The Arthropologist

Does Houston's art scene give women their rightful due? Let's ask Barbie

Does Houston's art scene give women their rightful due? Let's ask Barbie

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Main Street Theatre's "Or" by Liz Duffy Adams, with Patrick D. Earl, from left, Stephanie Holladay Earl and Jessica Boone Courtesy of RicOrnelProductions
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Judy Chicago, "Blackwell Plate" from "Setting the Table: Preparing Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, 30 Year Anniversary Exhibition" at the University of Houston-Clear Lake through April 30 Courtesy of ACA Galleries, New York
News_Nancy_women_Stacy Bakri as Mona Lisa in Vox Feminina
Stacy Bakri as Mona Lisa in "Vox Feminina" Photo by Rod Todd
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Ballet Memphis is one of the few American ballet companies headed up by a woman, the amazing Dorothy Gunther Pugh. Ballet Memphis company members, from left, Marcelino Juarez, Travis Bradley, Steven McMahon and Leigh Lijoi in Emily Coates and Lacina Coulibaly's "Ou Que Nous Soyens" (Wherever We Are) Photo by Andrea Zucker
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Mary Cassatt, "Child in a Straw Hat," c. 1886 Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington; Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
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Judy Chicago, "Hrosvitha Test Plate," 1979, from "Setting the Table: Preparing Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, 30 Year Anniversary Exhibition" at the University of Houston-Clear Lake through April 30 Courtesy of ACA Galleries, New York
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Dance Magazine focused on Women in Dance this month, with ODC's Anne Zivolich, Vanessa Thiessen and Yayoi Kambara in costumes designed by Brenda Way. Photo by R.J. Muna
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Cheryl L. Kaplan as Heidi in Main Street Theatre's production of "The Heidi Chronicles" by Wendy Wasserstein Courtesy of RicOrnelProductions
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Kathy Hall, "Monument, English Ivy," 1996, currency (paper, linen), glue Courtesy of the artist
News_Nancy_women_Or_Patrick D. Earl_Stephanie Holladay Earl_Jessica Boone
News_Nancy_women_Setting the Table_Blackwell Plate
News_Nancy_women_Stacy Bakri as Mona Lisa in Vox Feminina
News_Nancy_women_Ballet Memphis_Wherever We Are
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News_Nancy_women_Hrosvitha Test Plate
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News_Nancy_women_The Heidi Chronicles_Cheryl L. Kaplan
News_Nancy_women_Kathy Hall

"Hey Mary, you really held your own in a boys club. Do you think if you had lived in another time you would have been able to paint subjects other than moms and children?" I asked Mary Cassatt's Child in a Straw Hat, her gorgeous painting of a sun-kissed forlorn girl.

So I talk to paintings. Get over it.

I had long conversations with Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales' paintings too, all hanging amidst of sea of male painters. Morisot had a designer's eye, more interested in the play of texture, color and light than in rendering the likeness of her subject. Gonzales was the only student that Edouard Manet ever acknowledged. That's impressive.

You can see their work and more at the MFAH as part of  Impressionist and Post Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, running through May 23.

Just south of the MFAH at UH-Clear Lake, I can talk to Judy Chicago at Setting the Table, a behind the scenes look at Chicago's monumental feminist piece The Dinner Party, permanently installed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at The Brooklyn Museum. In 1980, some 36,000 people made the pilgrimage to UH Clear Lake to see Chicago's piece,  which consists of 39 place settings on a triangular table that includes embroidered table runners, gold chalices and utensils, and painted porcelain plates each honoring an important woman from history.

I want to talk about my people. No, not dancers, my other people, women.

After all, March is Women's History Month. How is Houston doing in the job of presenting work by women? How many non-profits have women at the top? Do galleries offer solo shows to women nearly as often as they do men? What's the number of equity contracts that go to women? If we look plays by women, do we fare any better?

I would like to know all these numbers. Have we become complacent with how well women are represented on Houston's stages and gallery walls? Is anyone keeping track of all this? Unfortunately, my troupe of imaginary interns quit. Something about being both unpaid and imaginary. 

Now back to my other people, dancers. We need to step it up when it comes to putting women in leadership positions. Of the top tier ballet companies, not a single one is run by a woman. No, we can't count Canada.

That said, two mid-size companies, Ballet Memphis and Cincinnati Ballet, are headed up with great finesse by Dorothy Gunther Pugh and Victoria Morgan. I have not met Pugh, but I certainly watched her capable company at Ballet Across America last June. Pugh also showcases work by female choreographers. I recently had a marvelous gabfest with Morgan. Her vision sets a shining example for women considering leadership positions in ballet.

After I hung up, I resolved to get to Cincinnati to see her company. These pioneers are leading the way, now it's up to the rest of the ballet world to follow suit.

Contemporary dance has always been dominated by women, and it's no different in Houston. You can see a whole gaggle of lady dancemakers Friday night as part of 12 Minutes Max, co-presented by DiverseWorks and Dance Source Houston. Also check out the feisty babes of ODC gracing the March issue of Dance Magazine with the header, "Women Rule." I'm down with that idea.

I'm not the only one with babes on the brain.

Rebecca Greene Udden of Main Street Theater, and Eileen J. Morris of The Ensemble Theatre, actively seek out  plays by women. The Ensemble just closed a successful run of Gee's Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, which chronicled the story of the extraordinary quilters from a remote area of Alabama. Opening in May is No Child, by Nilaja Sun, an insightful romp through the New York Public School System.

Main Street Theater's season contained a whopping four plays by women, including Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. LIz Duffy AdamsOr  opening on March 20, and Melissa James Gibson's This on April 7. The final play of the season, I am Barbie, may not have been written by a woman, but certainly gives voice to one iconic doll.

Walton Beacham finally lets Barbie speak. Ruth Handler, Barbie's mother and co-founder of Mattel, is also in the play. Barbie wasn't her only big idea; Handler, a cancer survivor, invented the first breast prosthesis. 

Feminist playwright and activist Eve Ensler, best known for The Vagina Monologues, directs Swimming Upstream, for a special performance at the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus Stage on March 21. The play, presented by V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, in partnership with Ashé Cultural Arts Center, is written by 16 New Orleans' women who survived Hurricane Katrina with grace, courage and a story to tell. 

Women are on DiverseWorks co-director Diane Barber's mind too.

"I’m considering an entire season of work by female artists for 2011-2012," Barber says. "I actually never think women are equally represented, but that certainly isn’t limited to the arts community. I’ve already got some cool stuff in the works with Marina Zurkow, Tara Conley and Tria Wood for next year, and I’m sorting through ideas for other projects to round out the season."

Pandora Theatre, an organization that highlights the work of women, presents Vox Feminina 2, The Feminine Voice, featuring pieces by Leighza Walker, Ann Wuehler, Brett Hursey, Devan Wade, Lucie Carruthers, Elizabeth-Seabolt Esparza and Jennifer Doctorovich, from Friday through March 19 at Obsidian Arts Space.

"We seek out works that feature good roles for women, especially women of a certain age," says Melissa Mumper, one of Pandora's founders. "Vox Feminina is our annual love letter to the feminine spirit."

From dating stories from hell to tales of grief, this collection of short plays provides a great way to find out what's on the mind of Houston's women writers. I saw a snippet of Doctorovich's hilarious and bizarre Lemon Drops at the Fringe Festival. I'm eager to see where she takes her tale of disastrous dates.

"I think women are better at seeing the truth of the breakup faster," quips Doctorovich. "Or you keep repeating a pattern until you get the story. Then you can frame it as a lesson. For me, I struggled with the lessons, hence the joke of being in these highly unsuccessful, dysfunctional relationships. Women can look back in amusement and share their stories with a fresher perspective and be able to create a new story."

Doctorovich has a point: women have a knack for making something out of whatever they find in front of them. Kathy Hall's new batch of work speaks volumes on the cleverness of women in the subtlest of ways. Hall's work, stunning in its originality, often involves a labor intensive process.

I found myself stopped in my tracks looking at her newest series, which uses paper currency in intricate quilting patterns. Every tiny piece of paper is used, giving new meaning to the idea of stretching the dollar. Lucky for me, I don' t need to have imaginary conversation with Hall because she's right here in Houston.

"The whole series is about women's labor and resourcefulness," she says. "Money was just the medium. The process and the imagery that resulted connected quilting and crocheting, both very delicate and time consuming labor done for the joy of it, frugality, or necessity, but rarely as a means of income."

Hall's work combines craft, beauty and invention, what better homage to my gender. 

Ballet Memphis, directed by Dorothy Gunther Pugh, rehearses AbunDance: Where the Girls Are 2 with Emily Coates and Lasso Coulibaly of the World Performance Project at Yale, a cross cultural piece on female and intimacy roles in society.