Can you name five women artists? In honor of Women’s History Month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts challenges museums across the country to highlight women artists featured in their collections.
Here’s a look at five artists – all women – whose influential work has continued to shape metalpoint – a field with a long history at the Arkansas Arts Center. The AAC Collection is one of the leading collections of modern and contemporary metalpoint works in the world. Metalpoint is an ancient medium that involves using a metal stylus on paper prepared with a slightly abrasive ground. Silver is the most popular metal – it tarnishes to an attractive warm color on the paper. Metalpoint is often associated with Renaissance artists – think Da Vinci, Durer and friends. But the medium has also seen a recent revival – to which these artists have all contributed significantly.
Works by all of these artists are on view now in the Arkansas Arts Center Collection galleries.
Susan Schalb’s career stretches back to 1960s. As one of America’s foremost metalpoint artists, Schwalb has helped to spark a revival of interest in metalpoint by both artists and scholars. Throughout her career, she has transferred these traditional Renaissance media to the realm of abstraction, while retaining their beauty and serenity. In her work, Schwalb uses a variety of metals – silver, bronze, copper and more – and a variety of drawing tools, including wires and flat pieces of metal. Schwalb also uses graphite, goua che and gold leaf throughout her work. A 35-work exhibition surveying Schwalb’s career, A Luminous Line: Forty Years of Metalpoint Drawings by Susan Schwalb, is on view at the Arts Center through April 29.
“My new drawings use the classical Renaissance technique of metalpoint in a way which challenges all the traditional concepts,” Schwalb said. “Juxtaposing a wide variety of metals (silver, gold, brass, copper, platinum, pewter, bronze and aluminum) I obtain soft shifts in tone and color reminiscent of the luminous transparency of watercolor. Horizontal bands evoke an atmosphere of serenity, and the shimmer of light on the surface, created by the metals, is quite unlike any of the usual effects of metalpoint.”
Carol Prusa is an important contemporary artist working in metalpoint. Based in Florida, Prusa’s work has appeared in exhibitions around the world. According to her artist statement: “Merging silverpoint drawing with contemporary strategies, surfaces are articulated to create liminal skins between known and unknown worlds. Prusa seeks to express her euphoria when glimpsing the strangeness and vital beauty of what is possible – to give form to thin spaces that evoke the mystery that both surrounds and binds us together.”
Prusas’s work appears in collections around the world, including the Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Perez Art Museum – Miami, among others. She also teaches painting and drawing at Florida Atlantic University.
Social realist Isabel Bishop’s depictions of women are particularly significant. Every morning for over 50 years, Isabel Bishop took the subway from her home downtown to her studio near Union Square. There, she watched and drew the local young women workers and students as they walked, ate, applied makeup, and socialized on the street. Bishop said, “When I feel drained, I stand in front of this window. I feel as if I’m eating a feast.” The subway also provided visual sustenance to the artist. Bishop might well have stood next to the young working woman she studied in these sketches, wearing a fetching hat, as the custom of the time demanded. “Strap hangers,” habitual subway riders, populated many of her etchings and paintings. While Bishop didn’t commonly work in metalpoint (this study is graphite on paper), her women-centric work has influenced many women working in metalpoint today, including Susan Schwalb.
While not much is written on Paula Gerard or her art, her work was very influential to metalpoint artists who would follow. Gerard was born just after the turn of the 20th century, and studied art in Florence, Paris and Brussels before moving to the United States, where she continued her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. She would eventually go on to teach that the Layton School of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is held in collections around the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Arkansas Arts Center.
Little Rock-based metalpoint artist Marjorie Williams-Smith first saw contemporary American metalpoint drawings at the Arkansas Arts Center’s 1985 exhibition The Fine Line. She was immediately enamored with the ancient medium. The artist took years to master the demanding technique, making lines on prepared paper with silver wire. Williams-Smith had been drawing fading flowers since her childhood days in Washington, D.C. The serene subject, medium, and artist were made for each other. Williams-Smith says, “The flower became a symbol of strength and fragility, and that evolved to wanting for myself this quiet moment with this form. These flowers represent the passage of time, energy, life and spirit.” Williams-Smith taught for 33 years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Since retiring, she’s devoted herself to art and family. Williams-Smith’s work will also appear in the upcoming 60th Annual Delta Exhibition, opening May 25.
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