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Home People & Lifestyle Western Art ‘How Women Made the West’ Detailed in New Exhibit at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles

‘How Women Made the West’ Detailed in New Exhibit at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles

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The taming of the West, as portrayed in many Hollywood cowboy movies, was the result of strong-willed women-wives and mothers-demanding the town's excesses be tempered by building a law-abiding community complete with churches and schools.

John Ford's 1939 classic Western, Stagecoach, even has a scene early in the movie where Dallas, a woman of questionable character (played by actress Claire Trevor), is escorted to the stagecoach by a ladies action committee, and run out of town.

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But what really was the role of women in settling the West, and what about the role of women even before the first covered wagon rolled onto the plains?

A very special presentation, what organizers call a "groundbreaking exhibition," opened April 16, 2010 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, and examines the often-unheralded story of how women shaped the West, not only across the centuries, but in a variety of cultures.

"Home Lands: How Women Made the West" tells the impact women had in organizing daily life, from the Native Americans who made homes, cooked, cleaned and clothed their families, to today's women who do everything from maintaining the family's routines to running corporations and governments.

Such a massive undertaking-attempting to tell the story of how women were responsible for even the very meaning of home-would seem a daunting endeavor.

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But co-curators Carolyn Brucken, Associate Curator of Women's History at the Autry, and Virginia Scharff, Women of the West Chair, Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry, not only found a way to present the macro view, but a micro view as well.

"We quickly realized we had to narrow it (the presentation), and select a few sites to focus on," Brucken told OldWestNewWest.com Travel & History Magazine.

Some of the criteria included searching for areas with a history of a long period of population, diversity and even cultural clashes. The two co-curators finally selected three regions: Northern New Mexico, the Colorado Front Range, and Puget Sound, Washington.

Once the regions were selected, the next step was exploring a specific theme for each place-earth for Northern New Mexico; transportation for the Colorado Front Range; and water for Puget Sound.

Finally, the co-curators wanted to spotlight one woman in each region, to use her story to help tell about the diverse role of women in the West.

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The three women selected as the regional centerpieces are Dr. Justina Ford, the first African American woman doctor in Colorado; noted educator, home economist and author Fabiola Cabeza de Baca of New Mexico; and Bertha Knight Landes, mayor of Seattle, Washington from 1926 to 1928 and who also was the first female mayor of a major American city.

"The hardest part was to make a selection," Brucken explained. "We tried to pick women that would help us illustrate the scenes in the showing, as well as the environment. Some of the women we had never heard of before, and then learning about them, we ended up falling in love with them and their stories."

From the macro point of view, the exhibition illustrates the story of women in the West with nearly 200 objects spanning more than 1,200 years.

From a Mogollon metate (Native American grinding stone), circa A.D. 750-1150, to a 1960 Ford Fairlane station wagon, the exhibit includes samples of textiles and historic clothing from the 18th through the 20th centuries, ancient and modern pottery, paintings, photography, and sculpture by historic and contemporary women artists, books, photographs, and other ephemera.

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More than two-thirds of the exhibition is drawn from the Autry's collections, including pieces from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, a part of the Autry National Center.

One item is particularly telling: a Navajo Banded Blanket "of Slave Blanket" type.

"This is of the type of blankets that were created by Navajo women who were slaves to the Hispanics in northern Mexico," Virginia Scharff said. "Slavery occurred in Northern New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries."

The U.S. war with Mexico (1846-48) changed that. However, the war also impacted the issue of women being able to own property. Before the war, women in Northern New Mexico could own property under Hispanic law, Scharff said. After the war, under U.S. laws, women in the territory could not.

The exhibition's overall design, by Los Angeles-based design firm M/M (Christopher Muñiz and Tim McNeil) is intended to be immersive and visually striking for visitors.

Custom lighting, audio elements, video installations and unique materials-such as dried corn husks (tamale wrappers) for wall covering, folded origami, and a canvas panel emulating a blue Denver sky-help enhance the visitor experience.

The exhibition also includes a variety of video presentations featuring more than 40 women of different backgrounds, ages, professions, and ethnicities speaking about what it means for them to live today in the three featured regions.

One additional feature is a series of telephone handsets in each of the three regions where visitors can listen to conversations by women talking about their experiences.

In addition to everything else, each section of the exhibition features the work of renowned female visual artists from the 19th century to the present day, including Pueblo potter Maria Martinez (1881-1980), painter Pablita Velarde (1918-2006); painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986); photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); painter Henrietta Bromwell (1859-1946); painter Eve Drewelowe (1899-1989); painter Elizabeth Warhanik (1880-1968); and photographer Virna Haffer (1899-1974).

Along with Aki Sogabe, the contemporary artists featured in the exhibition are New Mexican santero maker Gloria Lopez Cordova; Santa Clara Pueblo artists Tammy Garcia and Nora Noranjo Morse; Colorado-based painter Elizabeth Elting; Coastal Salish sculptor Susan Point; and poet and playwright Joy Harjo, who has been commissioned to create a video work especially for Home Lands that is inspired by a historic narrative of slavery and interracial marriage in 19th century New Mexico.

"The Autry is proud to organize and present Home Lands," said John Gray, President and CEO of the Autry National Center. "It is our mission to explore the experience of the diverse people of the American West and this provocative exhibition conveys how women have shaped the Western landscape through choices about how to sustain home, family, and community."

The exhibit runs through Aug. 22, 2010, then tours to three cities in the West.

"Our first travel show will be held at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, then goes to Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma," Brucken said. "The final stop will be at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe."

For more information about the "Home Lands: How Women Made the West" exhibition at the Autry, and museum hours and ticket prices, visit the Web site at
www.autrynationalcenter.org or call 323 667-2000.


 
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