Featured Artist Interview: Jane Lieber Mays

As part of my Featured Artist Interview series, I have the honor of presenting local artist and educator, Jane Lieber Mays. She is specifically talking about an upcoming show (February 15-March 12) at Chemeketa Community College titled, Our Foremothers . Opening Reception is February 18 from 4-7:30pm

1. What is the premise of the exhibition?

The premise of the exhibition is to offer the general public a room filled with 25 life-size portraits of remarkable women artists from the 12th into the 18th centuries. We hope that the scale of the head studies will provide an instant “gut” connection with the viewer so that the portrait heads become some of the people in the room, alive and relevant in 21st century experience.

It is our hope that, though these women are from our discipline (art), their stories and courage will inspire women from all disciplines...given the fact that women’s challenges are the same no matter what our careers are. We have found that 21st century women and men face the same problems these women faced, and it can be helpful to know that we all come from a long lineage of strong women who did their best to balance career, family, passion, relationships, and their need for quiet soul-time.

To illuminate what these women did as well as show what they looked like, I have put interpretative images drawn from their work in the paintings’ negative spaces. Each painting is 10” high by 20” wide. Portraits are developed from the women’s self-portraits and portraits of them made by other artists. A 25-page free catalogue will be available in the gallery while supplies last to those who visit. It contains narratives by art historian Deanne Beausoleil, my collaborator, about each woman artist as well as an Introduction, along with a bibliography and list of all references I used in the creation of these tribute paintings. It is our hope that people will be encouraged to search for more information about these and other women, and visit museums to see their works in person...a VERY MOVING experience both Deanne and I have had over the years!

2. Since it is a collaboration, how did it come about?

In the Spring of 2007 I was wanting to bring all of these women artists whom I had studied in my graduate work in to one room to THANK for their sustaining stories, inspiration, and help in making my career as a woman artist possible. As a portrait painter, I realized that I could do so by making their portraits, and “Our Foremothers” was born. Several days later, I bumped into Deanne in the halls of Chemeketa Community College where we both teach. I knew she had an interest in and had researched women artists, so I asked her if she would be like to join me on this venture...luckily, she agreed.

3. What do you think are the benefits of having a show like this for student? For professional artist? For the general public?

Student benefits include the interdisciplinary cross-fertilization of art, history, sociology, women’s studies, science, and others. The project also relates directly to the importance of education, and a woman’s challenges in getting that education, especially if she works and/or has a family and children to nurture. The project offers support without judgment for the varied and numerous choices we all make at different times in our lives: “a woman’s right to choose” in a much broader context than we use that phrase politically today. Being in the fine art field, we know that there are no black and white single “right” choices, only ones that work in the context of the composition or sculpture or situation.

For our Chemeketa students, the catalogue design offered them a chance for a real world design experience. Additionally, Peter Hoelter’s web design class is doing our website ourforemothers.com which will be ready to launch mid-summer.

The benefits for students are the same for professional artists. Additionally, professional artists are provided an ancestry of wisdom, humility, perseverance and strength: we have many supportive hands behind our backs. The project also encourages people to look beyond the traditional male ‘art stars’ to find and study women’s work.

The benefits for the general public are the same as for students and professionals. The project also (hopefully) introduces the general public to women of which they have never heard, as well as larger historical and sociological issues.

4. Does seeing and working with these images influence your own work?

Naturally, I learn from working with their images, much in the same way I learn from working with my students. How did Anne Vallayer-Coster handle the light reflecting so deftly on that silver pitcher? How masterfully did Artemisia Gentileschi paint the imagery in the shadow in her masterpiece! For me as a portrait painter, how was Sofonisba Anguissola able to pull so much psychology through her subject’s faces? There are too many lessons to mention. We send our students to copy old masters, to “walk in their shoes” for a while and see how they solved the visual problems we face on our canvases...studying “Old Mistresses” (another really good book by Griselda Pollock) works for me too.

5. If you could meet one of our "Foremothers", who would it be and what would you love to ask?

Tough question. Actually, I talk to these women all the time when I’m painting them, asking questions like, “how did you survive that incident?’ - or - “how did you handle that visual problem?” I promised Sofonisba early on that I would honor all of the women in phase one, and she has been looking down on me in my studio through it all, watching me to make sure I meet the challenge and promise made to her. I have questions for all of them...

I guess one woman of whom I would like to ask a question would be with Artemisia Gentileschi... you know, start with tea and cookies and move to wine, cheese, and good Italian crusty bread after a few hours. So much has been made about her being raped by her landscape-painting teacher Augustino Tassi who had promised to marry her (and then it came out in the trail that he was already married). The injustice seemed particularly rude when, during the rape trail, SHE was tortured with thumb screws. Many people seem to have appropriated her rape story to support their agendas, and I feel badly that there is this huge, remarkable body of work she produced that seems often to pale under the sensationalism of the hot-topic rape thing.

I’d like to ask her what HER perspective was on what happened...how her experiences, ALL of them, informed her paintings. I’d also like to know more about the mechanics of her studio set-ups with light and so on...how was it in the 17th century to be a woman painting in a man’s world...you know, talk real stuff with her, not tabloid stuff.

6. What has been the most surprising element of mounting this show?

I am surprised how little people in general know about these women, especially how little women artists know of their own heritage of “women’s work”. Along with that, Deanne and I are both gratified by the enthusiasm expressed about his project from both sexes, all professions and walks of life. We thought there was a need, but didn’t realize how big it was and how well it would be received. As my friend Bruce Stam said last summer when visiting my studio for a personal critique, “You are sitting here in your studio in this beautiful rhododendron garden, trying to change the world!”

See you at the opening on the 18th!...jane