Fourth annual SWAN exhibition highlights work by women artists in the valley |

Fourth annual SWAN exhibition highlights work by women artists in the valley

Shelly Safir Marolt's painting, "Shabbat 1925," oil on canvas. 40 x 50, won the first place prize at last year's SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) exhibition at the Launchpad. Next year, Marolt will have a solo exhibition in April.
Shelly Safir Marolt |

While women make up 51 percent of artists today, less than 5 percent of art hanging on the walls of museums in the U.S. and abroad is by women.

These are staggering statistics, even with the general understanding that women have not quite achieved equality yet. Because of this underrepresentation, three years ago Carbondale hosted its first Support Women Artists Now (SWAN) exhibition. SWAN is an international movement aimed at bringing attention to women in art by highlighting their work through exhibitions, performances, dance and other art forms.

“SWAN was started by Women Arts out of the Bay Area,” said Wewer Keohane, the assistant curator for SWAN who also has her own work in the exhibition. “They were encouraging communities all over the country to focus on the women in the community for a period of time each year.”

At the time, Gayle Embrey was on the board of the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities, and her family had a foundation. The CCAH wrote a proposal to the Embrey Foundation to host a “SWAN extravaganza,” according to Keohane.

“The first year, it was not only a visual arts, but we had performing arts, including dance as well as skits, and we had pastry arts,” said Keohane. “It was quite an extravaganza.”

Since then, Carbondale’s SWAN has been scaled back to a visual arts exhibition. This year, it features about 50 works of art by 33 artists who live in the valley, according to SWAN curator Sue Drinker. The exhibition’s opening reception takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 9, at The Launchpad, 76 Fourth St. This reception doubles as the grand opening of The Launchpad, CCAH’s brand new multipurpose space in what used to be the Gordon Cooper Library.

Drinker said that it was challenging to find artists to submit to the first SWAN exhibition in 2011 because not many people knew what it was. Now, she has a growing list of artists she reaches out to each year. From that list, artists who decided to submit this year were allowed to enter up to three works for consideration, but because of space and the fact that this is the first exhibition in The Launchpad, Drinker, Keohane and Pam Taylor, another assistant curator, chose on average one piece per artist.

The artists represented in the SWAN exhibition range from women who have a presence in galleries internationally to budding artists getting their feet wet. Drinker said she thinks it’s important to maintain that balance so SWAN keeps credibility as a great exhibition while also allowing new artists to gain some exposure.

“I think it’s important that we embrace young — career-wise — artists who have an opportunity to show in a major art show in the valley,” Drinker said.

Not only will the artists reach a broad audience through this show, but they’ll also be eligible for three cash prizes. Each year, $1,000 is awarded for Best in Show, $500 for Most Provocative and $250 for Honorable Mention, according to Keohane, who added that SWAN is one of the only shows hosted by CCAH that offers monetary awards.

“That’s another cool thing is that we’re able to have the cash awards,” Keohane said. “It’s a real encouragement for people to spend the year making some art they feel is prize-worthy and then entering it.”

Drinker said winners each year are chosen by a judge from outside of CCAH. This year, they’ve invited Kiki Jai Raj, director of the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen. Because of a heavy travel schedule, one of Raj’s associates will actually conduct the judging and award the prizes, but Raj will be back later in the month to talk with the artists about why she thinks the winners were chosen and to critique the art.

“It’s great for a lot of these artists to get feedback about what worked or didn’t work in their pieces,” said Drinker.

Something new to the SWAN show this year is a planned Artists’ Choice Award. Toward the middle of the month, artists represented in the exhibition will be able to vote for a piece other than their own that they think deserves recognition. While there will be no cash prize, Drinker said it’s just another way to build community between women artists and encourage them to continue with their work.

“We wanted to have an event in the middle of the month to bring people back to the gallery, and I had an inspired thought that an Artists’ Choice would be a lot of fun and interesting for both the artists and the public,” Drinker said.

Women artists in the valley have shown they’re not content to stand idly by while men’s work receives far greater recognition. The SWAN exhibition offers an opportunity women aren’t often afforded.

“We’ve been fighting for recognition, places to exhibit, and it’s all getting better and better, but this organization still works at this issue and says, ‘How do we make women’s art more visible so that people can see it’s as great in quality as the work of men?’” Keohane said. “It’s just extremely important that we get the visibility that we’ve worked so hard for.”

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