SWAN songs in Carbondale (and paintings, plays, dance and more)
October 7, 2011
CARBONDALE – Had it been Wilma Shakespeare who had been blessed with the staggering combination of humor, insight into the human condition and mastery of language, and turned out “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and those 154 sonnets, the world might never have known of such genius. In the 16th century, female artists (who didn’t exist in large numbers) had an immensely difficult time getting their words read and their paintings exhibited. Indeed, William Shakespeare, brother to the imaginary Wilma, had his plays cast with male actors in the female roles, as women were not generally permitted on the public stage.
Conditions for women with creative desires have become much more welcoming over the decades. Georgia O’Keeffe and Rachel Whiteread, Jane Austen and Ann Patchett, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, Joni Mitchell and Lady Gaga and many others are all recognized for making landmark contributions in the arts.
But women can still use a little boost. “If you look statistically, women artists are grossly underrepresented in the visual arts – only 17 percent of pieces in museums are by women. In classical music, there are very few symphony conductors,” said Gayle Embrey, a downvalley painter, photographer and psychotherapist.
Embrey, as it turns out, is also an acquaintance of Martha Richards, a San Francisco arts supporter who five years ago launched the SWAN project – Support Women Artists Now! There have been SWAN days and SWAN weekends devoted to presenting work by female artists in some 21 countries, but the Roaring Fork Valley is about to become uncommonly fertile ground for the movement.
The local SWAN initiative, which has been in the works for a year, includes nearly a full month of events – as far as Embrey knows, the first project to extend beyond a weekend. Part of that can be traced to the enthusiasm of the Carbondale Council of the Arts and Humanities.
“Gayle came to CCAH a year ago and presented the idea of a SWAN day, and in typical CCAH fashion, Ro Mead, who was the director then, said, ‘Why don’t we celebrate women all month?'” Amy Kimberly, the current CCAH director, said. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
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Another reason for doing several weeks of SWAN, though, seems to be the abundance of supply, ideas and exuberance. “It couldn’t be done in a day or a weekend,” Kimberly said of the number of women artists eager to share their work. “We needed a whole month to showcase it all.”
When SWAN kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. at CCAH, it will be with a visual arts exhibition featuring work by 42 women. And a performance of “Shakespeare’s Sister,” a theater piece by Kristin Carlson interwoven with music and dance created by various female artists. And a procession of puppets created by Soozie Lindbloom and her OM Puppet Theater. And a multitiered cake highlighting the evening’s theme, plus a cake-decorating demonstration. And a preview clip from a work-in-progress documentary film by Embrey and Sue Drinker, which focuses on seven local female artists.
Events in the weeks ahead include Laughing Matters, an evening of comedy at the PAC3 theater; month-long exhibitions at the Carbondale Clay Center and the Red Brick Center for the Arts; a screening of Pamela Tanner Boll’s documentary “Who Does She Think She Is” at the Third Street Center; and Valerie Haugen’s performance piece “The Healing Power of Art,” plus workshops, author talks, dance performances and more. (A full schedule is available at carbondalearts.com.)
The question remains: Given how much progress women have made in the arts, is an effort like SWAN necessary? Embrey and Kimberly say yes, for a variety of reasons. For one, in certain positions that include great authority and money – feature-film directors, orchestra conductors – women make up a small minority. Also, women, more than men, by nature tend to rally around one another, so a visible group effort can spur other women to pursue creative avenues.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about that,” Embrey said of the necessity for SWAN. “Definitely, women are relational. This is a way we can grow in our art together, support each other.” She points to the fact that several high-profile local artists, including Lynn Goldsmith and Pamela Joseph, agreed to include work in the CCAH exhibition. “That speaks volumes about how women artists feel about wanting to support one another.”
“There’s strength in numbers,” Kimberly added. “This shows that women artists are free to explore in whatever way they wanted to, artistically.”
Kimberly also said that it’s important to shed light on the historical context, that a few hundred years ago, a project like SWAN would not have been permitted. “You hear about Rembrandt, Shakespeare. But if Shakespeare had a sister, and she had written those words under her name, would anyone have seen it?” she said. “We can say, ‘We’re in the 21st century; that’s not true at all.’ And we have come a long, long way. But it’s not that long ago that you hardly saw women’s art at all.”
Embrey said that SWAN is not intended to exclude men. They are invited to attend and participate in events. “Hopefully men will show up and celebrate this,” she said. (It might help the men to know that, while some of the art addresses specifically female themes, much of it is simply art that happens to be made by women.)
Embrey even said that men are welcome to borrow the SWAN idea, and create an event of all-male art.
“It would be great to see men take on the same thing,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”