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Arts & Life

At The Epsten Gallery, KC's 'Women To Watch' Venture Into Dangerous Terrain

Linda Lighton makes ceramic sculptures revealing how closely lipsticks resemble bullets. And her white clay flowers bloom not with pistils but with pistols.

Sonie Joi Thompson-Ruffin’s mixed-media fabric print depicts a man-sized black leaf hanging lifelessly from a tree bereft of other leaves, against a blood-red background of squares evoking urban apartments.

Rain Harris makes flowers, some out of silk – but some out of ominous black clay, lending a sense of doom to the idea of traditional floral arrangements.

Diana Heise’s flowers star in a one-minute video titled your father growing flowers for your mother – a lovely sentiment that seems haunted by a bleary emptiness outside the window.

Lara Shipley photographs a young woman wearing a flower-patterned strapless summer dress, leaning hunched and wary against a car’s front fender, while itchy-looking dark ivy spreads in the background.

Instructed to focus on nature, the five Women to Watch: 2015 in the Epsten Gallery’s new show went into some deep territory.

“They’re not just women to watch, they’re women on watch,” says Epsten Gallery curator Heather Lustfeldt. “They are really plugged in to contemporary issues.”

Deciding On The Kansas City Five

The show is part of a national project led by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. In June, the National Museum opens Organic Matters: Women to Watch 2015. In the run-up to that show, local selection committees nominated artists to represent their cities.

It’s the second time the Epsten has participated in this exercise; a previous Women to Watch exhibition, in 2012, spotlighted textile artists Jessica Kincaid, Tracy Krumm, Marcie Miller Gross, Debra Smith and Ruffin, who returns to the roster for this year’s show.

“We asked five local art professionals to each put forward five names,” Lustfeldt explains. She invited all of the nominated artists to submit materials for consideration and 12 artists did so. The juror who selected the final five was Catherine Futter, curator of architecture, design and decorative arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Noting that depictions of nature “can illuminate themes of sexuality, gender politics, the abject, and the sublime,” the National Museum of Women in the Arts called for work that incorporated imagery and materials from the natural world.

“The beauty about this project,” Lustfeldt says, “is that it’s a very specific kind of theme, but one that allows the artists to navigate how they want to explore it, expand on it, and relate it in a way that’s both personal and universal. That’s exactly what these artists are doing.” Lustfeldt knows the “women to watch” concept causes queasiness for those who believe that gender distinctions shouldn’t be necessary.

“Women’s voices need to be heard,” she says. “They are heard, but we still have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of value to contribute to the world, and it isn’t always recognized. Women are still not on equal footing all of the time with men, not only in our culture but cultures around the world. That point needs to continue to be recognized.”

Confronting Discomfort

Acknowledging art-world inequalities isn’t easy. Neither are the ideas these artists explore.

“Like any difficult exercise,” Lustfeldt says, “the more we address issues and have dialogue, the further we will go in really productive ways of navigating society’s problems, and not push them under the rug.”

The National Museum’s program, Lustfeldt says, “is an opportunity to provide needed and well-deserved recognition for professional, well-deserving artists, in this case women in our community. It’s really a chance to work locally but act globally.”

After the Epsten show ends in March, one artist’s work will travel to Washington, D.C., for the exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where it will join work from around the world. The job of deciding which artist would represent each city fell to Virginia Treanor, the associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Treanor chose Lara Shipley, whose Devil's Promenade series of Ozarks photographs deals with sexuality and gender politics within a specific – and extremely nature-y – place.

“She’s dealing with the culture that arises within the Ozarks, but also the way people relate to landscape and how it informs lifestyle, belief systems, how people interact with world at large,” Lustfeldt says. The backwoods known as the Devil’s Promenade, she notes, is a place where locals believed they might be able to sell their souls in return for a granted wish.

“It’s one of those universal myths made particular,” Lustfeldt says. “Those occur everywhere.”

Same goes for lipsticks, bullets, broken hearts, death, disappointments and deceptive flowers.

Update: The Epsten Gallery is located at the Village Shalom retirement home, where deadly shootings took place in April 2014. On Friday, Village Shalom informed Lustfeldt that Lighton's gun-themed sculptures might be too disturbing for Village Shalom residents. As a result, some of Lighton's sculptures, including "Untitled (Floral Pistil)," pictured above, were removed.

The work was removed "in deference to Village Shalom and the tragic events that occurred here and at the Jewish Community Center last spring," Lustfeldt said in a statement that will be posted in the gallery.

"We feel these intriguing ceramics, which are actually protests against gun violence, might rekindle for some the memories and horrors of that Sunday afternoon in April 2014. Out of sensitivity to these concerned, we asked the artist, Linda Lighton, to provide other work in substitution. She has graciously done so. The original art scheduled for exhibition may still be viewed on the Epsten Gallery website."

'Women to Watch 2015: Focus on Women, Art & Nature,' Feb. 8 through March 22 at the Epsten Gallery, 5500 W. 123rd St., Overland Park, Kan., 66209, 913-317-2600.

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