The faces of 50: women’s self-portaits at A.P.E. Gallery

  • Self-portrait by Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut. Image courtesy of A.P.E. Gallery

  • Watercolor self-portrait by Jane Lund. Image courtesy of A.P.E. Gallery

  • Self-portrait oil painting by Rachel Folsom. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky

  • Self-portrait by Patty Mullins. Image courtesy of A.P.E. Gallery

  • Self-portrait by Christin Couture. Image courtesy of A.P.E. Gallery

  • Self-portrait by Betsy Stone. Photo by John Polak

Staff Writer
Friday, November 03, 2017

It’s not every day that you come across an exhibit of work from 50 different women artists. And rarer still is a show focusing on how those 50 women artists see themselves.

That’s what on tap this month in Northampton, as the A.P.E. Gallery on Friday opens its first-ever show of self-portraits, with a mix of paintings, drawings, sculpture and other representational work drawn from artists across the region and in a few cases further afield in New England.

“Observing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits” is the brainstorm primarily of Jane Lund, an Ashfield painter, and painter Rachel Folsom of Amherst, friends who have exhibited together before and had kicked around the idea of having a show of self-portraits for several years.

As Lund sees is, self-portraiture is a great means of artistic expression because the human face is a fascinating subject, something from which so many emotions can be read.

“Think about all the expressions we have with ‘face’ in it,” she said. “ ‘Save face,’ ‘Let’s face it,’ ‘Facing off,’  ‘to face down’ — the idea of the face is so central to us, as a means of communication and expression. So to have a whole exhibit devoted to how women artists see themselves — that just struck us as a really interesting idea.”

And Folsom says that for women artists, who have traditionally been under-represented by many galleries, gathering all these self-portraits in one show “really is a source of pride and solidarity — plus it’s a way of reminding people just how much artistic talent there is in this area.”

It’s a show that offers humor, mystery and other elements. Consider the self-portrait by Northampton’s Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut, a drawing in which she depicts herself on some kind of metal tower, with a mostly bare upper torso (except for a skimpy bikini top); she’s covered with tattoos, including one that says “Scott” (Vonnegut’s husband is realist painter Scott Prior). Her lower legs appear to be covered with cobwebs, and her face has a half-bemused, half-embarrassed Mona Lisa smile.

Folsom also takes an off-beat approach to her self-portrait, an oil painting: Her head and shoulders are shown as a reflection in what appears to be a bathroom mirror, whose frame is spattered with old paint, while behind her is a bare wall and the edge of a closet.

Then there’s Connecticut artist Patty Mullins, who has contributed a painting in which she poses topless with a Wood Duck (an oversized imaginary model) cradled in her lap and a somewhat tense look on her face.

Other contributors to the show include the late Frances Cohen Gillespie, an acclaimed realist painter whose work hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Florence sculptor Harriet Diamond; realist painter Robin Freedenfeld; Katy Schneider, a Smith College art professor nationally known for her representational oil paintings; and Terry Jenoure, a soft-sculpture artist and a musician and writer.

From idea to reality

 Folsom says the origin of the show can be traced back several years to a group exhibit at Deerfield Academy that included work from her and Lund and two mutual friends, Northampton artists Sally Curcio and Betsy Stone. The friends, who met periodically at each other’s homes to have dinner and talk shop, enjoyed showing their work together and wondered about organizing some other kind of collective show.

“Jane and I kept tossing around ideas, and we started talking about a show of self-portraits,” said Folsom. “But it took awhile to actually get organized and think about who we would contact and where we could have the show.”

By last year, though, the two artists, with help from Stone, had approached Lisa Thompson, the A.P.E. director, who was enthusiastic about the idea. Lund said she and Folsom had originally thought they would feature 30 to 35 artists, but the number continued to climb.

“When we talked with Lisa, she would say ‘Well, what about so-and-so?’ and we would say, ‘Oh yes, we should have her, too,’ ” Lund said. “The number kept growing — we got a very good response form the people we contacted.”

Thompson has helped out enormously on the administrative side of things, Lund and Folsom noted, such as contacting many of the artists.

Because of the number of pieces in the show, each artist has been limited to a work that can be no wider than 22 inches, though height can be greater than that.

The show will also feature both older pieces as well as new work that artists have created specifically for the show, Folsom noted. “We’d rather people show whatever they feel is their best work, rather than have it have to be new.”

Jane Lund’s self-portrait, a watercolor that shows her holding a flower as she poses in a book-like setting, a dramatic seaside gorge partly visible behind her, is from a private collector who bought the painting and has loaned it for the exhibit. The background setting, Lund says, is something of an homage to the early 20th-century American painter and printmaker Rockwell Kent.

It’s reminiscent of other portraits (and self-portraits) Lund has made over the years, like one that featured images of Frances Cohen Gillespie, the late painter who’s part of the A.P.E. exhibit, and Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who specialized in self-portraits.

“Frida Kahlo is a great example of an artist who used self-portraits to examine a lot of different themes and ideas,” said Lund.

Folsom notes that self-portraits, aside from showing a range of facial expressions, can also reveal aspects about an artist’s personality, life experiences and ideas about the world. At a time when cellphone selfies are everywhere, she and Lund note, the exhibit showcases a different kind of selfie: images made by the artist’s own hand.

“Above all, we think this will be a lot of fun,” added Folsom.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Observing Ourselves: Women's Self Portraits” opens Friday at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, 126 Main Street, and runs through Dec. 3. There will be an opening reception Nov. 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. at which most of the artists can be seen alongside their creations. Visit  apearts.org for additional information and hours.