Navigating Interior and Exterior Forces
Undergirded, by Michelle Mulligan Turn, Turn, Turn, by Priscilla Roggenkamp Strong as Nails, by Clare Murray Adams Agree to Disagree, by Sarah McMahon Breaking Out, by Judith Sterling Perseverance, by Heather Bullach Creativity Killers, by Gail Trunik Sekhmet, by Laura Kolinski-Schultz
By Tom Wachunas
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another." - Toni Morrison
"There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind." - Virginia Woolf
“A woman is human. She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man. Likewise, she is never less. Equality is a given. A woman is human.” - ----- Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration
EXHIBIT: Women of Resilience / an invitational exhibition featuring 25 women artists, curated by Priscilla Roggenkamp, Judith Sterling, and Patricia O’Neill Sacha / at Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio / Through May 23, 2021 - Exhibiting artists include: Clare Murray Adams, Ruthie Akuchie, Kathleen Browne, Heather Bullach, Sarah Curry, Annette Yoho Feltes, J. Leigh Garcia, Laura Kolinski-Schultz, Charmaine Lurch, Sarah McMahon, Erin Mulligan, Michelle Mulligan, Patricia O’Neill Sacha, Mary Kaye O’Neill, Cynthia Petry, Priscilla Roggenkamp, Judith Sterling, Sylvia Treisel, Gail Trunick, Michele Waalkes, Gwen Waight, Jo Westfall, Gail Wetherell Sack, Laurel Winters and Kiana Zigler.
From the exhibit statement: “...Twenty-five artists have explored a variety of topics in traditional and non-traditional media. These topics include: personal empowerment, overcoming barriers, the capacity to recover, acts of strength and resistance, and healing the world and ourselves… the need to assert one’s place at the table and in the world continues…this exhibition reminds us that art remains an important vehicle for activism.
Though the impetus for this exhibit was to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, the formal and conceptual scope of the exhibit is substantially broader and more complex than simply a woman’s right to vote in national elections per se. You could call this remarkably diverse exhibit a communal incantation, or invocation of sorts. Here is a calling forth of past and present circumstances, attitudes, evolutions. It’s a symbolic journey through our culture still so fraught with vexing challenges to women having and holding a viable place at the table of human living. Women seeking an equi-table, if you will.
Sekhmet is an exquisite, lavishly glazed and painted stoneware statue by Laura Kolinski-Schultz. The piece is named for the powerful ancient Egyptian deity traditionally represented as a lion-headed woman. She was worshipped both as a ferocious warrior wreaking punishment on her enemies, and a generous healer – a kind of patron saint of doctors. In this context, consider her not as a mythological divinity, but as an earthbound force - a strong-willed woman.
With one eye swollen shut and the other meeting ours in a piercing stare, Creativity Killers, by Gail Trunick, is a clay figure of a tormented woman. An anguished soul. Her flesh is incised with words, cut like so many stab wounds. Vicious imperatives and judgements. Keep Quiet. You’re Too Old! You’ll never amount to anything. You’re not talented enough… Words meant to silence a voice. Words uttered to obliterate dreams. Words too often heard in the patriarchal meritocracy of our time. Yet words she hears with one eye open.
In Perseverance, a stunning self-portrait oil painting by Heather Bullach, both of her eyes are wide open in a look of unflinching determination. The canvas is infused with red, as if illuminated by a fire close by. A crisis? Unscathed, she appears to be running, but not in a state of panic so much as with palpable confidence, out from the confines of the picture plane, toward us and a new destination.
A similar sense of undaunted tenacity is evident in Judith Sterling’s fused glass and ceramic work, Breaking Out. It’s an episodic rendering of an escape. A woman is in the process of literally shattering the ceiling of the glass box that had imprisoned her - the box of societal biases, assumptions and expectations that can stifle a woman in fully realizing her identity and potential.
With her intriguing textile piece (handwoven on a computerized jacquard loom), Agree to Disagree, Sarah McMahon also presents a boxed-in woman, though not in escape mode. Interestingly, when you stand within inches of the work, it appears as a vast plane of pixelated patterns. An abstraction. With more physical viewing distance from the cotton surface, the woman’s form fully materializes. McMahon’s statement articulates it brilliantly: “…The computer and body relationship is in fact very meaningful…digital and analog working together, standing in and overlapping for the psychological and physical. The imagery here comes down to defining interior and exterior forces, and how we navigate existence and space as minds inside a body (a concept that becomes more elusive the more it is pondered: fragile, squishy bags carrying around an awareness of being fragile, squishy bags).
I don’t take from this that women are by definition any more fragile or squishy than men. That’s just one arguable condition of humanity in general. Other conditions can be constituted of sterner stuff. Consider Clare Murray Adams’ homage to the history of strong, influential women in her mixed media work, Strong as Nails. In the chest cavity of a fabric-sculpted torso is a window – a soul – through which we see a pile of rusted nails – memories of real work. On the wall next to this object are image transfers, hung from rusted washers, showing the faces of 36 accomplished women who collectively have affected human existence for the better.
The title of Priscilla Roggenkamp’s impressive fabric and repurposed clothing work – Turn, Turn, Turn – is a reference to a phrase in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (and the Pete Seeger song): “To every things there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven.” The 10 dress styles are based essentially on a single form, though with subtle variations. It’s an evolved sameness that nevertheless speaks to a woman’s adaptability in roles, duties, and identities amid the the constancy of change, whether consciously chosen or simply inevitable.
The placement of Michelle Mulligan’s mixed media Undergirded, on a low pedestal and directly to the left of Roggenkamp’s much larger work, is particularly fascinating. A time to every purpose under heaven indeed.
Mulligan’s piece is a small upright book, it’s thick pages exposed just enough so we can read her hand-printed meditations, along with an anatomical image of a human heart. The book’s cover is intricately sewn with ornamental doilies and pieces of colored fabric. This intimate, charming tome seems to be at once a mother’s diary and prayer book, containing innermost reflections from the heart of a woman of faith, a lover of God and family.
Turn, turn, turn. I’ve mentioned only some of the many impactful works in this exhibit. There’s much that I continue to process on emotional and psychological planes. These artists’ timely visions, articulated with compelling skill, have left me alternately humbled, dismayed, exhilarated, alarmed, thrilled, mesmerized. And forever…grateful.