Sixty Anniversary Exhibit of Ann Arbor Women Artists

"Haitian Prayer II" by Judith Bemis

Sixty years flies by when you’re having fun. And this year’s 60th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Women Artists finds this local group having an artful lot of fun.

A local nonprofit arts organization of close to 350 women and men with connections to Ann Arbor ranging (as the group description says) “from beginning to professional artists,” the group’s purpose is “to stimulate creative expression and sharing among its members in order to continually raise the quality of the art produced.”

Run as a volunteer organization with membership exhibits in several different juried and non-juried formats annually, the AAWA offers workshops and monthly events—including presentations by artists and others who speak on a wide variety of topics related to the visual arts—with additional opportunities “including plein air sessions, life drawing studios, holiday art and craft shows, and many other social events.”

This year’s special edition juror is Elaine Wilson, visual arts instructor at Washtenaw Community College. It’s a testament to Wilson’s strength of character—as well as her talent as one of our region’s foremost landscape artists—that this show hangs together as well as it does.

For there’s a lot more than landscape art in this display, but most of the works included (as well as the works chosen for distinction) aren’t too far from Wilson’s strengths: views of the world around us whose atmospheric focus subtly masks expression through keen objectivity.

As Wilson tells us in her juror’s statement, “When I was jurying the show, I looked for work that was in any way surprising. I look for surprise in material, technique, or in subject matter.”

Being sort of variations on a theme, the landscape in this exhibit didn’t fall far from the juror’s preoccupations—and the rest is just outstanding work.

“When I chose the awards,” continues Wilson, “I once again wanted to be surprised, but I also chose pieces that were as technically accomplished as I could find.

“So the winning piece, ‘Tangled at Phantom Ranch’ by Angie Nagel Miller surprised me by its scale; the fact that the acrylic is handled like watercolor or gouache; and because it had a really nice color sense.”

Most excellent. And the same could be said of all the other entries in the display. Notable artists include Judith Bemis, Barbara F. Boyce, Kay Cassill, Missy Cowan, Sarah Clark Davis, Paula Doe, Karen Gallup, Rita Gelman, Sandra Gittleson, Dennis Gordon, Sophie Grillet, Wendy Gulock, Helga Haller, Katie Halton, Maria Huntley, Judith Jacobs, Bill Knudstrup, Ruth Hogan Krzyzowski, Thomas McDole, Gwyn McKay, Miller, Yoshiko Mishina, Nancy Murray, Joan Painter-Jones, Matruka Sherman, Jill Stefani Wagner, Marty Walker, Leona Webb, Francie Wesorick, and Lynne Whitney.

This year’s second place went to Judith Bemis for her oil “Haitian Prayer II” painting. Third place went to Joan Painter Jones for her mixed-media assemblage “Treasure Box.” And honorable mentions were handed to Ruth Hogan Krzyzowski for her oil “Delegation” painting and Lynne Whitney for her oil “Little Stream” painting.

"Tangled at Phantom Ranch" by Angie Nagle Miller

Miller’s acrylic “Tangled at a Phantom Ranch” differs from Wilson’s art primarily in its scale. Where Wilson typically favors a wide panoramic view often using horizontal compositions to give her work its impressive scope, Miller works in a somewhat tighter format. Yet this tightening of the work’s foreground, in turn, also creates a work whose dense foliage accentuates Wilson’s preference for expression in the guise of objectivity.

Miller’s “Tangled at a Phantom Ranch” has just enough articulated touch to make the painting slightly less than an objective precision, with a midground bramble creating a slight claustrophobia that forces the viewer’s eye to tangle through a spray of cactus in the foreground. The cumulative effect easily confirms the work’s title—and this is a painting whose title certainly rebounds on the painting itself—as Miller gives us a visual conundrum wrapped in the enigma of a conceptual desert.

My favorite work in the exhibit, on the other hand, is actually two paintings crafted by a single artist: Kay Cassill’s watercolor “The Face of Amalfi” and “Ravello Walkway.” These artworks follow the implicit theme of this exhibit with her inspired interpretations of these southern Italian towns, but she also turns the logic somewhat inside out.

As anyone who has ventured to Amalfi, Italy, knows, this bayside town is easily one of the world’s most beautiful places. Cassill’s work is therefore inspired, since a view of the bay (or looking out at the bay) might be a typical compositional strategy. Rather, she gives us a view of the town itself from the vantage of the bay and her use of negative relief in her watercolor wash to impressively reproduce this town’s whitewash walls mingling among its otherwise colorful architecture.

By contrast, “Ravello Walkway” is a thoroughly expressive view of this town situated above Amalfi on the Mediterranean coastline. Again, a more common composition might be a view of the coastline looking down from the Ravello heights.

But Cassill instead paints a single walkway between buildings slightly off the town’s center square. It’s a subtle stroke, yet one that resonates of the knowledgeable intimacy her watercolor represents. In a display that celebrates nature in its many differing manners, Cassill’s manmade setting reminds us of the crucial element we bring to our environment.

“Ann Arbor Women Artists’ 60th Anniversary Exhibit” Will Continue Through Dec. 31 at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; and noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 734-994-8004.

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