Guda for You!

In the beginning there were men and in the middle there were men and now there are men, and maybe a few random women.  Cave men scratched buffalo pictures onto cave walls.  Greek and Roman dudes chiseled gods out of marble.  Monks inscribed bibles while knights waged Crusades.  Men in floofy knickers painted for their aristocratic and church patrons in the Renaissance.  More men in more silly pants painted portraits of enlightened rich folks.  Men drinking absinthe made their impressions and played with cubes.  Men got abstract and then post-modern.  Oh, yeah, and there was a lady named Mary Cassatt and one down in Mexico named Frida Kahlo, but, ooh, look at what Jeff Koons is doing!  This is the story of art history, as it is usually taught.  And, yes, men did all those things.  But, so did women!  Women from all over the world!  Women in caves!  Women in convents!  Women painting and sculpting and making beautiful shit for millennia.  That’s what this blog is about and that’s why I’m so excited to share these awesome artists with you.

Most women in the Middle Ages in Europe had two choices: get married or go to a convent.  It was a piss poor pair of options, but that’s how it was.  If the woman chose to become a nun, she had a chance to do something lay women could not.  She could get the chance to make art.

Medieval art was religious art.   It was the art of illuminated manuscripts.  Hymnals, Psalters, Bibles, et cetera were all created by hand and beautifully decorated.  Along with the carefully inscribed text, the illuminators would create large decorative letters that began sections, images depicting scenes from the text, intricate borders, and tiny pictures in the margins (known as marginalia) that were often kind of dirty and weird.  When imagining someone illuminating a manuscript, it is usually a robe-clad, tonsured monk hunched over a sheet of velum carefully drawing by candle light.  It’s what I pictured until I learned about Guda.  Guda, and other nuns, illuminated manuscripts and they did a bitchin’ job at it too.


Guda (also known as Guta) lived in 12th century Germany at the Weissfauen Convent.  This was her taken name, as women received a new name upon entering the convent.  Because of this, very little is recorded about these artists before they became nuns.  All that’s really known about Guda is that she lived in the 1100s in Germany and worked to create the Homiliary of St. Bartholomew manuscript.  She drew a decorative letter “D” that contained her self-portrait.  A little scroll in the letter proclaims in Latin, “Guda, a sinner, wrote and painted this book.”  This inscription along with her picture makes this one of the first signed self-portraits done by a woman in all of Western civilization (that we know of).  And that makes Guda, Medieval wonder-nun/artist, pretty fucking cool.


Meta Physical

The Victorian Era.  Women were bound by corsets, morality, and domesticity, stuck at home caring for their children and attending to their husbands’ needs.  Or not.  Yes, the Victorian period was stifling and oppressive for women, but there were some groundbreaking women who didn’t let it get them down.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was one of those awesome ladies.


Fuller was born in 1877 and was already creating sculpture and drawings in high school.  One of her works was chosen to be in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  She won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now the Philadelphia College of Art).  Fuller graduated and traveled to Paris in 1899 to continue her studies.  In Paris, she attended the Academie Colarossi and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  She met and became friends with W.E.B. DuBois.  Fuller also met Rodin and he told her, “my child, you are a sculptor; you have the sense of form in your fingers.”  While in Paris, she exhibited at Samuel Bing’s L’Art Nouveau Gallery and at the Paris Salon.  After kicking ass in Paris, Fuller returned to Philadelphia in 1903.  She continued her artistic studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Fuller worked in plaster and clay; most of the sculptures were also bronzed.  In 1909, Fuller met Dr. Solomon Fuller, one of the first African American psychiatrists in the United State, and they were married.  They moved to Massachusetts and Fuller built herself a studio with her own hands against her husband’s wishes.  Hell yes.  She had three sons and continued sculpting as well as doing housework and raising the kids.  So, yeah, awesome.

In 1917, she became the first African American woman to receive a United States government commission.  Fuller created 14 works for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition.  Lest anyone forget what the country was built on, the tableaux showed scenes of slaves arriving in America and the home life of black Americans in 1617.  Fuller exhibited her work at the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the Harmon Foundation Shows, and at the Making of America Exposition during the 1920s.  Apparently, Americans could not get enough of Expositions back in the day.  In 1957, Fuller was commissioned by the Afro-American Women’s Council to create 10 sculptures of famous African American women.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller died in 1968.  Her first retrospective was in 1984 at the Danforth Museum of Art.  Her work is in the collections of the Schomburg Center, Radcliffe College, the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston, as well as at the Danforth Museum of Art.  Why her work is not more widely known or in more museums’ collection is probably due to her being a woman and an African American and it’s a fucking shame.


Fuller was incredibly spiritual and very aware of the plight of African Americans in the United States during her lifetime and throughout American history.  These issues permeate her work.  In 1914, she created Ethiopia Awakening.  This sculpture shows a woman whose legs are wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy but whose torso and head are emerging from the bindings.  It is a figure of a woman coming out of confinement and into her own personhood.  It creates a visual link to Africa, the continuing heritage of African Americans, and references the ideas of Ethiopianism.  In 1919, Fuller created a visual tribute to Mary Turner, who was lynched with three others who were suspected of planning to murder a white person.  Fuller was an artistic pioneer.  She utilized African American subjects, an aesthetic that blended African American and African styles, and addressing the racial disparities and oppression African Americans faced; and all before the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of the idea of the New Negro.  She used the link between black Africa and black America to show a rich, complex artistic and cultural heritage and to decry colonialism and racism.


In 1937, Fuller made “Talking Skull” showing a man on his knees with a skull on the ground in front of him.  It is a clear depiction of the link between the past and the present, and the presence of death (or the threat of death) in African American lives.  Her work has often been called “dark” or “macabre,” and maybe it is, but it is also inspiring, proud, and complex.  Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was an amazing artist, a kick-ass woman, and someone who helped shape one of the most important American art movements in the 20th century.  Fuller is full-on awesome.

The Art of Trauma

Let’s talk transgender turkey for a minute.  Transgender women are women.  If you disagree and/or your feminism doesn’t include them, you kind of suck.  That said…

“Jewish gay transgender woman artist” is not a phrase you hear much, or at all, in the art world.  But, lucky for us, there is an awesome woman named Yishay Garbasz making art and busting through cis-hetero-patriarchal walls.  Now that I’ve rolled out a long string of labels, I’d like to roll them back.  Garbasz said in an interview in 2013, “I’m an artist.  I’m not a trans-artist, I’m not a Jewish artist, just an artist.  And I think that’s important; a lot of people struggle with gender as something that shapes their life…There’s a lot more to life than that.  Society constrains a lot of people into very specific things, and if there wasn’t a social ostracism they would have much bigger lives.”  And she’s right.  So, let’s just talk about a bitchin’ contemporary artist and her work.


Yishay Garbasz was born in 1970 in Israel; her parents were survivors of World War II and the Holocaust.  She studied photography at Bard College in the early 2000s, though she also does installation art and performance pieces.  She won the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2004.  In 2008, Garbasz moved to Berlin and has been based there ever since.  She won Berlin Woman Filmmaker of the Year in 2010.  Garbasz is interested in trauma.  The memories of trauma, the sites of trauma, the passing along of trauma from person to person and place to person, the post-trauma experience.  Her work also addresses identity and her life as a woman.

One of her earlier undertakings was begun in 2004 (ending in 2009) and involved Garbasz retracing her mother’s steps through the Holocaust and photographing it.  She went everywhere her mother was from 1942 through 1945: the Jewish ghetto her mother lived in as a girl, the concentrations camps, along the route of the death march her mother was forced to go on.  All while lugging a large-format single-negative camera on a tripod.  When speaking of “In My Mother’s Footsteps,” Garbasz said “my mother lost parts of her soul in those places and I had to go back and collect them.”  Garbasz also did a piece that centered on her branding her mother’s concentration camp number into her arm and photographed it as the wound healed.


Documenting sites of trauma continued in her next project in which she traveled a variety of places including the DMZ between North and South Korea, the barriers running between Israel and Palestine, and the Peace Lines in Northern Ireland.  She also traveled to and photographed Fukushima, Japan post-nuclear disaster.  I think we can agree that if you want a guide for a sweet trauma-based vacation, Garbasz is your girl.

In 2008, Garbasz began “Becoming.”  She documented her transition through the gender-affirmation process by taking a nude picture of herself every week.  The 28 pictures were then made into a life-size zoetrope and a flip book.  After transitioning, Garbasz took her old testicles and exhibited them in a tank of formaldehyde.  The piece was titled, “Eat Me Damien.” Indeed.  You can take your stupid preserved shark, Damien Hirst, and suck it.


Yishay Garbasz continues to travel and take photographs and exhibit around the world.  If you get the chance to see her work, jump on that shit.

To Infinity and Beyond!

Polka-dots.  Cheerful, bright, rhythmic polka-dots.  You run into them on clothes and home decor, kitchen ware and pet accessories.  And thanks to kickass contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, they are finally in art museums and galleries around the world.  Who is this wonderful polka-dot warrior?  Let’s find out…yayoiportrait

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan in 1929.  She began studying Nihonga painting in Kyoto, Japan in 1948 but found the strict master-student method of learning to be odious.  In 1957, Kusama moved to Seattle and then to New York City.  She struggled for a time financially, but blossomed artistically.  Kusama worked quickly and was very prolific.  She had her first solo show in 1959 at the Breta Gallery.  While in New York, she found friendship with Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, and other artists.  After almost two decades, in 1973, Kusama returned to Japan.  She checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977 after a life-long struggle with hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, and suicidal urges.  She has lived there ever since and has a nearby studio where she continues to create art, mostly large, brightly painted canvases.  Kusama also writes and has published works of poetry, novels, and autobiographical material.  In 2006, Kusama received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award and the Women’s Caucus for Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  Her art is in the permanent collections at MoMA in New York, LACMA, the Walker Art Center, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, and the National Museum of Tokyo.  In 2014, one of her pieces, “White no. 28,” sold for $7.1 million at auction, the highest ever paid for a living female artist.  Yay, Yayoi!

So, that’s who, where, and when, but what about the art?  What about the polka-dots?  The polka-dots have always been with her.  In a childhood drawing of a woman, polka-dots cover over the page.  From around the time she was 10 on, Kusama began repeatedly using polka-dots in her drawings and paintings.  In the 1950s, Kusama created massive works she called “Infinity Nets.”  She took long canvases, 30 feet long and over, and covered them in dots and net-like patterns.  In the 1960s, she began doing installations and sculptures.  She lined rooms with mirrors and colored balls and lights and created the feeling of a space that continued forever.  She painted polka dots on object and people and took photos of the works.  Kusama began making films.  She also started staging happenings, doing performance pieces, and facilitating anti-war protests in the 1960s that involved her painting her own and other naked bodies with polka-dots.  These performances had awesome names like “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA.”   Fuck yes.

In 1966, Kusama participated in the Venice Biennale.  Her piece, “Narcissus Garden,” involved hundreds of orbs mirrored on the outside and her standing in a gold kimono.  She sold the mirrored balls for a few dollars each to visitors until the Biennale shut her down.  I guess a critique of the art market wasn’t so popular in the middle of an art owner/art dealer masturbation-fest.  Go figure.

yayoiroomShe continued making sculpture, paintings, and installations.  She returned to the Venice Biennale in 1993 with a room lined with mirrors and filled with polka-dotted pumpkin sculptures.  In the 2000s, Kusama created furnished rooms covered in brightly colored polka-dots illuminated by UV lights; she called these “I’m Here, but Nothing.”  Her solo show “KUSAMATRIX” in 2004 in Tokyo drew in over half a million people.  That’s almost the same as the population of Tucson, Arizona.  She has had several Retrospectives: MoMA in 1998, the Whitney Museum in 2012, and the Tate Modern in 2012.  She has also created many public art pieces including a mural in Lisbon, a bus that runs through her home town, and a massive polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture.  She has collaborated with fashion designers as well.yayoipumpkin

In talking about her fascination with polka-dots, Kusama said, “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm.  Round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing…Polka-dots are a way to infinity.”  So, the next time you put on that retro polka-dotted dress or wash your polka-dotted Crate and Barrel plates, know that you are a little closer to the infinite energy of the universe.  Thanks, Yayoi Kusama!