The suffragettes were quilters. Henrietta Muir Edwards, a lawyer responsible for establishing women should be considered persons in the eyes of the law, wrote books. And burning bras? The infamous feminist moment was a stunt dreamed up to catch media attention after journalists suggested a group of American activists needed controversy to get attention.
“When you think about it, women have always used creativity as a means to get the word out there,” said Micki Smith, who is working on The Power of Women’s Creativity: Past, Present & Future, an art display slated for the Kelowna Art Gallery’s walls this fall.
Smith is the former director of the Kelowna Women’s Resource Centre. When it disbanded three years ago, a small sum of money remained and Smith, along with a tight group of directors, established the Central Okanagan Women’s Resource & Education Foundation.
The foundation uses the nominal amount to keep women’s issues and achievements front and centre. They ensure the December 6 vigil marking the École Polytechnique massacre continues, and hand out the Gert Beadle Award, highlighting the value of invisible work done at the community level to enhance women’s equality in the Central Okanagan.
Beadle lived in Kelowna during her activist years and, like many feminists, used her own artistry to draw attention to the cause. She was was a poet.
This spring, inspired by women like her, the foundation will offer art enthusiasts a taste of the contemporary local women’s creative voice. Building on a show done in Kelowna a decade ago, it has partnered with the Kelowna Art Gallery to open up the walls for any women who wants to display her work.
Gender bias in the art world is well documented.
Thirty years ago, an anonymous group called the Guerrilla Girls donned beast masks and attacked a display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was displaying what its curators considered the most important contemporary artists of the time. Of the 169 individuals featured, only 13 were women.
The Guerilla Girls still exist today and have thrown their weight behind the Pussy Riot musicians, jailed for their punk protest stunts in Russia, which target social injustice, including gender equality.
“One really inspiring thing about Pussy Riot is that they always make it clear that their actions are political and feminist,” two Guerrilla Girls told the New York Times last August.
Smith is hoping for a more simple form of progress.
The show the Kelowna Women’s Resource Centre and Kelowna Art Gallery collaborated on in 2004 highlighted a problem. Many untrained and talented women struggle with the confidence to show.
This is how the first project, a compilation of quilting patterns intended to celebrate the work of the suffragettes who would meet to quilt and organize politically, got started.
“We wanted to develop a visual tool that could be used as part of an education program around women’s contributions in our quest for equality,” Smith explained.
Submissions came from women who had never shown in galleries. One woman’s husband called to see if the group would be interested in her work, though she rarely ever let anyone see it.
“It just increased her confidence so much because of it that she was inspired to do more,” said Smith, who has wanted to revive the concept ever since.
As former mayor Sharon Shepherd puts it, art has a therapeutic component and it provides women who don’t have a big voice in the world, a platform to make a statement.
“We’re particularly targeting vulnerable women who will be able to take some affordable art lessons the art gallery will be putting on,” she said.
Shepard is an artist herself and a director for the foundation. She paints and does calligraphy. In addition to contacting groups like her calligraphy network, the foundation has approached the NOW Canada and Karis Society, local organizations that support women marginalized by social and economic factors.
“Art is healing,” she said. “It’s a way of identifying some emotions that you may not be able to put down. Some things that you may not be able to say in another way.”
The submissions will not go to a jury and the opportunity is open to any women in the Central Okanagan who wants to submit work.
The foundation, meanwhile, is preparing for a big year. On May 8 it will host a conference on women and housing in the Central Okanagan.
For the show, women are invited to submit one two-dimensional painting, drawing, photograph or collage or one three-dimensional sculptural piece evaluating Nellie McClung’s famous statement: “We must remember the past to understand the present and face the future.”
The show will run in honour of Women’s History Month in October. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org