“Every artist deserves to be seen,” said Luciana McClure at the opening of the group show “Silence Breakers” at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on International Women’s Day, curated by McClure, co-founder of Nasty Women Connecticut. Most of the artworks in the exhibition — 150 in all — were made by women.
McClure linked the show theme to the #metoo movement. But the house itself has a voice as well: Each March for Women’s History Month, the Ely Center puts on an exhibition that commemorates the philanthropic work of its former owner, Grace T. Ely.
This exhibition — a collaboration between the Ely Center and Nasty Women CT — runs through Apr. 5.
“Because the place we’re collaborating with is a house and it used to be a women’s home, we’re playing with the idea of the line of a home, this line between security and insecurity, how blurred it can be inside of a home, inside of a workplace,” McClure explained. “How do we break the silence every day, and how do you interpret that with a work of art? I also think people are breaking the silence by being here. By coming together, by saying, I’m part of this. I believe in this. This is the kind of work that matters.”
To that end, at the exhibit’s opening, hundreds of visitors of all ages flowed through the Ely Center’s foyer, filling the hallways and bedrooms, talking animatedly with friends and artists. “The idea for the opening was a big house party,” said Laurie Sweet, who created the catalogue for the Nasty Women show last year at the Institute Library on Chapel Street. Explosive color, intricate shapes, and video installations nestle in every nook and cranny of the 1905 house on Trumbull Street, making it a continual adventure to wander up the stairs and through each of the rooms of the house.
Another sign of inclusion: the exhibit is unjuried, meaning that every work submitted is now on display. That means, says McClure, “not just your professional artists or just the artists that can afford to enter a show, but every single one…. That’s what the arts can do for people. It can really bring people together and it can surpass all the differences. But only if we are able to develop that platform, only if we really make sure that we stand for what we believe to be important.”
In an adjacent room, artist Lee Walther stood by her miniature tableau in sand on a table, one of a series of mixed-media assemblages on the subject of bodies designed to be interactive and interchangeable.
“This is called Free to Be Me,” she said. “This wonderful little [sunbathing] figure is able to be on the beach naked free from judgments about her body, free from verbal assaults, or piercing or lewd eyes. She’s free — she’s happy, she’s joyful, and that’s how we should be.” Walther has an artistic lineage: Her Swedish grandmother, Esther Blair, supported herself during the Depression taking “magical” photographs of women and children that she hand-tinted.
Labor, that very female word, was present in many forms throughout the show. In Howard El-Yasin’s Blue Suitcase, a cleaning woman’s uniform hangs in a small closet over a blue suitcase, suggesting that it is the unseen wearer’s only other possession. The uniform had once belonged to the artist’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping for Yale University. Visitors Megan McChesney and Kate Stephen found the piece poignant; Stephen’s sister works with hotel housekeeping teams and observed, “These are women with such full lives, and we have no idea.”
For both McChesney and Stephen, the entire exhibition had a powerful effect. “I’m hearing the voices of so many women through their work,” Stephen said. “And it’s kind of overwhelming to hear it all at once. It’s beautiful — it’s empowering — but it’s emotional.”
Two of the most arresting works in the show are the creation of students at the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA). Especially striking is the multimedia installation She and I by ECA students Aliya Hafiz and Jahnise Bennett (see above), which takes up a whole room of the first floor. A woman’s face occupies one video-screened wall; the sound of female voices recounting disturbing stories of sexual harassment fills the space, though relatively softly.
Numerous white plaster shapes on the floor at first look like chairs for viewing the video. A closer look reveals them to be figures — each subtly individual — in positions that look like crouching or maybe even cringing. Aleia Hayes, 15, also a student at ECA, volunteered to pose for one of the figures via papier-mâché. She liked the end result.
“When you see it at first, you think it’s a tarp covering up a bunch of random things,” Hayes said. “You have to look to see it’s a person. I remember when it was being made, it felt like being trapped because you’re stuck in that position,” in her case for more than an hour.
The models for the shapes were also the voices for the video. As Hayes explained, “after they made the plaster cast, they asked us all the same question: ‘When have you been in situations when men made you feel uncomfortable, and made you feel trapped or insecure?’ We told stories of real things that have happened to us, and they recorded it. And then they played it on top of this.”
Her mother, Heidi Hayes, had accompanied Aleia to the show. “It’s great that high school kids are doing this kind of work,” she said. That work includes another video piece on the second floor, a collection of computers that seem almost sentient, a vision of a future in which artificially intelligent machines question our own human motives: “Will you speak?” “Are you making it worse?”
Speaking up and speaking out is a consistent theme of the show. Visitor Darletha Busby breaks silences very literally every day in her work as an educator, a singer in the church choir, and a practitioner of the art of sign language. “We have a whole lot of power that we in years past have given up to men or anybody else,” she said. “But we do have more power than we give ourselves credit for. And so we need to start using it.”
Darletha’s husband, Leigh Busby, was walking around the gallery spaces photographing fellow artists and visitors. He moved from drawing on the iPad to developing himself as a painter; his two paintings in the show, including Africa Princess Warrior, are black-and-white acrylic on canvas. Leigh said that Darletha inspired the photo of a woman bent over as she sits.
“It’s called Spent. Working all day, the weariness. Not depression, but weariness; I need some help. I’m spent. It’s based on a few people I know,” Leigh said. “My wife is spent. She works as a teacher in the daytime; gets up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I’m looking at the picture and thinking of her. She gets home at 6 o’clock and she goes straight to the library to tutor kids, and then she goes to church. She gets home at 11 o’clock, three hours of sleep, and she’s almost 60 years old. And she’s spent. She has to slow down.”
Yet in the image, the woman’s muscular shoulders are the definition of strength. She looks as though she can carry the world. Leigh became emotional. “Right now, I’m the world, and — wow. She’s carried my weight.”
A more enigmatic work was a small, bold self-portrait, titled Epiphany, by Tiffany Johnson. “This is a recent one in my transitional phase where I’m playing with myself as a figure,” Johnson said. “I’m always into what I’m thinking about in the moment, what I’ve gone through, the luggage that I carried. It’s a reflection of where I’m at…. I think as a woman, we always carry stuff with us.”
Viewers who look closely at Loren Frank’s mixed-media work The Divine Feminine may notice some unusual materials, including dirt, sand, and leaves. “I go outside and take walks, engage with nature,” Frank said. “Bethany West is a place I like to go; there are a lot of trails around the house where I grew up. East Rock, Lake Wintergreen, Sleeping Giant, lots of places in the area.” She reaches deep into the archetypal or mythical female experience for her abstract, geometrical works. “A lot of women are marginalized — we’re paid less, our voices aren’t heard. We’re lacking the feminine element, the element that we need, the mother, the matriarch.”
But she has found the art world gratifyingly friendly. “There are a lot of amazing female artists nowadays — we’re in a building with a lot of them. My female friends are very supportive of each other. It’s a community.” One of the artistic foremothers she most admires is Hilma af Klint, considered the first abstract expressionist.
“She was a spiritual artist,” Frank said of af Klint. “She would have a group of her female friends and they would do séances. She would connect to spirits and they would tell them what to paint. These are huge, beautiful paintings. She was a great female artist.”
The presence of energetic children at the opening suggested both the wide appeal of the show and the ever-present challenge of work-life balance, for artists and art viewers alike. Collage artist Julie Graves Krishnaswami, who has three pieces in the show and works as a law librarian at Yale Law School, attended the opening with her daughter, Willa, 8, who “has a good eye” and often helps her pick out images for her collages.
Conveniently at Willa’s eye level were several collage pieces by Melanie Carr and Rashmi Talpade that gather headlines and tweets from the Trump era thus far. “She read the one about ‘going through the roof’ when dinner’s not ready,” said her aunt, Chelsea Graves, laughing since Willa can relate. Above them hung cloth speech balloons in bright colors, perhaps illustrating the need for women’s voices above the cacophony of 24/7 media coverage of our highly communicative president.
Viewers are reminded throughout the show that women — including queer and trans women — are shapeshifters, occupying many roles and identities. Photographer Barbara Loss fell in love with Cuba years ago. She said of the charismatic subject of her tryptic WE, Pedry y Roxy Rojo — who at first glance seems to be three different people — “in the description of questions about identity and gender, here’s a person whose identity is both, and it’s so much a part of him.”
In Woman, Abuela, Artist, Loss captured a different transformation in Carmen, an artist and the mother of the Cuban photographer Juan Carlos Alom. “I started photographing her, and in the middle, she reached up and undid her bun, and here she is with her hair down. And for me, that completely changed my impression also. She was so proper and so lovely, and yet this became an example for me of female beauty. These are the two Carmens, this is her granddaughter [hugging her], and it was love on both sides. Within a split second before I could even look, her hair was back up, and she was back in her artwork.”
The center’s founding family was not forgotten; a large space was devoted not only to Grace T. Ely, who founded the Ely House as a center for art in New Haven, but Ely’s Irish maid, Frances, who was responsible for both cooking for the family and cleaning the entirety of the many-chambered home.
The opening sometimes broke into a spontaneous dance party, thanks to the increasingly ecstatic mixes of DJ Dana Cobbs. The event also prefigured parties to come, with the presence of free condoms and lubricant courtesy of Planned Parenthood. (Proceeds from the month’s activities will go to Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, which will also moderate a panel discussion later in the month.)
The Ely Center has scheduled numerous other programs for the rest of March, including performances, film screenings, nights, workshops, and artist talks. For her part, Sweet is running a “knitting as protest” gathering every Sunday in March from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to create “evil eye” gloves for the March for Our Lives demonstrations on March 24.
There’s nothing didactic about “Silence Breakers,” but the energy is palpable, and the message is easy to hear.
“Listen!” said Darletha Busby. “We have a lot to say. This gives voice to women and all the issues that are going on. To speak up and break the silence — this does exactly that.”
Silence Breakers runs at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art through Apr. 5, with a closing reception on April 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. Click here for more information about hours and programming.