Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Women out West

American Pioneer Women - squidoo (http://www.squidoo.com/american-old-west-in-pictures)
Pioneer women in front of dwelling on the prairie
From the nineteenth century to the present day, the American West has been defined as the region west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. The West, however, is not simply a single region, but a set of values and mythologies, germane to the specific areas, and historical period of the United States. In this sense, there are multiple “Wests” that encompass a succession of frontiers, beginning in the northeast on the western border of Pennsylvania, pushing progressively toward the Pacific Ocean.

          Where do women fit in this saga of Western exploration amid the masculine narratives of conquest and domination that have come to represent the American West? Frankly, exploitation, and alteration of the West, were never part of women’s desires in facing life on the frontier. Most women wanted to provide for the needs of the community, creating community by gardening, stitching quilts, crafting pottery, or engaging in some form of traditional “women’s work.”

          While Western historians grapple with a 'new' historiography of the American West rethinking and broadening its scope in terms of race, class, and gender--the production of art by Western women has all but been ignored. Nearly all the attention and focus of art in the West has been directed toward nineteenth century artwork created by men, and towards the stereotypical imagery of the Old West, conveyed by their artwork. [1]
Nearly everyone has heard of artists Frederick Remington, and Charles M. Russell, whose cowboy and Indian art defined the classical western art canon, how many of those same people, artists and non-artists alike, are aware that women artists also worked in what would come to be called the American West, and have done so for as long as humans have inhabited the terrain? Navajo women wove. Pueblo women made pottery. Pomo women shaped baskets. Between 1890 and 1945, women artists of all types worked in the West in great numbers, creating objects that were as extraordinarily abundant and diverse as to defy generalization.  [2]

          Until the 19th century, the western United States and the California landscape had not been painted.  Foreign explorers of the Pacific Coast in the early 1800s brought artists to record both their discoveries and interesting sites along both coast and inland. Later, government surveys enlisted artists to record the geology and geography, vegetation and inhabitants of this westernmost region. There were not, however, any female Audubons, women explorers, or government survey teams. Even in the “wild” West, social restrictions prevented women from traveling alone, or with expeditions, into the wilderness or to record the landscape-that was a male concern with which women were not encouraged to participate.[3] As women traveled west with their families, the bulk of their artistic narrative left behind were letters, diaries, cookbooks, crafts, and quilts. Yet, there were women painters working among the early settlers—and by the time the frontier closed in 1890, there were more than 1,100 women artists and art teachers active in the west.[4] Although many of the paintings of these early artists are regarded more as historical documents, rather than works of art, they represent the beginning of a Western visual heritage.[5]

Martha Jane Cannery
"Calamity Jane"
Photo from Bio.com

There are several notable women who were artists of a different ilk whose names are familiar today as independent, rebellious, gunslingers: Calamity Jane, Belle Starr, and Annie Oakley. The West offered these women an opportunity to shed the mantle of  female pioneer wife and mother who was, as usual, confined to taking care of family and cooking. The tales of these women became folklore, their exploits romanticized and exaggerated in dime novels and later in the musical and motion picture industry. Although the line between fact and imagination is blurred and often difficult to separate, one thing is clear: these women of the Wild West were pioneers in their own way, challenging the traditional roles of women in the 19th century.[6]

So, who were these artists who were compelled to create under such different, and very challenging circumstances? First, they were the Native Americans who populated North America as early as 25,000 BCE. Dr. Carl Dentzel, the late director of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, claimed he had carbon-dated Indian pots from 30,000 BCE in North America. Most of our knowledge of the early Native Indians is based on their claywork alone; fired clay is the only material on earth that does not change with time. [7]

The American Southwest holds a rich heritage and continuity of culture. Approximately two thousand years ago in America, humans began to settle in southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, also known as the Four Corners region. Previously nomadic tribes such as the Zuni and Acoma began to construct impressive dwellings, weave baskets, and create pottery, as the need for vessels to gather water, store grains or liquids, and preserve seeds became necessary. Initially, the hand-built vessels were made solely for utilitarian purposes, with little consideration for artistry. Depending on the region, much of the early containers were unadorned, with the exception of the texture of the coils and pinches, or some indented textures created by the use of pointed sticks. In addition, not much attention was paid to symmetry. Gradually, the shapes of the pottery began to evolve, becoming more suitable for their uses. For example, pots with rounded bottoms were made to sit on the rocks of open fires, water jars were created with indented bases that conformed to the heads of water gatherers, and large storage vessels were formed for grains and water.[8] Eventually, Indian villages and pueblos became known for their own distinct pot shapes and decorative styles.

Human Effigy Earthenware Bottle (Multiple Views)
2,600 to 2,800 years old
Height: 7 1/4, Diameter: 4 3/4
Found: West Coast of Mexico
Interestingly, the potter's wheel was never used for making pots in either North or South America. The coiling technique was preferred because, according to the Native American beliefs, the clay has a spirit. Women were responsible for the collection of the clay, often found on tribal lands. The children of Mother Earth who produce pottery are aware of the spirit in the clay, the paint and, ultimately, the vessel itself, which they believe is created from a living thing.

Native American women led much richer lives than their Eastern sisters, or even the female pioneers that managed to survive the trip west. Those women generally settled into lives that were familiar to the roles they left behind. In some tribal nations, Indian women owned the land and possessions of the tribe. Based on mutual respect between the men and women, Native American women wore many hats. They were builders, warriors, toolmakers, they gathered herbs and made medicine, and were skilled craftswomen. Indispensable members of the tribe, women made baskets, wove blankets, created pottery, and jewelry.

Native American Woman weaving bull-rush mats

 White settlement, and the westward push of pioneer families during the 19th century nearly destroyed the art of pottery-making. The arrival of large numbers of readily available pre-made glazed vessels and metal cookware to the native peoples eclipsed the need to create their own wares.

Next post: Puebloan culture, pottery, and art.

1. Trenton, Patricia. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 (Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press), 1995, xi.
2. Scharff, Virginia. "Introduction: Women Envision the West, 1890-1945," in Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 (Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press), 1995, 3.
3.  Moore, Sylvia, ed. Yesterday and Tomorrow: California Women Artists. New York: Middlemarch Arts Books, 1989. 66.
4.  Ibid. 65.
5.  Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. 1982. G.K. Hall and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. 
6. History Detectives: Women of the Wild West. http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/women-of-the-wild-west/. Excellent site for futher information about these groundbreakers. Retrieved November 30, 2012.
7. Women Artists of the American West: Pottery by American Indian Women. http://www.cla.purdue.edu/waaw/Peterson/Petersonessay2.html. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
8.  Pottery by American Women Artists: The Legacy of Generations, the Avant Gard. http://www.cla.purdue.edu/waaw/peterson/petersonessay2.html. (accessed June 22, 2011).

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