Book Review

Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana's Historical Women Artists

By Judith Vale Newton

& Carol Ann Weiss

Indiana Historical Society Press;

$59.95

It's hard to know exactly why women painters are less likely to be remembered than their male counterparts. Historically, women have been less encouraged than men to pursue careers that jeopardized more domestic pursuits; and, often, their work was overshadowed by that of their more focused spouses, who were not tethered to the home. But there were those who persevered, whether or not they chose a career as an artist rather than a homemaker, or they simply did their best to balance the two - often at a cost. The fact remains, with some exceptions, that female artists historically have had greater difficulty finding both the time and support to make a serious go of art.

This is the crux of Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana's Historical Women Artists, a formidable tome authored by local art writers Judith Vale Newton and Carol Ann Weiss. (Both have connections to the magazine Arts Indiana, as do I: Both Newton and I are past editors-in-chief, and Weiss was a columnist and visual art editor.) Newton and Weiss have collaborated before on art historical books, and this may be their most ambitious yet.

Published by Indiana Historical Society Press (2004; $59.95), this handsome ... er, lovely volume reflects a noble effort on the part of Newton and Weiss to recognize the artistic efforts and successes (against great odds, in many cases) of Indiana women over the past 125 years or so. The well-researched, encyclopedic work remembers 100 women artists, 40 of whom are treated with journalistic essays on their lives. The stories are told from the vantage point of personal struggles as well as artistic ones, and serve less as an art historical analysis. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes this lengthy book so readable and accessible to a larger audience. And yet, clearly, Newton and Weiss know their stuff, often putting the text in context of what was going on artistically at the time. The biographically compelling stories are accompanied by top-rate reproductions of the work - rendering the book both coffee table and research library worthy.

But what about the art? While even a color plate in a high-end reproduction has its limits, it's easily apparent that the work of many of these women artists rivaled that of the men painting at the time.

What's most striking about Skirting the Issue is how similar the issues are today. While women certainly earn more recognition now than in the past, their struggles remain. Balance is certainly hard-won. And we have much room for improvement. History is at its best when the past sheds light on the present, and offers solutions to the problems of the future. Kudos to Newton and Weiss for doing just that.

Creating History: Indiana's Historic Women Artists, an exhibition including artwork from 38 historic women artists of Indiana, is now touring throughout Indiana. The exhibition is currently on view at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, and will be on view at the Irvington Historical Society in Indianapolis from March 18-May 15. For more information, call 232-1878.

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