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Seattle Art Museum Puts Women Artists In The Spotlight

“The Magic Vase” by Ella McBride (ca. 1926, Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Richard H. Anderson) © Ella McBride

“The Magic Vase” by Ella McBride (ca. 1926, Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Richard H. Anderson) © Ella McBride

When many people are asked to name an American woman artist, you will probably be greeted with silence, “I don’t knows”, or perhaps names of artists who aren’t actually Americans.

You will also probably hear the name Georgia O’Keefe a lot.

O’Keefe’s paintings of animal skulls and the baked desert captured her beloved Southwest, and she is one of the women artists featured at the Seattle Art Museum in a third floor gallery.

“I knew I wanted to show O’Keefe,” says Curator Patricia Junker. “She is the woman artist that I think — if you’re coming to a show of women artists and you know that Americans are going to be represented — you expect to see Georgia O’Keefe.”

But what Junker really wants me to look at is in a corner of the gallery, where a wall celebrates two photographers. One of the pieces is a photograph of a tulip in a vase.

“But the vase is a little tiny vase and the tulip climbs up up up up up,” Junker points out.

The photo is called “The Magic Vase.” And it looks like it could almost be a charcoal drawing. It was created by photographer Ella McBride, a name that most people won’t know.

McBride was a school teacher and principal in Portland in the beginning of the 20th Century. She was also an avid mountain climber.

One day while climbing Mount Rainier she meets photographer Edward Curtis.

“He was a climber. She was a climber,” Junker says. “He convinced her to come to Seattle and to be an assistant in his photographic studio. It wasn’t a romantic relationship. She was just doing printing for him.”

But she ended up taking over his studio. Then opening up her own business taking portraits. And in 1916, just a few years after Washington state gave women the right to vote, a woman running her own business was not the norm.

What also stands out about Ella McBride is that her artistic career started late in life. She was in her 60s when she started taking pictures of flowers. A photo of poppies is one which Junker really admires.

“They seem to be moving, and we think of photography of stopping action,” Junker says. “But here’s a case where this sort of soft focus allows us to feel that these flowers are moving.

McBride was so good at photography, she gained international acclaim. And she did it without art school and before photography was even considered art.

But she wasn’t the first. A few years earlier, there was Imogen Cunningham, who also worked with Edward Curtis and also opened up her own Seattle studio. Cunningham then took a more conventional path for that time. She got married, had children and moved to San Francisco,where she became a stay at home mom.

“So she kind of had forced upon her a circumscribed world — her backyard — and she made the most of it.”

A photograph called “Magnolia Blossom” from 1925 doesn’t look like a flower. The image is such an extreme close up of the flower’s center, it looks like gemstones.

“In fact one of the titles of this print that she gave was tower of jewels,” Junker explains.

Cunningham had already broken ground as one of the first women photographers to show nude images of men. They were of her husband who was also an artist. Now she was pioneering a new way to look at flowers and plants by zooming in really tight.


You can see the artistic visions of Imogen Cunningham and Ella McBride in the show, “Elle: SAM Singular Works by Seminal Artists.” The Seattle Art Museum stored away all its male artist work to make room just for the women.

On the Web:

Exhibit: Women Take Over(Seattle Art Museum)

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