Women Making Art
In my second full-length poetry collection, Chroma: Five Centuries of Women Artists (Shanti Arts Publishing), I've built a gallery of ekphrastic poems inspired by the paintings of forty-seven women artists creating art over five centuries, and hailing from twenty-five different countries. As "curator," I've organized the poems in four galleries, loosely organized in reverse chronological order so that the poetry leads the reader and "viewer" back through time and history. I use the titles of paintings as poem titles in order to "echo" the voice of each artist as I write in response to the work. The titles also reflect how subject matter deemed acceptable for women artists has changed over time. In museums, women's work is often exhibited in solitary pockets among the men. My aim was an exhibition focused solely on the work of women artists, guided by the words of the Greek poet Simondes of Ceos—"Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks."
A poem from Chroma: Five Centuries of Women Artists
Self-Portrait Hesitating between Music and Painting
She is caught in the moment between two Muses—
Music, in her vermillion dress on the viewer’s left,
& Painting dressed in brilliant blue on her right.
She’s holding Music’s hand but has an open one
& she is leaning, the heroine in her own tug of war
that in between feeling—you know the one—pulling
both ends of a rope & afraid of being burned.
She knows the story of Hercules, the hero wrestling
virtue & pleasure before choosing his destiny, but wants
an answer of her own. Where would we be without
our myths & history? Music with her sheet of song
and scores, Painting with her palette & brushes—
Who will be the strongest, who will she love more?
For what they are but also for what else they are.
—Angelica Kauffman, 1794. Oil on canvas. Nostell Priory, UK
Women Observing Nature
A college course in natural history taught by the late ecologist and entomologist Lincoln Brower—a world expert on the monarch butterfly—sparked my lifelong interest in natural history, including field research and environmental work. I've been working on a hybrid collection inspired by women naturalists who bridged two centuries—born in the 19th century and who lived and worked well into the 20th century and after the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified. Conceived of as imagined testaments and letters, here is one testament.
Testament 4: Elizabeth Knight Britton
Moss was the first plant on earth.
Some call me the moss woman.
We live without roots, stems, or flowers.
With fewer parts, you learn how to live without.
To find me, come search the rotting logs and outcroppings of rock.
I have been called the second best botanist in the United States.
I have been called the most humble of scientists.
I have published one hundred and seventy papers on Bryology.
I am the unpaid curator of Columbia’s moss collection.
The year women received the vote I turned sixty-two.
Half of a mountain is named after me. Half-of-thirty species.
I have always worked for love.
* * *
Elizabeth Knight Britton (1858–1934) was a botanist, bryologist, and advocate for the protection of wildflowers. Recognized as a leading expert in bryology, she worked in unpaid and volunteer positions throughout her career, both as curator of Columbia’s moss collection and as a driving force in the founding of the New York Botanical Gardens. Fifteen species are named after her and Mount Britton, a double peak in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, honors both her and her husband.
Elizabeth Knight Britton. The New York Botanical Gardens; LuEsther T. Mertz Library Vertical Files