Murals put women’s artwork in new light

Maggie Overfelt

The students of this quarter’s Women’s Image and Images of Women class have something to say. But to hear it, one has to see it. The students’ two multi-colored murals, which will be displayed in the Art Building during finals week, transform their words into art.
“The whole idea is for people to recognize the process of making the murals, and not only to focus on the finished product,” said Sonja Gill, an art and journalism major in the Arts 3420/5420 class.
For the past seven weeks, the 12 students studied the woman’s place in Western art from the late 1960s to the present and the issues related to artwork created by women.
One of the key parts of the class, which examines how feminist theories show up in art, is the projects the students work on to combine studio arts and art historical perspectives.
Gill said the students can respond to the art they discuss in class almost any way they want to, whether it be in the form of a research paper or a visual project.
“We have the freedom to do what we feel,” she said.
One class project assigned was creating the two murals that deal with a certain discussion of the feminist critique of art history, said instructor Marcia Soderman-Olson. The discussion comes from the article “A Feminist Critique of Art History,” written by two feminist art history critics, Thalia Gouma-Peterson and Patricia Mathews.
According to the article, a generation of women artists emerged in the late 1970s — women who challenged the way in which women’s art was viewed. They wanted to be seen strictly as artists, not as women artists. This generation also believed that evaluating the production of art is more important than evaluating the individual who creates it.
“We did this as a collaborative project,” said Soderman-Olson about her class project. “These feminists (the critics) rejected individualism and wanted to work together — to collaborate.”
To create the murals, the students each made their own stencils at home based on what they learned from the class’s weekly readings. They then brought in the finished plates to class, where they divided up into two groups — one for each mural. Working together, they arranged and painted the stencils to come up with a message that satisfied everyone in their group.
“We put the paint down together,” Gill said.
The murals represent two different philosophies of viewing women’s art. The essentialist, Soderman-Olson said, views women’s art as relating directly to nature. The deconstructivist, on the other hand, doesn’t label the individual artist. Instead, the deconstructivist strives to see the art without considering the artist.
“They’re very different, both in context and style,” Soderman-Olson said about the murals.
Amy Kamel, a junior, worked on the essentialist mural, which has purple, symmetric dragonflies and red swirls printed on stark, white paper.
“I’ve always seen women as being different from men,” she said. “Not unequal, just different.”
Kamel’s symbol of two women back-to-back with entwined arms and swollen bellies represent women’s connection with each other, and the stomachs show that “woman is mother, woman is nature.”
Gill added that the essentialist mural has a bigger “basin of ideals” than the other mural.
Marie Hubonette, a docent at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, added a bolt of lightning to the darker deconstructivist mural.
“It’s to destroy social constructs,” she said. “But the most brilliant symbol is the helix, the single strand of DNA.”
Irmi Bjerken, a nursing major, came up with it to symbolize the uniqueness of every artist.
“You can’t be more individual scientifically,” she said. “No two people have the same DNA.”
The deconstructivist mural also contains catch phrases, or truisms, such as “Challenge Power Hierarchies” and “Stamp Out Stereotypes.” These sentences, painted in bold, black letters, loom over pink babies and a dark, murky landscape.
In her syllabus, Soderman-Olson said she hopes that by studying these female artists and their artwork’s criticism, her students will “continue a dialogue which is present in current art discourse.”
Her student-artists hope that people will stop and take the time to look at the contrasting murals.
“It was a very rigorous class project,” Hubonette said. “But I’d do it again.”