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The women’s perspective: New exhibits at Springfield Museums highlight women’s history and art

  • Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mumbet, successfully sued to end her enslavement in Massachusetts in 1780-81, in turn triggering an end to slavery in the state. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • Janine Fondon, guest curator of “Voices of Resilience,” says the exhibit showcases “hidden stories” of ordinary women in Massachusetts and elsewhere who advanced the cause of social justice in U.S. history. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Iceberg with Aurora Borealis,” acrylic on canvas, 2019 by Marlene T. Yu. This painting is 36 feet long and 12 feet high. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Emerald Forest,” acrylic on canvas, 2000, by Marlene T. Yu. Image courtesySpringfield Museums

  • Janine Fondon’s grandmother, Miriam Kirkaldy, came to the U.S. from Jamaica in the 1930s and became part of what Fondon calls the tapestry of women who have helped make her what she is today. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Voices of Resilience” tells the story of predominantly women of color, from western Massachusetts and elsewhere, going back over four centuries. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2020 8:58:58 AM

In 1920, women in the United States finally won the right to vote — and with it a larger role in shaping the nation’s course.

But as a new exhibit at the Springfield Museums showcases, well before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law, women were already having an impact on any number of people’s lives as well as the unfolding of American history.

Using text, photos and other images, and timelines, “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move,” profiles some 70 women, mostly but not entirely from western Massachusetts, who fought for social, educational and cultural change in different ways, including raising their own daughters to push for greater equality and opportunity.

Curator Janine Fondon says the exhibition, in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, offers a special focus on women’s history by looking at the experiences of women of color — Africans, African Americans, Caribbeans, Latinas and Native Americans. The exhibit has been timed to coincide with Black History Month and Women’s History Month (in March), and it also had its official opening on Feb. 15 — the 200th anniversary of the birth of seminal American women’s rights activist and suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

In a recent interview at the museum, Fondon, assistant professor and chair of Undergraduate Communications at Bay Path University, said the exhibit is also built around the theme that history is more than a list of famous figures and events: rather it’s a rich tapestry, woven by countless ordinary people whose lives impacted others around them, in turn shaping the destiny of their children and other people from future generations.

“I’m here today because of the people who came before me, like my grandmother,” said Fondon, referring to one woman profiled in the exhibit, Miriam Kirkaldy, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica in the 1930s. “She didn’t have much education, but she accomplished a lot — she became a property owner, she raised a family, and her kids went to college.”

Dr. Lucie Lewis, a writer and former educator, helped research the exhibit, as did Dr. Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz, president of the board of directors for Amherst Media. Lewis said the women featured in the exhibit “lived lives of intentionality,” going about their daily business not with an eye to becoming famous but in helping their families, their neighbors, and their communities change society for the better.

“They didn’t live their lives so that they could end up on posters,” said Lewis. “But they helped bring about change in their own way, and they made connections to all these other people.”

One example from the exhibit: Annie L. McTier, the first woman in Springfield to register to vote after women finally won that right in August 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the 19th Amendment. On Aug. 3, 1920, McTier sat on the steps of Springfield City Hall, waiting at least an hour for the doors to open so that she’d be ready to vote in national elections that fall.

Not only that, said Shabazz, McTier also spent considerable time canvassing her neighborhood, urging other women to register to vote, and she passed on the importance of voting to her children and grandchildren.

There are profiles of other Massachusetts women who were part of that long arc toward justice and equality, such as Elizabeth Freeman (also known as “Mumbet”), an enslaved African American in Sheffield in 1780. After hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence, she sought a lawyer to argue for her freedom, winning it the following year in a decision that paved the way for slavery being abolished in the Bay State.

Fondon, who has been honored for her work in advocating for diversity issues in a number of settings, has a connection to a lesser-known story about challenging racial barriers. “Voices of Resilience” includes a profile of one of her aunts, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy of Baltimore, who in 1944 — more than 11 years before Rosa Parks defied a law that segregated the seating on buses in Alabama — was arrested in Virginia while on an interstate bus trip because she refused to give up her seat in what the driver insisted was the white section.

With the help of the NAACP, Kirkaldy’s case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which in 1946 ruled Virginia’s law unconstitutional, as it had no jurisdiction over interstate traffic (though Virginia and other Southern states ignored the ruling for years).

“I never heard this story when I was growing up,” said Fondon. “But knowing it now is really heartening.”

The exhibit also honors some white women such as abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone, a leading figure on those issues in the 19th century and the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. In the late 1860s, Stone also broke with other women’s activists such as Anthony by supporting the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote; other women’s rights leaders declined to support the measure, saying women needed to be enfranchised at the same time.

Stone “really showed herself to be an ally” of African Americans, said Shabazz, who has taught communications at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Bay Path University.

With an eye to appealing to younger visitors, “Voices of Resilience” also includes portraits of some contemporary women from the region, including actor and singer Ta’Nika Gibson, a Springfield native who has starred in musicals in New York and Boston.

“We hope that [visitors], especially younger women, will recognize that they’re part of this history, too — that we all play our part in it in different ways,” said Lewis.

‘The Essence of Nature’

Also on exhibit at the D’Amour Museum is the work of another woman, abstract painter Marlene T. Yu, a native of Taiwan who has lived in New York City for about five decades. Now in her early 80s, Yu still paints daily, and she doesn’t scrimp on size: One of her specialties is making wall-sized paintings that almost seem to pulse with vibrant color, swirling shapes and fine brushstrokes, a function of her merging her training in traditional Chinese painting techniques with the colors and style of the West’s abstract expressionism.

“The Essence of Nature,” on view in the D’Amour’s main gallery through May 3, offers something of a retrospective on Yu’s career, with some smaller works dating back to the early 1970s as well as one of her newest pieces, “Iceberg with Aurora Borealis,” an immersive 2019 mural that is 36 feet long and 12 feet high. Against a background dominated by shades of purple and blue, a series of mysterious, graffiti-like white shapes, of varying sizes, march across the canvas in what almost appears to be a two-dimensional work.

“I think that’s one of the most striking things about her paintings — the sense of depth she brings to them,” said Heather Haskell, vice president and director of art museums at Springfield, during a recent tour of the show. “And her colors are so rich and layered. She takes a real scientific approach to it — she’s experimented a lot with viscosity to get the right textures and effects.”

Yu, who uses acrylic paint, has also explored a consistent theme in her work: nature. Even before the birth of the modern environmental movement in the early 1970s, she was concerned about the human impact on the natural world, and she describes her paintings as a melding of her impressions of different landscapes and the visual expression of the emotions they generate in her.

Her paintings have been shown in over 80 solo exhibits in the United States, Europe, and the Far East, and Haskell says the growing alarm over climate change “might make her work more relevant than ever.” In fact, two paintings that frame the exhibit’s entrance are drawn from the artist’s “Forest Fire” series from the early 2000s; they mix ominous red, yellow and orange background with darker, fractured shapes and figures that could stand in for scorched woodlands.

As Yu writes on her website as part of her artist’s statement, “I hope through my art to convey the urgent message — earth is in danger. Please let us protect it together.”

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




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