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Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection

"Art is central to my life. Not being able to make or see art would be a major deprivation." Nell Blaine’s assertion about the centrality—the essentiality—of art to her life has a particular resonance. The Virginia painter’s creative path began early and over the course of her life, she overcame significant barriers in her quest to make and see art, including serious vision problems, polio, and paralysis. And then, there was her gender. In 1957, Blaine was hailed by Life magazine as someone to watch, profiled along with four other emerging painters whom the journalist praised “not as notable women artists but as notable artists who happen to be women.”

In Central to Their Lives, published by the University of South Carolina Press in June 2018, a score of noted art historians offer scholarly insight into the achievements of women artists working in and inspired by the American South. Spanning the decades between the late 1890s and early 1960s, this publication examines the particularly complex challenges these artists confronted in a traditionally conservative region during a period in which women’s social, cultural, and political roles were being redefined and reinterpreted. How did the variables of historical gender norms, educational barriers, race, regionalism, sisterhood, suffrage, and modernism mitigate and motivate women seeking expression on canvas or in clay? Whether in personal or professional arenas? Working from studio space in spare rooms at home or on the world stage, the artists considered made remarkable contributions by fostering future generations of artists through instruction, incorporating new aesthetics into the fine arts, and challenging the status quo.

The 264-page book is composed of six lead essays and forty-two catalogue entries by experts in the field of Southern art, as well as a  foreword written by Sylvia Yount, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator In Charge of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Illustrated with more than eighty color images, the volume also includes a directory of over two thousand women artists with documented professional activity in the South in the period under consideration.

Featured artists: Anni Albers, Wenonah Bell, Nell Blaine, Sarah Blakeslee, Selma Burke, Elisabeth Chant, Adèle Clark, Kate Clark, Josephine Couper, Ida Crawley, Minnie Evans, Virginia Evans, Zelda Fitzgerald, Maud Gatewood, Emma Gilchrist, Anne Goldthwaite, Angela Gregory, Ellen Hale, Ella Hergesheimer, Marie Hull, Clementine Hunter, Anna Huntington, Loïs Jones, Nell Jones, Ida Kohlmeyer, Margaret Law, Blanche Lazzell, Adele Lemm, Edith London, Blondelle Malone, Maud Mason, Corrie McCallum, Helen Moseley, Anne Nash, Willie Newman, Augusta Oelschig, Clara Parrish, Theresa Pollak, Mabel Pugh, Andrée Ruellan, Hattie SaussyDixie Selden, Alice Smith, Gladys Smith, Anna Taylor, Alma Thomas, Mary Thomas, Helen Turner, Elizabeth Verner, Catherine Wiley, Emma Wilkins, Eola Willis, Bayard Wootten,  and Enid Yandell.

Exhibition schedule: Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, June 30–September 23, 2018; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, October 6, 2018–January 20, 2019; Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia, March 2–June 30, 2019; Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, July 28–October 13, 2019; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, January 17–May 3, 2020; Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida, June 23–November 29, 2020; and Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, January 30–June 13, 2021.