"Pathmakers" Exhibition Pays Tribute to Pioneering Women in Craft and Design

"Pathmakers" Exhibition Pays Tribute to Pioneering Women in Craft and Design

Lenore Tawney in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1958.

Lenore Tawney in her Coenties Slip studio, New York, 1958. Photo: Courtesy of Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

It’s hard to imagine a world without the work of pioneering female artists such as Ruth Asawa, Toshiko Takezu, Lenore Tawney, or Sheila Hicks. Each of these artists (known for working in so-called “non-traditional media” ranging from textiles to ceramics) played a crucial role in shaping post-war visual culture.

Before her death in 2013 (at the age of 87), Ruth Asawa was known not only for her abstract wire sculptures or her significant contributions to art education: San Francisco locals also famously referred to her as the “Fountain Lady” in honor of the many public sculptures Asawa designed for the city. Sheila Hicks, one of the most important textile artists of the 20th century, remains influential on a diverse range of artists working across art, craft, and design – including fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra.

The Museum of Arts and Design champions this impact with “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today,” an exhibition running from April 28 to September 27. Read on for our interview with guest curator Jennifer Scanlan, who co-curated the show with Ezra Shales (along with curatorial assistant and project manager Barbara Paris Gifford).

What makes this a powerful subject to talk about now?
Interest in expanding established art history to include the contributions of women and other marginalized groups has been ongoing since at least the 1960s. There have been a number of exhibitions and publications that have focused on women in the art world, and most recently women in the design world, including Pat Kirkham's groundbreaking "Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference" at the Bard Graduate Center in 2000 (Pat was professor and mentor to both Ezra and I). We wanted to take a tighter focus, looking particularly at post–World War II modernism, an era particularly associated with men in both art and design. We expanded beyond painting, sculpture, furniture, and architecture – fields dominated by men – to include textiles, ceramics, and metals, areas where women were able to professionalize as teachers, artists, and designers.

The exhibition includes a section of contemporary women artists and designers, which allowed us to ask how much has changed since the midcentury period. Certainly the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s made significant inroads – we see many more women artists, though their representation in major museum exhibitions and galleries is still not equal to that of the men. While the readers of American Craft may be able to name many women designers and makers, strictly design-focused publications present women designers much less frequently. There has been a certain amount of discussion about these inequalities in the media, and this exhibition gives us the opportunity to contribute to that discussion, and perhaps even rectify, in some ways, the gender imbalance.

On the positive side, the world of craft provided more balanced gender representation both then and now. During the course of our research, we discovered that MAD's collection during this period was almost half women artists.

Why were women able to establish themselves in some media, such as ceramics, more than other media, like sculpture, during the 1950s and '60s?
One reason was the sheer number of positions, both for students and for teachers that opened up in craft departments in schools all over the country after World War II, because of the G.I. Bill. While initially established to benefit returning soldiers with free and practical education, by the 1950s these positions were also populated by a new generation of young women. As I was researching the artists in the exhibition, I would find out over and over again that they had been hired directly after finishing their education to start a new department in some other school. These positions gave these women a steady income that allowed them to pursue their craft, as well as the opportunity to influence many generations of students. I am not sure that more conservative departments such as painting and sculpture were open to hiring women at nearly the same rate, though I am still researching statistics on that.

In the design world, I think that people felt more comfortable with women making progress and having high profiles in fields that were more "traditional" and "domestic." If you were the head of a large company like DuPont or Alcoa, you might not think of hiring a woman as an architect, but it made sense to hire a woman to design your textiles, especially if she was associated with hand weaving, traditionally a woman's craft. Obviously the idea of these women doing traditional domestic crafts had more to do with perception than reality. Instead, they were often very focused on science and engineering – Edith Heath, for example, put a tremendous amount of research into the chemistry of clay bodies and glazes that would be durable enough for everyday use, but was often shown in publicity photos making ceramics by hand, often dressed very elegantly too.

Did any of those artists help to lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s? How so?
That's an interesting question, because they didn't lay the groundwork directly. The feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s did not focus on the advances of the generation directly before them, but rather on the centuries of women who had been held back. They rejected the general narrative of modernism, which privileged men and their achievements, and in so doing they tended to ignore the women who had actually been successful within that narrative. I think that this has slowly been shifting with subsequent generations of scholarship.

I also believe that there are many methods of instigating social change. One way is through protest, by actively drawing attention to injustice, disrupting the social order. Another way is to more quietly make small steps towards change, shifts that perhaps don't attract attention at the time, but incrementally have an effect. By having positions of influence, by being role models of successful women artists and designers, by actively contributing to visual culture, these women changed the world around them in very real ways.

“Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today” runs from April 28 to September 27, 2015 at the Museum of Arts and Design.