A continuing museum theme of Honoring Women across generations and backgrounds

A continuing museum theme of Honoring Women across generations and backgrounds

By Elisa Phelps, Eiteljorg vice president and chief curatorial officer

Barbara Van Cleve (American, born 1935)
Melody Harding, Bar Cross Ranch, WY, 1995
Photograph, 51.5 x 41.5 inches
Image courtesy of Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women – Photographs by Barbara Van Cleve from the collection of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Tex.

Nationwide celebrations of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage prompted the Eiteljorg Museum to designate 2020 as a year of honoring women and to develop a slate of exhibits and programs focusing on women and their stories. When COVID-19 interrupted everyone’s plans with closures and quarantines, it forced the museum to postpone programs and rethink the exhibit schedule. The scheduling changes have afforded us the opportunity to continue our focus on women, their stories, and their art into 2021.

We are fortunate the individuals and institutions lending the items featured in Quilts: Uncovering Women’s Stories have allowed us to extend the exhibit through Jan. 3, 2021. The three-month-long closure of the museum pushed us to find ways to make the exhibit accessible online, and you can now enjoy a personal tour of the exhibit by the curator of Western art, history and culture, Johanna M. Blume, at https://eiteljorg.org/exhibitions/virtualeiteljorg/.

The Eiteljorg exhibition Quilts: Uncovering Women’s Stories has been extended to Jan. 3, 2021.

The exhibit Powerful Women: Contemporary Art from the Eiteljorg Collection, which opened in September, features works created by Native women artists. When asked where the idea for the exhibit originated, curator of contemporary art Jennifer Complo McNutt said, “Over the last 30 or so years, I have seen women like Kay WalkingStick, Jaune Quick-to- See Smith, Marie Watt and Wendy Red Star change the way we perceive Native women, and have seen them change the world. The women in this exhibition exemplify courage and commitment. Each has made extraordinary contributions to their families, communities, the art world — the world.”

The first rotation of the new exhibition Powerful Women: Contemporary Art from the Eiteljorg Collection, above and below, continues through March 21 at the Eiteljorg Museum.

Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women, featuring the stunning black-and-white photographs of Barbara Van Cleve, was initially scheduled to open in November. We are grateful to the organizing institution, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, for allowing us to postpone opening until Jan. 30, 2021. The National Cowgirl Museum “honors and celebrates women, past and present, whose lives exemplify the courage, resilience and independence that helped shape the West,” its mission statement says. That charge set me thinking about the Hall of Fame honorees and their stories.

Honorees range from ranchers, educators, executives, entertainers, rodeo cowgirls and humanitarians, to artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Maria Martinez and Laura Wilson, each of whom is represented in the Eiteljorg collection. Some of the honored women’s stories are familiar — like those of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author Willa Cather and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The stories of other Western women, including Clara Brown, Mary Colter and Sylvia Mendez may not be as familiar but are equally worth knowing.

Clara Brown was born enslaved in Virginia. At the age of 35, she was sold at auction and separated from her husband and children. Freed by her third owner, she crossed the Plains during the 1859 Colorado gold rush and settled in the mining town of Central City where she opened the town’s first laundry.

A successful businesswoman, she invested in mines and real estate. The profits she made went towards searching for her family and helping newly freed slaves relocate. “Aunt” Clara Brown became known for never turning away anyone in need. Her life is commemorated with a stained glass window in the rotunda of the Colorado state capitol.

Mary Colter was an architect at a time when very few women pursued the profession. For more than 40 years, Colter served as a designer and architect for the Fred Harvey Company. The Harvey Company managed a large portfolio of restaurants, hotels, and hospitality-related enterprises in the Southwest and was the concessionaire for the Santa Fe Railway. Colter’s designs incorporated site-specific natural materials and were instrumental in defining the rustic style and aesthetic of National Park structures. Her best-known work can be seen at the Grand Canyon, where four of her structures are designated as National Historic Landmarks.

Sylvia Mendez is an integration pioneer. Of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, at the age of eight she was at the center of the 1946 case Mendez v. Westminster, which desegregated schools in California several years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Mendez decision paved the way for desegregation in the rest of the country. Following the example of her parents, Mendez has continued to fight for educational equality and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

These stories and those of the women whose work is featured in Quilts, Powerful Women and Hard Twist represent the diversity of women’s experiences and the strength that sustains and motivates women in the West and Native America to persevere, advocate, create and lead.

Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee, born 1946)
Retracing the Trace, 2011-2015
Satin cord, ink, pastel
Museum purchase from the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship




Continuing at the Eiteljorg until Jan. 3, 2021

First rotation: Continuing at the Eiteljorg untl March 21, 2021
Second rotation: April 17-Oct. 3, 2021

Jan. 30-April 25, 2021

Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, 1 p.m.

Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, June 6, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.



Margot L. Eccles Arts & Culture Fund (a Central Indiana Community Foundation Fund)
Capital Group
Chase Private Client
Ice Miller
Citizens Energy Group
Faegre Drinker
Indiana Arts Commission
Arts Council and the City of Indianapolis

Don Hinds Ford

Quilts Plus
Crimson Tate


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Storyteller magazine.