Rachelle Gardner-Roe is a visual artist with a talent for research and a love of podcasts. These interests and abilities have fused in her latest project, “Femin Is,” a series of 13 portraits of 18 women — writers, artists in various media, jazz vocalists, educators, curators — who have lived and worked mainly in Kansas City since the 1960s.
The “Femin Is” exhibition of painted portraits was first shown at Counter Point in the Crossroads Arts District in July 2017 and then in September at The Writers Place. Each portrait features a silhouetted likeness of the sitter against a unique background.
Gardner-Roe asked each of her subjects to reveal a particular written work, whether a poem, a phrase, a song or a book, that was personally important to them. Artist Linda Lighton, for example, selected Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” In her portrait and others, the written words were then abstracted, repeated and woven together to provide the sitter’s backdrop.
Gardner-Roe often utilizes different kinds of lace in her work, and these cherished texts appropriately morphed into a kind of graphic, two-dimensional variety of her preferred textile. “We can’t always control what we look like . . . but we can control what we value and treasure,” is what the artist wanted to convey in the “literate” portraits she created.
There is another component to the portraits of the 18 women, making them truly multi-faceted. Gardner-Roe interviewed her subjects, and these conversations are accessible on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play, through her website KC Art Pie www.kcartpie.com.
As of this writing, 10 of the 13 “Femin Is” podcasts have been posted. The subjects, including painter Philomene Bennett, writer and curator Elisabeth Kirsch, poet Gloria Vando Hickok and Wild Women vocalists Geneva Price, Millie Edwards Nottingham and Lori Tucker, discuss their work, influences and challenges, but also honestly discuss what it was like being a female artist years ago in Kansas City. At times, the stories of their struggles with limited opportunities and sexism offer a great contrast to the current working environment for artists here. At other moments, we hear about issues that unfortunately have not gone away.
Creating art in one’s studio can be an isolating experience and Gardner-Roe was anxious to share her experiences as well as hear the stories of other women artists. She was particularly struck by the experience of Janet Kuemmerlein, who remained true to her desire to be an artist even after her husband’s death left her a single parent to four children. Although Gardner-Roe feels lucky that she and others of her generation have managed to avoid many of the sexist experiences described in the podcasts, she nonetheless acknowledges their relevance. “If we don’t know where we have been in the past, how can we know where we are going?”
Gardner-Roe hopes to find a third venue for the exhibition in 2018, to mark the celebration of Women’s History Month in March. She may do a second season of podcasts, adding to a roster that includes artist Cyncha Jeansonne, UMKC’s Women’s Center director Arzie Umali, Rightfully Sewn president Jennifer Lapka and art historian and educator Paula Rose. This spring Gardner-Roe will have an exhibit of new artworks at Weinberger Fine Art.