Exhibition focuses on southern women artists

Thursday, June 21, 2018

According to feminist artist Judy Chicago, work by women artists makes up only 3 to 5 percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. Southern artists are also underrepresented, and work by southern women artists is rare. The exhibition “Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection” features 42 of the latter and will make its debut at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia. On view June 30 through September 23, it focuses on works by women who worked throughout the South between the late 1880s and 1960 and is organized by the Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the University of South Carolina Press has issued a companion publication of the same name in which several notable art historians offer insight on the achievements of these artists. Each artist faced different challenges but all of them faced the challenge of being a woman artist during a period in the history of the American South in which women’s social, cultural and political roles were changing and being redefined.

Nell Blaine (1922–1996), one of the featured artists, wrote, “Art is central to my life. Not being able to make or see art would be a major deprivation,” supplying the title for the exhibition. The Virginia artist painted from a wheelchair after suffering from polio, and although she was hailed in her day, her name is not well known now.

“Central to Their Lives” features sculptures, drawings and paintings by artists such as Minnie Evans, Anne Goldthwaite, Clementine Hunter, Nell Choate Jones, Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, Alma Thomas, Mary Leath Thomas, Augusta Savage, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and Kate Freeman Clark. The exhibition takes time to highlight the story of each. Clark, for example, signed her paintings “Freeman Clark” to disguise her gender and never sold any of her work in deference to her mother, who strongly disapproved of ladies conducting business. Savage left her small Florida hometown with only five dollars in her pocket, attempting to escape prejudice and poverty. She became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, where she served as a teacher and mentor to important African American artists of the postwar era. Thomas, born in Columbus, Georgia, only began to paint seriously after she retired from 38 years as a public school art teacher in Washington, D.C. She was also the first African American woman artist to receive a solo exhibition at a major national arts institution.

William U. Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art and a strong proponent of this project, says this exhibition is a collection of works by “prominent or preeminent, but neglected, southern women artists.” He continues, “I’m most excited that, in addition to the exhibition itself, there is a catalogue, and that the exhibition and the catalogue will spur further research on a neglected and too often forgotten group of artists from the South.” Although the exhibition displays work by 42 women, the catalogue includes a substantial index of thousands more.

The exhibition is sponsored by the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art. Sarah Kate Gillespie, curator of American art at the Georgia Museum of Art, is the in-house curator. The Johnson Collection is a private collection that focuses on southern art and collaborates with institutions of higher education. The exhibition will also travel to the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Huntington Museum of Art, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and the Taubman Museum of Art.

Related programs include 90 Carlton: Summer, the museum’s quarterly reception (free for museum members, $5 non-members) on July 20 at 5:30 p.m.; a film series beginning July 12; a Family Day on July 14 from 10 a.m. to noon; an Artful Conversation focusing on Teresa Pollak’s painting “Art Studio”; a Toddler Tuesday on July 24 at 10 a.m. (free but space is limited; email sagekincaid@uga.edu or call 706.542.0448 to reserve a spot); and a public tour on September 5 at 2 p.m. All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise indicated.

Museum Information

Partial support for the exhibitions and programs at the Georgia Museum of Art is provided by the Georgia Council for the Arts through the appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly. The Georgia Council for the Arts also receives support from its partner agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. Individuals, foundations and corporations provide additional museum support through their gifts to the University of Georgia Foundation. The Georgia Museum of Art is located in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the East Campus of the University of Georgia. The address is 90 Carlton Street, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. 30602-1502. For more information, including hours, see http://www.georgiamuseum.org or call 706-542-4662.