Women artists assert their place in Charleston 

Estrogen Art

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Women artists have long been the underdogs of the art world. Overlooked in male-dominated history books and excluded from salons and museums, women have been fighting for recognition for hundreds of years. Over the last few decades, however, the women's art movement has been gaining momentum at a national and local level. As proof, the latest hot topic at a variety of local venues, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Charleston Renaissance Gallery, and Robert Lange Studios, is female artists.

San Francisco artist Sadie Valeri and her friends were frustrated about the lack of representation for women in the arts. They started a blog, and within a matter of weeks, Women Painting Women was receiving daily submissions from artists across the world. "There was no marketing effort, just a call for submissions, and it exploded," Valeri says. Their goal was to show the world great work by women artists. "We wanted to break down stereotypes about women artists."

Gallery owners Robert and Megan Lange saw the potential of the women-painting-women concept after several of their artists were featured on the blog. Inspired by the depth and quality of the work, the Langes organized the Women Painting Women show, which will include 50 women from across the globe, as well as a plein air painting event on Saturday, an art auction, and a week-long painting retreat for 12 of the artists on Sullivan's Island.

Valeri is a classical realist who spends 60 hours on each still-life painting. When the idea for an exhibit started bouncing around, Valeri knew she had to get to work. She'd never painted a figure before and admits that it was a major challenge. The resulting image "Mary with Silver Dish," shows a naked young woman holding a dish at chest level, her breasts hidden from view. Valeri thought about how to feature the woman in a non-sexual way. "The female form as a subject is imbedded in sexism," she says. "How do we deal with painting something without reinforcing that sexism?" The issue is a confusing paradox, but she says getting frustrated takes away from the work, and the number one goal is to paint.

Terry Strickland is a prolific painter who says her style is both traditional and contemporary. She's interested in how people handle personal choices, and says "Voice of the Tiger" is about trying to be brave. Using her daughter as a model, Strickland's young woman is bold and sexy, staring directly at the viewer with one hand on her hip. Strickland says she wants to capture universal experiences and that she is more interested in personal stories than social commentary. In "Fast Lane," Strickland was inspired by the Superman comics. A young Lois Lane lies on a couch in a slinky red outfit and clutches a phone, staring at the viewer with confidence, seeming to suggest that she is doing just fine on her own.

Jazz-Minh Moore's paintings are raw. She's been painting on wood since she was 17 years old and says she never liked the delicacy of canvas. While the women in her paintings are beautiful, they are also strong. "I am allergic to poses that subjugate the female form and can't stand the classical, simple, demure gaze found in most paintings of women." She usually takes 30-40 photographs of friends and family and chooses the one with the most authenticity and movement. The girl in "Sunrise Rock" happens to be Moore's ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend, but despite the relationship, Moore knew when she saw the photograph that she had to capture the woman's fierce gaze.

As one of the local artists exhibiting, Shannon Runquist was excited about the opportunity to participate in the show. In "Tired of Waiting," a woman is asleep on a bench beneath a peeling poster of a train. Her hair falls over her face, and she clutches a bag or a sweater to her chest. The poster over her head is covered with red swirls of graffiti, and there is a sense of foreboding, as if she's asleep in a dangerous space. In a custom-made circular frame, Runquist's female form is both vulnerable and tough.

The range of styles among the 50 women artists varies greatly. From old to young, naked to clothed, abstract to realistic, political to observational, the women pose on chairs, beds, facing the viewer or looking away. These women artists reclaim the female form through their own eyes, experiences, and talent.

Just a few blocks away, Southern Sisters at the Charleston Renaissance Gallery takes a more localized approach to celebrating women artists. Featuring works by talents like Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Anna Heyward Taylor, this exhibit offers a contrast to the contemporary work at RLS.

Throughout the month, the Gibbes will celebrate contributions of women in art with a three-part lecture series slated for Wednesday evenings in November. Presented in partnership with the Center for Women, the series kicks off on Nov. 3 with "The Fragrance of Colors: Perfume in Art and the Art of Perfume" by Richard Stamelman.

Making art is much more than a battle of the sexes. As Valeri says, "The number one goal is to paint." Women artists are focused on that goal while being supported by this group of innovative, open-minded curators and gallery owners.


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