“From Paint Brushes to Camera Lenses: Creative Women of the Great Plains” brings together 50 objects from the collection of the Great Plains Art Museum that are united only because they were all made by female artists.
As the title implies, there’s a scattering of mediums in the exhibition, which fills the museum’s first-floor gallery — oil paintings and bronze sculpture, mixed media collage, digitally-reproduced photography and even a symbol-covered basketball competing for attention.
Similarly, there are no set themes with the show, but the work can be loosely grouped as landscape, work created and influenced by Native Americans, and depiction of animals and agricultural life.
But even within those categories, there is little that unifies, say, the traditional European-style oil painting of Patricia Scarano’s “Returning to Camp,” a 1974 painting of a Native woman riding into a camp, Sharon Attone Harjo’s 1989 ledger-drawing-style oil “We Had Plenty,” and the digitally printed, text-covered vintage photograph of a Native woman in Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie’s “We Had Plenty,” a pointed 2010 piece that reclaims the old photo with contemporary commentary.
The latter is one of a handful of works that are distinctly contemporary, joining Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s 1991 mixed-media collage, Molly Murphy Adams’ 2013 sculptural beadwork box “Relative Position” with a beaded bird on one side, and the aforementioned 2017 basketball from Gina Adams, titled “Honoring Modern Unidentified 2.”
Lari Gibbon’s large 2012 black-and-white relief print “Outgrowth” catches the eye with its large-scale and topographic depiction, a twist on the standard landscape presentation, while Nadine McHenry’s 2002’s “Tree Collage” takes a slashing, abstracted approach to the grasses of the Sandhills with a rectangle of trees glued into its center.
And Gwen Westerman’s “Wildfire’s Up North” creates a landscape out of cotton, hand-dyed using pigment and snow, and arranged with a green strip on the bottom, blue above and a small red horizon line representing fires that ravaged Alberta in 2015.
As the dates listed indicate, the vast majority of the work in the show is from the last 30 years, and much of it from the 21st century. That likely reflects a change in emphasis in the Great Plains’ collecting efforts, like most other museums, aiming to add female and Native artists.
But it’s also a reflection of the burgeoning number of women, and Native women in particular, making work that is notably strong enough to find its way into a museum’s holdings.
The oldest piece in the show is worth noting — a tiny etching of a mother bear and cub titled “Mama & Me,” done by Olive Fell circa 1930. It is very much of its time and, as such, stands in contrast with the contemporary work.
Two other pieces caught me during my visit: Jan Christensen’s evocative 2010 photograph of a farm pond at sunset that's given a kick by its title, “Near Tecumseh, Just this Side of Prison,” and Christina McPhee’s large 1993 mixed-media drawing of “Ruins: Fort Laramie Officers Quarter 1,” with its scrawling marks flying around the walls and landscape seen through the holes that were once covered with windows.
– L. Kent Wolgamott