Women artists in the United States must scale a tall mountain to gain parity with their male peers, and Sacramento’s Kathy Lemke Waste will be leading an assault by one key expedition party.
Last month, Waste began a two-year term as president of the board of American Women Artists. The organization comprises roughly 700 visual artists in the United States and Canada, Waste said, but some women won’t even join out of concern that it’s a ticket to automatic second-class citizenship.
“Of the working artists today, at least 51 percent of them are women,” Waste said, “but only 5 percent of the permanent holdings of museums of this country that are up on the wall at any given time are by women artists. … In any given year, only 25 percent of the special shows that open in a museum are by women artists.”
While women work alone every day to shift this balance, Waste said, there’s strength in working together.
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“As a group, we are able to create exhibition realities that simply did not exist before,” she said. “We had editorial coverage in four magazines on our show in Cape Cod, and right now in four leading art magazines, we’ve gotten coverage for (an upcoming) Booth Museum exhibit.”
Erin Coe, who was longtime chief curator of the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, N.Y., presided as awards juror for the Cape Cod show, AWA’s 17th Annual Member Show & National Juried Competition. As she studied the paintings, Coe said she was struck by the sparks of imagination, the originality and the consistent quality.
“We’re talking about artists who are really sustaining one of the great traditions in American art, which is realism and representational work,” she said. “It’s not an alienating kind of art….Why do you think Georgia O’Keeffe is so popular? Do you know why? She’s accessible. Yet there’s also a lot of conceptualism and there’s a lot of abstraction in her work.”
The works in the exhibit continued in that same vein, taking a respected tradition in a new direction, Coe said, and it brought out an audience that packed the Cape’s Addison Gallery. Coe was unprepared for the impact that the awards had on recipients. She recalled how one sculptor cried as she accepted the award.
“A woman that I gave an award to for sculpture from Arizona,” Coe said, “she had tears in her eyes. The sculpture she did was just exquisite and a lot of creativity went into it. For her, it was validation after years of exhibiting her work.”
Waste, a graduate of Elk Grove High School, knows that feeling. She had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications studies from Sacramento State. She worked for 15 years as a professor of communications and theater at Chico State. But for years, she studied art on the side with classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. Then, later in Chico, she studied with respected figurative artist Sal Casa.
In 2000, she finally got the courage to enter a piece in the AWA’s juried competition, and she got in. After several years of being selected for the show, she received an invitation to join AWA. She is now a master signature member, and she’s been on the board since 2005.
Arts patrons Ted and Melza Barr, whose generosity has allowed the Crocker Art Museum to extensively expand its collection, began acquiring Waste’s work in 1999. They own nearly a dozen of her pieces – a bold red geranium, detailed studies of seashells, a martini glass, a fruit tart and more – but it was Waste’s display of skill in “Night Lemon” that hooked the Barrs on her work.
“It’s a painting of a single lemon in a low glass pitcher, and it was on a black background. It jumped out at us and caught our eyes. I think it was because it’s a Meyer lemon. It’s an orange-y lemon rather than a bright yellow. The lemon is very realistic, and then in the glass pitcher, the reflections are all abstract.”
Waste shows her work at the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento, the Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, and the Bonner David Galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz. It’s time, she said, to send the elevator down for other women.
“When people start to hear the message from (experts) at Erin Coe’s level, then they start to take us more seriously,” Waste said. “That’s one of the things I can do, find those people and get them involved with us.”
She and other AWA board members plan to start an advisory board with influential gallery owners and museum leaders, she said, and want to recruit people from the legal, accounting and other key professions to serve on their board. They also will continue organizing shows at galleries and museums.
Waste already has increased exposure for the organization by creating a Facebook page and revamping the website, said Bethanne Kinsella Cople, AWA’s immediate past president. She also enlisted Sacramento attorney Chris Delfino and Nonprofit Resource Center founder Jan Stohr to guide AWA on rewriting bylaws and improving financial systems.