Opinion

Pioneering women at the national gallery

  • Nancy Graves (American, 1940-1995), Iconostasis of Water, 1992, etching, aquatint and dry point on Fabriano Artistico paper with screen-printed and embossed collage (Collection of Bermuda National Gallery)
  • Christina Hutchings (Bermudian, b. 1953), #3, 2011, pen on paper (Collection of Bermuda National Gallery)

“As we strive to enter the mainstream art world, we must feel empowered to vigilantly guard the representation of the woman as artist so that it is never devalued.”

— Author and activist Bell Hooks (American b. 1952)

In 2013, we presented Women Artists in the Bermuda National Gallery Collection. This exhibition formed a gender-based chronological narrative that threaded biographical and historical details. We observed trends in techniques and subject matter, and we also took notice of how a woman’s journey as an artist can be quite challenging. Access to art schools, social stigmas and earning respect, not to mention financial worth, were common elements to many biographies.

In our current exhibition, The Power of Art, we give space to gender again. Here, we present artwork by a few women artists who are — or were — pioneers in their own way, giving greater access to future generations of women artists. In this article, we present a few of the artists in the show, moving from traditional to contemporary expressions.

One of the earliest works in the collection is an oil painting of Hamilton Harbour by Mary Parker West (British, 1817-1887). She is believed to have been one of the first women artists to exhibit at the British Royal Academy in 1837. She visited Bermuda in 1876 and is possibly the first known academic painter to have worked in Bermuda. Many readers may be familiar with Bermuda’s Tucker sisters, Ethel (1874-1962) and Catherine (1879-1970). Unusual for their era, the sisters were encouraged to study art by their artistic and enterprising mother, Leanora (Bermudian, 1847-1925). After studying in New York, the sisters opened a tea room called “The Little Green Door”. They produced artwork for tourists, such as postcards and scarves, and possibly were the first to do so. Several artworks by the family are on display.

Edith Sarah Watson (American, 1861-1943) was an intrepid traveller and photojournalist. In her early twenties, Watson discovered the camera and this started a lifelong lifestyle of travel and selling images. In 1911, Watson met Victoria Hayward, a Bermudian journalist, who would write articles to accompany Watson’s images. Watson demanded that her images be credited with her name and the artwork given top prices, thus making important inroads for women artists. Teresa Kirby Smith (American-Irish, b. 1950) keeps the spirit of Watson alive. She takes photographs, mainly at night, using film she later develops and prints in a darkroom. On display is one of her rather haunting images of Cooper’s Island taken during a full moon, which captures the mystique of the nature reserve.

In Stone Cutter, Sharon Wilson (Bermudian, b. 1954) uses traditional materials, pastel on paper, to express the challenging labour of cutting limestone in the quarry. While we can imagine the brilliant and blinding light of the actual scene, Wilson has softened the perspective with purple and yellow hues, adding a delicate feminine touch to a masculine motif.

Both Wilson and Byllee Lang (Canadian 1909-1966) can be described as inspiring artists, teachers and mentors. Lang held Bermuda’s first mixed-race art classes in her studios while schools were segregated. As a sculptor, her most important artistic achievement was the Anglican Cathedral reredos, the altar screen and statues of Christ. On display is The Virgin Mary, circa 1963, rendered in plaster.

By contrast, Katherine Harriott (Bermudian, b. 1953) presents Red, in which a red dress sculpted into the female form hangs suspended in a screen cage with a seductive poem woven into the panels. A self-described feminist, Harriott’s portfolio is focused on telling the stories of women that are often not told. Molly Godet (Bermudian, b. 1949) also strives for non-traditional subject matter. She says of her artwork: “I paint about Bermuda. Not the pretty pink cottage, but the pink cottage which shows its soul, be it peeling or crooked. Not the beautiful pink beaches, but the pink beaches that sport cut-foot rocks, grabbing undertow and washed-up reminders of that other world out there. There is a stubborn wilfulness about Bermuda, which no armies of landscape gardeners can delete. That is the Bermuda I strive to capture.”

Such a determination of spirit leads to the juxtaposition of artworks by Dame Barbara Hepworth (British, 1903-1975) and Christina Hutchings (Bermudian, b. 1953). Hepworth presents a sculpture of conic-shaped metal held by strings, suggestive of a musical instrument, while Hutchings’s drawings use similar lines and sense of dimension to achieve an effect of mapping. What is remarkable about this brief encounter with several women artists is the range of creative expressions. While there was a time when women artists were excluded from museums and commercial galleries, today we can illustrate a very different picture. Please visit us soon at Bermuda National Gallery to see and experience these artworks, and more, in person.

•Lisa Howie is the executive director of the Bermuda National Gallery and Charles Zuill, PhD, a founding trustee