The journey is not yet complete and new paths may still emerge, but November marks the eighth month since the Femin • Is project debuted, so it seems a good time to take a look back, even as I look forward in seeking a venue for the project for Women’s History Month in 2018.
Firstly, what am I talking about? What is Femin • Is? Well, there are two parts to that answer. Femin • Is consists of a series of audio interviews as well as a series of portraits featuring the subjects of those interviews. I was looking for self-identifying women artists who had spent a significant part of their life in Kansas City, since around the 1960s. I wanted to hear from these women on what feminism looked like in our local arts scene from a historical perspective. Why? It’s relatively easy to find out what was going on in national hotspots during the era of radical feminism of the 1970s, but what was going on here in the Midwest? The national feminist art scene had Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro leading the way, but who did we have here?
Did feminism in the arts scene look different in Kansas City? And for comparison, what are some examples of feminism in the arts scene today? My initial research came up short. My response to this frustration was, “Well, if this isn’t easy to find, then make it easy to find.” The seed for Femin • Is germinated then and there.
I am a visual artist, first and foremost, so while it certainly imposed limitations on the scope of the project, it was necessary for me to tie this research to my own work. Therefore, the portrait component of the project was key. I say that this imposed a limit on the project, as there is only so many portraits I could create in a finite period, so there are many, many more women who could have easily justified inclusion. In the end, I narrowed it down to a baker’s dozen, thirteen portraits, 18 women in total.
Portraits of individuals include:
Jennifer Lapke Pfeifer – Rightfully Sewn
Rosy’s Bar & Grill – Joyce Downing, Linda Kay Davis, Carol Smith, Tamara Severns
The Wild Women of Kansas City – Geneva Price, Millie Edwards Nottingham, Lori Tucker
Gloria Vando Hickok
I asked each women I interviewed to provide me with some kind of written text that held significance in her life, either personally or historically. Poetry, historical fiction, phrases, song lyrics, philosophical treatises — all these I received and translated into portraits by writing and layering the text to create an image. I’d had a bit of practice at this from a series of self-portraits and a public project on the KC Streetcar line.
Yet, there was more than one catalyst for this project. I had just come back from New York where I had been commissioned by the oldest feminist gallery in New York, A.I.R. Gallery, to create sculptures to be used as awards to honor feminists. I simply loved that my work was being used to honor other women. I also love podcasts and had an itch to start one of my own.
Lastly, I had a conversation with a younger women that left me flabbergasted, a ridiculous word, yet accurate, in this case. She claimed she wasn’t a feminist. I replied, “You don’t think you should have the same rights as a man?” Immediately, she responded, “Oh, of course I should,” but to her, feminism meant that oft-repeated term — man-hating. That the definition of feminism is, literally, the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes, was simply not in her worldview, or at least, in her mind’s dictionary. Really, though, I should thank her. My exasperation led to a need to do something, in my own way, through my work.
So, I received an Inspiration Grant from The ArtsKC Regional Arts Council to record and release the interviews through a podcast I created called KC Art Pie (which will hopefully be the umbrella platform for future seasons of arts-related content). Each of the interviews gave me clues about how to create their unique portrait.
The exhibition of portraits debuted in July at Counter Point in the Crossroads Arts District and continued in September at The Writers Place, which was quite fitting, as the work was literally literary and the co-founder of the institution, Gloria Vando Hickok, was a participant in the project.
As of this article, ten of the thirteen interviews have been released on KC Art Pie. Each of the women expressed their own kind of feminism and its been an honor to talk to each and every one of them, from the quiet feminism found in Ke-Sook Lee’s textile work, influenced by experiences of war, the life of a stay-at-home mother and the passing down of handcraft from generation to generation, to the directness of Linda Lighton’s ceramic sculpture, reflective of coming of age during the peak of the sexual revolution, yet straining under the constraints of a family’s expectations of a what a “good girl” should be.
I learned that national figures of feminism did touch our local scene. Feminist icon Miriam Schapiro juried the first all women exhibition in the region in 1977, as remembered by writer and curator Elisabeth Kirsch, who, as a student, served as the assistant to Schapiro. Honestly, there are too many stories to relate here and that is exactly what the podcast is for!
So, to close out, I’ll share some of the portraits from the Femin • Is series, along with the text that each subject chose (click on a portrait to hear the interview). This was a way to learn more about the thoughts and ideas important to them and to use those values as an expression of identity, rather than photographic likeness. We can’t always control what we look like on the outside, but we can control what we value and treasure. That is what I wanted to express in the portrayal of the identity of these amazing individuals.