Girl’s Night In

Chicago women’s art collective Artemisia comes together one more time

Ten years after the end of its thirty-year reign, the Chicago women’s art collective Artemisia Gallery presented its legacy of artworks by sixty female members at the Bridgeport Art Center in the exhibition “Artemisia after 40.” The opening felt like a reunion: I saw a name scrawled on a name-tag peeling from a sweater, heard that name called out in between hugs, and then read the same name again on placards labeling artworks.

These artworks seemed to be part of a kind of reunion as well. Walking in, between the artists constantly calling to old friends across the room, one sees three pieces hung by three artists spanning over twenty-four years. Kathy Lehar’s 1990 untitled sculpture, a cast-bronze pyramid, emerges from the wall. It hangs adjacent to Leah Oates’s 2008-2009 color photograph and traditional print, “Transitory Space Beijing China 3,” and Susan Sensemann’s 2014 abstract painting, “The Heart Must Pause to Breathe.” The three pieces, though incongruous in style, do not clash. They share a similar sort of radiance.

Holding the exhibition together with its distinct presence was Mary Ellen Croteau’s “Endless Columns,” which consisted of several floor-to-ceiling columns made of bottle caps and jar lids, mirroring the room’s own structural columns.

First to think of the exhibition was Fern Shaffer, who served as Artemisia president for thirteen years, and who contributed an arrangement of nine small paintings of ginkgo leaves, aptly titled “Gingko Leaves.”

“Artemisia closed very quietly,” she professed, “but it should have been a big party!” To give the collective the party it deserved, Shaffer sent out emails to as many former members as she could for its forty-year anniversary, and received numbers of enthusiastic responses. However, Shaffer was unwilling to serve as curator, because “as members, we’re all equal.” Lelde Kalmite, Bridgeport Art Center curator, was particularly enthusiastic about promoting the legacy of Chicago’s first feminine and feminist art gallery, and offered the Bridgeport Art Center as the exhibition’s home, where she “treats the artworks as the raw materials for the big artwork: the show.”

Immersed in the enthusiasm of the other former members of Artemisia, Shaffer retained a positive view of Artemisia’s legacy. When asked whether the show seemed to be forty years after the gallery’s opening or ten years after its closing, she emphatically declared, “This is absolutely forty years after the opening. Time moves on.” Even after galleries close, “people can’t stop making art.” As she spoke, Shaffer often paused for moments to hug women who walked by, all former members of the collective. “I still have a lot of friends from my time there, but it’s not like we have meetings every Tuesday, so it does feel like a reunion.” The flyer advertising the show’s closing reception on June 13 describes a panel on “carrying Artemisia into the present.” Artemisia may not have meetings every Tuesday, but the collective’s legacy lingers, almost making such a panel redundant.

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