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Working Women: Gerte Hacker & Elise Newman
January 25, 2019 @ 5:30 pm - March 2, 2019 @ 4:00 pm
With the proliferation of women in contemporary art, it is hard to remember a time when gender inequality was truly rampant, and few women dreamed of supporting themselves with their creative endeavors.
Elise Newman and Gerte Hacker were exceptions. As women, they made a living off their art in Northeast Ohio when it was almost unheard of to do so. Though Hacker and Newman worked in different media, they shared a passionate, entrepreneurial spirit which allowed them to negotiate the world of art as women in mid-century America.
Hacker began her career studying painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art with Rolf Stoll, one of Ohio’s foremost portrait painters and received additional training at the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute and Cleveland College. She quickly accumulated accolades in her field, including awards from the Butler Institute of Art, the Canton Museum of Art, and an honorable mention in portraiture from Cleveland Museum of Art’s famous May show.
Like many women artists of the time, Hacker was forced to balance the pressures of homemaking with creative expression, eventually setting up a studio in her attic and painting in the afternoons while her children were at school. It was the early 50’s when Hacker moved from painting to producing enamels. While citing this change as the pursuit of “unlimited color and three-dimensional design”, it is likely that the decision was economically motivated. It had become apparent that her son, Jim, had profound developmental disabilities and needed special care well beyond the family’s current means. Enamels were small, consumable, and able to be sold to housewives and executives alike, as everything from earrings to ashtrays, not to mention commemorative Christmas plates.
It is Hacker’s enamels that brought her international fame and allowed her to support her family though her husband’s illness and eventual death. A wizard at self-promotion, Hacker opened her studio to the public and began marketing herself to galleries and major department stores. Her craftsmanship and design soon garnered the attention of retailers such as the Higbee Co., Marshall Field & Co., Cowell & Hubbard, and Lord & Taylor, who purchased and distributed her jewelry, cigarette, and home accessories in major cities across the country. The Higbee Co. later commissioned a series of enamel trays that were presented as gifts to the governors of each state for use in their mansions, as well as bowls that were given to dignitaries in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Osaka.
Hacker was famous for her miniature portraits and landscapes, a throw-back to her original passion for painting, executed in stunning multi-dimensional color and created by fusing layer upon layer of pigment on copper plates. Working Women will feature a series of these enamels, as well as decorative pieces and early paintings and portraiture. The exhibition will also feature examples of her later work, when she returned to her first love of painting, as she said, “purely for her own enjoyment.”
Elise Newman was another regional female artist who cut her way through the red tape of the male dominated art world. Newman’s education was primarily in graphic design. Born in Louisville, KY in 1922, Newman moved to South Africa with her parents, where she finished an art education program at Witswaterand College, Johannesburg before winning a scholarship to the Studio School of Fashion Illustration in Cincinnati, OH. After graduating with honors, Newman took a job in 1944 as a graphic designer at the Guttman Candy Company.
Like Hacker, Newman also found an economic outlet for her talent in the massive department stores of the era. Newman worked as a fashion illustrator for the A. Polsky company in Akron, Ohio as well as for the Halle Brothers Co., Cleveland’s leading large-scale commercial retailer. Her crowning professional achievement, however, came in 1967 when she opened the Elise Newman Gallery, an independent business located on Cleveland’s famed Murray Hill for 30 years. Newman’s gallery was a flagship institution in Little Italy, one of the first neighborhoods to gentrify using the creative community as a spearhead.
The same courage and independence that empowered Newman to work in the arts, fed her love of experimentation and innovation. Though Newman was known for her intricate water colors, which she exhibited widely and received international acclaim, she worked in many milieus. Elise explains: “To limit oneself to a sole medium would seem to me limiting my progress and transformation in art forms. Every medium pursued by artist has merit. Through my work I want to try everything. I have a tremendous curiosity….One of the principles that define my work is a prized line by poet Robert Browning, ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’”
Elise’s background in fashion design influenced her decision to work with batik, a medium that is featured widely in Working Women. Also on view will be a series of her prints, water colors and mixed media pieces.
This exhibition not only offers a buffet of colorful, eye catching period artwork, it provides a window onto how women were able to negotiate the world they were given, finding pathways to pursue their passion, and to make it a profession. A campus-wide opening reception will be held in conjunction with the sculpture center on Friday, January 25th, 5:30 – 8:00pm.