Wenona Day Bell/Courtesy Gibbes Museum of Art

Representing works from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection shines a light on women artists who were creating on the cusp of pivotal social change. With the ’60s came equal rights and feminist movements that carved a path for women to gain deserved recognition in the arts, but prior to that revolutionary time, men dominated the art world.

Central to Their Lives features the work of 42 women who persisted in their passions despite social limitations. They come from a diverse range of economic backgrounds, styles, and circumstances, but they share creative resilience and a connection to the South, a region where conservative values attempted to immobilize them further. Despite everything, they continued to create because, as featured artist Nell Blaine said, art is “central to my life. Not being able to able to make or see art would be a major deprivation.”

The exhibition hails Blaine as the essence of what these women collectively represent. Outside of the social restraints on her gender, Blaine faced numerous health issues including vision problems and polio. Her family imposed strict religious traditionalism on her, and the Great Depression caused the family substantial financial strain. Yet her devotion to her work never waned and allowed her to travel widely and display her work in galleries across the world. Life magazine recognized Blaine as one of five “Women Artists in Ascendance” who “won acclaim not as notable women artists but as notable artists who happen to be women.”

“All of these women were incredibly intrepid and made the decision to go in a direction that was most definitely not the norm — sometimes in opposition to family members and sometimes in opposition to social issues,” explains Angela Mack, the Gibbes’ executive director and chief curator. “But they persevered and that is really the story of this exhibition.”

They represent a great variety of artistic styles from sculpture to folk art. Some works are representational. Others relate to domesticity. But there are also interesting pieces that include abstract art and works that, at the time, would have been considered highly avant-garde.

“We decided to host this exhibition at the Gibbes because this year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, so we thought it was a great opportunity to showcase that and to acknowledge all of these incredible women artists that worked in our region,” says Mack. “There are names that you’ve heard of before as well as artists you may not have heard of, as well as artists of African descent. It’s a fantastic grouping of wonderfully talented women.”

The exhibition includes the work of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Anna Heyward Taylor, both painters and printmakers who were prominent figures within the Charleston Renaissance. Smith painted ethereal, often colorful landscapes capturing the beauty of Charleston’s natural surroundings. She also painted and illustrated cityscapes and glimpses into daily life in Charleston around the 1920s. Taylor’s work features similar subject matter but is rendered in bold woodblock prints and watercolors.

Another notable figure in the collection is Loïs Mailou Jones who, on her 90th birthday, said of her work, “It wasn’t easy. There was the double handicap: being a woman and being a woman of color. I kept going on, with determination. As I look back, I wonder how I’ve done it.” Jones was born in Boston but later moved south to rural North Carolina to bring arts education to African-American youth. She remained adamant throughout her life that it would be her art that would define her, not her race or her gender.

The entirety of the collection comes from The Johnson Collection out of Spartanburg, compiled by Susan and George Dean Johnson Jr. “They’ve been collecting for many years and have put together a wonderful premier collection of works of art that relate to the South,” says Mack. The exhibition takes up the entirety of Gallery 8, the largest of the special exhibition spaces on the third floor.

In nearby Gallery 9, micromosaic jewels from the Collection of Elizabeth Locke are on display. This exhibition is intentionally running concurrent to Central to Their Lives as it is largely made possible through the care and curation of a woman. The collection features tiny mosaics that were created in Italy and were purchased as souvenirs by people who were on the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Grand Tour refers to the coming-of-age trip abroad taken by wealthy Brits and, later, South and North Americans.

Locke gave her collection to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and they organized an exhibition that showed this past Spring. Locke, a jewelry maker herself is represented by Neiman Marcus and locally by Croghan’s Jewel Box. “Because of her connection to Charleston, in particular the Beaufort area, we’re hosting the exhibition in Charleston,” explains Mack. “We’re very excited to have that show on view as well. It’s going to be all about women at the Gibbes.”

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