Lee’s film yields a “complex and multilayered” account which she hopes will instruct her daughter, and future generations of girls, about the struggle that preceded them.
“Groups backed by Charles and David Koch have lobbied and run political ads to support construction of the pipeline. But Koch Industries has consistently denied financial motives played any role in these activities, asserting that the Keystone XL pipeline has ‘nothing to do with any of our businesses.’ We want to know whether this is true.”
Many artists concern themselves with the tempo and vagaries of the art world. Others are directed by a singular inner vision and follow that path wherever it leads them. Irene Hardwicke Olivieri is one of those artists.
I first saw her work in a gallery in the East Village in Manhattan. I immediately connected to her unique imagery, which often has a woman as its centerpiece. The pictorial elements were combined with hand-printed text, which while clearly readable also yielded a multidimensional aspect. Like pointillism, the writing appeared one way up close while functioning differently from a distance.
When I delved into curating, I knew that eventually I would select Olivieri for one of my exhibits. Little House in My Heart was part of The Feminist Figure exhibit in 2005. It was at that time, while I was writing catalogue essays on each artist, that I first spoke with Olivieri.
This year, Olivieri has achieved two major milestones in her career. In addition to an exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Oregon, she is the subject of a stunning monograph by Pomegranate entitled Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Wildness.
The book has 140 full-color reproductions and is divided into eight sections— comprised of topics that preoccupy Olivieri. These encompass portraits, stories, and nature. Each plate is accompanied by commentary written by Olivieri, yielding a combination of literate insights and visual sumptuousness.
With her new publication as a guide, I contacted Olivieri to revisit an overview of her work. We spoke in depth about her background, her influences, and the subtexts in her work.
Olivieri was born in South Texas, on the border of Mexico. She qualifies herself as being “a farmer’s daughter,” coming from a long line of farming people. This created the foundation for her connection to nature and the cyclic aspect of life. Olivieri spoke of the metaphor of a germinating seed paralleling how ideas germinate in her paintings.
Time in Brazil as an exchange student led to a return trip home along the path of the Amazon River. Olivieri stopped off in Guanajuato, Mexico to study art. After receiving a BFA from the University of Texas, Olivieri relocated to New York where she completed her Masters at New York University. She sought jobs that would “feed back into her work,” such as stints at the garden of the Cloisters and illustrating plants and insects for The New York Botanical Garden.
Olivieri related to me how she had to fight with professors in the early 80s, in order to freely explore her own pictorial vocabulary. Her next step, engaging with the Manhattan gallery system, yielded plenty of challenges. One gallery owner made a studio visit, perused her canvases, and informed her, “I don’t like the words in your paintings.” Picking out a depiction of a grasshopper, the gallerist proposed the possibility of a one-person show if Olivieri did ten versions of the grasshopper in different colors—with identical dimensions. Shortly afterwards, Olivieri connected with the Margaret Bodell Gallery, where her show garnered a review in the New York Times from Holland Cotter.
I spoke to Olivieri at length about her process. We discussed the integration of her text into the picture plane. She shared that there was no specific approach. Rather, it depended on the subject of the painting. When it’s related to the natural world, what she writes is the result of reading, note-taking and then restructuring the information through the prism of her own “thoughts and observations.” She said, “I’m writing as a reaction to what I’m learning and excited by.” Olivieri is aware that the text adds “another level of meaning to the piece,” and enjoys the evolutionary progression. Her material has ranged from descriptions of raising caterpillars to global aphrodisiac recipes. When the passages reference the emotional realm—such as “family secrets,” Olivieri told me, “The text happens organically. I’m feeling, thinking, painting.”
Olivieri identifies neither as a political or feminist artist, per se. However, her sensibility can be identified as within those spheres. Her diaristic approach to personal history such as a failed marriage or the death of a loved one are what Olivieri called, “emotional hurricanes that are fodder for my work.” She said, “My painting is intuitive in a visceral way.”
In Ten thousand kisses, Olivieri contemplates the “traditional” role of being a wife, evaluating her take on the experience. Painted in oil on a wooden rising bowl, it depicts her “internal struggle on finding a way to being a good wife.” At the feet of her doppelgänger is a devil girl—with ideas of her own. It should be noted that many of Olivieri’s surfaces are in the female domestic domain, such as wooden ironing boards, cutting boards, and bowls. Doors are also a favorite choice, and usually connect to imagery about transcending, evolving, or passing from one state of consciousness into another. She uses iconography that employs specifically feminine symbols, such as braids—which for Olivieri connote “the passage of time.”
Overtly socially conscious pieces do find their way into Olivieri’s oeuvre. Nature’s cleanup crew was a response to the failed leadership of Bush and Cheney. Olivieri explained, “It came from a place of passionate, almost impetuous, immediacy.” Here she riffs on the symbol of the vulture, as both a positive force in nature, and its use as negative linguistic terminology.
Her concern for the environment and the future of the planet is acutely palpable. Climbing the giant has a plaintive sensibility as Olivieri asks in her wording, “How can I paint about our beautiful and troubled world? How can I speak with my paintbrush? Help me in my simple way.” Yet by “bearing witness,” Olivieri is painting about the environment “as an antidote to the agony I feel about what is happening to it.” In Some kind of wilderness, the female figure embraces nature, while the background circular printing gives the names of new species that have been discovered in the past decade.
Olivieri’s fascination with science overlaps her art in the series made with animal bones regurgitated and removed from owl pellets. Combined with porcupine quills and shells, at first glance they could be woodcuts. Olivieri calls them “paleo mosaics.”
The visually rich output of Olivieri brings to mind a profusion of influences and associations: The art of Mexico, the meditative qualities of Tibetan art, devotional art, and Persian miniatures. There is even a nod to the complex narratives of Hieronymus Bosch.
Olivieri told me, “I feel lucky that I have a life where I get to be creative. I have always wanted to make art that connects on an experiential level…that is honest, unpretentious, and accessible to all.
It’s clear that she has achieved her goal.
Photos: Courtesy of the Artist
This article is from the series “Evolution of an Artist”
Since the newest information from the IPCC came out last Monday, I have immersed myself in reading the details of the report. The New York Times captured the essence of the Working Group II findings with the headline: “Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst is to Come.”
Yet in every conversation that I read online, there were two categories of commenters. Those who have given up on our national political system to mobilize (“Lost cause”); those who were indignant about the “climate hoax,” especially as a thinly veiled excuse to “redistribute wealth” to poorer nations.
I wrestled for seven days with an inner dialogue on how to frame a story that most Americans are resistant to considering. Then I had a moment of realization when I heard that the new movie Noah had made $44 million in ticket sales at the American box office. The religious right has already accused director Darren Aronofsky of tampering with the Biblical text and giving his movie an “environmental message,” but that hadn’t deterred movie audiences. I have only seen the trailer, but I can intuit how those parallels are being drawn. You’ve got a major flood and “violent conflict.” In addition, Aronofsky has referenced the recent IPCC findings in interviews.
The IPCC underscores how climate change will impact the world’s population through changes in crop production, yielding an increased chasm between supply and demand. Those without resources and capital will be more drastically affected—such as the poorer nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.
If I made a word cloud of the top phrases pulled from the report they would be: drought, extreme heat, floods, coastal erosion, disease, hunger, food instability, war and refugees.
Which brings us to a different set of words: managed risk, mitigation, moral responsibility, and political will. To me, the natural ensuing question is, “If you thought there was a chance that something bad could happen, would you do something to prevent it?”
Insurance companies have been one of the earliest mainstream adopters of advocating the need for readiness. That’s their business, and they are basing their position on science. Nothing ever seems like it can happen, until it happens to you personally. I was in Vermont “on vacation,” when they had torrential rains and everything from bridges to graves were washed away. I was in Manhattan when Hurricane Sandy hit. The subways were underwater and I had friends stranded without electricity or food. New Yorkers saw very clearly how vulnerable our infrastructure was.
“Impacts, adaption, and vulnerability.” These are the key points the IPCC drills down on. It’s interesting that wildlife has already responded intuitively. Birds have changed their migration patterns, which were previously established based upon the “seasons.”
ExxonMobil has told shareholders they have no plans to change their trajectory. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, dismissed the report as a “distraction from real problems—like poverty and violence.” To which I respond, “Sen. Inhofe, sir, refusing to acknowledge the findings of 97 percent of scientists is paving the road to global poverty and violence.”
How much longer can we as individuals, and as a nation, look away from our moral responsibilities? Why aren’t we pushing our politicians and lawmakers to insist on sustainable practices to manage risk now, while promoting renewable energy?
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said of climate change, “It’s going to affect nearly every aspect of human life on this planet.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Mon defined climate change as, “The greatest collective challenge facing humankind today.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who was mocked by Sen. John McCain and Newt Gingrich for his strong stand on the perils of climate change reacted to the report stating, “The costs of inaction are catastrophic…The clock is ticking. The more we delay, the greater the threat. Let’s make our political system wake up and let’s make the world respond.”
Sometimes it’s hard to hear the “prophets” in your midst.
A version of this article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Airforce
It’s March. Women’s History Month. What better time to examine the second wave of feminism and to question how far women have really come? Jennifer Lee’s new documentary, Feminist Stories From Women’s Liberation: 1963-1970, is aiming to reopen a conversation on feminism through a reexamination of the movement’s evolution. Shining a light on the grassroots women who had less media visibility, Lee traces the fight for rights that once again appear to be in danger. She also exposes the fissures within the movement—which continue to play out today.
The catalyst for her almost decade long journey of inquiry? Someone whispered to her, “Are you a feminist?” She felt compelled to answer, albeit in a hushed tone, “Yes.”
As the onscreen narrator and tour guide of a very tumultuous seven years, Lee introduces the topic with some street interviews on the word “feminist.” One youngish woman tells her, “The word has become way overblown…so I don’t want to be identified with it.” Lee then underscores the reason for her film: “When we whisper the word feminist, we reject the great women’s liberation movement.” Her film yields a “complex and multilayered” account which she hopes will instruct her daughter, and future generations of girls, about the struggle that preceded them.
Lee begins her story with World War II—or what she terms, “Life Before the Movement.” She explains how women joined the war effort by working in industries that supported American troops. They received full childcare at no cost. When the forces came home, those women were politely told to return to their homes.
In setting up her narrative, Lee gives certain events in a timeline. However, there is much overlapping and fluidity as the civil rights movement, the left-wing student movement, and the anti-war movement intersect. A major commonality within all these sectors is that despite the tremendous amount of work that women were doing on the ground—many in leadership positions— their ideas and calls for gender equality were consistently pushed aside.
Lee names The President’s Commission on the Status of Women (1961-1965) as the spark that ignited the women’s movement. Esther Peterson, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Kennedy, was behind the initiative. Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chairperson. They pored over data, and what they found “radicalized” them.
Meanwhile, Betty Friedan, who had lost her job when she became pregnant with her second child, penned The Feminine Mystique. It posited that the college education young women had received had made them question their roles as “homemakers.” Of course, this only related to a narrow segment of the female population. African-American women and those who had no choice but to work in order to support themselves or their families were missing from that demographic. Yet the questions raised melded with an advancing post-war realization that “society had to change.” Problems were starting to become named; many groups in American society were beginning to challenge the status quo.
A number of the women interviewed, both black and white, came out of an involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While fighting for racial justice, they came to see that the needs of women had to be part of the agenda as well. Ella Baker, Mary King, and Casey Hayden all pushed that concept. King and Hayden wrote the paper “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo.” It became one of the first manifestos of the women’s movement—disseminated hand to hand.
Using the civil rights template of taking the law at face value, there was a push to get results from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-MI) introduced an amendment to make sure that discrimination on the basis of gender was included in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ironically, in the first year of EEOC, 37 percent of the complaints lodged were from women (think stewardesses). Pauli Murray pushed on job ads discrimination—still segregated by gender at the time. It should be noted that it was while working at the EEOC, that Anita Hill was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
A shift began with a move to create an organization, like the NAACP, that could advocate for women. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 with Friedan and Paulie at the helm. Friedan wrote an initial mission statement and Murray added “a full scope of human rights” to the verbiage.
Lee carefully constructs how the movement splintered. Just as male members of the civil rights and antiwar movements wanted to promote their ideas and agendas, with less regard for women’s issues, Friedan sought to shuffle lesbians out of the picture—for fear that it would “damage” wider acceptance of the movement. There was also the glaring fact that many white middle-class women believed that their perceptions of gender inequality and concerns were the universal point of view.
Many of the women who share their recollections were primary players in getting the movement up and running. Included are: Jeanette Rankin; Ti-Grace Atkinson; Kate Millet; Aileen Hernandez. Several are now familiar names in politics and media—such as Rep. Eleanor Holmes and Robin Morgan.
It isn’t until the last part of the film that a figure—often considered synonymous with feminism—is introduced at length. She appears in conjunction with the story about the 1969 New York City hearing on abortion. The panel was comprised of nine men and one nun. The Redstockings engaged in an action where they interrupted the proceeding with a “speak out.” Gloria Steinem was there as a reporter covering the event. It was her “aha” moment.
Those Madmen days may seem far away. However, Lee’s account reminds us that women’s fight for equal justice, whether from the government or from each other, is far from over. I reached out to her to get insights into what parallels she has drawn to current situations.
The racial divide in feminism does not seem to have reached any concrete form of resolution. This was evidenced in the recent Twitter “conversation” #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. What are your thoughts?
“As I made the film I saw how numerous the contributions were from women of color. This is why the women’s liberation movement needs to be remembered and studied. Women like Pauli Murray were instrumental to the formation of NOW. We don’t fully recognize the contributions of Betita Martinez and Frances M. Beal. As I listened to these women talk to me, I realized that women of color fully contributed to the women’ s movement and the women’s movement needs to be remembered as a movement by and for all women.”
You made it clear in the film that Gloria Steinem was preceded by a lengthy line of women fighting in the trenches and at the grassroots level. Did you pick up on any resentment that she became the media face of feminism to so many? Do you think that your film will be able to resurrect the contributions of the many women who were in the feminist space since the early 1960s?
“I didn’t pick up any anger or resentment, just a need to articulate the fact that so many women came before. Yes, I think my film resurrects the contributions of the women in the early feminist movement. It is exciting to see so many people, upon seeing the film, become so energized by these early women who fought so hard before there was a formalized ‘women’s movement.’ This is inspiring to people. What became more apparent to me while making the film is that movements are started by people—not leaders. In our country we forget this. I think that is because we have a strong media presence that tends to frame an event or a movement in terms of its leaders. This is something that holds us back because people think that they can’t make change as an individual, yet that is always how movements start…through people.”
Are you hopeful that the film will become part of an educational outreach through your partnership with the National Center for History in the Schools?
“I am very hopeful that my film will translate into classrooms. I saw it happen in a girls middle school in Denver recently. It was a full classroom of 11 to 14 year old girls who were excited about the information in the film. They were shocked at the stories by Eleanor Smeal and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on what life was like for women before the women’s liberation movement. It brought the women’s movement home to them. The women’s liberation movement is a vital part of American history. Teaching it will help girls see the word ‘feminist’ as a positive word.”
Photos: Courtesy of Feminist Stories
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