The Last Page

My 25 Sisters

By Judith Richelieu '58

After 15 years of making sculpture, I needed a reason to continue, a reason more compelling and meaningful than endless self-expression. Thus I began creating tributes to 25 women artists and writers who had influenced me, some very famous and others obscure. As I studied and wrote about their lives, painted their portraits, and created sculptures in their honor, I felt intensely related to each of them. The women are alive through their creative work, alive to me as sisters whom I struggle to understand and know. My background as a librarian at the Library of Congress, Phillips Collection, and Art Institute of Chicago has served me well in this project, titled Elegy.

During the six years of work on Elegy, my admiration for the featured women has seasoned into affection. A number of them suffered severe hardships, based in physical, psychological, or political circumstances. One woman whose life was centered in physical torment was Frida Kahlo (1907-­1954). Following childhood polio, Kahlo survived a near-fatal bus accident in Mexico City at 18. The walnut sculpture I carved for her, Standing Firm, emphasizes her strength. Another strong Mexican woman was author/diplomat Rosario Castellanos (1925-­1974), who used her pen for social justice, advocating equal rights for women and the Mayan Indians.

Half a world away, it was political turmoil that defined the life and work of Russia's revered poet, Anna Akhmatova (1880-­1966), whose resistance to Bolshevik persecution established a heroic legend. Spanish painter Remedios Varo (1908-­1963) spent much of her life escaping the devastation of war, while Kathe Kollwitz (1867-­1945) remained in Germany, creating profound images of suffering which might have illustrated Akhmatova's poems.

Near the end of Kollwitz's life, in 1939, the family of Eva Hesse (1936-­1970) escaped to New York from Nazi Germany. Hesse would later create the most influential abstract sculpture since Brancusi, before dying of a brain tumor at 34.

It was Hitler's blitz over London that drove British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-­1975) west to the Atlantic shores of Cornwall, and Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-­1942) experienced war first-hand as a political revolutionary and Communist spy. My sculptural tribute to her is called Tiger Lily.

In contrast to these modern activists, consider the elusive, reclusive lady of Amherst, Emily Dickinson (1830-­1886). She wrote 1,775 poems, only seven of which were published in her lifetime, anonymously. An eternal enigma, Dickinson is the most distant of my 25 sisters, and the one I would most like to interview.

In fact, it is tempting to imagine conversations with all these talented women. One would like to have said the right thing to Sylvia Plath 1932-­1963), or Diane Arbus (1923-­1971), or Virginia Woolf (1882-­1941), to prevent their desperate acts of suicide. Or think of discussing art with that American legend, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887­1986). At the close of O'Keeffe's long life, her fame equaled that of Mary Cassatt (1844-­1926), who spent most of her life in France and was the only American invited to exhibit with the Impressionists.

The intellectual climate of France also fostered the careers of Colette (1873-­1954) and Camille Claudel (1864-­1943). Colette published 73 books and was so popular at her death that she was the first French woman to be given a state funeral. Claudel achieved early success, but was confined following a mental collapse and never sculpted again.

Malvina Hoffman (1885-­1966) developed a successful career in traditional academic sculpture, while the avant-garde was represented by a free-spirited iconoclast, Louise Nevelson (1899-­1988). Both sculptors were based in New York, along with abstract painter Lee Krasner (1908-­1984), and writers such as Dorothy Parker (1893-­1967), Jane Bowles (1917-­1973), and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-­1950). Washington painter Alma Thomas (1891-­1978) enjoyed New York success at 81, when she was given the first solo exhibit by a black woman at the Whitney Museum.

Only two women remain, each extraordinary. Danish author Isak Dinesen (1885-­1962) made a pact with the devil to become a storyteller and spent 17 years managing a coffee plantation in Kenya. Some of this century's most powerful fiction was written by a Georgia Catholic who raised peacocks on a farm and died before reaching 40. Critics have ranked the work of Flannery O'Connor (1925-­1964) with that of Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson, bring us full circle to the earliest sister of this group.

Selections from Elegy have been shown since 1995, and 23 tributes are finished or in process. The sculptures are all in wood but vary in style, having been inspired by such diverse personalities. When this phase of Elegy is complete, I expect to simply add new women. After all, 25 sisters are not quite enough.