An Artist Moves on from Menopause

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One woman's odyssey through the Trump presidency. My focus is centered on the many issues affecting women--but what doesn't? There's a new post every week.

Ann Stewart Anderson is a native of Louisville, KY, where I spent most of a very happy decade. I heard of her but did not meet her until friends arranged a special dinner party last year, knowing how relevant her work might be to the Sanity Papers.

Rather than the traditional interview format that I have followed for most of the Sanity Papers, Ann Stewart asked me to put together a piece from her earlier writings. It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with her.

For more images and information, here is the LINK to her website.
Ann Stewart Anderson was born in 1935. She is part of an older generation of women whose feminist expression in art inspired my own. She is a prominent artist who focuses on the lives of women and one of her best-known works is the Hot Flash Fan, created in collaboration with fifty other artists, including Judy Chicago, in 1985. The Hot Flash Fan was recently featured in an exhibition sponsored by the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Ann Stewart dates the beginning of her interest in menopause as a subject to 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was being considered as Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee. One of the criticisms leveled at her as a choice for the position was that she was 50 and that being in her menopausal years made her unfit for office. “I found this deplorable,” Ann Stewart said.

When Ann Stewart and her colleagues started to consider making a collaborative work that would speak to menopause, they started with some art historical research—what had other painters and sculptors done?

“What we found to our initial dismay and eventual joy, was that although we suspect that women have indeed dealt with this subject in their private journals and needlework, there was no public tradition of menopausal images.”[i]

Ann Stewart Anderson: Hot Flash Fan, in collaboration with Judy Chicago and 50 other artists.
Ann Stewart Anderson: Hot Flash Fan, in collaboration with Judy Chicago and 50 other artists.
One of the things about the research that went into the The Hot Flash Fan that fascinates me is the artists’ methodology, which I cannot help thinking is similar to that of the Sanity Papers.

“…We did what we should have done in the beginning. We went to the women themselves. Devising a questionnaire that dealt with both the reality of and the myths about menopause, we gathered comments as divers as, ‘the only thing I care less about than adolescence is menopause,’ to ‘this was a time in which I found great strength.’ A woman told me of her grandmother who had hit her head against the wall in rage against her hot flashes. Another said that, ‘I really liked my hot flashes! It was winter and wonderfully warming.’ [ii]

The women honored the complexity of their subject by coming up with the structure of the fan, which was to have twelve blades, each assigned to an aspect of menopause, ranging from a lack of interest in sex to the fears women associate with this time in their lives—of aging, losing their attractiveness and “actually becoming an empty womb.”[iii]

The fan’s twelve panels are hinged together. The outside panels embody many of the creative skills usually considered female—quilting, trapunto, embroidery, etc. The inside panels are painted, oil on canvas.

Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (panels open to reveal the second layer of the tript
Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (panels open to reveal the second layer of the tript
She combines wonderful draftsmanship with a conceptualist’s eye for ephemeral situations, tribulations, and things forgotten. Her Night Flash, for example, is a triptych in the sense that it is three paintings on a single theme actually built as one object that folds up to 30 by 40 inches. The cover is a quilt, a symbol of female aestheticism. Open the doors and a simple double bed is revealed on which the quilt rests, its overall colors blue and calm, with a sort of innocent exuberance.

Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (Second layer half-open to reveal part of the third layer). Note man’s sleeping head in the background.
Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (Second layer half-open to reveal part of the third layer). Note man’s sleeping head in the background.
But there are inner doors. Open the left door and you see a man’s head, turned away, sleeping. Open the right door and you see a woman who looks exhausted, wiping her brow with the back of her hand, waiting for a fearsome night-sweat to pass.

Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (all panels open to reveal the third layer)
Ann Stewart Anderson: Night Flash (all panels open to reveal the third layer)
Other paintings from this period, including the Fanfare series, embody her commitment to the female body’s processes and the meaning of being a grown woman. “The extraordinary next task for our times is to create images which extol the woman in midlife. She is the person who has lived within the biological confinements of the bearer of children, the giver of birth. She emerges, not as tradition often decrees, as a hysterical, silly, shriveled nonentity; on the contrary, she is strong, confident, experienced, filled with new energy and wisdom. She is the woman in menopause. She is the woman in Fanfares.”[iv]

Ann Stewart Anderson: Adele
Ann Stewart Anderson: Adele
From her midlife, Expressionist style of painting, she has moved on to collage and assemblage. Most recently she has been working on a series of “paper mosaics” called WOW: Wonderful Old Women. Created from her mind’s eye, the collages show older women, imagined in hats and other female finery. As she works, she says, their names occur to her “And seem to fit pretty well.” There is a haunting quality to these portraits, suggesting the carefully observed but creatively re-cast attitudes of her contemporaries, defiantly alive and vibrant. In their almost Cubist faces are the traces of their personal experiences, frailties, and resolution all visible.

[i] Ann Stewart Anderson, AFTERWORD Creating a Visual Image of Menopause: The Hot Flash Fan, from MENOPAUSE: A Midlife Passage, edited by Joan C. Callahan, Indiana University Press. 1993, p. 205

[ii] ibid pp. 205-206

[iii] ibid. p. 206

[iv] Ann Stewart Anderson, “Fanfares: An Artist Looks at Menopause,” essay in “Women of the 14th Moon,” edited by Dena Taylor and Amber Coverdale Sumrall, The Crossing Press/Freedom, California

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