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Getting ready for the Michigan Great Lakes Bay Women Show 2013

GREAT LAKES BAY WOMEN 2013


Great Lakes Bay Women 2013 is now well underway. I’m excited to be showing in the USA and doubly so as it is my home area.

The Story So Far …… August 2012 ….

In February of 2011, I was in Saginaw to see my mother and to move her into a nursing home. It was a difficult decision, but she could no longer cope with her situation and was becoming increasingly frustrated. Because I live in England, there were a lot of things that needed to be done in a very short space of time and slogging through Michigan’s winter weather made it that much more difficult. However, I was determined to find time for old friends which entailed the usual sort of banter and the upshot was that one of my friends made an appointment for me at the Saginaw Art Museum. She decided that it was long overdo for me to have an exhibition there. I had shown there when I was 25 as a graduate student and lecturer at the University of Michigan but that was a fair few years ago! I agreed to go – how could I not?

The appointment with Ryan Kaltenbach who is director of The Saginaw Art Museum, resulted in the birth of Tri-City Women. It was only when I had returned home to the UK and began to mull over the ramifications of what I had initiated that I began to understand what a daunting task I had set for myself! As I began to make lists of what needed to be done and at such a distance, I wondered at the wisdom of such an undertaking and realised quite quickly the amount of time that such an enterprise would entail as well as the cost both financially and emotionally. Nevertheless, I cleared the decks of all other work and began to direct my efforts first of all to research. Who do I choose to be a part of this? Where will I do the work and should I undertake to write a book about my findings and the results of my art portraits?

Things progressed rapidly and after further discussion with Ryan, it was decided that I should include Bay City and Midland as part of the exhibition, hence the title – Great Lakes Bay Women. Ryan put me in touch with Jean Beach, local historian and author, who very kindly sent me a book that included a number of women who had been prominent in Saginaw. That was my starting point. It was an important factor for me to include women who were less well known and contemporary, so I began to list women that I knew and to enlist the help of anyone who could suggest any names. I spent long hours in front of the computer and names began to appear almost as if by magic. Originally, I thought I could cope with 20, but as time went by, I could see this was ridiculously few. I would have to find ways to accommodate more women and more work.

In January 2012, I had a list of 35. I felt it needful to have a cut off point, but would be open to additions if I felt that I could manage. It has to be remembered that in addition to the book, I would be creating portraits of all of these women in either sculpture or painting. I had some immediate ideas about personalities as they began to exert a personal fascination and I determined to be led by that. In January, I began to order materials to be delivered in Florida where I planned to work for approximately 9 weeks over the months of March, April and May. In order to maximise my time, I drew up templates for my British “chippie” (colloquial name for a carpenter) in Florida to cut prior to my arrival and hoped that I would have everything I needed to begin work.

Things went wrong with the terrible news of the death of my carpenter’s wife. I knew her and felt the awful sorrow of his grief. He was, at that point, unsure if he would even remain in the States. I had to look at things sideways and to refigure my plans if I needed to. I had already booked a non-refundable ticket in September so to change that was out of the question. Things were looking a bit bleak before I’d even begun…

Nevertheless, it all worked out as things do and in spite of yet a few more obstacles. I duly arrived as planned in mid March, collected all the boxes of tiles and materials that were awaiting me and began the process of laying out my work areas and putting together “like minded” materials pertaining to individual pieces of work. The first portrait was of Olive Chernow who was a director of the Martha Cook Building at the University of Michigan. I’d located a very beautiful pewter teapot and sugar bowl off the internet that I wanted to incorporate into the relief sculpture that was fully formed in my head. I already had Olive’s face that I had done at home in England and brought over along with nine others. That proved a bit tricky. I had bought a hard shell case and found a polystyrene box that fitted it perfectly into which I packed all the heads along with the teapot and sugar bowl with photos and a list of all contents on top of the lid. (There was no room for clothes!) I was fearful that customs would open it when they saw “body parts” on the xrays and disturb the pieces that had taken me hours to pack so they would survive the experience of rough handling during the flight experience. Sure enough, when I opened the case, there was a notice that customs had been inside. With some trepidation, I went through the box quickly to ascertain any damage and discovered that one piece had been broken with two others were showing cracks. I was happy though that there was not more severe damage or in fact, confiscation of my polymer clay supply which could be interpreted as plastic explosive!  The nature of the material allows it to be repaired although the time it would take was not appreciated!

Olive’s portrait incorporates tea things because that was part of the ritual of Martha Cook. Tea and coffee was served every night after dinner by one of the girls at each table and this rotated so that everyone got an opportunity to learn the niceties of being the “perfect hostess”. Afternoon tea is still a feature of the house where the girls can come together to discuss classes and life. I know this because I was once a Martha “Cookie” and Olive was my house mother.

I very rarely work on just one piece at a time and to maximise my efforts, it helps to have two or more happening at once for all sorts of reasons. It may be that one needs to be left to cure after a process or sometimes it is a factor of “where should I go from here”? It helps to be a Gemini…

By the end of March, I had three works completed and two others well on the way. My ex sister in law (the marriage didn’t last, but the friendship did) informed me when I arrived that necessity was making it impossible for her continue living in Florida and she had already set the wheels in motion to move back to Saginaw. I had planned to go there to see my mother and to connect with as many women as was possible at some point, but had hoped it would be later on to allow my work pace to get established. However, there was my sister in law with a broken wrist and needing to drive back to Michigan!

d spent time the day before researching the hotel situation as most places right through Georgia were already booked solid. Having found what seemed a reasonable place, I booked it and then regretted it when I saw the way things were on the roads. On the plus side, though, it meant that we were likely to do a three day journey in two and I was able to take three pieces with me which would lighten the load in 2013, when the rest of the work would need to be delivered. It took us more than 16 hours to reach the hotel.

 

In Saginaw, I stayed with wonderful friends who organised my evenings so that I was able to meet with a number of women that I’d wanted to interview. I had a meeting at the Saginaw Art Museum and it was suggested that we liaise with the Castle Museum which was the original post office in an imposing gothic style building.  I had a box there as a teenager and I remembered the beautifully crafted wooden structure with all the polished brass fittings where I received mail from a friend private to my parents’ knowledge. I acquainted the congenial team at the Castle with my ideas and it was decided on the spot to have a dual venue! Their enthusiasm and support for my scheme was gratifying. Things had just moved on into a whole new arena…

It was on the day of this meeting that I found out about the exhibition VOICES in Midland, one of the tri cities, which was currently showing. Initially, I was distressed as it seemed to be an idea very close to mine, but when I had time to think, decided that in fact it would be a good thing if we could liaise with them as that was part of the remit for my efforts. The Midland exhibition was limited to Midland women and it was a photographic and artefact based construct. When I returned to England, I was in touch with the Midland Center for the Arts to find out who had put it together and was given the name of the director of Midland’s historical museum. He agreed that it would seem to be a logical move and would regenerate all the work that had been done by lots of volunteers. I suggested that we could revisit parts of the exhibition that coincided with mine and that perhaps they could also suggest women of which I had no prior knowledge. He put forth the idea of a sister exhibition in Midland which was exciting but scary. They had been three years in the preparation of Voices and there was only me with two years! Nonetheless, I was game. This was a great way to celebrate the women of the Tri-Cities! He also told me who had chaired the exhibition and of course I wanted to make direct contact about our discussion and also about the book that had been produced which had sold out. That seemed good news for my proposed book. In the meantime, I telephoned Michigan Humanities and was given this same person’s name as someone I should speak with. Unfortunately, the idea seemed to wither before it was even off the block as I then had an e-mail from the Historical director that their scheduling would not, unfortunately allow for it. It felt like a missed opportunity for community cohesion.

I made time to visit my mother each day that I was in Saginaw and I also had work to do on her behalf such as the yearly taxes. I dislike the time and energy that it takes to do my own so having two to do is not my idea of fun. Nevertheless, I enjoy seeing the accountant and his family, all of whom work together! It has to be said that everyone who I have been in contact with regarding my mother’s affairs have been wonderful, putting themselves out on her behalf even when she wasn’t always helpful. And thank goodness for the computer age which has allowed me to take care of my Mom from a distance. I write to her every day and have done so since my father’s death in 2004.

While I was in Saginaw, I was able to make connections with many women from all walks of life. I had the number for the local Hispanic hairdresser and from her, had the names and numbers of lots of possible women who are crucial to the community. I was also desperately seeking jazz singers and women involved in the local Afro American community. It was vital that I had representatives from the diversity that is the Great Lakes Bay Region as the tri-cities area is now called.

Another item on my wish list was the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Mount Pleasant, hoping to find contemporary women for the exhibition, but it was further away than I had thought and I ran out of time. I have Tsushick, who was an Ojibwa woman who walked to Washington DC from Michigan around 1825 and returned as toast of the town with two carriages carrying all the gifts she had been given. There is a painting that was done of her and she was undoubtedly a beautiful woman with a consummate personality to match! Her portrait, a sculptural relief was the second work that I did, but I really wanted a contemporary woman who is as outstanding as well. I want to acknowledge Chippewa women who are still standing tall in the Bay region.

During my visit, I was made aware of some extraordinary Dominican nuns connected with Saginaw. Two of them now live in a cemetery near Washington DC, one died in prison and another is living and working in the “hood” in Saginaw. All of these women “walk the talk”. They have dedicated their lives to peace and helping others and three of them have been incarcerated for their efforts.

On my return to Florida, I launched into a very large portrait of Sister Ardeth whose presence is the kind saints are made of. I also began an eight foot portrait of the twentysix women who made Saginaw General Hospital possible against the wishes of their own husbands and other folk. They saw how women and children struggled in a difficult economic climate at the turn of the 19th century, and felt there was a need for a facility to care for under privileged women and children. Covenant Hospital absorbed Saginaw General and they kindly gave me a list of the women’s names. I am hoping that I can find someone who will supply a donation to place the completed painting there as a memorial to them.

In my last week in Florida, I prepared 8 templates for sculpture that could be cut in my absence ready for my return next spring. These include two large Personal Heroines, one for each museum. The Castle Museum has already decided to request a donation for each heart in aid of The Underground Railway which is a facility for battered women and something that the aforementioned Sister Ardeth amongst others, established.  I am sure that The Art Museum will do the same for another charity that could help women realise their dreams.

Although I was exhausted when I returned home, it was not long before I was again working hard, but this time on the book. It is my desire to write about each woman and to present it in a way that will help others to appreciate their particular story. I have given myself the rest of the year to do this, but I have decided that in order to accomplish all the art work, I will need to do most of the paintings here and ship them. I plan to work on canvas and then mount them there or perhaps create banners or hanging pieces. That will help to alleviate the pressure of so much work, especially as the number of women has now risen to almost 70! It seemed that the more I researched, the more great women I found.

As I began to write through the women that I had, I was reminded me that I still had no contemporary 1st Nation women. The computer has become my ally and I started ferreting away to find more information. It was while following another path of enquiry that I came across a list of women on a committee pertaining to women at the University of Michigan. I spotted three from the Ziibiwing Center and there was the name of the assistant director as well as her telephone number and e-mail address. I felt as though I’d found the preverbal pot of gold! I had a number for the center but no actual contact so this was brilliant. I then Googled her and got photos taken at the center. I immediately e-mailed her and she responded almost as quickly with enthusiasm for the project. I had also asked about local artisans who could lead workshops during the exhibition and that too seems an excellent possibility. I now await with excitement to see what will turn up.

Getting in touch with some of the women is not easy for a variety of reasons. In the case of Sharrie Williams who is a well known jazz singer, I am still waiting. Although Sharrie has a residence in Saginaw, she is seldom there, having found a greater following in Europe than in America. Few people in Saginaw seem aware of her and I am hoping to redress that by having her sing at the opening if she is available.

 

 

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