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Focus on the Women

Donna Granata’s masterful documentation of Ventura County artists has been widely celebrated. What you may not know is that her archives are sexually egalitarian—a rarity when it comes to art history.

By Maxine Hurt

Photos by Donna Granata.

“Women throughout art history haven’t gotten a fair shake,” Donna Granata says bluntly, not a trace of doubt in her voice. A documentarian of local artists and the executive director of Focus on the Masters, a nonprofit art appreciation program she founded in 1994, Granata is an artist herself—an internationally published, award-winning painter turned photographer. And coincidentally, her matter-of-fact statement is exactly what I’d been thinking during a recent visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I was strolling through the museum’s European paintings collection and came upon a richly hued still life depicting an assembly of flowers encircling an artist’s palette. While the painting was arresting, at the time I found the description just as provocative: Charlotte Eustache Sophie de Faligny-Damas Marquise de Grollier; France, 1742-1828; Still Life. An Homage to van Spaendonck, circa 1780-1790. “Charlotte” painted this? Not Claude or Carlo or Cristofano? I reread the description then attempted to recall another female artist from this time period. I could list off male artists like a butler announcing guests at a ball, but when it came to females the list ended up woefully short. For Granata, an art historian, this is simply a reality of art history. “I think it’s really unfortunate that there is this disproportionate amount of women to men in museums and galleries,” she says. “It’s changing in modern times, but not as rapidly as I would like.”

It’s not as if female artists did not exist back then; where there is life, there is art, whether it is the product of men or women. But sexism, strict adherence to traditional gender roles, rampant religious subjugation, and myriad other factors have historically hindered female involvement and adequate acknowledgement in the arts. As Granata puts it, “There have always been great female artists—they just aren’t household names. Often their histories were fraught with horrible scenarios of them being taken advantage of.”

A graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography, Granata launches into a story about one her favorite female artists: Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia’s story has multiple conflicting accounts, most sensational, others with questionable accuracy. Considered to be a superior representative of the school of Caravaggio at a very young age, Artemisia was raped by a fellow painter who refused to marry her. Her father sued the painter, and authorities tortured Artemisia in an attempt to force her into admitting she was the seductress. Her assailant accused Artemisia of everything from promiscuity to incest. Artemisia went on to be become the first female painter to join the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

“We know about these people,” Granata says, “because someone took the time to write about them. There are so many other artists that have just fallen into complete obscurity.” Equally disturbing, she explains, are cases where the artist’s history is rewritten, glamorized, or in the case of female artists, documented according to superficialities rather than artistic merit.

And here lies a component of what has become Donna’s life passion. By developing an archive consisting of oral histories, videotaped interviews, correspondences, media coverage, examples of the artist’s work, and a photographic portrait of the artist, Focus on the Masters has become that “someone”—in this case, an organization using an egalitarian approach to archive Ventura County artists. “When I established Focus on the Masters, I really made a conscious effort to document as many women as men,” Granata explains. “When you take a good look at the archive you’ll see that. … It was just the right thing to do.” FOTM also chooses artists from a diverse range of artistic disciplines who have demonstrated mastery of their medium, garnered a significant level of peer recognition, and contributed to the cultural history of Ventura County.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t always someone like Donna around. But as she would say, “History is now.” Which happens to be the name of her current Focus on the Masters Portrait Series at the Fred Kavli Theatre Art Gallery in the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. The exhibit features 116 of the 138 total portraits that Donna and her volunteers composed and shot, each of them invoking a thoughtful and authentic intimacy. Considering my recent visit to LACMA, I was drawn to the female portraits and interested to see how Donna visually documented these artists.

In one image, Ventura sculptor Michele Chapin is seen sitting indoors among an assortment of jagged stones, with a lyrical swan-shaped sculpture and sharp, rusty saw in the background. The definitive yet shapely line of Michele’s jaw is shown in profile. “She is a powerhouse, yet there is this very delicate and feminine side to her,” says Donna. Anne Graumlich, the Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at The Museum of Ventura County, agrees: “In 2003 I curated an exhibit called Powerful Beauty: Images of Ventura County Women, and I selected that photo of Michele by Donna because I thought is was all about powerful beauty.”

In another portrait, Donna presents a dignified, strategically posed woman “reclining” on a red velvet fainting couch. The subject is Ojai glass artist Teal Rowe—a woman unlikely to lounge or faint, someone who forges tirelessly in a craft still dominated by men. With her back ramrod straight, Teal dangles an alabaster elbow over the arm of the couch while wearing an intricate glass bodice. According to Donna, “This was a very deliberate pose; it’s my Olympia, a tribute to art history.”

In Granata’s spirited portrait of the late Beatrice Wood—the Ojai ceramist who when asked the secret of her long life famously said, “I owe it all to chocolate and young men.”—the 103-year-old artist is seated in an Indian sari surrounded by four shirtless men offering silver trays of chocolates. Donna later received a letter from Beatrice, just one month before she passed on. In in she wrote, “Now that the years have faded into a never-never land, all I have left to reassure me my life is worthwhile to hang on to is that beautiful photograph you took of me surrounded by four beautiful specimens of manhood…”

As Donna tells me stories of women in art history, stories of contemporary artists in Ventura County, and the story of her life, I remember someone saying that behind every successful woman is another woman. Behind Donna, there are many. And the list grows fivefold every year. With the help of FOTM, there is no doubt that the artistic legacy of Ventura County women (and of course, men) will thrive. No rewritten histories or accidental exclusions. No tragic descents into obscurity for these ladies.

11-01-2008

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