Seattle Art Museum Show Highlights Women Artists

Oct 22, 2012

In this run up to the election, we’re hearing a lot about women. Women at work. Women in business. Women balancing family and career. Whole binders full of women. Well today we’re going to hear about two working women from the Northwest who were dealing with these issues more than a century ago.

They were both working artists who broke with convention artistically and culturally.

This is what happens when I ask people to name an American Woman artist:

"American woman artist."


"That’s tough. I don’t think I know any."

"Joni Mitchell. No, she’s Canadian isn’t she?"

"Georgia Okeefe."

"Georgia Okeefe."

"Georgia Okeefe."

"Right. Georgia O’Keefe, whose paintings of animal skulls and the baked desert captured her beloved Southwest."

You’ll find O’Keefe at the Seattle Art Museum in a third floor gallery, which is where I meet curator Patricia Junker.

Junker: "I knew I wanted to show Okeefe. She is the woman artist. That I think if you’re coming to a show of women artists and you know that Americans are going to be represented you expect to see Georgia Okeefe."

But what Junker really wants me to look at is in a corner of the gallery, where a wall celebrates two photographers.

Junker: "What we’re looking at is a photograph of a tulip in a vase but the vase is a little tiny vase and the tulip climbs up up up up up."

The photo is called “The Magic Vase.” And it looks like it could almost be a charcoal drawing.

It was created by photographer Ella McBride.

Junker: "She’s probably a name that most people won’t know."

It was the beginning of the 20th Century and McBride was a schoolteacher and principal in Portland. She was also an avid mountain climber.

One day while climbing Mount Rainier she meets photographer Edward Curtis.

Junker: "He was a climber. She was a climber. He convinced her to come to Seattle and to be an assistant in his photographic studio."

It wasn’t a romantic relationship?

Junker: "No it wasn’t a romantic relationship. She’s just doing printing for him."

But she ends up taking over his studio. Then opening up her own business taking portraits.

And remember, this was in 1916, just a few years after Washington State gave women the right to vote. And a women running her own business was not the norm.

What also stands out about McBride is that her artistic career started late in life. She was in her 60s when she started taking pictures of flowers. Like this one of poppies which Junker really admires.

Junker: "They seem to be moving, and we think of photography of stopping action. But here’s a case where this sort of soft focus allows us to feel that these flowers are moving."

McBride was so good at photography, she gained international acclaim.

And she did it without art school and before photography was even regarded as a way to create fine art.

But she wasn’t the first. A few years earlier, there was Imogen Cunningham, who also worked with Curtis and also opened up her own Seattle studio. Cunningham then took a more conventional path for that time.

She got married, had children and moved to San Francisco, where she became a stay at home mom.

Junker: "So she kind of had forced upon her a circumscribed world, her backyard, and she made the most of it."

Literally her backyard. Junker shows me what she means.

Junker: "Let’s look at this one. It’s called magnolia blossom from 1925."

But the image is such an extreme close up of the flower’s center, it looks like gemstones.

Junker: "In fact one of the titles of this print that she gave was tower of jewels."

Cunningham had already broken ground as one of the first women photographers to show nude images of men. (They were of her husband who was also an artist). Now she was pioneering a new way to look at flowers and plants by zooming in so tightly.

We look at a photo called “Banana leaves” which looks almost like a human torso.

There is no context. We’re really looking at just the rhythm of these veins or the spines in these leaves. And they look like just a pattern of lines.

You can see the artistic visions of Imogen Cunningham and Ella McBride in the show, “Elle: SAM Singular Works by Seminal Artists.”

Oh and by the way, The Seattle Art Museum stored away all its male artist work to make room just for the women.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio