By Cora Bennage
Some of the most famous paintings are of women, yet art by women has been underrepresented for centuries. “The Mona Lisa,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” and “Penitent Magdalene” are celebrated pieces by men, but artists like Mary Cassatt, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Berthe Morisot are unknown.
Women dominate the art industry, but 14% of exhibitions at prominent U.S. museums were of work done by female artists. Dr. Alisia Chase has been working to fill in the blanks historians have left when it comes to female artists.
The basement of Tower Fine Arts at SUNY Brockport has a workshop filled with quilt squares dedicated to women artists throughout history. The collection of quilt squares has been in progress for two decades, covering three tables and filling five large boxes. The quilt squares are part of a final project created by Chase for her Women in Arts class: Labors of Love.
“When I came here [SUNY Brockport] it was a class dedicated to women in art, but largely meaning exploring how women have been portrayed in art,” said Chase. “I felt like in some ways that was a tired horse that had been beaten. So, I said I’m going to base the entire class on the work of women artists. When it got to the end of the semester, I realized I wanted an assignment that was geared toward making them appreciate all of the work that women had done throughout history that had gone unacknowledged,” said Chase.
The assignment was creating a quilt square to represent a woman artist’s work. This included basing the quilt square off galleries, themes within the artist’s work or a specific piece. Only one element of the quilt square had to be hand sewn and the materials were not limited to fabric. For Chase, listening to the students complain about how long it takes to hand sew is one of best parts of the project.
“The second-best part of it is the fact that they [the students] have to use one of those techniques, and the forced admittance by them that this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. It’s really funny to listen to them say ‘oh my gosh I have so much more respect,’ ‘I have a renewed interest in these materials,’ ‘I can’t believe I used to laugh when my grandmother would give me a sweater’,” said Chase.
Nicole Toland is a current student in the Women in Arts class. Toland is used to working with various paints, but she said that the class has helped her explore several aspects of art she had not thought of.
“Coming into the class, as an art major I didn’t know a lot of women artists, surprisingly. We kind of focus on the greats like Picasso and DaVinci, and so it was really cool learning about all the different women artists in the world. It kind of helped me to look at more women artists to influence my work,” said Toland.
Toland has many ideas for her quilt square and how she plans to represent a gallery exhibition that involved pedestrians cutting off the clothing of an artist in public.
“I’m so excited to work on my own square to make a piece to dedicate to an artist that I enjoy their work. I don’t know how well I’ll be at sewing stuff together and creating but I’m definitely excited to give it a try,” said Toland.
For Chase, creating a project that focused on the underappreciated specialties of women was about more than getting students to start sewing and creating textile art.
“When women adopt male passions and male desires and male markers of success, they’re applauded. But when men adopt women’s markers of success and behaviors they’re actually chastised and shunned. When I got to the end of the year, I said I want an assignment that doesn’t use male standards of measure,” said Chase.
Sewing, especially quilting, was a necessary task historically done by women. Now it is being used to celebrate the forgotten female artists throughout history.
The project has been in the works for two decades and will be on display in Tower Fine Arts from Nov. 29 to Dec. 11.