By Reanna Lavine
“Are you working hard enough? Are you keeping up our legacy?”
The attentive gazes of 15 New York suffragists ask this of us in a new exhibition by Ithaca-born artist Christine Nobles Heller. Her latest work of striking monochromatic lithographs features the women leaders who sustained the suffragist movement for more than 70 years and paved the way for many of the rights women enjoy today.
The collection includes the likenesses of many notable suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Tubman. But Heller also introduces lesser known, but no less influential leaders of the movement, many who are African American and indigenous women.
“New York State Suffragists: Drawing and Lithographs Celebrating the 2017 Centennial of Women’s Right to Vote in New York State” will be on display at The History Center of Tompkins County from Tuesday, September 19, through Saturday, November 4.
Heller said she began thinking about the project during the 2016 presidential election.
“Here was this woman running for president and I thought there must be so many women who helped her get to this point,” she said.
As she delved deeper into the history of women’s rights, the suffragist movement emerged as an obvious focal point for artistic exploration.
“I spent half my day looking for women’s biographies and photographs and the other half I would spend drawing,” Heller said of her process.
Her research yielded surprising discoveries. While small towns like Groton and Dryden had active suffrage clubs, she said, Ithaca did not. Louisa Lord Riley, whose portrait is featured in the exhibit, started a “Women’s Club” upon moving to Ithaca in the 1890s. Members of the Women’s Club studied suffrage only every third week to avoid provoking outrage from the local men. Heller said she was shocked to learn that her hometown was once so politically conservative.
Old photographs provided a starting point for the portraits. Despite the poor quality of the photographs, Heller said she pushed herself to make the drawings as recognizable as possible because “most people have an idea of what these women looked like.”
In their faces live the stories of struggle these women endured. Penetrating eyes and set mouths convey an overwhelming intensity and intelligence that Heller said “went beyond” her labors.
“It just sort of comes through,” she said. “You can’t just stand over your drawing table and say, ‘And now I’m going to put this into the eyes.’”
When Heller announced this project earlier in the year, a number of her friends quickly condemned white women suffragists who silenced women of color in order to secure the right to vote for themselves. At first Heller said she felt paralyzed.
She asked herself: “What do these women know that I don’t know?”
Through her tireless work, she began to uncover the answer.
Heller, who usually creates murals, is new to printmaking. She had just completed a 43-foot mural depicting refugees at the Martin-Mullen Art Gallery in Oneonta when Tim Sheesley, director of that space and master printer, invited her to create a series of prints with him. The suffragist project seemed a good fit for the collaboration.
The medium proved challenging, she said. Modern lithograph prints are created by drawing with greasy black crayon on a sheet of polyester or plastic film. The drawing is then etched and printed, a painstaking process. Heller completed her drawings then brought them to Sheesley to create the prints. She said it took several attempts before she created a final product that she liked.
On Tuesday, September 19, guests of the exhibit will be able to witness Heller in action. Rod Howe, executive director of The History Center, has asked her to create an 8-foot by 10-foot mural in the corridor that leads to the exhibit. Heller said the style of this installation will be more akin to her previous work than the 11-by-14-inch portraits in the exhibit.
On Friday, October 6, The History Center will host a formal opening of Heller’s exhibition, starting at 5 p.m. In addition to an artist talk at 6 p.m., guests may hear selections from a new opera commissioned by the Society for New Music. Ithaca-based composer Persis Vehar and singer Danan Tsan will perform songs from an opera based on the life of forgotten radical suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage of Fayetteville. Gage’s portrait is also included in Heller’s exhibition.
Exploring the lives of the New York suffragists has so impacted Heller, she plans to continue to research the history of women’s rights in the United States, focusing on the young, energetic women who joined the movement to ratify the 19th Amendment.
“The influence of these women is going to be with me in the way that I conduct my life personally and professionally,” she said. “They are with me now.”
Any guest who dares meet the intimate stare of Mary Burnett Talbert or the confident countenance of Juanita Breckenridge Bates is likely to leave with the same impression.