Call it the case of the disappearing sculpture for that’s what started Donna Seaman on her quest to chronicle the lives and works of the seven female artists featured in her just released book, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists (Bloomsbury 2017; $30.
“I remember going to the Chicago Art Institute and seeing this large sculpture they had at the end of the corridor,” says Seaman who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York but not lives in Chicago. “But then she disappeared.”
The sculpture was by Louise Nevelson, who at one time had quite a following in the U.S., but like the six other 20th century females artists featured in Seaman’s book are almost forgotten despite their talent.
Intriguingly, though I had heard of Nevelson, I didn’t recognize any of the other names when I first started reading Seaman’s fascinating book. But reading about Gertrude Abercrombie and seeing her strikingly haunted paintings, I realized my mother had one in her study. But though I loved that painting, I only remembered the male artists whose works hung in our home such as Chagall’s “The Rabbi of Vitebsk” and Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Steam” (all prints I assure you) and not this one? Was it a male thing?
Could be says Seaman, one of Chicago’s best known book critics and editor of adult books at Booklist, a book-review (and now online) magazine that’s been published by the American Library Association for more than 100 years.
“It’s about who’s writing history,” she says. “Women weren’t written about in a critically relevant way. Newspapers were interested but not the critics. And so these women disappeared.”
While doing her extensive research (Seaman acknowledges her obsessiveness) she asked museum curators to bring out the works of Lois Mailou Jones that had been tucked away in storage for who knows how long.
“They hadn’t seen them before,” she recalls. “And they kept saying these are wonderful.”
Though Seaman chose most of the artists she highlighted—Joan Brown, Leonore Tawney and Ree Morton–because she liked their work, her essay on Christina Ramberg was much more personal.
“I knew Christina,” Seaman says. “She died very young. The moment she became ill, we knew she wasn’t going to be around very long and I knew someday I would write about her.”
With a Master’s degree in English from DePaul University, one might expect Seaman to be more focused on lost women writers, but her mother was a visual artist (in fact Seaman is traveling to Vassar College last this spring where her mother has a showing of her work) and at one time, she considered becoming an artist as well.
Earning her BSA at Kansas City Art Institute where she was a sculptor major, Seaman says she was only one in her class who loved her liberal arts classes.
“I loved libraries and I have a passion for reading,” she says. “Despite getting into shows and selling my works, I realized that my stronger skills were in editing and writing.”
This skill subset—art and writing—is perfect for giving these artists their identities back.