116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Annell Ponder. Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Pauli Murray. Unita Blackwell.
Any of those names ring a bell?
How about Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt? They are among the most instantly recognizable Suffragists, and they’re white.
Ponder, Cary, Murray and Blackwell also were freedom fighters and civil rights activists, but they were Black.
In late 2019, Cedar Rapids artist Kathy Schumacher set out to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, ratified in August 1920, which granted women the right to vote.
Schumacher, who specializes in portraits and figurative drawings and paintings, didn’t want to pay homage to the most famous Suffragists. She wanted to paint portraits of America’s lesser-known freedom fighters. It was an eye-opening experience.
“When I was investigating it, I learned that the African American women had been pushed out of that movement,” she said, “and I didn't know that. And so that's really what sparked my interest and I thought, I'm going to do African American women because they never get the publicity or they're just unknown. And so that's where it all came from.”
What: “Freedom's Daughters,” new work by Kathy Schumacher
Where: Second-floor gallery, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
When: Jan. 15 to May 1, 2022
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Monday
Admission: $8 adults; $7 ages 62 and older and college students; $4 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under; masks required, physical distancing suggested
When COVID-19 shut down so many planned centennial commemorations, Schumacher gained more time for her project, which took about two years. Now the 24 oil portraits she has created will be on view Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, to May 1, 2022, in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s second-floor temporary gallery.
It’s her first exhibition at the downtown museum, which has her both excited and a little bit nervous.
“It’s so overwhelming for me,” she said. “I never thought that would ever happen. And it feels great. I just have a little bit of nerves about the whole thing.”
She had previously invited museum curator Kate Kunau to her second-floor gallery in the Cherry Building, to view a series of charcoal drawings giving voice to her grandmother who spent 15 years at the Independence asylum, beginning Oct. 25, 1941. However, since the powerful series already had been shown at the nearby CSPS Hall in 2015, it wasn’t eligible for a solo exhibition at the museum.
When “Freedom’s Daughters” began taking shape, Schumacher called Kunau again.
“I just thought one day when I was working on this, I'm going to swallow my fear and call and ask her to come over and just see what she thought,” Schumacher said.
“I was really blown away by them,” Kunau said.
“I first saw them in 2019, so it's been a while now, because this was one of our shows that was postponed due to COVID,” she said. “So I saw them when they were in their early phases. She just had a couple of them done and she had sketches for others, so it's been really wonderful to be able to see the project evolve. …
“Kathy is an amazing artist,” Kunau added. “I saw the amazing series she did about her grandmother being put in an asylum, and I just I love the way that she dealt with human emotion and the human form. I feel like she just does really beautiful things with both of those. And so when she explained what this exhibition was going to be to me, I knew she was going to do a really wonderful job, because it really played to her strengths — documenting the human experience.”
Issues of civil rights, human rights and voting rights reemerging have made the exhibition even more relevant than just a snapshot of history.
“ (Schumacher) had initially conceived of it as celebrating the centenary of the women's right to vote in 1920,” Kunau noted, “and then when she started doing more research, realized that American suffrage was incredibly white and that women of color had really been shunted out of the movement from the beginning, when the leaders of the movement saw that it was going to be much harder to push something through if it was also going to include women of color and not just white women.”
Kunau only recognized two of the names on Schumacher’s portrait list: Claudette Colvin, arrested at age 15 for not giving up her bus seat in the Black section to a white woman in 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks would do the same. The other name Kunau recognized was Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights and voting rights activist in the 1960s.
“But all of the other names were a complete mystery to me,” she said, adding that the exhibition is “really important, especially right now.”
”Kathy and I are both white women, and so we've talked about (how) obviously we need to learn things and there have been huge gaps in our education. We need to understand and educate ourselves about these women of color who've been doing so much amazing work. And that needs to come from us — the onus is definitely on us as white women to do that. It's not on people of color to educate us.“
“We've both really enjoyed the research and I just love seeing who she was going to include,” Kunau said. “I had a wonderful intern who did a lot of research for me in putting together very extensive biographies of each woman. And Kathy collected quotes from each of them, because we both agreed that we wanted to really focus on these women's voices because they were silenced for so long. So we really wanted to prioritize them speaking for themselves.”
To that end, visual and spoken word artist Akwi Nji, who also has a studio in the Cherry Building, has recorded those quotes, to be incorporated into the exhibition.
“Akwi did a really beautiful job of reading all the quotes, and we're still working on the technology around this,” Kunau said last week. “But what we have envisioned is that there is a flat screen in the gallery space and that's going to have slides on it that have each of the woman's quotes that Akwi reads written out. And then we're going to have Akwi’s recitation playing in the gallery.
“I wanted to make it a very immersive experience, so you're seeing the portraits of these women, you're hearing their actual words recreated. And I figure, some people have hearing problems or might have missed something, so I also wanted to have the quotes written out so that if you miss something or you miss the attribution or what have you, you can see it as well as hear it,” Kunau said.
The long, narrow gallery at the back of the second floor is an ideal space for experiencing the works, which are displayed in chronological order, Kunau noted.
“I found that to be a helpful way to understand the progression,” she said. “Obviously, there are different issues that these women deal with that are intrinsically entwined in the history of America. So I thought chronology is an easy way to understand that, and so it's really wonderful to just see this kind of timeline progression. You can trace that in the aesthetics of the woman's hair and the part of her dress that you can see. You can see the women from the ’60s with their beautiful mod haircuts and wonderful earrings, and the earlier women looking very 19th century.”
The flow of the gallery also "makes a very dramatic presentation,“ she added. ”It's just this line of wonderful, strong women depicted one after the other, after the other. And I actually think the gallery it’s in is particularly well suited to it.”
The paintings each measure 30 inches by 24 inches, which was a deliberate choice for Schumacher, a largely self-taught artist who has taken classes and workshops locally and around the country to hone her craft.
“I like to work large — I don't like to work small,” she said. “I wanted them to be large enough that they made a statement about them — who they were — and you really could look into their face, look into their eyes. I wanted them to be big enough for that.
“I just thought, these people are larger than life — and they're probably a little bit larger than life-size — but that was why I wanted to do that.”
With black-and-white photos of the women for reference, she worked hard on the skin tones, then added saturated colors in the background. She also gave each woman a halo, borrowing from a technique American artist Janet McKenzie uses in her religious-themed paintings, including her award-winning “Jesus of the People.”
“When I really thought about this, it just struck me that these women were holy. That they have given their life to something, and that was that was my motivation for (the halos),” Schumacher said.
“ … These women were all courageous, and they were unapologetic. …
“These women aren’t just history. They have something to teach us today in the world we’re living in,” Schumacher said. “It's not just to honor them for what they did in the past, but to see in them what America needs today if we're truly going to embrace the best of who we are.”
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