Untold Beauty/Beauty Untold: The Illinois Women Artists Project

Williams, Amanda
December 2008

In June 1892, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, there was an article about projects to be displayed at the Illinois Building, featuring the artwork of Illinois Women. The Illinois Women’s Exhibition Board had accepted projects, such as an exhibit of the silk culture in the State, wood carvings, a geological display, waxwork, and an original fire screen, all done by women, including women from Cook, McHenry, Champaign, and Kankakee counties. How exciting that over a century ago, local and regional women artists were being sought out for their talents and creative works, to have them displayed in a public building in Chicago! Why do we not know more about these women and their opportunities as artists, as well as their everyday lives?

A very important undertaking is in the works in Illinois, one vital in answering these questions, gaining a better understanding of our heritage and to the cause of feminism. It is the Illinois Women Artists’ Project (IWA), which seeks to discover and document the work and lives of the women artists who practiced between 1840 and 1940. This essay will explore the scope of the project, will discuss the project in detail, and explain why this project is an important feminist work. It will explore the goals of those involved in the project, first, to raise awareness, enthusiasm and support for the project, and second, to involve more women in researching and contributing to the project. It will provide a comprehensive report on the goals of the project, the current status of the project, ways for interested parties to get involved, how and where results will be published, plans for maintenance and updating of the database and projected completion of the project.

This paper will also share the thoughts of the founder of the project, Channy Lyons. Ms. Lyons (M.A./English, MBA) is a writer with a passion for the history of local and regional women, particularly artists. She has published six books, two of them about her mother and grandmother who were both artists. Channy was the curator for an exhibit featuring Peoria Women Artists for the Peoria Art Guild in 2005 which led to another of her books, called “Peoria Women Artists through 1970”, and gave her the idea for this current project.

The decision to discuss the IWA project came after sharing with my instructor my frustration at the lack of information available on women in history in many areas. As art programs continue to be cut from public schools, alternative sources of information must be created so that we can educate our young people on the contributions of women in the arts, as well as in other areas of history. Little is known of women artists by those who are not artists, historians or students of art. It is anticipated that women throughout Illinois will become involved in the project and that the resulting database and publications will be exhaustive and robust, bringing a vital, legitimate source of information to the public.

Further, it is hoped that the term ‘art’ would be expanded in the minds of the public to include such things as quilting, needlework and making lace, as ‘legitimate’ art forms. These creative endeavors, which also resulted in items with functional purpose, were long ago dismissed as not worthy of being defined as art. Therefore, the women who created these ‘hiddenstream’ works were not classified as artists. In fact, even the women who worked in the so-called legitimate mediums such as canvas painting and sculpting were not taken seriously, as it was widely believed that women lacked the ability to be creative, and their works were usually credited to men.

Channy Lyons, founder of the project, provides this general statement: “The purpose of this unique project is to rediscover women artists who worked throughout Illinois between 1840 and 1940, and to provide an appreciation of their work and experiences. Little is known about these women. The project will make their life stories engaging and accessible to large and small communities through an online database, website, online and on-site exhibits, educational programming, and a book. It will give today’s women a link to their heritage and history and provide a cultural foundation for them to build on. Additional research is needed in key pockets of the state as well as photographs of artwork, and a consistent design for the website/promotional materials.”

A massive undertaking, the project has various objectives: it seeks to document the lives and work of Illinois women artists who were active between 1840 and 1940. In addition to featuring their works, the project will record their experiences as women of their time, to learn their stories, their successes, and the obstacles they overcame to make their lives work. The objective is to provide access to their stories to large and small communities alike.

The IWA project will try, by recording facts about these artists and their lives, to answer questions, such as: How were they trained? What types of art did they produce? Where did they find inspiration? How did they manage their time? How did they handle the responsibilities of raising a family? Where was the art exhibited? How was it marketed? Of course, there are many other questions.

Currently, there are approximately 87 communities in Illinois who have expressed interest and/or contributed to the project, in addition to art galleries, historical societies and museums, and information on over 340 artists has been collected. As information continues to come in from various sources, it is hoped that the database will become an exhaustive source to learn about these artists.

In a recent newspaper article, Lyons stated, “One of the most exciting things about this project is that it has become a true collaboration of people from around the state – even the country.” A wonderful aspect of this project is that a packet of information for researchers has been put together and is available for use by even the most inexperienced researcher, providing the opportunity for students with little or no research experience to participate. This project is a great way for educators to combine history and art education, expose young students to research techniques that will serve them throughout their lives, and to contribute to something where the results become tangible in the form of a book, exhibits, a website and a database of verified, accurate information on these great women.

As stated above, the project will result in an interactive website where information can be uploaded by researchers (the information will be verified before being added to the database), IWA database, designed by and to be housed at Bradley University, a book, various exhibitions, and information available to be included in school curriculums or used in educational seminars. The website will be operational by the end of this year (2008). There will be some educational pieces available by fall of 2009. There is no projected completion date for the project, as it is expected to be ongoing for some time.

Why is this project important to feminism? There are many reasons. First, it will provide the opportunity for young students, male and female, to participate in a project that will shed light on the lives and accomplishments of local and regional women as long as one hundred and fifty years ago. Exposure to this kind of information can help to train young minds, both male and female, to expect to find accomplishments from women as they study various subjects and time periods, and to be suspicious if they do not find such accomplishments.

According to Collins and Sandell, the study of women’s art achievements benefits students in four ways: first, it is helpful to young female students, giving them the opportunity to study their own local past and to have female role models. Having these types of role models, goes a long way to fostering pride in local and regional heritage. Next, all students, male and female will have a truer history of artistic accomplishment as the works of women become known. Third, art students will benefit from exposure to varied techniques, helping them to be better prepared as competitors against artists of either sex, should they consider pursuing careers in art. Finally, all students will be able to more critically consider the information they come across with regard to art, including the question of what is considered art.

Why bother taking the time and effort to document what women did over 150 years ago? What relevance would this knowledge have to contemporary feminist issues? There are many answers to these questions. First, there is the dichotomy in the study of women and art, that is the depictions of women in art, and the study of art created by women. Traditionally both have had misogynistic overtones: women portrayed as frail or weak, women’s art portrayed as “feminine” and therefore not worthy to be judged on the same level as art created by men.

Studying the art and lives of women whose contemporaries were Chagall, Manet, Monet, Picasso and Renoir, to name a few, particularly looking at the differences in access to training in standard techniques of the day, domestic responsibilities, access to materials, among other things, puts the work of the women in a new perspective. The time period of 1840-1940 for women in American Society was one of domesticity, where the expectation was that women would keep house and raise children. Life without electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, or an abundance of readymade clothing, as well as other hardships made domesticity more than a full time job. How did these women manage the stress of juggling this life and finding time to be creative and practice their crafts? How did they get training and materials? Exploring the lives of the artists will give us insight into the importance of art in their lives, and may lead to a few clues to managing our own time and stress better.

Additionally, a comparison of what life was like for the male as opposed to the female artists of the time will undoubtedly provide a greater understanding of the differences in technique and perceived importance of the works in mainstream culture. Men clearly had greater access to exhibitions and marketing. How did our local women artists market their work?

Then, there is the question of art in the “hiddenstream” and the value it has as we look at it today. In the day it was created, art critics and historians did not even recognize it as art. But today, we ought to be able to look back at the wood carving, stitchery, quilting, ceramics and other forms having both beauty and function as legitimate sources of art. This is a largely unexplored area, one that is a true celebration and melding of everyday life and art for the women of the time.

As feminists in the twenty first century, there are many facets to our activism. We have learned through past feminist waves, that our struggles and issues are not all the same, and that one approach or agenda is not enough. In the information age, it has become easier to network and share the differences and similarities, helping us to create more individualized, yet cohesive approaches to activism. This project is one such approach.

The Illinois Women Artists Project builds a bridge from the past to the future by shedding light on the lives of women of various ages, classes, backgrounds and levels of education, all struggling to be creative and raise their voices in the midst of chaotic lives, seeking to be recognized in their own right as having something of value to say, not in the context of what male society has taught us is valuable. These artists found ways to work around the stereotypes of the day to practice their crafts under extremely primitive conditions. They are examples of courage, perseverance and determination, and should serve as examples for us as we face some of the same challenges.

The IWA project should interest men and women, feminists, artists, teachers, researchers, historians, genealogists or just anyone curious about the local past and willing to do some sleuthing. It is a great way to spend time with kids, exploring art museums, historical societies, galleries and other places looking for clues to the past. It is an opportunity to become a historian and be a part of the documentation of a vital segment of society, our creative past. Everyone can benefit from learning from these amazing women, and perhaps some will be stirred to explore other areas where the achievements of women have been neglected. The more we expand our knowledge of the contributions of all members of our society, the more we see the possibility that our individual endeavors can have an impact.