Powerful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014

Beer describes her “Anchored Candy” series of benches as “inspired by fashion and hotrods.” The curving, inviting seats feature sleek, jewel-tone automotive finishes, and each bench is grounded by a contrasting raw steel block. She says, “It is furniture simultaneously about desire and structure.”

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Who made it?

Vivian Beer (b. 1977), a New England-based furniture designer, takes inspiration from culture, industry, and the decorative arts “to create handmade, one-off objects that manifest the nostalgia of history, the speed of progress, and the memory of the human hand.” Her forms evoke speed and motion, beauty and power.

For Beer, who grew up in a rural area of Maine, making objects and developing hands-on skills was integral to everyday life. She received a BFA from Maine College of Art in sculpture in 2000 and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in metalsmithing in 2004. In 2014 she undertook a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There, she researched the design history of American aeronautics and the aesthetic and cultural influences that have shaped airplanes over time.

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

How was it made?

Beer, a former metalworker and blacksmith, incorporates the tools and techniques of industrial design into her furniture. In her studio, she welds, grinds, and builds steel armatures for furniture. Other pieces incorporate concrete, appearing to drape the rigid material into graceful curves. She finishes her furniture meticulously, touching each inch of the surface at least a dozen times. She says, “This attention to detail is very important, because . . . one of the wonderful things about furniture, especially seating, is its intimacy.”

Collection connection

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, 2001, also evokes power and beauty through automotive materials. Booker, whose work was featured in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, uses recycled rubber tires as her medium. With varied techniques—chopping, slicing, shredding, and curling—Booker transforms the dense material. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. The intricacy of Acid Rain, a wall relief sculpture, belies its imposing 10-foot-tall size. Her use of tires refers to social mobility and progress as well as environmental, political, and cultural issues.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Now Open: Women Shape Design in “Pathmakers”

NMWA’s latest exhibition, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, is now open! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display more than 80 objects including furniture, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. The exhibition explores the lasting impact of women artists and designers on midcentury Modernism through making groundbreaking commercial and industrial designs, maintaining craft traditions, and incorporating new aesthetics into fine art.

Pathmakers-1

Guest curator Jennifer Scanlan talks to members during Member Preview Day

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture, and architecture were dominated by men, women had considerable impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics, and metals. Pioneers in these fields—including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Zeisel—had tremendous influence as designers, artists, and teachers.

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Their artistic practices varied widely—some exhibited in New York City galleries, others took part in the regional handicraft scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and still others collaborated with corporations such as General Motors. Pathmakers also illustrates parallels between women creating work in the United States and Scandinavia, where craft often served as a pathway to Modernist innovation.

Guest curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales also consider contemporary female artists and designers whose work builds upon that of their midcentury counterparts. Polly Apfelbaum and Michelle Grabner are represented by installations centered on woven and knitted patterns, while Anne Wilson’s work focuses on the processes of textile manufacture. Magdalene Odundo and Christine Nofchissey McHorse adapt traditional techniques and absorb influences from global sources. Furniture and fixture designers Vivian Beer, Front Design, and Hella Jongerius have also expanded the repertoire of making, while Gabriel A. Maher looks at the ways gender is constructed by the clothes we wear.

Pathmakers 2

A visitor studies Front’s Axor WaterDream/Axor Shower System

Pathmakers stresses the connections between midcentury and contemporary design and aesthetics,” said NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor. “The installation will encourage the comparison of the modern and contemporary periods in a way that enables close inspection.”

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today is on view through February 28, 2016. Visit this Sunday for a Free Community Day with a pop-up makerspace and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!