A Few Good Women

As The Mint celebrates its 80th birthday, the museum honors the women who nurtured it—and opens two new female-centric exhibitions.

Ethel Schwabachter, Antigone I, 1958. Oil pain on canvas. 50 5/8 x 82 1/4 in. Collection of Christopher C. Schwabacher and Brenda S. Webster. Copyright Estate of Ethel Schwabacher.

Ethel Schwabachter, Antigone I, 1958. Oil pain on canvas. 50 5/8 x 82 1/4 in. Collection of Christopher C. Schwabacher and Brenda S. Webster. Copyright Estate of Ethel Schwabacher.

Charlotte is known for a few things—banking, NASCAR, Cam Newton. What we’re not known for is our historic preservation efforts. Fortunately, though, Mary Myers Dwelle saw the value in preserving the past.

In 1932, when our U.S. Mint branch (yes, Charlotte was literally printing money before bankers began metaphorically printing it) was slated for demolition, Dwelle fought to save it.

It was moved, in 1936, from Uptown to the heart of Eastover where it became North Carolina’s first art museum and the cultural center Dwelle wanted her hometown to have. The Mint has been a cultural hub ever since.

In honor of the big 8-0, the museum with two locations (Randolph Road and Uptown) has branded this fiscal year as “The Year of the Woman.” And on Oct. 22 (80 years to the day after the Mint’s birth) the museum will open two new exhibitions —“Women of Abstract Expressionism” (organized by the Denver Art Museum) and “Fired Up: Women in Glass.”

Big and Bold

The Abstract Expressionism show is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the often-unsung women affiliated with the movement’s 1945-60 heyday.

People know the work of Jackson Pollack (“Jack the Dripper,” as TIME dubbed him in 1956), but may not know his wife, Lee Kasner, was important enough to merit her own MoMA retrospective. We may recognize a Willem de Kooning painting without realizing his wife, Elaine de Kooning, was herself a significant artist.

Abstract Expressionism was seen as a “masculine way of making art,” says Jon Stuhlman, a senior curator at the Mint. The women who were part of the movement weren’t as visible in a genre known for what Stuhlman called “aggressive” painting. (Think of the physical nature of Pollack’s work and the way it explodes across the canvas.)

But the movement was about more than just “big, messy brushstrokes,” he says. Helen Frankenthaler, for instance, stained her canvases, giving them a layer of depth before her first brushstroke had been applied.

The exhibition combines about 50 wall-scale, colorful canvases by 12 of the movement’s key women, including Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, in addition to Frankenthaler, Krasner, and de Kooning.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

“Fired Up” is a collaborative effort between The Mint and the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Co-curated by the Mint’s Annie Carlano and Toledo’s senior curator of decorative arts and glass Jutta Page, “Fired Up” examines the achievements of women working with glass, beginning with the male-dominated Studio Glass Movement of the 1960s.

The show includes close to 40 functional objects—all from the Toledo Museum’s unrivalled collection.

Until now, there has never been a museum exhibition honoring women glassmakers. Carlano notes that female masters of the form have previously been reluctant to be grouped together by gender. But younger artists decided they wanted their story told.

“In the early days of the Studio Glass Movement, women weren’t really allowed to play with the founding fathers,” Carlano says. “Glassmaking requires physical strength and money. It’s not a solitary practice. It takes five people who have to keep trading off the glass on heavy iron rods.”

People believed women weren’t strong enough for the work—and women often lacked the financial means for a proper studio operation.

But once women did prove themselves in the field, they distinguished themselves by their subject matter. Women tended toward pure abstraction, Carlano says. Dale Chihuly—the most famous glassmaker working today—creates abstract forms that are rooted in nature. Not so with many women glassmakers.

Carlano is excited to introduce audiences to Karen LaMonte’s works, which she says are like “apparitions” but clothed in drapery reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture. And she described Silvia Levenson’s glass-and-textile work as “arresting.”

Women have always been integral to the Mint. The first work in the permanent collection was of a woman—Queen Charlotte, painted by Allan Ramsay in 1762. The Mint’s prized ceramics collection was donated primarily by two extraordinary collectors—M. Mellanay Delhom and Daisy Wade Bridges. And today the Mint is led by a woman—president and CEO Dr. Kathleen V. Jameson.

Since at least Mary Myers Dwelle’s day, Charlotte has been a city where determined women can accomplish extraordinary things.