In honor of Woman’s History Month, Cameron Art Museum opened a new exhibit last Friday that pairs female visual artists with local female literary artists. “She Tells a Story” celebrates 51 women, with the art culled from CAM’s permanent collection.
“Exploring the catalytic relationship between visual imagery and text, CAM invited 14 Wilmington-area writers to compose new work inspired by these selections,” CAM registrar Holly Tripman Fitzgerald says. “This juxtaposition of visual with word illuminates how artists communicate their experiences, perspectives and world views through their chosen medium.”
They asked writers Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Karen E. Bender, Wendy Brenner, May-lee Chai, Cara Cilano, Amrita Das, Nina de Gramont, Dina Greenberg, Celia Rivenbark, Gwenyfar Rohler, Emily Louise Smith, Bertha Boynkin Todd, Kelly Rae Williams, and Margo Williams to participate. The ladies chose their artists from CAM’s vast pool of talent, including Elisabeth Chant, Mary Cassat and Minnie Evans, among others. But the museum didn’t want an all-female exhibition just for the sake of having one. “That would be the same with grouping artists for any reason other than their work,” Fitzgerald notes. The fact Women’s History Month falls in March and present-day undercurrent of women’s issues continues to make headlines certainly impacted the decision. Not to mention, there’s a lot of female talent locally.
“The reality is there is a gender imbalance in the presentation of art in museums and galleries,” Fitzgerald states. “According to data compiled by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51 percent of artists working today are female, while just 28 percent of museum solo exhibitions in the 2000s were dedicated to female artists.”
Fitzgerald chose the writers by closely utilizing local resources at UNCW. She worked with Heather Wilson and Emily Smith, both alums from the MFA Creative Writing Program. “We were looking for diversity in their chosen writing medium, age and ethnicity,” she tells. CAM then pulled favorites, like Mary Cassatt’s “The Ten,” as well as new work—including two new acquisitions from Minnie Evans, Maud Gatewood, Shahzia Sikander, Barbara Chase-Riboub, and Viola Frey. Imagery was sent to each writer.
When encore writer and book author Gwenyfar Rohler received a call to participate, the honor of being included amongst National Book Award finalist Karen Bender, New York Times Best Seller Celia Rivenbark and others was overwhelming. “It made me a little woozy,” Rohler says. She kept asking herself: “Is it real? They let me be part of this?”
Rohler chose the work of Elisabeth Chant (1865-1947), who was born in Somerset, England but moved stateside in 1873. Chant went to school for art, helped found Minneapolis Artists’ League and its Handicraft Guild, as well as went to nursing school and served in the Spanish-American War. Her family had her committed to an asylum in the early part of the 20th century, wherein she remained for three years. Upon her release, she landed in Wilmington, NC, and worked in the arts as a mentor and teacher, as well as founded the Art League of Wilmington in 1923.
Rohler chose Chant’s piece, “Merlin and the Lady of the Lake,” to interpret in a short story of 500 words. Rohler’s corresponding piece of fiction hangs beside Chant’s art in the show. “Merlin and the Lady of the Lake” showcases a lady by a lake with a man at her feet with an open book. The lady is gesturing quite candidly, as the background tree twists and turns in mystical beauty—though large and clearly rooted in its strength and girth. Rohler took to it as a conversation of sorts.
“I was drawn to several elements, among them a conversation appeared to be taking place in the painting, and also the book open on the ground appealed to my inclination toward the written word,” continues Rohler, who owns Old Books on Front St. “I responded to it with a short piece of a conversation between Elisabeth and [her sister,] Emma, discussing Elisabeth’s visions, and her coming to understand the power of writing, books and documents—an allusion to her commitment papers. Her family had her committed to an institution for her nightly travels to Camelot. She apparently did speak of that when she moved here.”
Trepidation set in for Rohler, as she tried to imagine the directions of her peers interpreting their own selections. Approaching it correctly weighed on Rohler.
“I [worried about taking] a wrong turn and failing to meet expectations,” she candidly states. “When you look at the visual artists—Chant and Fritzi Huber, for example—the bar is equally high.”
All of the art in “She Tells a Story” is breathtakingly high quality, yet also goes deeper to any viewer who would allow it. Specifically, gender and societal mores impact artists, shape their identities and how they responded to their environments. “By acknowledging and questioning these effects, this exhibition hopes to highlight the many contributions, past and present, of women in the visual and literary arts,” Fitzgerald says.
“She Tells a Story” will be on display through Sept. 11 at Cameron Art Museum.