Celebrating female innovators at the Racine Art Museum

These craft artists are legendary

By Lois Alter Mark,

Lena Vigna, Curator of Exhibitions, Racine Art Museum — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark

You’d probably be surprised to learn that the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin is home to the largest and most significant contemporary craft collection in North America.

And that’s fitting because RAM is full of surprises – plus more than 9,500 pieces by top artists from around the world. The museum recognizes craft – ceramics, fibers, glass, metals, polymer, wood – as fine art by presenting those works alongside more traditional media like painting and sculpture.

Craft, some forms of which have been connected to "women's work," can offer insight into what a society values. Select works from contemporary artists in RAM's collection hint at a subtle but significant message in women’s history.

“Creative women have always had something to say but there have often been obstacles to their voices being heard,” according to Lena Vigna, Curator of Exhibitions at the Racine Art Museum. “By drawing attention to their efforts and their stories, we affirm the role of art as a means of investigating, innovating and subverting.”

According to Vigna, “The artists represented here are just a few of those who have used their work or their practice to challenge a tradition, an assumption or a mindset.”

Challenge your own assumptions with a visit to Racine and RAM.

“Sampler” by Barbara Brandel

"Sampler" by Barbara Brandel — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

An early proponent of wearable art, Barbara Brandel spent nearly 30 years working with fiber and textiles, winning numerous awards for her wearable tapestry garments and wall pieces.

This coat references the historical embroidery samplers young women created centuries ago, playing on their function of teaching needlework skills but, more subtly, also teaching “proper” behavior through moralizing text about virtue and education. The statement sewn here was popularized by abortion rights activists in the late 20th century.

Gold Brooch by Lisa Gralnick

Gold Brooch by Lisa Gralnick — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

An influential Professor of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and highly decorated jewelry artist, Lisa Gralnick continues to push the boundaries of metal both as a material and a conceptual practice.

Over the past few decades, as there was a greater push toward exploring content and meaning in craft, Gralnick helped literally forge a path for women in the metals arena, an area in which she could use her “analytical mind and precise mechanical skills,” and which could almost be considered the STEM of the art world.

Star Series by Toshiko Takaezu

Star Series by Toshiko Takaezu — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

One of the world’s leading ceramic artists, Toshiko Takaezu is credited with helping to elevate the medium from the production of simply functional vessels to a fine art. She revolutionized the field, combining aesthetics across cultures and using her surfaces like canvases.

Her largest sculptural installation, the Star Series, is considered one of the most significant bodies of work in the Racine Art Museum’s collection. The 14 large-scale pieces create an environment to walk through, producing a unique and moving experience.

“Untitled #9” by Toots Zynsky

"Untitled #9" by Toots Zynsky — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

One of the few women who made a name in studio glass in its early years, Toots Zynsky pioneered a distinctive filet de verre – “glass thread” – technique that has become her signature.

Zynsky studied with world-renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly, then went on to create works that explore color in rich, vibrant and totally individual ways.

“Tea Kettle” Brooch by Melanie Bilenker

"Tea Kettle" Brooch by Melanie Bilenker — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Melanie Bilenker represents a generation of female jewelry artists who take on history and the weight of stereotypes to produce surprising and poignant modern heirlooms – or, in her case, hair-looms.

Just like the Victorians who kept lockets of hair to secure memories of loved ones, Bilenker uses her own hair in her work to document intimate moments of everyday life. By using a piece of herself in her storytelling, she links the complex topics of domesticity and femininity, and makes “home” a provocative and worthwhile topic.

“Blank Page” by Renie Breskin Adams

"Blank Page" by Renie Breskin Adams — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Quietly subversive, Renie Breskin Adams has followed her own path in terms of subject matter and process, creating embroidered and stitched narratives that emphasize intimate moments or humorous situations.

“I consider myself a low-profile women’s advocate,” she said. “In the 1970s, I was lucky to find a first teaching position in home economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While many women were engaged in overt political action, I was engaged in the struggles of being liberated. I loved teaching and helped women (and a few men) find the authority within themselves. My work, in general, communicates a woman’s intuitiveness and sensibility.”

“Procreation” by Joyce J. Scott

"Procreation" by Joyce J. Scott — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Regarded as the 'Queen of Beadwork,' Joyce J. Scott uses her art – jewelry, sculpture, weaving, printmaking – as a platform for powerful social commentary.

She became a MacArthur Fellow in 2016 at the age of 67, and she continues to push the boundaries of each medium she uses to make meaningful statements about history, race, gender, class and politics.

Woven Square Brooch by Arline Fisch

Woven Square Brooch by Arline Fisch — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Considered a pioneer of contemporary American art jewelry, Arline Fisch started the metalsmithing program at San Diego State University and taught there for more than 40 years.

Fisch is known for introducing non-traditional methods and materials into the field of jewelry making. She incorporates techniques like weaving and crocheting in her jewelry, and in 1985, she was declared a “Living Treasure of California” by the State Assembly.

Woodland Ruffle Cuff by Elise Winters

Woodland Ruffle Cuff by Elise Winters — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Elise Winters is recognized as one of the country’s leading polymer artists and jewelry designers. She has broken boundaries for artists interested in polymer, a medium many of us know as Fimo or Sculpey, and raised it to a fine art.

An advocate and private collector for decades, Winters lobbied to get the medium into museum collections, and helped to establish the Racine Art Museum as the institutional centerpiece for polymer art.

“Village Expert” by Yoko Sekino-Bove

"Village Expert" by Yoko Sekino-Bove — Photo courtesy of Racine Art Museum

Born in Japan, Yoko Sekino-Bove started out as a graphic designer. She was recognized as an emerging artist by the Ceramic Arts Daily Council, and continues to gain more and more attention for blending her personal history with broader social and cultural issues.

This piece is from her “Genuine Fake China Series," which she calls her “quiet resistance against the cultural political situation in our time, of isolation and confrontation.” Each piece features a Chinese/Japanese proverb on one side, with its English equivalent on the other.

“It is my attempt to construct a bridge over the gap and start conversations about so many profound ideas we share even in different languages and cultures. Seems like we can use more of those reminders about how similar we are, now more than ever. So please use my teapot to serve a cup of green tea, maybe from Starbucks.”