New course on women in art offers students different experiences, perspective

Women and Art, a new art history course taught by Professor Patricia Reilly, encourages Swarthmore students to consider the role of women in the American art world. Because the class’s subject matter is often underrepresented, students in the class are enthusiastic to have a chance to learn and discuss the topics.


The course is primarily focused on modern contemporary American artists but also highlights international artists,  including Frida Kahlo and  Marina Abramovic. Reilly also includes artists with work that relates to science such as Betsy Damon and Ann Hamilton as well as founders of the feminist art movement like Faith Ringgold and transgender artists such as Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker.


Rinpoche Price-Huish ‘18 and Joelle Bueno ‘18, who students in the class, said it was one of their favorite courses this semester.


Price-Huish reflected on the academy’s scarce acknowledgement of women artists. “It’s interesting because we’ll go to the Pennsylvania Museum of Art’s website to see if they have any work from certain women artists, and it’s always currently not on view. There’s no representation even though they’re creating a lot of cool new stuff.”


“It’s wild,” Bueno agreed, “because that is really related to how women are remembered. Now you can become an artist, but who’s getting museum space?”


“Who’s getting talked about in regular art history classes?” Price-Huish ‘18 added.


This examination of museums is one of the many ways Reilly inspires thought and discussion. In addition to lectures, discussion and student presentations, Reilly invites guest speakers, including Tasha Lewis ‘12 whose piece, Butterfly Cascade, is currently on exhibit in McCabe, as well as Chie Fueki, a painter based in West Chester. The class also has field trips to the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. One reason for the field trip to New York is to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party is a large installation featuring embroidery and pottery of yonic images.


According to Price-Huish ‘18, works like The Dinner Party are particularly significant because they show the history of craft-making. “Women had a hard time getting into the art world, but they had been doing crafts forever. A lot of women are challenging that idea, incorporating aspects of things seen as craft rather than high art into their work,” she said.


This trip is important to Reilly because of her personal and professional connection to Judy Chicago. “One of the most important experiences I had in terms of the subject of this course,” she said, “was being the curator for the feminist artist Judy Chicago in my first years out of college. I curated and traveled with exhibitions of The Dinner Party and The Birth Project throughout the U.S. and Europe, and that experience made me want to teach and write about art, and to support young people in their intellectual journeys.”


Reilly says that her experiences in the field of art history help her recognize the nuances of a subject as complicated as Women and Art.


“Women in art is a broad category, and neither term has a fixed definition,” Reilly noted. “All of the artists we consider engage with issues of artistic identity and with concepts of femininity, masculinity and sexuality,” she said.


Bueno ‘18 called attention to the western emphasis in the syllabus. “We learn a lot about the canon. On the one hand, it’s not bad to learn the canon. It’s important to be part of those conversations and have that history, but what about the canon you don’t hear about?” Bueno said, adding that she found it refreshingly introspective that the class discussed the limits of its own curriculum.


Price-Huish held a similar sentiment. “I’d say it’s mainly western art. It’s also been limited to visual art. For what it’s saying it’s doing a good job as an intro and it is the first time they’re teaching the class. I like the structure. It’s generally hard to focus on everything, so you’re bound to limit your scope in some places.”


Both Price-Huish and Bueno feel that the course exposed them to new ideas and information regarding the struggles of women in the art world.


Reilly values the importance of this history and the significance of teaching a course like this at Swarthmore. “My impression is that young women are interested in the history of women, and are seeking out courses that offer these histories,” Reilly said of the class, which is made entirely up of women.


Ultimately, Reilly and her students feel that Women and Art offers a chance to learn about a rich yet often ignored subject.


Bueno noted that art and women’s art in particular can be a unique vehicle for self expression.


“There could be a whole department on Women and Art,” Price-Huish ‘18 added.


Professor Patricia Reilly’s Women and Art is in session for the Spring semester 2016.


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