Quick to See and Quick to Lead: Women and Power in the Arts
By Stuart Mitchner
The woman on the cover of Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts (Rutgers Univ. Press $24.95) is coming right at you, radiant with spirit and energy, a serpent clutched in one hand, a flowing gold-spangled blue cape in the other, her skirt flaring above her powerful thighs. The sense is that she’s breaking through barriers, leading the way, ferocious, unstoppable, the enemy of oppression and complacency (the fallen angel she’s crushing under her running shoes is “said to be” a symbol of patriarchy).
Although the book’s co-authors, Princeton residents Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, wisely chose Yolanda M. López’s Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978) for the cover, the artist herself is not included among the 13 case histories inside. Given the situation at the Mexican border, a brief account of López’s background is worth giving here. Born in 1942, she is a third-generation Chicana whose grandparents migrated from Mexico to the U.S., crossing the Rio Bravo in a boat under fire from the Texas rangers. The same year she painted her controversial self-portrait as part of a series paying homage to working class Mexican women, she created a political poster titled Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? showing an angry young man in an Aztec headdress holding a crumpled up paper titled “Immigration Plans.” The woman who made that dramatic Rio Bravo crossing is depicted in the Guadalupe series sitting on the blue cape worn by her artist-warrior granddaughter with the skin of the snake in her lap and a knife in her right hand. About the image of her grandmother, López says “She’s holding the knife herself because she’s no longer struggling with life and sexuality. She has her own power.”
Sight as Action
The American Indian artist, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, whose case history is one of the book’s highlights, was given that inspired middle name by her horse-trader father in honor of her great grandmother: “It doesn’t mean eyesight,” Smith says. “It means being able to grasp things readily.” She served an unorthodox artistic apprenticeship on the Salish-Kootenai reservation helping her father build corrals, fix fences, and groom horses. She and her sister also had to chop wood, clean barn stalls, shovel manure, and exercise horses that were “jumpy and skittish.” She shivers remembering the times “my Dad wanted to round up horses in a certain direction while he thundered behind them on his horse driving the herd toward us.” Most important, she says her father never told her, “Be a little lady.”
Smith’s father was also her favorite artist, drawing pictures of animals on small pieces of paper that she would carry for weeks in her pocket. She was equally taken with “the tightly braided lariats he made by hand,” not to mention his collection of beadwork and Navajo saddle blankets.
Since art depends on how you see it, feel it, think it, and where it leads you, Smith’s sight-as-action middle name may have been her father’s greatest gift. Something happens between the French word for yellow and the most common American surname, something not unlike the juncture-resolution sequence framing each of the book’s case histories. Smith’s hands-on background gave her a visceral advantage in the battle that took her from juncture, meaning her “experiences of discrimination as she struggled to attain an education,” to resolution, where those rejections inspired her to combat bigotry against Native Americans by “building mainstream recognition for the value of their culture.” She accomplished her goal in three phases, by creating collectives with other artists, by organizing thematic exhibitions of the work of Native Americans, and by cultivating partnerships with influential artists and critics “who were in tune with her goals.”
Smith’s earliest partnership with an influential artist dates from when she was a teenager and the family she was working for took her to see the 1952 Hollywood movie, Moulin Rouge, about the life of Toulouse Lautrec. Not only was the film about a famous artist who was “a revolutionary in his work,” it took place in Paris, with scenes in “spectacular technicolor.” So taken was Smith with the artist who surmounted the crippling effects of a childhood injury, she actually dressed up as Lautrec and had herself photographed on her knees “so that she would appear as short as her hero.”
Cinema also figures in the juncture-resolution dynamic described by the images accompanying the chapter on Puerto Rican-American actress Miriam Colón, who is first seen at 26, slyly smiling, with a drink in her hand; a page later she’s 78 and smiling from the heart as she receives a 2015 National Medal of the Arts from President Obama “for her contributions as an actress … a trailblazer in film, television, and theater who helped open doors for generations of Hispanic actors.” The first photograph is from “Strange Miracle,” a February 13, 1962 episode of the television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The same year saw the release of one of the great Hollywood westerns, Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, in which Colón plays a flame-haired prostitute called Red. She also appeared as the Cuban-American mother of Al Pacino’s character Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). Ultimately more significant than her career as an actress, however, was Colón’s role in founding the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which “brought Spanish-language theatre to thousands of theatregoers.”
The only women who share a chapter in Brodsky and Olin’s book, Joanne Smith and Veomanee Douangdala, met at a party in Luang Prabang, Laos, in 2000. Although Smith was raised and educated in the U.K., she had much in common with Douangdala. Both were born in 1976, grew up in “a caring family environment,” and had an interest in textiles and weaving. As a result of the meeting, Smith and Douangdala formed a weaving collective, Ock Pop Tok, that within a decade had become “an internationally known destination about Lao culture and textile traditions.”
Interviewed by Brodsky and Olin in 2016, Smith said of OPT, “It was not about business first, it was about friendship …The idea was to start something different, something we loved.”
The fact that Smith and Douangdala’s fortuitous meeting took place at a party brings to mind the productive friendship between Brodsky and Olin and the Gatsby-lavish party for the arts community held at Brodsky’s Princeton home this past June. The night before the event I’d received an email from an old friend in Germany asking if I knew someone who could help a Romanian artist make connections that would enable her to relocate to the U.S. The timing was better than good since I happened to be in touch with two of the best-connected people in the art world, one of whom was hosting a gathering of epic proportions the very next day. In addition to providing contact information for artist friends in Bucharest and a Romanian art dealer in New York, the Brodsky-Olin network included a Romanian artist at the party who was soon in touch with her counterpart in Munich. My friend’s favor had been granted less than 24 hours after I received the email. That’s leadership in action. Change “See” to “Lead” and Brodsky and Olin can claim a share of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s middle name.
The Fertile Crescent
Writing here about Olin and Brodsky’s landmark 2012 exhibit, “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society,” I mentioned scanning the faces of the women on the website (fertile-crescent.org), with its “signature images” of the artists and their art. I was looking for what I imagined could be grown-up versions of the two little girls I met at a crossroads in Turkey in the sixties. One was shy, charismatic, and small; the other was bold and bright. Among the faces on the website — some strong, some delicate, some sultry, some refined, some sly, some shy, some stern, I decided the most likely possibilities were Nezaket Ekici, with her bold, no-nonsense air, and Ebru Özseçen, who appeared demure and unassuming, although her video was edgy and erotic. Since both women are now apparently residing in Istanbul, it’s unlikely that they made it to Judy Brodsky’s party, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they were there. As these case histories make clear, the way to leadership for women in the arts is through the power of communities and collectives.
Cofounders of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art, Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin both hold the title Distinguished Professor Emerita at Rutgers. An artist herself, with work in more than one hundred collections, Brodsky founded the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, renamed the Brodsky Center in her honor. An art historian, Olin has curated more than 50 exhibitions. They will both be at Labyrinth Books Thursday, December 6 at 6 p.m. For more information about that event, see the Art page.
Mary K. Trigg is the series editor of “Junctures: Case Studies in Women’s Leadership,” which also includes volumes on business and social movements.