YWCA Art Gallery Spreads Women’s Mission
By Laura A. Hobson
Walking up the stairs of the YWCA, 898 Walnut St., a visitor is immediately struck by a large abstract, acrylic, colorful painting entitled “Marrakesh Express” by Jolie Harris. This is merely an enticing introduction to the rest of the “Field of Possibilities” exhibit in conjunction with sculptor Paige Wideman at the YWCA Women’s Art Gallery running from February 1 – April 4, 2013. Seeking inspiration from nature, each artist interprets the world around us through form, texture and color. Free and open to the public, anyone can visit one of the four or five exhibits featuring two to three artists held in this space throughout the year Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
From 1978 to 1983, a center for women’s theater, art and poetry from 1978 to 1983 existed. When the funds dried up, Ali Hansen asked Charlene Ventura, president and CEO, “Why don’t we create a gallery?” Thus began a 20-year history of exhibiting over 300 women artists. Both national and local female artists have displayed their art in a small gallery located on the second floor of the unique edifice built in 1929 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Often, the artists reflect the themes of the YWCA, e.g., domestic violence, breast health and women of the world. With the mission of the YWCA to empower women and eliminate racism, the artists try to uphold those principles.
In addition, the mission of the Women’s Art Gallery is to provide educational programs for diverse audiences which amplify exhibitions and broaden the public’s appreciation and understanding of women’s roles in art and society. To that end, the gallery has sponsored such national artists as Joyce Tenneson, whose work regularly appears on magazine covers of the New York Times, Fortune and Time. She received “Photographer of the Year” from Women in Photography International in 1990. Another acclaimed artist Mayumi Oda appeared in 2003 with serigraphy work. Reflecting the YWCA’s global presence, “Women of the World” included artists from all over the world as part of its national tour in 2002. Matuschka’s “I Am One Woman” show depicted photographs of women struggling with breast cancer. Graphic pictures, yet defiant and courageous which shock at first glance.
An active Women’s Art Gallery Committee headed by Carmen Politis, a local sculptor and painter, meets monthly to review artistic activity and plan events for the future. From April 12 to June 14 runs an exhibit by Audrey Ann Strinko, a local photographer, and Lisa Merida-Paytes, a local sculptor. Opening June 12, Jackie Frey and Barbara Ahlbrand, abstract painters, are scheduled. About half of the artists who apply are accepted for exhibition. Any art media is considered.
Carmen came to the Art Gallery from one of the other YWCA programs, the Battered Women’s Shelter. Mrs. John (Francie) Pepper, wife of the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, saw Carmen as a volunteer on the phones and asked why she wasn’t in the Art Gallery. In the fall of 1997, there was an exhibit marking Carmen’s first involvement with the gallery. She was included in the show entitled “A Worldwide Exhibit by Procter & Gamble Spouses.”
Other highlights of the past twenty years include the 2010 quilt show “A Tribute to Esme,” a thirteen-year-old (Esme Kenney) who was raped, murdered and burned in 2009. Launched last year was FotoFocus Celebration in over 75 venues, including the YWCA, presenting photographs of note. Opening in October, 2012, “Landscapes of the Mind” offered a historical look into how metaphor, archetype and symbol weave together to transcend ordinary reality in three stylistically different photographic art projects created at 20-year intervals. The work of Nancy Rexroth, Judi Parks and Jane Alden Stevens has been collected by museums nationally and internationally. A third highlight was “Empty Chairs – Painful Windows” held in October 2005 in observance of Domestic Violence Month. A solemn table with empty chairs and place settings represented twelve women who died at the hands of their husbands or partners. These exhibits drew hundreds of people.
The only man ever to exhibit in this space was Brian Joiner, an African American, in 2003. He was selected in memory of his grandmother, Evangeline Joiner, the first African American Board President of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, founded in 1868. All of the portraits in the “Black Women Series” exhibit were of women who have served on the YWCA Board of Directors, its various committees and/or are YWCA Career Women of Achievement. Examples are Nadine Allen, Sharon M. Draper, Dolores J. Lindsay and Marian A. Spencer.
“We’re fortunate to use this space,” says Charlene Ventura. “Some people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the YWCA visit the gallery.” In order to sponsor the gallery, funding comes from ArtsWave and other arts patrons, such as Thomas Schiff, John and Francie Pepper, the Union Institute and University and the Luther Charitable Foundation. It is the only gallery in Greater Cincinnati that exclusively features women, and it will stay that way.
Carmen and Yvette Johnson-Hegge, executive coordinator at the Y, install the exhibits. Creating the flow and placement of the art is their job, which they take seriously. They want the visitor to get the most he/she can from viewing the exhibit, which lasts three to four months. Interestingly, there is a childcare center around the corner from the gallery, so children often walk through remarking about different pieces of art.
“I have a special commitment to the gallery,” says Charlene. “It’s important to have women artists featured.” She notes that it is the only YWCA in the country that has an art gallery. Two years ago, the gallery celebrated its 20th anniversary and invited artists who originally exhibited in the first showing. Women artists who participated in this special exhibit included Margot Gotoff, Ali Hansen, Velma Morris, Carmen Politis, Patricia Renick, Martha Weber and Dottie Weil, among others.
Carmen notes, “It’s exciting to see other women artists in the field bring a different perspective. We get to see new work, visit homes. The imagery is diverse, different from what men are doing in the art world. We try to find the right mix setting up the work for the exhibit. It is an extension of that constant learning.” Charlene commends Carmen for a keen eye when it comes to reviewing other people’s art.
Collaboration is the key word to the Women’s Art Gallery. Not only do key players work with artists, they have also worked with Women Writing for a Change, the local chapter of the national organization. About once a year, the group will visit an exhibit, write about the issues presented and then on a separate night do readings which correlate with the art. Another example is a Lunch and Learn session that the YWCA sponsors for its staff and board members. Exhibiting artists discuss their work over lunch and answer questions.
The Women’s Art Gallery has successfully met its mission.