What Did Simone de Beauvoir Read?

In the installation From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir, visitors can consider the influence and intellect of writer Simone de Beauvoir in an interpretation of her Paris studio alcove. Museum visitors can sit at a desk and read books and magazines that Beauvoir either read, wrote, or inspired. The installation includes a selections of books that Beauvoir read during her youth that helped develop her love of reading and storytelling.

Cover Image of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll showing a young girl crouched in the gras sunder branches while a rabbit in a red coat scurries away from her.

Cover of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, published by Rand McNally & Company, 1916.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868/1869

Beauvoir read Little Women by the time she was ten. She identified deeply with the character of Jo, the creative and independent March sister. In the first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir says that when she was developing The Second Sex, she projected the four sisters of Little Women into adulthood and used their personality types to form some of her ideas.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Beauvoir was a voracious reader as a child, a habit fed by her father Georges, who supplied her with a constant supply of high-quality books. She stated in an interview, published in the The Paris Review in 1965, that “English children’s literature [is] far more charming than what exists in French.” Though she began learning English around the age of eight, she likely read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in translation.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, 1860

In her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir recalls reading The Mill on the Floss when she was around 13 years old:

“About this time I read a novel which seemed to me to translate my spiritual exile into words: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss made an even deeper impression upon me than Little Women. I read it in English, at Meyrignac, lying on the mossy floor of a chestnut plantation. Maggie Tulliver, like myself, was torn between others and herself: I recognized myself in her. She too was dark, loved nature, books and life, was too headstrong to be able to observe the conventions of her respectable surroundings.”

Cover Image of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, published by Hurst and Company, New York, c. 1911. (left) and cover image of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, published by Henry Hold and Company, New York, 1927. (right)

Cover of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, published by Hurst and Company, New York, c. 1911 (left) and cover of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, published by Henry Hold and Company, New York, 1927 (right)

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, 1927

Published when Beauvoir was 19, the novel Dusty Answer was extremely popular with young women—in order to keep re-reading it, Beauvoir had to return the library’s in-demand copy and buy her own. Beauvoir said that she was fascinated by the description of university life and its associated freedoms. Lehmann was influenced by English novelist George Meredith, whose novels Beauvoir also read intensely and used as models.

Visit the installation and peruse these books along with works Beauvoir wrote or inspired. From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir is on view on the museum’s fourth floor through August 16, 2017.

—Sarah Osborne Bender is the director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

What #BeauvoirSays to NMWA

Visitors ask me why the National Museum of Women in the Arts has a dedicated installation to honor Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was not an artist, not a patron, and not a noted art collector—though she did collect books, souvenirs, snapshots, and a few works of art from friends, including Alberto Giacometti. As I gathered research for the installation, I found an interview with Beauvoir from 1984, in which she reflects on the work of emboldened women activists in the late 1960s in Paris. Her comments in that interview made the relationship between NMWA and Beauvoir clear to me.

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Beauvoir wrote, “[Women] realized that they would have to take their fate into their own hands and separate their battles from the larger revolutionary rhetoric of the men. I agreed with them because I understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from general revolution but would have to create their own. . . . I realized that women would have to take care of their own problems in ways that were personal, direct, and immediate. They could no longer sit waiting patiently for men to change the society for them because it would never happen unless they did it themselves.”

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

I nodded along to these words and reflected on the motivations of NMWA’s founder, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay. Mrs. Holladay and her husband, Wallace Holladay, could have donated their growing collection of art by women to an established museum. Perhaps Mrs. Holladay’s name would appear on a gallery wall and the collection would find a place with—likely be obscured by—notable works by male artists. But instead, the Holladays chose to create a space, a grand museum only blocks from the White House, and name it the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Mrs. Holladay wanted a dedicated space in which to address art world sexism. She took action and for that we are thankful.

Visit the installation From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir, on view on the museum’s fourth floor through August 16, 2017.

—Sarah Osborne Bender is the director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Artist Friendships: Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) and Remedios Varo (1908–1963) met in Paris and became close friends after finding refuge in Mexico City?

Surreal Sisters

Both Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo painted primarily in a Surrealist style, infusing their works with mysticism and otherworldly elements. NMWA owns five works by Carrington, including one print, two paintings, and two sculptures. Although Carrington did not begin producing sculptures until 1990, The Ship of Cranes (2010) is exemplary of Carrington’s interest in mythology and use of animal symbolism.

One the three paintings by Varo in the collection, La Llamada (The Call) (1961), is on view on the mezzanine level. La Llamada (The Call) provides viewers with signature traits of Varo’s work, including an ethereal being dressed in gold against a darker, castle-like background.

A Match Made in Mexico

Carrington and Varo met in Paris during the Surrealist movement, and were seen as the “femmes-enfants” to the famous and much older male artists in their lives. Varo had left Spain with poet Benjamin Péret and Carrington was in a relationship with Max Ernst. Their friendship then moved overseas to Mexico City as the outbreak of World War II in Europe caused them to move. In their new home, the two saw each other almost daily, of which Carrington said, “Remedios’s presence in Mexico changed my life.”

Though they painted separately, they did spent time together cooking, writing spells, and looking for ways to prank guests. Their mutual interest in alchemy is evident in their works. Both artists often depicted magical, alternate realities that are characteristic of Surrealism. While Carrington and Varo shared subject matter based on the universe, the supernatural, alchemy, and astrology, they interpret these topics differently in their works. In the book Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna, Stefan van Raay writes, “Carrington’s work is about tone and color and Varo’s is about line and form.”

In Carrington’s book The Healing Trumpet, she modeled the two main characters after much older versions of herself and Varo, revealing how important she felt the friendship was to her and her wish that it would last well into their old age. Varo also included their friendship in stories she wrote, creating characters just as outlandish as Carrington’s.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Friendships: Loïs Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) and Céline Tabary (1908–1993) were close friends who met in Paris before establishing art classes and a studio group in Washington, D.C.?

Lasting Impressions

NMWA’s collection contains six works by Loïs Mailou Jones. Her colorful landscape painting Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées (1949) was completed while the artist was on a sojourn in France. Other works by Jones are much more modernist in style, with bold colors and an African influence veering towards abstraction.

Céline Tabary’s painting Terrasse de Café, Paris (1950) is also part of NMWA’s collection. Tabary painted in an impressionist style for most of her career, but Terrasse de Café, Paris reveals an emerging cubist influence.

Little Paris in Washington, D.C.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Gladys P. Payne

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Gladys P. Payne; © Loïs Mailou Jones

Jones moved to Paris in 1937 to study at the Academie Julien. Jones fell in love with the French way of life and lack of racial prejudice, and was introduced to Tabary, a fellow student, when she needed help translating. The two became friends, and Jones visited Tabary’s family in the north of France. Jones considers paintings she did there some of her best.

Jones returned to Washington, D.C. in 1938, and Tabary joined her, as they both planned to go back to France together. However, the start of World War II prevented their return, and Tabary and Jones continued working together in the United States and established Saturday morning art class for children as well as a salon style group to promote the artistic practice of public school art teachers. Alma Thomas, another prominent artist represented in NMWA’s collection, was also a part of the “Little Paris Group” run by Jones and Tabary.

Jones and Tabary remained very close friends throughout their careers. Due to racial tensions in the U.S., Jones did not want to reveal to the institutions acquiring her work that she was African American. In these instances, Tabary delivered Jones’s paintings for her, ensuring her friend’s works were exhibited. Tabary eventually returned to France, but even in an interview in the late 1980s, Jones mentioned visiting her friend. “Very soon I’ll be goin’ to visit Céline. . . . Before I return to Haiti, I’m goin’ back to paint with her again, like in the old days, even at my age which is now 83. That is certainly many, many years since it all started in Paris at the Academie Julian in 1937.”

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the arts.

Artist Friendships: Lola Álvarez Bravo and Frida Kahlo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903–1993) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) became friends through the same social circles in Mexico?

Nationalist Pride

One of Mexico’s first women photographers, Lola Álvarez Bravo’s works are celebrated for documenting daily life in post-revolutionary Mexico. Álvarez Bravo said, “If my photographs have any value, it’s because they show a Mexico that no longer exists.” Her work in NMWA’s collection, De generación en generación (1950), expresses a strong sense of Mexican nationalist pride combined with universal human emotions.

Frida Kahlo is renowned for her poignant, often shocking, self-portraits. Although she is referred to as a Surrealist, Kahlo maintained, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Remembered for her tragic life story and her turbulent marriage to famed muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was foremost a fierce painter and political activist. Her work in NMWA’s collection, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), is one of Kahlo’s softer self-portraits, meant to commemorate her brief affair with the Russian revolutionary Trotsky.

Amigas for Life

Álvarez Bravo started taking her own photographs after serving as an assistant to her husband, photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. After their divorce, she began her own successful, independent career. It was also through her husband that she met Kahlo. Both artists were involved in the same social circles in Mexico and shared similar nationalistic outlooks that influenced their respective artistic practices.

Álvarez Bravo’s most well-known photos featuring Kahlo are often praised for their honesty and intimacy. Kahlo even fastened one of these portraits to the front of her diary, indicating the respect that she had for the photographer. In addition to capturing numerous portraits of Kahlo, Álvarez Bravo also directed a film starring the painter, but it was never completed because of Kahlo’s declining health. Álvarez Bravo hosted Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico at her own gallery, shortly before Kahlo’s untimely death.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Friendships: Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Mary Jane Russell

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895–1989) and model Mary Jane Russell (1926–2003) developed a close friendship after collaborating on photo shoots for years?

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris, 1950; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris, 1950; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Fixative Focus

Renowned for her work with Harper’s Bazaar, Louise Dahl-Wolfe revolutionized the fashion industry by arranging models outdoors or in front of interesting backdrops that rivaled the clothes they were wearing. Dahl-Wolfe spent 22 years working in the fashion world before retiring from the magazine in 1958. NMWA’s collection contains more than 100 photographs by Dahl-Wolfe, including five works that feature Mary Jane Russell.

Mary Jane Russell signed as a model with the Ford Agency in 1948, just in time for the debut of the “New Look.” She was a favorite model of many photographers, including Dahl-Wolfe. One of Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs in NMWA’s collection, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris (1950), features Russell posing in profile and elongating her neck, while putting on elegant evening gloves. Dahl-Wolfe placed Russell in front of a luxurious background that challenges the dress, while the contrast between the two directs the viewer’s eye directly to the dress and Russell.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, courtesy of the Louise Dahl-Wolfe Archive. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents, 1989

Fashion Forward Friends

After meeting on a set, Russell quickly became one of Dahl-Wolfe’s favorite models. Dahl-Wolfe’s eccentric techniques coupled with Russell’s short stature and elongated neck resulted in unconventional photographs that brought personality and life to fashion advertisements. Dahl-Wolfe valued Russell’s input on shoots, making the photographs a joint effort. “Louise was a benevolent dictator, except with Mary Jane. She’d let Mary Jane say, ‘I think the dress would show better this way’” Russell’s husband, Edward, recalled.

The photographer even broke an unwritten industry rule not to photograph the same model for more than two collections after trying unsuccessfully to find a suitable replacement for Russell. Dahl-Wolfe later said, “I hated the popular look of models in those days. I called it the ‘Candy Box’ look—all translucent white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. I liked yellowish skin and green eyes, and I found it with Betty Bacall, and above all with Mary Jane Russell, who was marvelous.” By the end of her career, an estimated 30 percent of Dahl-Wolfe’s photos featured Russell.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Plan of Paris (Mary Jane Russell in Dior Gown), 1951; Gelatin silver print, 4 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Plan of Paris (Mary Jane Russell in Dior Gown), 1951; Gelatin silver print, 4 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Their friendship lasted 12 years, producing some of the most iconic photographs of the time. Reflecting on their relationship, Russell said, “One was never selfish with Louise. There was an extraordinary, immediate communication of her conscientiousness, her seriousness. She was wicked, challenging, exasperating, and heavenly. It was a rare, rare, extraordinary experience. She was the most beautiful person in my working life.”

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Creating Contemporary Artifacts in “Border Crossing”

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

The shapes and titles of Porter Lara’s sculptures reflect her interest in the artifacts of contemporary culture.

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Form and Function

Jami Porter Lara uses ancient techniques to create her work, and she combines references to the contemporary plastic bottle with references to other vessels that humans have used throughout time. She says, “I was interested in something that might be evocative of a gourd-shape, and, of course, gourds were one of the earliest vessels used by humans. I was also making things that referred to more classical forms like the amphora, again trying to make a connection between the contemporary plastic bottle and the most ancient of iconic vessels in human history.”

Some of her vessels have human or anthropomorphic qualities: “The top of the vessel’s neck is like a little head, its bottom is evocative of feet, and any kind of narrowing in the center is like a waist. Just as that gourd shape made me think of the connection to our shared human history of using gourds as vessels, the figurative pieces have a similar message about the continuity between what’s natural and what’s human and what’s technological.”

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

What’s in a title?

Many of Porter Lara’s works have titles such as LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08. She borrowed her titling system from the field of archaeology, in which objects are identified by a series of numbers and letters that convey information such as where an item was found and when it was unearthed.

  • The letters in the first section refer to where the object was made. In this example, “LDS” stands for Los Duranes Studio, the name Porter Lara has given her home studio.
  • The first two letters in the second section indicate where Porter Lara harvested her clay. Here, “MH” refers to Magdalena Highway, the unofficial name of the nearby route US 60. The third letter of this section refers to the color of clay. “B” stands for “buff” or “beige.”
  • In the third section, the first letters relate to nicknames Porter Lara gives her pieces. In this example, “WV” stands for “Wedding Vase,” a double-spouted vase common in Pueblo pottery.
  • The second half of the third section refers to the process Porter Lara used to create the work. “B” indicates a work was burnished, and “R” stands for “reduced,” the firing method.
  • The fourth section of the title is the date on which the work was fired. In this example: April 2016 of the Common Era (CE).
  • The last section indicates which iteration of a shape this object is. This example is the eighth vessel Porter Lara made in this particular shape.

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14. Learn more through the audio guide and meet Jami Porter Lara at the museum for a special Artists in Conversation program on April 6, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Grounds for Friendship: Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin

The exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin explores how potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979) brought the American Southwest into focus as a culturally rich region that fostered artistic expression. Martinez and Gilpin were friends in New Mexico over many decades. The artworks in this exhibition overlap in content and display to underscore the artists’ relationship with each other, which transcended boundaries of place and culture.

Laura Gilpin, Maria Martinez Making Pottery, 1959; Gelatin silver print, 10 ¾ x 14 ½ in.; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman (left) and Fred E. Mang, Jr.,Laura Gilpin taking photographs along dirt road, 1971; Reproduction of gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Gift of the artist and Laura Gilpin P1979.98; ©1971 Fred E. Mang, Jr. (right)

Left to right: Laura Gilpin, Maria Martinez Making Pottery, 1959; Gelatin silver print, 10 ¾ x 14 ½ in.; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman; and Fred E. Mang, Jr., Laura Gilpin taking photographs along dirt road, 1971; Reproduction of gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Gift of the artist and Laura Gilpin P1979.98; ©1971 Fred E. Mang, Jr.

Gilpin first got to know Martinez and other Pueblo and Navajo people through her lifelong companion, Betsy Forster.

Laura Gilpin, Women Returning from a Trip to the Trading Post, 1950; Gelatin silver print; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman

Laura Gilpin, Women Returning from a Trip to the Trading Post, 1950; Gelatin silver print; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman

In 1930, Forster and Gilpin moved from Colorado to New Mexico, where Gilpin planned to photograph the rugged terrain. Forster became a field nurse with the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, a position through which she—and Gilpin—became intimately connected to the local population.

Laura Gilpin frequently photographed artists in the process of creating rugs, jewelry, and pottery. Over the years, Gilpin photographed Maria Martinez and her family during the many stages of making pottery, from processing raw clay to shaping bowls and jars, painting decoration, and even firing the pieces. Gilpin never photographed anyone without their permission, and she frequently formed relationships with her subjects. Her documentary prints are intimate portraits that capture the personalities and detailed features of her individual sitters.

For Maria Martinez, relationships with family, community members, friends, and people from the art world were a guiding force throughout her life.

Maria Martinez and Popovi Da, Black-on-black olla, 1963; Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint ; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art University of Oklahoma, Norman

Maria Martinez and Popovi Da, Black-on-black olla, 1963; Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint ; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art University of Oklahoma, Norman

She learned pottery-making techniques from an aunt, and later added new methods as she collaborated with her husband and other family members. She collaborated with her husband, Julian, until his death in 1943, but she also worked with her sons—particularly Popovi Da—as well as daughters-in-law, and her grandson Tony Da, who was Popovi’s son. She also shared these processes with others, demonstrating her unique form of artwork in her home community and at art shows and expositions around the country. These collaborations cemented her legacy and lasting influence on Pueblo pottery.

Visit the museum and explore New Ground, on view through May 14, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Christina Burke, curator of Native and non-Western art at the Philbrook Museum of Art, and Catherine Whitney, chief curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art.

Coiled, Built, and Fired: An Ancient Process for Contemporary Art

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

Jami Porter Lara harvesting clay; Photo courtesy of the artist

Jami Porter Lara harvesting clay; Photo courtesy of the artist

Porter Lara learned traditional techniques from potters in Mata Ortiz, in northern Mexico. She describes, “In the 1970s, there was a Pueblo pottery revival in Mata Ortiz. The people there started making ceramic pots that bore a lot of stylistic relation to ancient pot sherds and artifacts found in that vicinity, from the Casas Grandes and Mimbres cultures. They locally sourced their materials and figured out how to make ceramic vessels in the same way as the people who preceded them.”

With a group of fellow art students, Porter Lara went to stay in Mata Ortiz to learn from potters Graciela and Hector Gallegos. “They showed us how to soak the clay and filter it and then let it dry. They also taught us how to build out of coils and how to burnish with a stone.”

The forms and meaning of Porter Lara’s art are distinctly contemporary, but her materials and techniques connect her work to the Southwest and to people who preceded her in the region.

The Artist’s Process:

  • She digs clay from an arroyo (stream bed) near her home.
  • In a lengthy process, she mixes the clay with water and strains the excess moisture.
  • To form the base of each vessel, she uses a plaster cast of the bottom of plastic bottles as a mold.
  • To create the body of a vessel, she forms clay coils, stacking one coil on top of another, continually pinching them together and smoothing the surface.
  • After it is dried, the pottery is burnished: Porter Lara rubs the surface with a smooth stone, using either coconut or olive oil as a lubricant.
  • She fires the vessels in an outdoor pit, covered with a galvanized aluminum tub. During this “reduction” process, the pottery is kept away from flames and oxygen. Carbon released by sawdust and newspaper surrounding the work bonds with the clay and turns the vessels black.

Porter Lara’s works also engage with the industrialized mass production that characterizes modern consumer culture. While she recognizes the detrimental impact of this culture, Porter Lara states, “Saying that humans are only pollutants is a failure of imagination. Yes, we’re destructive, but we’re also creative. . . . I want to create the possibility that we can see things differently and contribute to the world. My work is my refusal to say that the earth would be better without me, and the determination to become equal to that claim.”

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14. Learn more through the audio guide and meet Jami Porter Lara at the museum for a special Artists in Conversation program on April 6, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening Tomorrow: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum

Images that embody both precision and spontaneity are the focus of NMWA’s new exhibition Chromatic Scale: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum, on view March 10 to July 2, 2017.

Born in 1955 in Philadelphia, Polly Apfelbaum is best known for her large-scale installations and “fallen paintings,” compositions of dyed synthetic fabrics that she places directly on the floor. Apfelbaum studied painting and printmaking at the Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania, receiving a BFA in 1978. She moved to New York City, where she was inspired by installation art and started experimenting with elements from two- and three-dimensional mediums. Despite studying printmaking as an art student, she didn’t revisit the medium until 2002.

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 71, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 71, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Working primarily in woodblock printing, Apfelbaum intuitively positions inked wood blocks on thick, handmade paper, which is then pressed, transferring the inked design from the blocks to the paper. The blocks are carved from plywood according to Apfelbaum’s designs and are inked by hand in systematic spectrums of lush, saturated colors. Recently, she has experimented with more fluid coloring and shapes, using a “rainbow roll” technique, in which multiple colors are partially mixed to achieve continuous gradient tones.

Apfelbaum pursues a precise balance between color and shape to create sequences that elicit a particular feeling or sensation. She views color as both structural and emotional. In Little Dogwood 71 (2012) Apfelbaum achieves subtle variations among the circles by forming her blocks from slices of dogwood tree branches sourced from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she works with Durham Press. Apfelbaum’s exuberantly colored prints are meticulously handmade and her compositions are often improvisational.

Polly Apfelbaum, Emperor Twist, 2015; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 25 3/8 x 25 3/8 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Polly Apfelbaum, Emperor Twist, 2015; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 25 3/8 x 25 3/8 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Apfelbaum’s striking colors and bold abstract shapes reference Minimalist and Pop art. Her most recent prints, like Emperor Twist (2015), demonstrate her increasingly complex use of patterns and color. Inspired by medieval mosaic floors from Italy, she created this print using scores of small hand-inked blocks. The broad range of colors and alternating zigzag and diamond shapes create a dynamic visual rhythm.

This exhibition continues the museum’s exploration of innovations in printmaking, a medium in which women have worked since the 16th century. Featuring prints in NMWA’s collection along with complementary loans, Chromatic Scale takes a focused look at Apfelbaum’s print work—a part of her oeuvre that has not been extensively studied—and examines how the artist extends the conventional boundaries of color and technique.

Visit the museum and celebrate spring with these bright prints on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery.

—Madeline Barnes is the winter/spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.