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Taking Inventory: Women Faculty in the Art Department

by Arthur Hove

The retirement of Eleanor Moty (featured elsewhere in this issue of the Newsletter) and the completion of Laurie Beth Clark’s current appointment as department chair, provide a logical moment for taking inventory. Moty is only the fourth woman to retire from a tenured position in the art department and Clark is only the third woman to serve as chair of the department in a chain of academic activity that reaches back nearly a hundred years.

The first woman to have a significantly visible presence in the art department was Della Wilson. A native of Alabama who earned degrees from Milliken University and Columbia Teachers College, Wilson served on the faculty from 1915 until her retirement in 1953. She also was the first woman to serve as chair of a co-educational department at the University when she chaired the art department from 1944 to 1947. Wilson was active during a time that saw the department evolve from its initial emphasis on drawing, design, and applied arts to its subsequent focus on art education during the 1930s and ‘40s. Her courses dealt with teaching methods for the elementary school and fostered a generation of art teachers who fanned out across the state and nation to provide instruction for a wide variety of art programs in the schools. She also taught classes for children during the summer. Robert Grilley, one of those students who later became a member of the art department faculty, recalled his own experience in that context. He noted that Wilson had the “ability to make each of the many children feel special, and the proposed work so engrossing and necessary….” Throughout her career she also pursued her interests in pottery, ceramics and watercolor, showing her paintings in various Wisconsin shows.

In a career that somewhat parallels Wilson’s, Helen Annen added an additional woman’s perspective to the department. A member of the faculty from 1926 until her retirement in 1963, she, too, was witness to a substantial change in the department as it moved from its original orientation to its current focus on studio art. Like Wilson, she assumed administrative duties, serving as department chair from 1949 to 1952.

Annen earned a B.F.A. from the University of Oklahoma and a M.S. from the University of Wisconsin. Her primary artistic interests were watercolor and composition. She taught courses in those areas, providing students with both technical and theoretical knowledge. At the same time, she made special efforts to give her students opportunities to range beyond the classically academic approaches to art. She took them out of the classroom and into the fresh air to observe what was going on around them. She encouraged group critiques of individual works and provided opportunities for students to display their work in locally organized exhibitions.

Her personal views and her teaching efforts helped establish the understanding that an artist’s work is a form of scholarly exploration, similar to the results of research found in other areas of the university. This perspective has been an important consideration in promoting an understanding of how the visual and performing arts enhance the university’s total academic offerings. It was a concept that was taking firm root when Marjorie Kreilick arrived in 1953 to begin teaching a variety of courses dedicated to helping students explore the intricacies of design and color.

Kreilick’s courses became part of the foundation elements in the art department curriculum. They also were integrated into the design programs of home economics (now known as the School of Human Ecology) and in the scenic design program of the theater department of the College of Letters and Science.

A graduate of Ohio State University and Cranbrook Academy, Kreilick originally trained as a sculptor. Throughout her career as an artist, she accepted several commissions to do mosaics and murals for various public and private firms and organizations. Examples of her work can be found at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the State Office Building in Milwaukee, the First National Bank in Chicago, and in other buildings in Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She further demonstrated he artistic versatility through her paintings, regularly included in the quadrennial art department faculty shows, and her costume designs for a variety of contemporary dance productions.

As an educator, she was a dedicated teacher who served as a visiting artist and lecturer in this country and abroad. She also was particularly effective in preparing her students—who were consistent winners of student excellence awards, for careers in art.

Another important aspect of Kreilick’s UW-Madison career was her involvement in the University’s tradition of shared governance. She served on a wide range of committees, both at the University level and in the School of Education and the department.

The dedication of these four women pioneers has provided the basis for a gradual righting of the gender balance within the art department. The imbalance is not unique to Madison. It has been a long-standing reality dating back to the 19 th century when women were cast in the role of defenders of the culture and thereby expected to teach but not necessarily create art.

Howard Singerman, a scholar of the evolution of art instruction in America, visited the department in Madison in March 2000 as part of the annual visiting artist/critic program. His important 1999 monograph—Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University—has highlighted the social and educational forces that shaped this background. His findings are useful in understanding the long-overdue shift in balance. He notes that:

“While many college and university studio art departments began as teacher training programs, the institution of the M.F.A. as a professional (and explicitly not a teaching) degree for artists in the 1930s, followed hard by the G.I. Bill in the 1940s, worked to segregate the university-trained artist, even the artist-teacher, from the art teacher along gender lines. These displacements are still at work as is the ‘problem’ of the number of women students. In 1931 it was estimated that 70 percent of students taking courses in art and art history were women. In 1970-71 women earned 60.5 percent of all studio art degrees and 77.8 percent of all art history degrees; from 1987 to 1992 women earned 58 percent of M.F.A. degrees. And yet in the early 1970s women accounted for only 20.5 percent of full-time faculty in college art and art history departments. By 1992 the percentage was 29.5 in graduate studio art programs, and in 1996 it was 31.”

At Madison, the gradual redress in this imbalance began in practical terms with the appointment of additional women artists to tenure track positions in the early 1970s. Among the initial appointees, no longer on the faculty, were: Nancy Buchanan, Deborah Butterfield, Wendy Edwards, Rachel Mason, Susanne Slavick, and Pat Vecchione.

Women currently holding tenured or tenure track faculty appointments include: Laurie Beth Clark, Sonya Clark, Patricia Fennell, Michelle Grabner, Theresa Marche, Nancy Mladenhoff, Eleanor Moty, Frances Myers, Leslee Nelson, Carol Pylant, Mariama Ross, Elaine Scheer, Diane Sheehan, and Gail Simpson. Lisa Gralnick will join the faculty during the 2001-02 acacademic year as the newly appointed successor to the retiring Eleanor Moty.

Their presence is changing the profile of the department as it responds to new challenges and opportunities in the early years of the new millennium.