Artist Spotlight: Sylvia Snowden

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

For more than five decades, Sylvia Snowden (b. 1942, Raleigh, North Carolina) has created vibrantly abstract works. Her palette ranges from dark and earthy to bright and artificial, and she incorporates textures with undulating forms.

Powerfully executed with vigorous gestural brushwork and aggressive pouring, Snowden’s June 12 (1992), on view in Magnetic Fields, conveys the energy of the artist’s own body in the act of making as well as the states of human relationships. June 12 towers over the viewer at a height of ten feet. Thickly applied paint seems to extend off of the canvas and toward the viewer, prompting questions about the artist’s process and how many gallons of paint were used.

This painting is part of a series honoring the artist’s parents, and was previously on view in an exhibition of Snowden’s work at NMWA in 1992. Titled after her parents’ wedding anniversary, June 12 pays homage to their relationship. About her exuberant use of color in the work, Snowden says, “My mother was attracted to color, and I grew up in a home with the use of strong color.”

Snowden’s improvisational painting style “comes from within, not an outside force to change styles,” says the artist. “Although I am able to paint in different styles, as I learned in the thorough training at Howard University, expressionism is my style. It is a communication between the canvas and me, which is governed by the intellectual and emotional states acting as one, a unification; examination of the subject matter and its treatment, figurative or without figure.”

Snowden earned a BFA and an MFA from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She has served as an artist in residence, visiting artist, and instructor in universities, galleries, and art schools both in the United States and internationally.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Wonderful Words—Exploring Abstraction through Poetry

On Saturday, December 9, D.C.-based poet Danielle Badra led Firsthand Experience: Responsive Poetry at the museum. The day started with an exquisite corpse group activity: Using artworks as prompts, each participant wrote one line of a poem and passed it to their neighbor. As the poems traveled around the room, each person could only look at the most recent line before contributing. The final products of these collaborations were surprisingly true to their inspirations when read aloud.

After the warm up, the group visited Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today in search of inspiration. Badra led the group in creating analytic dictionary poems, starting with an extensive list of words from the exhibition. Participants each selected one that reflected their response to a chosen work, served as the poem’s title, and provided a guide for the other words included.

For the final activity, Badra and participants wrote ekphrastic—descriptive—poems, based on Magnetic Fields. While often deeply personal, each poem resonated with its source material, taking readers on emotional, rhythmic, and visual journeys. Read a few samples of poems from the workshop.

Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015; Mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York, New York; © Brenna Youngblood

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto), 1982; Mixed media on canvas, 70 1/2 x 70 1/2 in.; Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; © Howardena Pindell; Photo courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991; Oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 150 in.; Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

Poem: “Red,” by Danielle Badra
Inspired by: Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015

Rare.
Evokes disaster.
Aura of violet ink
rising over sheetrock.
Elegant Katrina—her
aggressive eye. A spatial,
spattered triptych emerging
as ritual.

Poem: “Moonscape Memoir,” by Deborah Hefferon
Inspired by: Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto), 1982

Aerial view of a land afloat
stitched in time and place
pebbled with grit and textile shards,
yet timeless and place-less,
like a lily pad to catch relics
or make room for future landings.

Shoji screens divide my past lunar phase cycles
with opaque paper and lattice of tender bamboo.
Where am I on this island? When was I here?

Am I an astronaut peering at the earth and orbs?
Am I pure memory? Is it like remembering
my walks among the Shinto temple bells,
the white-robed priest who smiled at me
through the fog of incense?
Have I ever returned home?

Poem: “Magnetic Fields,” by Holly Mason
Inspired by: Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991

How the colors all collide in the center:
a carnival, a Ferris wheel.
I hold onto what the docent says,
“not seeing the force, but knowing it’s there.”
How this applies to so much.
How the snow is falling outside the window—
How it decorates your red coat—
How it’s hard to describe family tensions—
How I don’t know exactly why I cried
watching the middle-school girls’ Glee concert—
How we hold onto external narratives about ourselves—
How damaging words take house in our heads—
How we learn that “letting go” looks different than we thought—
How we realize we don’t have to “let go.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Mark your calendar for future Firsthand Experience workshops on April 28 and May 19, 2018.

—Ashley W. Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Betty Blayton

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Idea Waiting to Be Heard (1984)

By: Betty Blayton (b. 1937, Williamsburg, Virginia; d. 2016, Bronx, New York)

Betty Blayton, Idea Waiting to Be Heard, 1984; Monoprint, 30 x 22 in.; Courtesy of the Betty Blayton Trust, Boston, Massachusetts; © Betty Blayton Trust; Photo by E. G. Schempf

A self-described “Spiritual Impressionist,” Betty Blayton created works featuring layered, aqueous colors and elemental forms that invite viewers to reflect. Blayton’s monoprint Idea Waiting to Be Heard (1984) exemplifies her exploratory approach to art as well as her interest in color, texture, and form. Magnetic Fields is the first time that this vibrant work, as well as her monoprint Dream Forms #3 (1984), has been exhibited.

Despite growing up in the 1940 and ’50s in then-segregated Williamsburg, Virginia, Blayton pursued her passion for art at the encouragement of her parents. Blayton later became a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and the Harlem Children’s Art Carnival in 1969. The impetus for Idea Waiting to Be Heard came from an art project Blayton often assigned to students at the non-profit art center, instructing them to cut out shapes and ink them.

Although Blayton employed techniques from Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, she noted that her work did not grow out of any particular artistic tradition, but rather the feelings generated by her own thoughts. Blayton said, “The intent of my work is [twofold]: The first is personal, because the act of creating artworks allow me opportunities for meditation and self-reflective thoughts related to life’s mysteries and the meaning of being and becoming. The second is to hopefully provide my viewers with opportunities to also engage in meditation and self-reflective thought.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Howardena Pindell

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) (1982)

By: Howardena Pindell (b. 1943, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

As a young girl, Howardena Pindell visited a root beer stand in Northern Kentucky with her father. On the bottom of their soda mugs, Pindell found thick red dots indicating the glasses were meant only to be used by people of color. “I see the reason I have been obsessed with the circle, using it in a way that would be positive instead of negative,” states the artist. 

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) (detail), 1982; Mixed media on canvas, 70 1/2 x 70 1/2 in.; Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; © Howardena Pindell; Photo courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

The dot—a concentration of light and color—became foundational for Pindell’s work. In her early years, Pindell employed a method reminiscent of Pointillism, creating non-figurative works (like her untitled work found in Magnetic Fields) with small, round points of paint that cover her canvases. Later, Pindell switched materials to something much more utilitarian: the hole punch. This allowed her to continue her examination of the circle, but without the restrictions of conventional methods and materials. Producing thousands of round, confetti-like dots from painted paper, Pindell carefully distributes her labor onto the wet paint of her canvases. The effect is an atmosphere of sheer energy.

Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) is a kaleidoscopic explosion. Mint green paint encrusts multi-colored, hole-punched dots, forming a large, rounded composition. Pindell, a Yale MFA graduate and former associate curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA, cut unstretched canvas into irregular strips, and then sewed them back together with thick carpet thread to create a rough circle. In doing so, she intentionally breaks the confines of the traditional rectangular painting.

Beyond materiality, the work explores the personal circuits of memory and mapping. Pindell created Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) after a seven month sojourn in Japan, inspired by the vibrant gardens she could see from outside her apartment window in Kyoto. Punctuated by the collage elements of photos and postcards, the work doubles as Pindell’s attempt to preserve her memory, which was severely affected by a car accident three years prior.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Meredith Hamme is the 2017 fall registrarial intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Mavis Pusey

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Mavis Pusey, Solitude, 1963; Oil on canvas, 46 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.; Beverly A. Berman and Jeffrey K. Backerman Collection, Concord, Massachusetts; © Mavis Pusey/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York; Photo by E. G. Schempf

Solitude (1963)

By: Mavis Pusey (b. 1928, Kingston, Jamaica)

Mavis Pusey is a painter, printmaker, and educator whose geometric abstractions interpret the vibrant art scenes of New York, London, and Paris. One of Pusey’s earlier works, Solitude (1963), exemplifies her mastery of color and line.

Pusey moved to New York at the age of 18 to pursue a degree in fashion design at the Traphagen School of Fashion. However, after two years of financial difficulties, she left the school, worked in a bridal boutique, and enrolled in fine arts classes at the Art Students League—an institution that accommodated her work schedule. She took courses under the instruction of renowned artists Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet. Barnet convinced Pusey to continue working in painting and introduced her to the works of modern masters. The “energy, rhythm, and movement” in Vasily Kandinsky’s work, in particular, inspired Pusey.

Her interest in design led to her sophisticated use of geometric line and works like Solitude. Before focusing on architectural abstractions of New York’s urban landscape, as seen in Dejygea (1970), also on view in the exhibition, many of Pusey’s works from the 1960s imitated the shape and gestures of the body. In Solitude, stacked gold shapes are connected by black lines in a way that is reminiscent of a seated figure. The artist’s  use of color evokes energy while her use of shape and line ground her composition. Pusey says color sets the “tempo” of her work while the design forms the “backbone.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Lilian Thomas Burwell

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Winged Autumn (2007)

By: Lilian Thomas Burwell (b. 1927, Washington, D.C.)

Lilian Thomas Burwell’s Winged Autumn (2007) is an amalgamation of Plexiglas, oil on canvas, and carved wood. To construct this work, Burwell cut shapes from clear Plexiglas, heated them until they become malleable, and affixed them to the rest of the composition. Winged Autumn represents a shift away from the heavier materials that characterized Burwell’s earlier large-scale works. Mounted to the gallery wall, Winged Autumn appears airy and weightless. The individual components fused together seem to form the shape of a bird mid-flight, reaching toward what Burwell refers to as “the something in me that shares the something in you.”

When pursuing a project, Burwell rarely, if ever, has a concrete outcome in mind. Instead, she sees art as a “channeling of spirit,” and her finished works reflect her improvisational approach. Burwell’s companion piece in Magnetic Fields, Menageri (2006)—completed a year before Winged Autumn—contains a similarly spirited quality.

Lilian Thomas Burwell, Menageri, 2006; Oil on canvas over carved wood, 20 x 29 x 12 in.; Collection of Cynthia Sands, Washington, D.C.; © Lilian Thomas Burwell; Photo by E. G. Schempf

A D.C. native, Burwell was the founding director of the Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery in Shaw for the D.C. Department of Education, the head of the visual arts department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and a publications and exhibits specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Burwell’s career in sculpting, painting, lecturing, and writing spans 75 years, and at age 90, she is “still working at what [she] loves.”

According to Burwell, Winged Autumn reflects her personal “sense of soaring into infinity.” Burwell says, “I myself, well into the autumn of my years, am still learning to fly high and higher—my present mantra: living for possibility.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Deborah Dancy

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Winter into Spring 2 and Winter into Spring 4 (2015) 

By: Deborah Dancy (b. 1949, Bessemer, Alabama)

Created during the seemingly interminable Connecticut winter of 2015, Winter into Spring 2 (and its companion piece, Winter into Spring 4) echoes Deborah Dancy’s desire to see spring colors. Heavy brushstrokes imbue the work with a sense of restlessness and anxiety as Dancy, an artist who paints “color, surprise, absurdity, and encounters with the self,” impatiently waits for the ice of winter to thaw. While a solitary flourish of pink in Winter into Spring 4 indicates the eventual oncoming of spring, the painting remains blanketed in streaks of gray, black, and blue—not unlike an early blossom smothered by an unseasonably late snowfall.

The painting’s gestural brushstrokes—what Dancy calls “tangential entanglements” and “linear demarcations”—are characteristic of her engaging, disruptive style. The dissonance in the intersecting shapes is also characteristic of Dancy’s oeuvre. Her artwork shows that “everyday moments, meanderings, intentional and accidental observations and notations, are best when the beautiful and the disconcerting are combined.”

Dancy also embraces the natural ambiguity of abstraction. Although her works are inspired by her own emotions and experiences, they also allow viewers to contemplate their own relationships to her work. Dancy says, “I make abstract work because I am interested in its ability to operate in a realm in which beauty and tension simultaneously exist without explanation or narrative.” Dancy is “an artist who examines and mines abstraction’s potential to move across mediums and materials as it explores [subtlety] and confrontation.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Brenna Youngblood

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

YARDGUARD (2015)

By: Brenna Youngblood (b. 1979, Riverside, California)

In the dream-like, mixed-media work YARDGUARD (2015), Brenna Youngblood applies an array of colors, tones, and patterns to create a nuanced composition. In the six-foot-high painting, the artist challenges viewers to make connections and open their imaginations.

Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015; Mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York, New York; © Brenna Youngblood

A multidisciplinary artist, Youngblood fuses her process of abstract painting with her photographic background to both conceal and reveal meaning. The artist says, “I don’t like to say exactly what something is about, because I enjoy people’s interpretations—what they bring from their lives, their experiences.” This sense of ambiguity is evident in the artist’s stylistic choices and overall technique in YARDGUARD as well as Forecast (2014), also on view in Magnetic Fields.

Youngblood often combines references to artificial objects and nature in her works. In YARDGUARD, the ghostly appearance of a chain-link fence that grazes the edges of the frame is disrupted by splashes of rich color breaking through the center of the composition. Set on a silvery gray background, the surface of the work appears faded and worn. The artist’s use of serene jewel tones is juxtaposed with a forceful application of shimmering, liquid-seeming pigment. Youngblood’s ability to evoke the world around us in YARDGUARD creates shifts in focus and resounding energy.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Abigail DeVille

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Harlem Flag (2014)

By: Abigail DeVille (b. 1981, New York, New York)

A New York City native and the youngest artist represented in Magnetic Fields, Abigail DeVille approaches her work with the mindset of an artist, archaeologist, and historian. Eschewing the traditional two-dimensional form, she assembles her paintings with scavenged materials found on the streets of New York and other areas that inspire her. DeVille’s assemblages speak to the displacement of marginalized communities and the destruction of deep-rooted regional histories. She aims to provide these sites with new agency to voice their injustices. In describing her work, DeVille explains, “I’m interested in telling invisible histories, about groups of people that occupied a space that no longer exists.”

Abigail DeVille, Harlem Flag, 2014; Sheetrock, door, American flag, wax, encaustic paint, charcoal dust, wallpaper scrap, window shade, and staples, 96 x 120 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Bronx, New York; © Abigail DeVille; Photo by E. G. Schempf

Harlem Flag was first exhibited in Material Histories at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Objects taken from the streets of Harlem are arranged in a way that reveals parallels between the past and the present. The piecing together of this assortment of discarded materials results in a richly textured canvas. Drawing inspiration from her grandmother—a vibrant figure in her Bronx neighborhood known for gathering and transforming discarded possessions—DeVille “translates the act of collecting into not only a tool of sociocultural archiving but also one of self-discovery and explorations of otherness.”

DeVille combines sheetrock, wax, encaustic paint, charcoal dust, staples, a door, a window shade, and an American flag into a statement about the materials’ shared importance in the history and memory of Harlem. The American flag, in the work’s title and composition, contains a dual meaning that confronts the viewer. For some viewers the flag is a symbol of pride and freedom; for others it recalls a history of oppression and ownership of people. In her work, DeVille creates shifting perspectives of the physical world, introducing a new genre of storytelling that engages the imagination.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Sunset (1997)

By: Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery (b. 1933, New York, New York)

Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery, Sunset, 1997; Offset lithograph, ed. 8/17, 21 1/2 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; © Evangeline Montgomery; Photo by Gustavo Garcia

Both of Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery’s works in Magnetic Fields represent and explore memory. While Sunset (1997) captures the burning redwoods in the mountains of California, Sea Grass (1998) depicts the kelp groves and coral reefs surrounding the Catalina Islands—reputedly a favorite cliff-face of California skin divers. To Montgomery, these pieces are “abstractions of life experiences and cultural connections,” flash imprints that blend observation, dialogue, and emotion. Montgomery considers the marks and characters in Sunset and Sea Grass to be a form of universal communication; their content speaks to shared human experience.

Montgomery was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, which prevented her from continuing to work in metal as she had in the past. The artist shifted her focus to etching, lithography, and monoprint. Sunset and Sea Grass are both offset lithographs; they involved transferring an image onto an intermediate surface before printing it onto a final sheet. The practice behind Sunset and Sea Grass also affects Montgomery’s presentation of memory—as if in contemplation of the past, each piece is mirrored twice, appearing on the final sheet the same way it was originally etched.

In addition to being an accomplished artist, Montgomery is also an independent curator. Since 1967, Montgomery has organized more than 150 exhibitions in museums, university galleries, and art centers. Montgomery moved to Washington, D.C., in 1980. Three years later she pursued a career with the United States Department of State as a program development officer for the Arts America Program at the United States Information Agency (USIA), specializing in American exhibitions touring abroad. Through her efforts, she implemented successful fine arts programs domestically and abroad. In 2005, Blacks In Government (BIG) established the Evangeline J. Montgomery Scholarship Program, a fund for artists who are interested in working with the government to promote the arts.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.