Penn Gallery show reflects feminine aspects

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

March is Women's History Month, and in light of that fact, Women of Visions, a Pittsburgh-based visual-arts organization of African-American women, has mounted a decidedly feminine exhibition at 709 Penn Gallery, Downtown.

Titled “Feminine Aesthetics,” it features the works of 13 women artists from throughout Western Pennsylvania who each focused their efforts on creating works of art that reflect on different aspects of femininity. Their diverse interpretations take the form of a wide range of media, from paintings to digital photography, assemblages, installation art and fiber art.

One of the first pieces visitors will, no doubt, notice is the installation “She Was Beautiful But Not Vain” by Tenanche Rose Golden of the Hill District.

Simply a vanity placed in front of a paned window flanked with curtains, it is meant to evoke the feeling of the third-floor bedroom in the home of Golden's late aunt, Bernice. The vanity and stool sit on a simple rug, which also mirror the original space. Frosted, half-empty and empty perfume bottles, a hand mirror, comb, brush, leather gloves and other items are reflected in the mirror-covered table. A pair of red pumps sit under the stool.

“They symbolize a flair for fashion and Aunt Bernice's love of shoes,” Golden says. A few photos capture treasured memories of a life that meaningfully touched many.

Golden says the vanity was on the third floor of her aunt's home for more than 63 years.

“Because of the assortment of lipsticks, perfumes and powders that resided there, I am sure that she visited it many times, at least until climbing the stairs became a challenge in her later years,” Golden says of the installation, which with its simple elegance reflects her aunt's “gentle beauty and humility.”

Also reflecting on femininity through a familial connection is the work of Christine McCray Bethea, who lives in the Friendship-Garfield neighborhood of the city. Her piece “Free Forms” comes from experiences of living as the daughter of a father who made the Air Force a life-time career.

“We spent a good bit of time traveling in the Far East, and I feel my work always carries some level of Asian influence,” Bethea says.

To that end, “Free Forms” is an installation made of found objects that speak to the relationship of disproportionate objects working in harmony. The piece, which takes on a feminine form of its own, is about “nature overtaking anything in its path,” Bethea says. To wit, a palm skeleton collected from the streets of Miami after a storm “grows” through an antique wire mannequin; they rest over wooden barn brackets dug out of the mud of a Pennsylvania farm.

This being an exhibit that is also about notions of female beauty, there are several pieces that deal with physical appearances, whether they be inherent or applied. Story quilts by JoAnne Bates of Point Breeze and LaVerne Kemp of McDonald and a beaded bra are among several more fashion-inspired assemblage sculptures by Cathleen Richardson Bailey of Pleasant Hills. All speak of outward appearances and what women's fashions say about the individuals who wear them.

Then, there is the work of Elizabeth “Betty” Asche Douglas of Rochester, Beaver County, who organized this exhibit. Her work is more about finding beauty in the world around us.

For example, several of her assemblage pieces are on display in the gallery's window, such as “Shell Game,” which reflects on finding beauty in the fractal geometry and endless variety of natural forms. “The mirror is both surrogate water and an oblique reference to our fascination with reflected images,” Asche Douglas says.

Further back in the gallery hangs Asche Douglas' monotype print “Rocks, Lichen & Aspen,” which documents her discovery of the colorful mishmash of forms and textures along a path in the Colorado Rockies. And “Block Beauty Trio” resulted from an observation of a deteriorating concrete-block wall adjacent to a parking lot in Sewickley when, “summer afternoon sunlight made the granular surface look almost jewel-like,” she says.

“I made three canvases of individual blocks, a mixture of hand and digital painting, then framed and linked them with half-round molding strips,” Asche Douglas says in regard to the creation of this piece.

Of course, there are many more evocative and inspirational pieces like this on display throughout the tiny gallery, making for a rich, full exhibition experience.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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