Alice Bemis Taylor, Julie Penrose and Betty Hare are not household names. But the three women combined their considerable wealth and vision to create the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center 65 years ago. The obscurity of this fact -- that three women were the driving force behind a Colorado Springs institution -- is arguable. But one thing cannot be argued: Recognition, credit and notoriety are hard-won for women in the arts.
"Art and the Politics of Gender," a yearlong tribute to women in the arts at the FAC, will try to rectify that recognition gap. The series features a powerful array of exhibitions, dialogue and symposia that strive to rework our collective myths and examine the mechanisms that enforce gender relations in society.
"I am trying to be a provocateur," said Melinda Murphy, public programming coordinator at the FAC and the driving force behind the series. The Colorado College graduate returned to Colorado Springs after a 10-year absence and joined the FAC three months ago. She found an arts organization on the verge of its 65th anniversary, with a number of events -- a Frida Kahlo show and a Judy Chicago retrospective -- already in place. "It was an opportunity too apparent to let go by," says Murphy of the thematic intersection of the exhibits and history.
The FAC is seen by some as a staid, comfortable, old-school arts organization that is slow to react to the changing times. "Those aren't the premises under which it was founded," Murphy said of this perceived inertia. The center, at its inception, was the avant-garde arts organization west of the Mississippi River. Artists from all over the world came to study at the foot of Pikes Peak. Murphy's goal is to draw on this history. "I want to shake things up a little bit and have it be more cutting edge and operate more globally," she said.
"I am using art in a very broad context: public oration, the visual arts, performing arts, music, whatever," said Murphy. "I mean, living is an art." The roster of artists, performers and thinkers, of both local and national renown, seems to insist that any contemplation of art and gender always returns to the art of living. While our sex may be determined by anatomy, gender can be viewed as a cultural construct inextricably linked to how we live in the world.
Whether dealing with female arts benefactors of the 1930s or contemporary woman photographers living and working in our community, Murphy finds parallels. "It is the inherent difficulty that a lot of women are up against when trying to find notoriety in a patriarchal functioning society," she said. In looking at the historical context of art being accepted into the Western canon, Murphy added, "Women tend to take second stage. This is an opportunity to look a little more deeply.
"I want people to reconsider what's been portrayed as the accepted norm and rethink things," Murphy said of the depiction of women, whether in cave paintings or on the Internet. "I want to put the FAC on the map again, in terms of being a progressive, forward-thinking institution, the way it was when three women founded it."
Shadows in the architecture of Mary Jane Colter
Documentary filmmaker Karen Bartlett, while camping in the Grand Canyon in 1986, noticed the work of architect Mary Jane Colter and subsequently began an eight-year documentary film project on Colter. She will lead a symposium on Colter in April.
"In hindsight, if I had known how difficult the research process was going to be and how rocky the funding process was going to be, I might have rethought the whole thing," said Bartlett. "Unfortunately with women and history, for a variety of reasons, they have become buried. Over time, women have been tossed into these little subgroups, and, unless you can spend a great deal of time, it is very difficult accessing this information."
In the process of researching, Bartlett uncovered some myths. "In doing research on unknown women, it is not a simple question of adding them to our known historical texts," said Bartlett of the discovery process that rearranged the Colter legacy in unexpected ways. "The moment you introduce new information, we need to rethink the whole picture. And it is very difficult to get us, as human beings, to readjust our vision of the past. But I think it is possible.
"Just because they are unknown now," said Bartlett, "doesn't mean they were unknown then. As we checked out information, we found out that Colter was very well-known during her time."
Colter, a turn-of-the-20th-century architect, suffered from some bias from The American Institute of Architects, which actively discouraged women from becoming members, according to Bartlett. "Women working in that field were usually the only female present, completely surrounded by men -- from the general contractor down to their crew -- all of whom thought it was inappropriate for them to be there.
"I've had architects stand up and say, 'Colter never received a degree in architecture and was not a member of the AIA. Who are you to call her an architect?'" Bartlett recounted. "To which I reply that Frank Lloyd Wright never received a degree in architecture. Colter did apprentice, as did Wright, and our federal government had no problem calling Colter an architect. Why would you have a problem calling her one?"
Eve and the parenthetical man
Helen Upton, program administrator for Food for Thought gatherings, will be contributing the symposium "(Adam and) Eve: Demystifying the Myth," to the agenda. Food for Thought is a local nonprofit whose mission is to facilitate understanding between people of different beliefs and backgrounds in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Upton wants participants to question where America is headed with regard to gender roles and our expectations for women and men.
"Gender is a significant social issue," said Upton. "I hope the symposium will draw men and women, and particularly individuals of different generations. I'd also like to see a mix of ethnicity and race, because I think we all come at the question from different perspectives."
These differing perspectives come into play when considering the history of feminism. "Young women will say 'I'm not a feminist, but of course I believe in equal pay, equal social and political opportunities,'" explained Upton. "And you want to ask, 'What do you think the definition of feminism is?'"
Gender is an emotional and personal issue, one that we've all encountered. "I don't think you have to have a Ph.D. in it," said Upton. "You can have your own gut feelings and your own experiences. Everybody is some gender."
Through "Art and the Politics of Gender," the FAC has assembled a wide-ranging group of artists and experts, a group that embodies the dynamism, vision and foresight of the center's founding mothers.
Art and the Politics of Gender
Selected events at the Fine Arts, 30 West Dale St.
"Pop Goes the Gender," Thurs., March 22, 6-8 p.m. Series Kick-off and 65th Anniversary Event, with Body Packaging performances, live music by John Stone, and a historical slide show. Judy Noyes, Joanna Roche, Jenny Cook and Melinda Murphy will speak.
"Shadows in History: Understanding the Work of Mary Jane Colter," Sat., April 14, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Symposium led by Karen Bartlett of Nemesis Productions.
"The State of Feminism in Visual Culture," Fri.-Sat., Sept. 28-29. A Front Range Symposium with keynote speaker Judy Chicago.
"(Adam and) Eve: Demystifying the Myth," Sat., Oct. 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A Food for Thought Symposium.
Call Melinda Murphy for more information: 634-5581 Ext. 318.