I made a slight error in judgement, thinking I could run up to the bookstore before the reception started. It is not wise to go quickly in 90 degree heat and high humidity, not if one wants to be presentable afterward. I slow my pace.
I very much wanted to be presentable because in a few minutes, High Fiber: Arkansas Women to Watch, a group show of five Arkansas textile artists chosen by the National Museum of Women in the Arts Arkansas Committee would hold it’s opening reception in the Joy Pratt Markham Gallery at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in a 70,000 square foot Washington D.C. landmark near the White House, was conceived in the 1960’s when women artists had limited representation in museum collections and major art exhibitions. Founders Wilhelmina Cole and Wallace F. Holladay “committed themselves over twenty years to assembling a body of distinguished work executed by women.” The museum’s mission is to: “bring recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities by exhibiting, preserving, acquiring, and researching art by women and by teaching the public about their accomplishments.”1
A nonprofit volunteer organization, the Arkansas State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts “was founded in 1989 when, on a visit to Washington, D.C., Ed Dell Wortz and Helen Walton learned of the museum. They called together a group of women interested in the arts to develop a plan for a state committee, dedicated to supporting the museum’s mission and promoting awareness of the work of Arkansas women artists.”2
When I was chosen an Arkansas Woman to Watch I lived in Northwest Arkansas and my studio was a part of the Fayetteville Underground, a nonprofit arts organization consisting of 13 working artists’ studios and five galleries located on the square in downtown Fayetteville. Hundreds of people came to our exhibitions and visited our studios every month as part of First Thursday celebrations. They collected our work, asked important questions and engaged in spirited conversations. They were excited about what we were doing, and it was contagious. It was a heady time; to be a working artist supported and encouraged by a whole community is a rare and extraordinary gift.
Little did I know that in the two years since I was chosen an Arkansas Woman to Watch I would move, twice, first to Kansas City and then a year later half a continent away to the San Francisco Bay Area. I debated whether or not I should return to Fayetteville to see the show. The plane ticket was not inexpensive, the time away from family and responsibilities dear, and shouldn’t I just get over myself? What’s the big deal, anyway? Probably no one will show up, and it will turn into one huge, expensive, disappointment.
The bookstore is cool and dark compared to the blaring sun outside, and the combination soothes my jangled nerves. In another time I might have stopped at the bar next door; now this is my comfort. The smell of ink on paper steadies me. I read a few dust jackets, focus on staff picks. Breathe. Ten minutes later I’m back on the sidewalk feeling more present and grateful.
When I arrive at the Walton Arts Center people have begun gathering, there’s a buzz in the air, all five artists will be present tonight, the weight of all the work that went into setting this up is falling off people’s shoulders, they’re smiling, busy, laughing. The gallery is beautiful, all the things an artist wishes for: professional graphics, perfect lighting, a spacious open feeling. I pause and take a mental picture, this is a dream come true and I want to remember it forever.
My work is to the right as you enter the door: there is a way, See Me, a breath away, and Leaf Dance. I haven’t seen these pieces in over a year and they surprise me—like old friends I haven’t seen in months. We have shared memories, a history together, and it feels right that we all should be here together.
Barbara Cade comes next. An intricately stitched three dimensional sculptured landscape beckons you to step into the field of color, to touch the exotic petals of each flower. The next piece she has worked in micro view; rocks, pebbles, moss up close.
The tapestries of Louise Halsey grace the back wall. Louise was chosen to represent Arkansas in the museum exhibition, held in Washington D.C. last winter. Her weaving is masterful and her message compelling. In her words: “Initially my focus of my tapestry work was upon the colors and shapes needed to create a well-designed piece. An evolution occurred as my depictions of houses began to display my concerns about the economy, social issues and environmental changes. The tapestries now show cracked facades referencing both possible damage from earthquakes and inner turmoil.”
Turning the corner to the longest wall of the gallery, Deborah Kuster’s work attracts my attention. The pieces present themselves first as quilts, but on closer inspection I see that it is handwoven fabric she has pieced, quilted and embellished to give a unique depth of texture to the quilting and a freedom of movement to the handwovens.
Jane Hartfield’s quilts sparkle and so do her eyes. Even without reading her artist statement I know that joy is a strong message of this work. Jane’s deep knowledge of color and spot on composition assure the pieces exuberantly dance with it.
Beautifully curated, expertly hung, the exhibition is such a strong showing of the textile arts I feel weak with a mixture of happiness, pride, humility, gratefulness and a thousand other emotions all at once, I feel my eyes well up. Luckily a friend arrives, she calls my name and I am soon wrapped in a hug. Over the course of the evening many wonderful people come to view the show, there are hundreds of hugs, thousands of smiles. My life in Fayetteville was rich and varied and much of the best part of it is here in this room. I am so glad I came.
The air has softened, the sun relaxed, as I step out of the gallery saying goodbye, waving; a dinner is planned, it’s time to move on. At the edges of my mind is bittersweet knowledge that soon I have to leave again, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, for this, for them, for all of it, and I know that part of my heart will always remain here, in Arkansas.