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A surprising number of acclaimed women artists They have left Berkeley. They worked in a wide range of media and styles and came from many different backgrounds. Here are a few we’d like to bring to your attention because their work was strikingly original and their messages had an urgency that can still be felt today. And of course, they had a good story to tell.
It took Jay DeFeo almost eight years to complete his painting. The Rose. During that time, she worked on little else. It was, as she put it, “an idea that had a center.” By the time she finished in 1966, the canvas had become “a marriage between painting and sculpture,” so full of oil paint that she had to pin it out of the bay window of her second-floor apartment in New York. her in San Francisco. After that, she did not touch oil for another 16 years, experimenting instead with collage, photography, and other media.
Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1929, DeFeo became a distinctly Californian artist. He received his BA and MA from Berkeley (’50, MA ’51) and joined a community of San Francisco Beat artists, writers and musicians who were exploring new forms of expression and life. (DeFeo was in the audience with Jack Kerouac when Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time.) When she died of cancer in 1989, The Rose was in storage at the San Francisco Art Institute. Twenty-five years later, he resurfaced and now lives at the Whitney in New York.
In 1942, Mine Okubo and his brother were incarcerated at the Tanforan “assembly center” in San Bruno, California, where they slept in straw sacks in horse stables that reeked of manure. They were then sent to Topaz, a camp in Utah where they would remain until 1944. President Roosevelt had just issued an executive order that resulted in the forced “evacuation” of all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. Okubo had studied art and anthropology at Berkeley (’35, MA ’36) and, ironically, before Pearl Harbor, his work was encouraged by the government through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Now, as a prisoner of the government, she turned her pen against him, ceaselessly recording the true indignities of the camps. She sketched the living conditions, the lack of privacy, and the boredom. While she was still hospitalized, one of her drawings of soldiers on duty was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). From those 2,000 sketches of the camp, she created a graphic memory, Citizen 13660. One of the first personal accounts of the camps and one of the first graphic novels, it won the American Book Award in 1984.
Miné and Toku standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California, 1942
In 1951, Maria Fuller she was fired from her job as an art teacher in Point Richmond, California, for refusing to sign an oath against communism. Fearing what this could mean for leftists like her, she and her husband, American modernist Robert McChesney, drove their caravan to Guadalajara, Mexico. They only stayed a year, but she impressed.
Drawing inspiration from pre-Columbian art and mythology, Fuller began building totemic sculptures made of vermiculite, sand, and cement. While the rest of his Northern California contemporaries focused on Abstract Expressionism, Fuller became a major outlier. An avowed feminist, she believed that society could “override all patriarchal ideology and vision” by going back to ancient cultures and thus arrive at “an authentic concept of women and men”.
His refusal to sign the anti-communist oath was not his first act of resistance. At Cal, he had graduated with straight A’s in philosophy, but became disillusioned with “studying philosophy and reading stuff from a bunch of dead white men, while the world was exploding around me.” So she left Berkeley and became a welder at the Richmond shipyards. Through her large, often public sculptures, she found a way to marry her leftist ideology with a reality she could touch and feel.
shirin neshat left Iran to study art at Berkeley (’79, MFA ’82) just before the Islamic Revolution. When she returned more than a decade later, she was shocked by the country’s descent into religious militancy. Thus she began the obsession that would define the rest of her career: the female experience in male-dominated spaces. She began by exploring themes of female identity, femininity, and Islamic fundamentalism through photographs of veiled women, sometimes with guns, overlaid with calligraphy. At the center of much of her work is the question of women’s relationship to religion, and her art tells a nuanced story, portraying both women who chose to adhere to Islamic fundamentalism and those who they were persecuted by him. In 1999, his film Turbulent won a prize from the Venice Biennale. He contrasted the experience of a man singing in front of an audience of men with a woman singing in an empty room. His work has been shown all over the world, but never in Iran, where it is banned.
As a boy, the painter Squeak Carnwath he was disappointed to learn that Joan Miró was not a woman. She didn’t know many female artists, so she said, “We had to come up with our own role models.” Later, at the California College of Arts and Crafts, she noticed that the professors were almost always men, although the majority of the students were women. When he first joined the Berkeley faculty in 1982, at the urging of Joan Brown (see main bar), he told his classes, “Look around you, the two guys in this class will be in a gallery before you.” Unless they work hard.”
Carnwath was born in 1947 in Abington, Pennsylvania. While much of his work is characterized by grids and bands of contrasting color, his later paintings are looser, with free-floating icons and words. Often the paintings include words or simple iconography that suggests a broader social concern, but with ample room for interpretation.
These days, Carnwath is focused on protecting the past for the sake of the future. In 2000 she created the Artists’ Legacy Foundation. “It is meant to take care of the art works of artists who have died and manage them in the future,” she explained. “It costs money to manage and promote someone’s work after they’re gone. Someone has to be the absentee artist.”