“Audacity: The March to Women’s Rights,” an exhibit at the Kansas City Kansas Community College Art Gallery, is part of a citywide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment: Women’s Right to Vote.
Upon entering, viewers immediately see a banner centrally suspended within the gallery bearing the word “Breathe” incised in thin script revealing a radiant yellow ground overlaid with mottled, multi-colored paint.
“Breathe” directly references the murder of George Floyd and is a recent piece by Gloria Heifner, a Kansas City artist whose paintings of 10 American women — from Sojourner Truth to Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — take center stage in the show. While the banner invokes the crises of police brutality and systemic racism gripping the nation, it also resonates with the overarching themes of marches, protests and solidarity among women who were often despised and treated brutally for their courageous efforts to speak out against slavery and their fight to ratify the 19th Amendment and the unratified Equal Rights Amendment.
Curated by Polly Alice McCann, “Audacity” is a layered project bursting with history, poetry and prescient messages about ongoing struggles for equality in our country and around the world. Arranged in rough chronological order, it features art and poetry by three Kansas City artists — Gloria Heifner (whose poem, “Audacity,” inspired the exhibition), Sharon Rodriguez and McCann — with additional poems by Candice Kelsey, Linda Neal Reising, Catharine Phillips and Joan Gerstein.
Amid a packed show including mixed media works by McCann and a single photograph by Rodriguez, Heifner’s portraits are most prominent, arranged like an historic march starting with Sojourner Truth and ending with Gloria Steinem. Heifner captures the intense, determined gazes of a diverse selection of women through photo-realist renditions layered upon thick, opaque grounds of swirling, poured acrylic paint with overlaid quotes attributed to the subjects:
“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway” – Sojourner Truth
“The Truth will set you free. But First, it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” – Ruth Bader Ginsberg quoting Sarah Grimke (1837)
In a recent conversation, McCann described being inspired by Heifner as a studio mate at DesignWerx in North Kansas City since 2018, and as a kindred spirit, for “paying attention to what’s happening in the nation.”
McCann was also compelled to include an elegant photograph by Sharon Rodriguez, whom she met at the InterUrban ArtHouse, depicting “Youlanda,” standing in her open front doorway. Rodriguez is recognized for her photographs of homeless people in Overland Park. We learn, from Youlanda’s powerful accompanying narrative, that she survived abuse, addiction, prostitution and homelessness with the help of Johnson County Mental Health.
“Youlanda,” the final portrait in “Audacity: The March to Women’s Rights,” offers a starkly personal affirmation of self-empowerment, strength and inspiration gained from overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The Kansas City Kansas Community College Art Gallery, 7250 State Ave., Kansas City, Kan., will host an online Zoom reception for “Audacity” from 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 9, with a gallery talk by Gallery Director, Shai Perry, exhibition curator, Polly McCann, the artists, and featured poets. The exhibit continues in the KCKCC Art Gallery, located on the lower level of the Jewell Building, through Dec. 10. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday – Thursday and by appointment; masks are required. For more information, contact Shai Perry, 913.288.7408, or visit www.facebook.com/KCKCCArtGallery.