While preparing to interview Cheryl Robson who initiated the establishment of the Virginia Woolf sculpture unveiled in London this past November, we discovered the many creations and endeavors of this visionary woman, one being her Aurora Metro and Supernova Books.
A good portion of what Robson’s company publishes is aimed at amplifying women and their contributions, newcomers as well as women whose good and important works have been marginalized or erased.
Aurora Metro and Supernova Books has released an impressive number of books that highlight talented and accomplished women from various walks of life. For example: 50 Women in Sports, 50 Women in the Blues, 50 Women in Theatre, and 50 Women Sculptors, which is the focus of this post. (I just discovered another of this series soon to be released, 50 Women in Technology.)
Because the Nasty Women Writers Project’s initial contact with Robson was around the unveiling of an iconic sculpture by woman sculptor Laury Dizengremel, and because I’m informally tracking the Breaking the Bronze Ceiling movement, this particular book resonates with me. (Read our post about Dizengremel’s sculpture of Woolf that Robson set in motion: Virginia Woolf: A Bench of Her Own, With Room for You.)
What an intriguing and valuable resource 50 Women Sculptors is! Robson, the editor of the book, and the team of researchers involved culled through hundreds of accomplished women sculptors to compile this useful resource.
As Dr. Joanna Sperryn-Jones, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Sculpture Practice at York St John University, states in the introduction:
“It has been a long and difficult process to select only 50 women sculptors to include here due to the numerous influential female practitioners who are now achieving success in various ways…I hope the reader sees this book as a starting point to explore more women sculptors.”
Yes, this book is a starting point that urges readers to both explore additional women sculptors AND dive deeper into the lives and art of the sculptors presented in the book.
According to Melissa Hamnett, Head of Heritage Collections and Chief Curator at the Houses of Parliament, who composed the Forward:
“For too long sculptural histories have been solely dominated by men, upheld not least by the myth that, as a physically challenging medium, women artists could not or did not make ambitious sculpture due to “the strength and skill required to work traditional materials.” Worse still, talented female sculptors…spent much of their careers – and indeed some of their art-history afterlife – in the full shadow of their male counterparts”(3).
Thank you, Cheryl Robson and team for delivering these sculptors from the shadows and shining a spotlight on their art.
The book is divided into two sections: ‘Pioneers and Legends,’ most of whom have passed, such as Edmonia Lewis, “first African-American woman professional sculptor,” who we have a post about, and others who are still with us, such as Judy Chicago, “pioneer of Feminist art,” also included on our site and so legendary we have 3 posts about her and her art! Take a look at our posts on these pioneering sculptors:
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907): An American Black Woman Sculptor Trapped in Structures Harder Than Marble
Judy Chicago’s The Birth Project: The Power of Parturition and Textile Arts
Feminist Artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: Celebrating Women Across Time
Judy Chicago: Feminist Art, Collaborative Works and Changemaker
The second half of the book covers ‘Contemporary Women Sculptors’ and these profiles include the artists discussing their own work and responding to questions.
Niki de Saint Phalle: French-American Sculptor
One of the women in the ‘Pioneer and Legend’ section who captured me is Niki de Saint Phalle. Both her life story and her work strike me as exceptional and reading the page-long description compelled me to research more about her. I had never heard of Saint Phalle and I’m now a huge fan and hope to have an opportunity to see some of her larger-than-live, vibrant sculptures in person, either in France, Sweden, Israel, Italy, Switzerland, and/or here in the United States.
Born in France in 1930 and raised in New York City, Saint Phalle experienced an unusual and, in many ways, traumatic life. From fashion model to sculptor, she was not afraid to make bold political statements with her art. Saint Phalle’s adventurous and tumultuous life took her all over the world, hence her sculptures reside in many locales!
Her works captivated both my eye and heart. Saint Phalle created
“large-scale, colourful statues of voluptuous women known as “Nanas” and fantasy creatures…Her Nana figures became plumper, more active and joyful figures, including Black Venus (1967) and several black Nanas in solidarity with the civil rights movement in America”(39).
According to a description on the Guggenheim Bilbao (Spain) museum site:
“In the 1960s, Niki de Saint Phalle radically changed her way to depict women: from sad, melancholic, and passive characters to cheerful, energetic, and powerful figures. She called them “Nanas,” a familiar mildly rude French term for a girl or young saucy woman. In 1964 Saint Phalle created the first of what would become an extensive population of Nanas, large-scale sculptures painted in bright colors, representing voluptuous women who portrayed femininity and motherhood”(https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/learn/schools/teachers-guides/nanas-and-social-activism).
I’m in love with Saint Phalle’s many powerful and pleasing Nanas!
Zhang Yaxi: Contemporary Chinese Sculptor
Another sculptor whose works deeply moved me is Zhang Yaxi. Her sculptures ‘The Gate of Life’ and ‘Mother and Child’ demonstrate Yaxi’s preferred themes “of life, mother and child, and samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound)”(199). Yaxi’s entry in the book resides in the second part, “Contemporary Sculptors.”
When asked about becoming a sculptor, Yaxi replied:
“Back in the 1980s, very few women studied sculpture in China, so I chose to become a sculptor as a challenge…No one encouraged me to learn sculpture. They thought it was hopeless for a women to study sculpture”(198).
Many of Yaxi’s works have been commissioned and she welcomes that challenge, as she expresses:
“I like to undertake commissioned work, and I think most of the sculptures that great sculptors have done in the past were commissioned pieces. It is a dance in chains, more challenging than simply making one’s own works”(200).
In addition to her homeland of China, Yaxi’s sculptures can be found in public spaces in Vietnam, South Korea and India.
This ‘50 Women…’ collection of books belongs in libraries, classrooms, and homes so that those looking to learn about women artists, athletes and more will have access to that information.
Again, these books and so many others Robson has published are serving such an important purpose. They’re an asset to girls and women who may not see themselves reflected in what are considered ‘the greats’ and may encourage and inspire some to pursue their passions knowing that others have done so and are living out their dreams.
A phrase that comes to mind is Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media tagline: “If she can see it, she can be it.”
And the 50 women sculptors highlighted in this book deliver something important and new to the art:
“These women have not just altered the perception of sculpture today as a male-dominated art form, they have recalibrated it with themes and subjects drawn from their own, distinctly female, experience”(Hamnett 4).
How refreshing and necessary.
Cheryl Robson is a Nasty Women Writer and so much more.
© Maria Dintino 2023
50 Women Sculptors. Robson, Cheryl, editor. Supernova Books (an imprint of Aurora Metro Publications, 2020.