was a part of the war effort and her independence from this time translated onto her daughter. Many women of the 1950s were influenced by World War II and the aftermath of it that changed America and the way people thought about gender roles in society. Women had been given a chance to be independent and made up a large portion of America’s work force while they held down the home front. However, much of this changed when the war ended and men returned from overseas.
The Bon Marché advertisement, The Seattle Times, November 13, 1950
But what does this have to do with the Seattle Art Museum and the artists that we have in our collection? A lot. Many of the female artists I have been researching over the last year worked in this decade and had difficulty breaking the barriers that society had created. Katherine Watson is a prime (Hollywood) example of what female artists were trying to do in the 1950s. However, we have two artists that are a little closer to home for us that were able to create a name for themselves. Ebba Rapp and Jean Cory Beall were both born in 1909 and were highly accomplished and well known in the art community.
Jean Cory Beall grew up drawing and painting and took this passion with her into higher education in Paris, Mexico, and Seattle. Her watercolors and mosaics were primarily created for private clients but she also began receiving public commissions for mosaic murals. Beall’s work was quickly recognized as something special and led her to accomplish an extraordinary amount, especially for a woman living and working in 1950s America. However, her career wasn’t easy to build. Beall created her own art and assisted her husband with design sketches for some of his Boeing products, while also taking care of their three children, Alan, Corey, and Barbara. Beall seemed to “do it all,” and was recognized many years by the Seattle Art Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists, winning an honorable mention in 1943 for her piece, “Boomtown.” Her work continues to hang in various museums and public buildings across the country, including the Federal Reserve Bank, the General Administration Building (Olympia, WA) and the Erco/Co. in Washington D.C.
Originally a painter like Beall, Ebba Rapp was an accomplished portrait artist by the time she reached high school, but in the 1930s she had an opportunity to study under the renowned sculptor, Alexander Archipenko. She began to incorporate sculpture into her work and her talent was eventually noticed outside of her local community when one of her pieces was included in the American Art Today exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Rapp was also an active member of the Women Painters of Washington, founded in 1935. Rapp joined this group of women in 1936 after commenting that the Seattle art community was “dominated and politically controlled by a clique” of men, and that women were “systematically excluded.” The Women Painters of Washington came together to “overcome the limitations they faced as women artists and to realize their artistic potential through fellowship.” This community was needed at a time when women were not afforded the resources and recognition that they wanted or deserved and it continues to support women and their artwork today.
Rapp, like Beall, had very a supportive husband who pushed her to share her work with the community. Rapp was incredibly humble; she often “turned commission invitations to others and was reluctant to enter her work in exhibitions.” Oftentimes her husband, John D. McLauchlan would enter work to shows on her behalf. A Seattle Times reporter noted in 1959, that Beall’s husband, Wellwood E. Beall, was “a person who believe[d] in letting wives have careers.” This was out of the ordinary for the time; a husband who supported his wife having a career instead of a hobby? Ludicrous! Both Mr. McLauchlan and Mr. Beall broke the mold of a 1950s husband by encouraging their wives to follow their passions.
Among other things, the opinions of men are something that Katherine Watson tries hard to counter in Mona Lisa Smile. Topher Grace’s character, Tommy, says it would be hard for his fiancée, Joan (Julia Stiles) to commute to and from law school and still get dinner on the table by five. These were the expectations that many held during that period. Finally, Katherine gets through to one of the girls. Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) was Katherine Watson’s most staunch opponent, but by the end of the film she understands that even though Mona Lisa is smiling in Leonardo’s masterpiece, we do not know if she was actually happy. Like so many women of the time, Betty Warren wore a mask and pretended she was happy because she was doing what she was told she should be doing. Jean Cory Beall and Ebba Rapp may not have had easy journeys to begin their creative careers, but they proved that they could support their husbands and families while also breaking those social mores and being successful and driven women who opened the doors for generations of artists to come.
-Annika Firn, Curatorial Intern
 Mona Lisa Smile. Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures, Inc., California, USA, 2003.
 Fitzgerald, Annamary. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: General Administration Building,” United State Department of the Interior, National Park Service, July 1, 2006, p. 8.
 “1994 Distinguished Engineering Alumni/ae Award Recipients,” The University of Colorado, 1994.
 “Newcomers Win Prizes in Art Preview,” The Seattle Times, October 7, 1943, p. 26.
 “Assembly Names Five As Leaders in Fine Arts,” The Seattle Post Intelligencer, November 4, 1958, p. 12.
 John McLauchlan. Interview by Barbara Johns. Tape recording. Seattle, WA., 26 February, 1987.
 “History,” Women Painters of Washington, http://www.womenpainters.com/ABOUT/About.htm
 McLauchlan interview, 1987.
 “Mexican Muralist is Teacher,” The Seattle Times, August 23, 1959.
Near the center of Australia, out of a station named Utopia, a group of women have painted their way to fame. They are among the leading names in Australian Aboriginal art and many attribute their fluid use of acrylics to years of experience with painting bodies for ceremonies. One of the younger artists is Abie Loy, who began painting at the age of 22, and was mentored by the older generations. Each Utopia woman has developed her own style, but all rely on consistency and repetitive structure. Awelye is composed of rectangles that embody a multitude of minor variations. Loaded brushstrokes define the frameworks, while tiny white dots offset a black background. The artist credits ceremony as a source for inspiration, but one outsider’s reading of the accumulated surface is to see it as a vast array of windows onto another world.
While this is the final week to see Elles: SAM, many works by women artists remain on view at SAM within our permanent collection and special exhibition galleries. Paintings like Awelye can be seen at SAM as a result of a longtime and continuing commitment to great artists, regardless of whether they are men or women
Honoring her Salish heritage, Musqueam artist Susan Point carved red and yellow cedar to create a sculpture that expresses her cultural ancestry and a devotional attitude towards nature. Red cedar has always been considered the “tree of life” for First Peoples, which is the title the artist has also given this work. Valued by the Salish peoples, every part of the cedar tree is utilized to create houses, storage bins, clothing, canoes, mats, baskets, masks, paint brushes, and floats for nets, among other uses. Here, Point carves eight faces connected by root-like forms or waterways that reference a family tree and the importance of inherited histories that unite the Salish people.
Because of her high stature and the demand for her work, Susan Point rarely executes large labor-intensive carvings any longer and has turned to work other media. This piece, created specifically for the museum, is a large-scale carved and painted panel that retains the ethos of ancient Coast Salish forms yet, in the hands of this accomplished artist those forms and the content they carry are vibrantly contemporary. Susan has emerged as one of the most successful and sought-after Northwest Coast Native artists and she has been credited with single-handedly reviving the unique Salish style that has lain dormant for nearly 100 years. She is among only a handful of Native female artists working in the media of woodcarving.
The collecting impulse of museum directors, curators, and private collectors—an insatiable desire—are referenced and investigated in Gloria Bornstein’s installation Concupiscence. Created in 2002, for a solo exhibition at SAM, the title of the work expresses strong, sexual desire. In this case, Bornstein used for inspiration the stories and collections of SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller, and African art collector Katherine White. Bornstein used various source materials, specifically old taxonomy books from which she gathered images in order to create cast-porcelain objects of sexual organs of various organisms, including earthworms, barnacles, and flatworms. She then placed these anthropomorphic forms in a custom-made case in order to comment on traditional methods of museum display, and in so doing, she tamed and neutralized the physical and sexual presence of the objects.
Gloria Bornstein was born in New York in 1937. She has degrees in art and education, and in psychology. She lives and works in Seattle.
A contemporary Surrealist, Louise Bourgeois’ career stretched from the 1940s until 2010. Her lifelong fascination with myth, ritual, and totemic figures had its roots in French Surrealism, which reached a high point between the World Wars. In these Eye Benches, furniture takes the form of giant, observant eyes. Visitors encounter the disembodied eyes, which seem to follow their every movement around the Olympic Sculpture Park’s lower plaza, discovering that the enigmatic sculptural objects play a functional role: providing comfortable outdoor seating.
Louise Bourgeois was born in 1911 in Paris. She entered university in 1932, intending to study mathematics, but turned to art the next year. She studied in art schools as well as apprenticing in artists’ studios in Montparnasse and Montmartre. She emigrated to New York in 1938, where she continued her studies, eventually having her first solo exhibition in 1945. She lived and worked in New York until her death in 2010.
Egyptian artist Ghada Amer is best known for works like Black Series: Couleurs Noires, where embroidered female nudes emerge seductively from zones of applied and dripping paint. Not readily apparent at first glance, her canvases draw inspiration from photography: The female forms in her work are drawn from pornography, traced onto an abstractly painted canvas, and then embroidered. She leaves the embroidery threads uncut, securing them to the canvas with gel; these trailing threads add an additional sense of “painterliness” to the image.
Amer’s work is inherently confrontational—not just in displaying to the viewer perhaps disturbing imagery, but playing with the dichotomies of pornography vs. art, abstraction vs. figure, and photography vs. painting.
The first Members Art History Lecture of 2013 will take place tomorrow (Wednesday), 16 January, at 7:00pm in the Plestcheeff Auditorium, first floor, SAM downtown.
Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art, will discuss Together Again: Nuxalk Faces of the Skywith her colleague Jennifer Kramer, Curator of Pacific Northwest Art, Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia.