Home > Introductory Essay

Introductory Essay

“i need to know their names/those women i would have walked with:” Women Artists in the Fine Arts Collection at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is more than just a descriptive title for this online collection catalogue. Lucille Clifton, a prolific American poet, recipient of many national awards, and a distinguished professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, wrote the words “i need to know their names/those women i would have walked with” in her poem “the lost women,” which describes her experience of what it is like to be a woman in a male dominated world.1 The raw quality of Clifton’s poems propel the audience into a state of disbelief as they are faced with the realities of oppressive male behavior, but also, for Clifton, what it is like to be a woman of color dealing with other forms of oppression. Clifton left a tremendous legacy on the St. Mary’s College campus, which makes her the perfect candidate for the title of this extremely important project.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a unique academic setting full of history, tolerance, and a constant passion for the pursuit of interdisciplinary and holistic knowledge. In 1840, St. Mary’s was erected as an all female seminary school dedicated as a living monument to Historic St. Mary’s City, the first capital of Maryland that prided itself on religious tolerance.2 Although originally an all female school, in 1967 St. Mary’s became a four year co-ed institution. Since the beginning of this institution, St. Mary’s has always been a place that values, protects, and invests in the education of women.

As a small Liberal Arts institution, St. Mary’s is not known for any specific subject but rather, the school is recognized for offering a diversity of intimate experiences in and out of the classroom. St. Mary’s is a special place on 361 acres of land right next to the St. Mary’s River. Since St. Mary’s is a public honors college, one of only two in the nation at that, students are able to receive an Ivy League education at a public school price. Having this rare opportunity of beauty and excellence in education allows for affordability and accessibility.

Even before the establishment of St. Mary’s Seminary, women who lived within St. Mary’s City wanted to redefine the roles of women. For example, Margaret Brent was the first female landowner in Maryland in the early stages of its development.3 According to the laws at the time, owning land meant that one could vote in government decisions. Typically, the only landowners were wealthy white males so once Brent owned land, the white patriarchal dominance was challenged. Although Brent was denied a vote in the government, she exhibited courage, bravery, and the first steps toward female empowerment and representation in not only Maryland, but the early United States as a country. A revolutionary, Margaret Brent created a legacy before us and has acted as an inspiration for women representation in underrepresented fields.

We initiated this project in order to represent different female artists who may have been overlooked due to patriarchal demands of the art world. In this semester long project we documented female artists within the Fine Arts Collection at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In the St. Mary’s collection there are about 400 works out of around 1500 pieces total that are by women artists. Each student chose at least three works from the collection. After close analysis, we collected information on the different artists and their artwork in order to compose short entries to better understand female artists and their impact on the art world. Since women artists are not always well represented in the art world, bringing to light their accomplishments in a public forum is extremely important and begins to give women back their own agency.

As this project is focused on utilizing materials from the Collection, it is important to introduce the history of the Collection on our campus. The Fine Arts Collection at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a working and teaching collection aimed at enhancing undergraduate education. There are over 1500 works that are here either through a gift, loan, or donation status. In more recent years, the aim of the Collection has shifted from actively acquiring works to conservation and preservation efforts. This has been done in order to give first priority to the protection and maintenance of the large body of works stored on this campus. Class accessibility and student-driven object research have also been a major focus of the Collection in recent years.

The vision of the Collection at St. Mary’s College began with the former Gallery Director Jonathan Ingersoll in the early 1970s, and carries on today. Ingersoll ideally aimed to provide “an opportunity to take greater advantage of a curriculum that pays homage to the classical world that not any myriad of lantern slides of illustrations could equal.”4 Some of the earliest works collected at St. Mary’s College of Maryland were plaster casts of famous Greco-Roman sculpture. They came to the campus through a loan program with the Metropolitan Museum of Art that still stands to this day and is shared by other educational institutions, such as Harvard and Yale. Over the course of the decade and well into the 1990s Ingersoll continued to grow the Collection. He did this by taking ownership of works from his various sources and connections in New York City, resulting in a heavy concentration of American Modernist work.

In addition to the collecting done by Ingersoll from various individual artists, Leonard Bocour (1910-1993) was one of the largest donors of the Collection through the 1980s. Bocour is known for both his career as an artist and his role as founder of the Bocour Artists Colors paint factory in New York City that operated between the years of 1932 and 1986.5 He and his company invented a particular low-cost form of acrylic paint, and often marketed to abstract painters working on a large scale with his affordable “King Sized Tube.”6 He often informally traded tubes of paints for works from artists - these could be anything, from paintings on canvas to works on paper. A large number of these “gifts” to Bocour have found their way into the Collection at St. Mary’s.

Gene Mako (1916-2013) was another primary source of donations to the Fine Arts Collection. He was the son of the Hungarian artist, Bartholomew Mako (1890-1970). Over the course of his life Mako became a famous American tennis player, while also maintaining a career as an art dealer at Gene Mako Galleries in L.A.7 Throughout the history of the Collection, Mako donated over 700 works.8 Our primary works from Mako include western-themed paintings and examples of modernist realism favored by Gene, as well as paintings by Bartholomew Mako himself.

Finally, in addition to our large collection of paintings and sculpture from the American modern and contemporary movements, we host several donations of African and Asian art. In part, this comes through St. Mary’s College faculty and their connections to Gambian study-abroad and research programs and relevant donations from the Smithsonian Museum. Furthermore, a large donation from the Jansson family provides a strong basis for a collection of Asian textiles and objects. It had also been a policy of the Collection up until 2012 to purchase and accession a certain number of student-made or alumni works a year - in this way the student body is reflected in the Collection as well.

In total, the Fine Arts Collection at St. Mary’s College of Maryland hosts a large collection of varied objects for an institution of our size. Our collection has expanded at a progressive rate over the course of more than three decades. While the Fine Arts Collection is no longer actively acquiring works, our primary focus continues to lie with student accessibility and the teaching potential of object-focused learning. The Collection on the SMCM campus is truly a unique feature at a small rural liberal arts institution, and has proven to be an invaluable resource to both students and faculty across the disciplines.

The Fine Arts Collection is extremely beneficial to both St. Mary’s College as an institution and the student body as a whole. It contains examples of art from across a number of geographical areas, time periods, and art movements. The people who accumulated these works over the years all had unique tastes, resulting in an interesting variety within the collection.  Although it is not well known, even among current students, the paintings, drawings, and sculptures housed in the collection and installed around campus are excellent teaching aids, and are used as examples in a multitude of classes, from anthropology to art history.  Using art in education has always been important at St. Mary’s; it provides insights into time periods, cultures, and people that have long since passed on. As current art and art history students at St. Mary’s, we have often looked to the works around us for inspiration and guidance. The collection has enabled a number of students to further themselves both as academics and as artists.

The college has had a connection to arts of all types for a long time, and has proudly displayed many pieces of the collection throughout its academic buildings. As all of the works in the collection are different, they all have different values. For example, the oldest firmly dated piece in the collection – an early seventeenth- century oil painting – is an important piece, not just for the collection, but also for the art world. This, however, does not decrease the value of all the other works, and that is part of the beauty of the collection’s variety; art is such a universal thing, it can be connected to nearly every subject offered at this school in some way. The collection has worked with many departments in our school, such as biology, neuroscience, psychology, chemistry, and English. The works are used to teach visual literacy, perception and observation, and sometimes for experiments involving materials and color in classes like chemistry. One does not need to be a historian to gain knowledge from the art collection at St. Mary’s; one just has to have a passion for learning. Several of the students involved in this particular project are artists and have found the collection invaluable in their studies.

This particular project, in which we focused on women artists in the collection, has been inspiring. The importance of this catalogue is to connect to the idea that women founded this school and encouraged its growth into the institution it is today. A major reestablishment of female power within the St. Mary’s community is our current President of the College, Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan. She has been in office since July of 2014 and has set milestones for the school to achieve a stronger community, empowering minorities, including the female population. This essay and the entries aid in bringing to light a few of the female artists within our collection and their artwork. The feminist movement has increased in ways during the twenty-first century, connecting to other movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and other oppressed groups. St. Mary’s Campus has held congregations and meetings discussing the issues of inequality not only in within our campus community but throughout the country. The students at St. Mary’s are tenacious and motivated to make change. Oppression is a great motivator and the women represented within this catalogue show the equality for which we strive at St. Mary’s campus.

Women in the arts have been underrepresented throughout history. Within Western art, women’s limited access to the public sphere restricted their access as producers of high art. At the start of the nineteenth century, national state academies were the established forum for artistic production across Europe. These academies helped to dictate national taste and provided young artists the greatest opportunity to be successful. Certain European academies began to allow no more than two women into their program.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, artists were shifting toward production outside of the academies. Subsequently, women were gaining limited traction into artistic production and during the twentieth century more women gained recognition within the artistic sphere. Despite their greater access, the notion of the creative genius was still connected to men. Works made by women were often subjugated by “qualities associated with ‘femininity,’ such as ‘decorative,’ ‘precious,’ miniature,’ ‘sentimental,’ ‘amateur,’ etc.” which “provided a set of negative characteristics against which to measure ‘high art.’”9

The artworks in the College collection continue to demonstrate these shifting ideals, as many of the works are from the modern and contemporary period, which break away from typical feminine confines placed on art. These works illustrate various major art movements of the twentieth century, such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and the Textile Movement. One important example of this is Cora Kelley Ward’s Warning, an abstract expressionist painting done in acrylic. Abstract Expressionism is primarily characterized by chaotic and subconscious strokes or blotches of color. The emphasis is placed on the process of the work and the lack of relational imagery. Warning demonstrates this in its simplified composition and focus on textural brushstrokes.

The Fine Arts Collection at St. Mary’s provides other examples of women artists who strived to push against gendering or sexist rhetoric within their respective artistic movements. One such artist from this specific catalog is Jann Haworth, a contemporary sculptor and painter who has worked in the Pop Art movement. Her silk-screen prints Sorceress and Warrior (1970-75) are characteristic of Pop Art with inclusion of imagery from popular media (here, mythological beings) and consumerism, often rendered in highly saturated colors with an emphasis on bold lines. The print of the Sorceress demonstrates such qualities in its depiction of a female figure adorned with spiritual imagery and symbols. Colors are bold and the bright yellow of the figure’s cape and headdress contrast against the deep purple of the background. The figure’s clothes utilize popular symbolic imagery such as stars, moons, wings, and horns, all of which can be associated with the representation of the spiritual.

Some female artists produced works during the mid-twentieth century that coincided with second wave feminism and directly contrasted historical oppressive practices and prejudices. These works serve as an activist critique on both society’s prioritizing masculinity and on racism. Women artists created works that disrupted society’s historical and contemporary sexualization of the female form and sparked nuanced open discourse on female sexuality. Artists would add sexual features in unconventional manners and performance artists produced works that challenged the typical canon of the female nude. An activist artist featured in this catalogue is May Stevens, a major feminist and civil rights activist. Her works often display figures that represent characters of oppression and subverted patriarchal notions of genius. Louise Nevelson a famous twentieth-century sculptor, also created prints such as the one in the collection, which rendered the female body in an unusual manner. She did not consider the body as a vessel of matrilineage or an object of sexual desire, but as purely form. This contributed to thinking of the body in an abstracted unsexualized manner.       

Simultaneously, in order to counteract the historic stigma against female-produced artistic works and feminine mediums (based in decorative materials and subjects), certain movements were established. Craftivism and the Textile Movement (also known as the Pattern and Decoration Movement) were formed to function as the celebration of traditionally feminine material and works. Miriam Schapiro, another artist from our collection, was a leading feminist artist of the Textile movement. Within Schapiro’s piece Serious Dress, she inherently imparts value to textile production through her detailed, close observation of a piece of lace textile. The orientation of the fabric alludes to the female form and functions as another way to consider the female body without subjecting the body to the gaze.

The artists in this online collection catalogue and in the Fine Arts Collection in general range from world renowned artists like Stevens and Schapiro to lesser known artists like Juliana Seraphim to contemporary artists about whom there is no scholarship. The students in the class selected works across this spectrum to practice their research skills and write entries on a various topics beyond just biography. Encouraging scholarship on women artists is important because their work can provide insight and inspiration for present and future female artists. Studying women’s contributions to art offers an important understanding into the nature of the patriarchal system and what it’s like to be a woman, even if this does not include artworks that are specifically labeled as feminist pieces. In order for this to change, it is important for young women (and even older women too) to have female role models in the art world. By bringing to light different women artists, one can hope to empower other artists, to demand that a discourse for change occurs, and to reflect on the knowledge that one can gain from seeing life from a new and underrepresented perspective.

1. For more on Clifton, see Mary Jane Lupton, Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters (Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2006)

2. “History of the College,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland: The Public Honors College, Accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.smcm.edu/about/history4/history-of-the-college/

3. “Margaret Brent (1601-1671),” Exploring Maryland’s Roots: Library, Accessed December 8, 2016, http://mdroots.thinkport.org/library/margaretbrent.asp. For more on Brent, see Lois Green Carr, “Margaret Brent: A Brief History,” Maryland State Archives, Accessed December 13, 2016. http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/002100/002177/html/mbrent2.html

4. Letter, Christine C. Cihlar to Jeff Frank, February 25, 1988. Archives of the Fine Arts Collection, St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

5. "Obituaries: Leonard Bocour Paint Manufacturer,” The New York Times, September 7, 1993, Accessed November 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/07/obituaries/leonard-bocour-80-paint-manufacturer.html

6. Ibid.

7. “St. Mary’s College Remembers Constantine ‘Gene’ Mako,” SMCM Newsroom, June 24, 2013, Accessed November 14, 2016, http://www.smcm.edu/news/2013/06/st-marys-college-remembers-constantine-gene-mako/

8. Ibid.

9. Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 5th ed. (London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 9.

-Morgan Beahm, Natalie Krissoff, Julianna Linder, Amanda Page, Haley Sieglein, Emily Smith, Ivy Smith, and Sarah Cantor