ArtFul Living

St. Louis Area Fine Arts, Crafts & Performing Arts
Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky, Arts Editor

March is Women’s History Month

This celebration of women’s achievements throughout history grew primarily out of International Women’s Day, established by the United Nations in 1975. It was initiated on the international level, not just a local level, and not just in our country.

The celebration took its first steps in the U.S. as Women’s History Week and, with continuing support from Presidents Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan, the week expanded into a month in 1987. It quickly became clear that the achievements of women throughout history could not effectively be done in just one week. Presidents, of both parties, since that time continued that support.

In February, the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, painted by Amy Sherald, was unveiled at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The ceremony included the unveiling of the official portrait of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley.

Both Sherald and Wiley are the first African-American artists commissioned to paint the official portraits of a United States President and First Lady. While this is historically significant, it’s Amy Sherald’s portrayal of Mrs. Obama that prompted discussions in the arts world. Although the Baltimore artist has had a painting career for quite time, 44-year old Sherald has only recently emerged onto the national level; she won the prestigious Outwin Boochever Award, a national portraiture competition administered by the National Portrait Gallery in 2016. Her portrait work is recognizable for the skin tones she chooses, reminiscent of black-and-white photography. She states that her work “focuses on the dignity and inner life” of her subjects. “My paintings hold up a mirror to the present and reflect real experiences.”

Regarding her commission of Michelle Obama’s portrait, Sherald acknowledged the special character of her subject. Of Mrs. Obama, Sherald noted, “She’s an archetype that a lot of women can relate to—no matter shape, size, race or color. We see our best selves in her.”

And here’s the St. Louis connection:
The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis presents new and recent paintings by Amy Sherald in her FIRST SOLO museum exhibition, right here in St. Louis, May 11-August 19. It’s early, but mark your calendar now to attend Amy Sherald’s Artist Talk at CAM on Thursday, May 10, 6:30 p.m. Learn more about the upcoming exhibit at www.camstl.org.

I have been, and remain, a strong supporter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington, D.C. This institution “brings recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities by exhibiting (10 exhibitions per year), preserving (over 5,000 objects), acquiring and researching (17,500 volume library) art by women, and by teaching the public about their accomplishments.” Women in the arts truly shine at NMWA, and especially so during this month. Nothing against Frida Kahlo, but she’s not the only female artist! Learn more online at www.nmwa.org; visit if you go to D.C. (1250 New York Avenue NW), or support NMWA by becoming a member (I am!!).

Women’s contributions to the arts are not just limited to visual arts. It’s impossible to create a list of performing musicians, vocal and instrumental, who are women. However, BBC Music Magazine recently posted their top picks of contemporary female composers. The list crosses all nationalities: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Dobrinka Tavakova, Charlotte Bray, Meredith Monk, Anna Clyne, Kerry Andrew, Hannah Kendall, Judith Bingham and, my favorite, Joan Tower who composed Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 3, a response to Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Naturally, no list is complete. However, if these names are unfamiliar to you, a Google search is in order to learn more!

The names of women performing on stage and in film are perhaps easier to recognize. But those creatives behind the scenes may not be quite so identifiable. ArtsBoston recently made the case that, while “it is important to recognize that the majority of the classic Western theatrical canon has been written by white men, it is imperative that we, as artists today, do something: not only discuss the inequity but actively seek to challenge it.” Last March, ArtsBoston compiled a list of 17 Living Female (and Trans) American Playwrights You Should Know. Danai Gurira, Maria Irene Fornes, Amy Herzog, MJ Kaufman, Melinda Lopez, Lynn Nottage (to name just a few) may not be household names, but they should be.