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 book’s companion exhibition debuted at at the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, and will be on view from June 30–September 23, 2018. Slated venues also include the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, October 6, 2018–January 20, 2019; the Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia, March 2–June 30, 2019; the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, July 28–October 13, 2019; the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, January 17–May 3, 2020; the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida, June 23–November 29, 2020; and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, January 30–June 13, 2021.                              


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