Clementine Reuben Hunter (American, 1886–1988) Cane River Baptism, ca. 1950–56 Oil on paper board 19 x 23 7/8 inches The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Nell Blaine, a Virginia native who explored the intricacies of color and different styles as a painter, contracted polio in 1959 and was told she could never paint again. Despite the dire diagnosis, Blaine retaught herself to paint, and even though she was confined to a wheelchair, she continued on to have a prosperous career and travel the world.

“Art is central to my life,” Blaine said. “Not being able to make or see art would be a major deprivation.”

This quote serves as the inspiration for the newest exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art called “Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection,” which debuted at the museum on June 30.

The exhibition, along with an accompanying book published by the University of South Carolina Press, explores the lives and impacts of 42 Southern women who created art between the late 1890s and early 1960s. Each woman is highlighted in the exhibition by the display of one of her works of art, as well as a caption telling her story.

“Central to Their Lives” includes a diverse array of art, from paintings to abstract works and sculpture.

Hillary Brown, director of communications for the GMOA, said the Johnson Collection, the collection that organized the art, very intentionally decided to feature sculptors in the exhibition.

“Art is central to my life. Not being able to make or see art would be a major deprivation.”

 - Nell Blaine, female Southern artist

“Women sculptors in particular tend to get a little bit of short shrift,” Brown said. “It’s traditionally perceived as a more male field, which is ridiculous.”

Breaking the barriers

The Johnson Collection is a private collection based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that focuses on collecting art from the American South. Lynne Blackman, director of communications for the Johnson Collection, explained the goal of the collection is to “make art accessible to all.”

“We feel that rather than just holding it all here in Spartanburg, if we can send it out to different cities, we expand its exposure,” Blackman said.

The Johnson Collection spent 15 years gathering the featured works for “Central to Their Lives” and about three creating the companion book, which features contributions from 26 different scholars who offer more information about the featured artists.

Blackman said one of the collection’s founders, Susu Johnson, is a fierce advocate for women and her passion for honoring the achievements of women in the art world spurred the creation of the exhibition.

“We wanted to tell these important stories,” Blackman said.

Each of the 42 artists has a complex and amazing story, and Blackman struggled to choose any stand-outs.

There’s Willie Betty Newman, a portraitist from Tennessee who decided to leave her husband and son to pursue her artistic passions in France, where her works were exhibited at the Paris Salon.

“We wanted to tell these important stories."

 - Lynne Blackman, director of communications for the Johnson Collection

There’s painter Kate Freeman Clark, who would sign “Freeman Clark” on her paintings to hide the fact that she was a woman and was only recognized as a skilled painter after her death. Many of the women, faced with the sexism and societal constraints of the time, would sign their names in a similarly ambiguous way, or use pseudonyms to pass their work off as a man’s.

Double handicap

Working as artists in this era brought a host of challenges for all of these women, but women of color faced extra roadblocks on their path to pursuing their dreams. Loïs Mailou Jones, an accomplished artist and teacher, acknowledged these hardships.

“There was the double handicap: being a woman and being a woman of color. I kept going on, with determination. As I look back, I wonder how I’ve done it,” Jones said.


Lois Mailou Jones (American, 1905–1998) Africa, 1935 Oil on canvas board 24 x 20 inches The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Another African American artist featured in “Central to Their Lives,” Augusta Savage, left her home in Florida to travel to New York City with only $5 to her name, trying to find better opportunities in a world where few were available to women of color. She became a leader in the Harlem Renaissance movement as a sculptor and had her work displayed at the New York World’s Fair.

“Augusta Savage, as somebody who’s working in the early 20th century, as an African American woman sculptor, that’s amazing. She deserves to be highlighted,” Brown said.

The exhibit for “Central to Their Lives” will be on display until Sept. 23. The exhibition will visit museums in a total of seven states over the next three years, allowing people all over the South to learn more about the women who contributed so much to the culture and vibrancy of the region.

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