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Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art show puts Southern women artists front and center

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The wealthy among them were deemed a disgrace. The poor in their ranks were pulled away for the sake of a wage. Those who were mothers were scorned as unfit. The teachers were urged to just teach.

What exactly was this societal no-no that so rattled those living in the late 19th century and well into the 20th? It was a woman's desire to make art, and, moreover, to be so bold as to make art professionally. 

'Peach Packing, Spartanburg County" by Wenonah Day Bell

"Peach Packing, Spartanburg County," 1938, by Wenonah Day Bell (American, 1890 – 1981); Oil on canvas; 38 x 48 inches; 2010.05.04; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina/Provided

Art, after all, was a pursuit many considered the purview of men, one that should by no means be central to a woman's life. Take that faulty supposition down South, where even the anointed males struggled for national recognition, and women had even slimmer odds of breaking through. Throw in a socioeconomic factor like race, and the chances of critical acclaim and support were edging from slim to none.

'Central to Their Lives' 

Starting Jan. 17, the Gibbes Museum of Art gives Southern women of the late 1800s through the 1960s their rightful, central place. The exhibition "Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection" will be on view through May 3. 

Part of a seven-museum tour, the 42-work show comes to Charleston courtesy of a partnership between the Gibbes and The Johnson Collection, the Spartanburg-based private collection-turned-civic initiative spearheaded by philanthropists George Dean and Susan "Susu" Johnson.

The mission of the collection is to champion the role that art of the South plays in the national cultural conversation. Thankfully for arts lovers throughout the region, that involves making accessible its sizable reserves of such art, including an impressive holding of objects created by women, a priority since the collection's inception.

'Red, Gold and Black' by Mary Alice Leath Thomas

"Red, Gold and Black," 1957, By Mary Alice Leath Thomas (American, 1905 – 1959); Lacquer, gold leaf, and palladium leaf on Masonite; 48 x 40 inches; 2008.08.04; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina/Provided

A Challenging Past

“So many artists with connections to the South have had terrific achievement, some regional, some national, some international,” said Lynne Blackman, the director of communications of The Johnson Collection. Blackman also served as editor of the hefty "Central to Their Lives" catalog published by University of South Carolina Press.

"But being from the South, especially in the 19th and early 20th century, there was less of a marketplace, there was less of a support system." According to Blackman, the collection aims to highlight such artists whose contributions were as significant as their counterparts in other parts of the country.

There is the work of Kate Clark, the daughter of a prominent Mississippi family who painted under the pseudonym Freeman Clark so as not to shame her genteel parents with an endeavor they viewed as unladylike. Enid Yandell, a Kentucky-born sculptor, in the 1880s shamed her own kith and kin with the notion of her taking as much a dollar for her artistic output.

Anne Goldthwaite fared better, thanks to a lack of marriage prospects. Her family thus sanctioned her move from Alabama to New York City, where she achieved artistic renown while also advocating for women's rights. Betty Newman didn't let marriage stop her, either, abandoning husband and child in the 1890s in Tennessee for the Parisian salons. 

'Cane River Baptism' by Clementine Reuben Hunter

"Cane River Baptism," circa 1950 – 1956, By Clementine Reuben Hunter (American, 1886 – 1988); Oil on paperboard; 19 x 23 7/8 inches; 2007.10.06; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina/Provided

There were African American women who painted their way through poverty, often with no formal training. Minnie Evans, a self-taught North Carolina artist, would not even dare claim the title of artist. Clementine Hunter, a late 19th-century Louisiana folk artist, got hooked after first picking up paints and brushes left by an artist on the plantation-turned-artist-colony where she lived.

Many shared the struggles of making their way in a world that frowned upon their impulses. Nonetheless, their styles, subject matter and choice of media are as varied as their backgrounds and their life stories.

“We are glad to shake up the preconceived notion of what Southern art is or isn't,” said Blackman, who adds that this access, and thereby democratization of fine art, is a collection imperative.

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On-mission at the Gibbes

That imperative aligns with the Gibbes' mission, too, as it seeks to highlight artists who are underrepresented in the South and beyond, women among them. The exhibition's tenure at the Gibbes also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees and protects women’s constitutional right to vote.

"The Gibbes has been an integral partner to us," said Blackman, citing the museum's generosity, scholarship and willingness to connect them with other experts in the field over the years.

After all, Charleston boasts more than a few trailblazing women artists, starting with Henrietta Johnston, the pastel portrait artist and the wife of the rector of St. Philip's Church from 1708 to 1716 who is considered the first professional female artist in this country.

"That set the stage for our emphasis on women artists and our emphasis on the underrepresented in general," said Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Charleston women artists

The exhibit includes artists from the famed Charleston Renaissance, such as Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, whose evocative Lowcountry vistas lent immeasurably to that much-heralded artistic groundswell. Also in the lineup is Corrie McCallum, whose rare modernist view of Charleston provided an altogether different perspective on the cityscape. 

'Demolition of a Hotel' by Corrie Parker McCallum

Demolition of Hotel, no date, By Corrie Parker McCallum (American, 1914 – 2009); Casein and ink on paper; 30 5/8 x 36 5/8 inches; 2003.03.14; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina/Provided

Mack noted that museum professionals have commented on how many women the Gibbes has on display at any given time, attributing it in part to the fact that Charleston women have long been the drivers of arts organizations, as they were in other Southern cities.

"In those cities where institutions existed that gave women opportunities, women flourished," she said. 

Mack also notes the show's prominence of African American women artists, drawn from the collection: "It's one of the first exhibitions where you have this diversity in terms of presenting the story of women artists."

A notable catalog

To further tell the story, The Johnson Collection enlisted around 25 scholars to contribute to the catalog, many of them women. Among them is Sylvia Yount, the Lawrence A. Fleischman curator in charge of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her foreward, she details her own investment in the undertaking based on both her Southern lineage and her arts world vocation.

'Art Studio' by Theresa Pollak

"Art Studio," 1931, by Theresa Pollak (American, 1899 – 2002); Oil on canvas; 43 3/8 x 35 inches; 2013.10.09; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina/Provided

"I have both personal and professional interest in seeing the art historical record of women’s achievements — across America — recovered and shared. Only then will we all be able to appreciate more inclusive narratives and enriching cultural experiences in our classrooms, galleries, and museums," she wrote. "It is high time." 

Blackman said The Johnson Collection hopes to eventually do away entirely with modifiers such as "women" or "African American" and instead acknowledge these individuals only as artists.

"But we're not quite there yet," she said.

Mack agrees, observing how a woman's impulse to be creative has long been considered far from central. "It's funny how this issue still needs to be pushed forward."

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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