Woman of letters

Mary Lee Fulkerson’s new book brings the work and lives of regional women artists to light

Author Mary Lee Fulkerson and photographer Susan Mantle gave a talk and signed their new book recently at Sundance Books and Music.

Author Mary Lee Fulkerson and photographer Susan Mantle gave a talk and signed their new book recently at Sundance Books and Music.

Photo/Kris Vagner

Mary Lee Fulkerson, who is 81, has a new book, Women Artists of the Great Basin, published in September. The idea simmered in her mind for nearly two decades before she started working on it. In 2013, Fulkerson, along with photographer Susan Mantle, began a four-year process of traveling to women’s studios in Nevada and a few neighboring states to interview and photograph them.

Fulkerson has had a long career as a basket maker. In art and craft circles, she’s something of a local legend, known as much for being an encouraging team player as for pushing the limits of her materials and exhibiting in hundreds of venues near and far—including the White House. Her trademark style includes large, expressive baskets, some with undulating or irregular shapes, others woven from materials such as colorful plastics. She’s incorporated stories and inspirational messages into her pieces. In earlier work, she wrote words onto reeds before weaving them. Later, she figured out how to form letters from grasses or willow and work them into the structure of a piece. She led the Great Basin Basketmakers and was a longtime member of Wild Women Artists, a group formed in response to a lack of venues for women to show their work in. By the time Fulkerson started thinking about her current book, she’d already authored a book about Native American basket makers and contributed to another book on using locally harvested materials.

Even with all this experience, it took a while for her to sort out how to approach writing it. She knew at the outset, though, that she wanted it to be about women.

Different worlds

“I think work by men is every bit as good as work by women,” said Fulkerson, sitting at the dining room table in her West Reno condo under a tidy, floor-to-ceiling arrangement of basketry and other artworks. “That’s a no brainer.” But she’s long been a champion of other women and their work—and she brought up some common differences between women’s careers and men’s careers. For one, the Wild Women aren’t the only ones who’ve been underrepresented in galleries.

“We know most work we see is by men,” Fulkerson said. The art-world gender gap—while it’s been narrowing in recent years—still exists. A 2017 report by the Association of Art Museum Directors shows that almost half of art museum directors are now women, but that men are still more likely to be at the helm of the most prestigious institutions—and more likely to earn higher salaries. Feminist arts group Guerrilla Girls often points out that women artists are noticeably underrepresented in the most prestigious galleries. That group also made public the fact that between 1995 and 2015, the average number of solo shows per year by women artists in New York’s main art museums increased from an average of zero to an average of one.

Fulkerson said that women she’s known have often had to decide how to balance work and family. Fulkerson—who earned an art degree from University of Nevada, Reno in the 1970s—said that she made her own artwork in a sphere separate from the one her late husband, Chuck, circulated in, and she’s thankful for that arrangement.

“We had the best marriage,” she said. “We were married, like, 58 years or something. And he was a great father. He didn’t know one thing about art or care one thing about art, and he was a military man.” She didn’t connect closely with his friends and never could keep their military ranks straight. Some women she knows have husbands who’ve offered strong opinions about their wives’ artwork, sometimes changing its course.

“I never had that issue,” Fulkerson said. Chuck stayed out of the studio—though he would willingly stop the car on the freeway so she could collect some tire tread to use in a sculpture.

“I could do anything,” she said. “He didn’t belittle anything. So, that was lucky.”

Road trip

To research the book, a collection of profiles on 32 artists, Fulkerson and Mantle traveled together to Gold Hill, Tuscarora, Utah and many other locales, packing small suitcases to leave room in the car for Mantle’s camera equipment. They took four years and many trips, totaling around 4,500 miles.

Along the way, they interviewed and photographed female artists of all stripes. Some have juggled artwork and families. Others have remained single and made artwork full-time. Some—such as Reno’s Joan Arrizabalaga, Elaine Jason from Tahoe City, and Jean LaMarr from Susanville—are well known. Others show their art in smaller circles. A few don’t exhibit very often, and one refuses to sell her work at all.

Fulkerson narrowed down her search to sculptors in particular and stayed mostly within the Great Basin. Within those parameters, she tended to be inclusive.

“I’ve never been a good show juror,” she said. “I don’t like excluding people.”

She also wanted diversity. “That was my big thing,” she said, adding that Northern Nevada has a culturally diverse population, and she’d like to see more cultural groups better represented in galleries and other venues.

She told an audience at a book signing event recently that white, male European taste still sets the standards in the art world. One goal of her book was to expose readers and viewers to a wider range of artistic expression.

“I think we need to look beyond even defining what’s art,” she said. “I love that I was able to put wearable art and jewelry and purses in this book—because that’s art.” In the book, artists such as Pam Bowman from Utah, who Fulkerson said, “wanted to make art about doing very mundane things around the house” share equal billing with artists such as Rebekah Bogard, a UNR art professor whose ceramic sculptures are shown internationally and profiled in hip magazines.

In praise of failure

One of the most notable strengths of Women Artists of the Great Basin is that Fulkerson conducted her interviews such that she could detail the ideas, spaces, lifestyles and philosophies behind each woman’s work. She posed the same list of questions to each of her subjects, asking about their backgrounds and their artistic practices.

Her son suggested one question, which she’s glad she added to her list: In praise of failure, what makes you strong? That one, Fulkerson said, turned out to be the question that elicited the personal stories about life-changing events telling glimpses into the sacrifices and triumphs of what it’s like to set up a life as an artist.

“I think the most surprising thing to me was how open and wonderful the artists were,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot of them. I was so surprised that they were so willing to just fling everything out. … We didn’t know when we even started if it would even work.”

After a few more author events for this book, Fulkerson might start another one.

“I’ve got two books in my head,” she said. One is a novel she’s already drafted. “I could make that a good novel instead of just a mediocre novel,” she said. The other might be a book version of a class the she used to teach called Tools For Transformation/ The “tools.” she said, were “things you make that lift your spirit—they’re little prayers that you make yourself. And I thought, golly, I should write those down, if even for my own grandchildren, if nothing else.”