Persist, create

An impressive collection of works by female artists of Nor Cal

Yvonne Anderson Schwager’s “The Swimmer” is the centerpiece of one art-filled wall in MONCA’s Headley Gallery.

Yvonne Anderson Schwager’s “The Swimmer” is the centerpiece of one art-filled wall in MONCA’s Headley Gallery.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Persistence shows through July 15.
Hours: Thurs.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Museum of Northern California Art
900 Esplanade

The current exhibit at the Museum of Northern California Art (MONCA) in Chico is a collection of more than 70 paintings and sculptures by more than 60 women artists. Titled Persistence, it’s a celebration of women through the ages who have persevered as artists despite the many obstacles in their way.

That said, it’s also an exhibit of intriguing and often masterful pieces. Viewing them is like exploring more than 70 mini-universes in which women artists present their view of the world and women’s lives in it.

The show is also interesting because of what it says about the geographical and ethnic diversity of these artists. All live in Northern California, but they’re widely dispersed therein. Some live in urban centers such as Sacramento and San Francisco; others in college towns like Chico, Berkeley and Davis. But a surprising number are living and working in small rural towns such as Hayfork, Yreka, Corning, Scotts Valley, Butte Valley, Groveland, Willows and Montgomery Creek.

And yet, were it not for the identifying information accompanying the pieces, in most cases you’d be unable to tell which come from the small towns and which from the big cities. Women are making art everywhere, it seems, in cities and towns and villages, and doing so with remarkable skill.

A lot of work went into creating this exhibit. Mounting more than 70 paintings and sculptures is a daunting challenge, and doing so in a way that enhances the artwork and engages the viewer takes real skill. MONCA’s exhibition committee has done a tremendous job here. All three of the main galleries—the Phillips, Ginochio and Headley—are filled with artwork, but not in a confusing way. A lot of thought went into organizing the pieces so they invite viewers to contemplate them. One device the committee uses here—and in all of MONCA’s shows, for that matter—is a typed page of thought-provoking questions that can be asked of the works. A good example is “Reach for the Sky,” a large abstract by the late Claudia Steel with strong horizontal lines suggesting a seashore landscape. The question suggested for this work reads: “This abstract uses strong lines to indicate the feeling of this piece. What mood does it project?” The viewer is thus challenged to contemplate the painting to discern what emotions rise in his or her mind.

One of the strongest pieces in the exhibit is “Pimps and Queers Tower,” by Stockton artist Janice Meyer-Kirkpatrick. It’s a dark work, literally—hundreds of plastic food containers fused together in a solid vertical block and spray-painted a shiny black. It’s a powerful protest piece attacking the “corporatocracy” and calling out “the sneaky agendas of the dark side of the wealthy.” The questions suggested for it read: “In what ways does plastic form our lives? How do we escape?”

Two iconic Chico artists who died recently, Ann Pierce and the aforementioned Steel, get special treatment here—mini-exhibits of a half-dozen of their paintings. These special sections are located just inside the door to the Headley Gallery. Both women had long careers in which they explored a wide range of styles, media and themes in literally hundreds of paintings. Steel was a full-time working artist for more than 65 years, and Pierce for nearly as long.

“Persistence requires focus, dedication, courage, fearlessness and patience,” reads the collective artists’ statement for this exhibit. “Persistence requires hard work, self-knowledge and absolute inner strength.”

The artwork in this exhibit is a powerful and moving celebration of 60 women’s persistence. Pierce and Steel would have been proud.