Dorothy Gillespie: A “Woman Artist”

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

“We are privileged people because we touch art.”

– Dorothy Gillespie

In April 1979, internationally known “woman artist” Dorothy Gillespie came to Fort Wayne and wowed the locals with a city-wide exhibition of her lively colored metal and paper sculptures and her bright, airy abstract paintings. With her, she also brought a message of empowerment to women in the arts.

In the 1970s, female artists were still identified as “women artists”. In fact, female professionals in any traditionally male professions or rôles were identified by their gender (though men were not!). Dorothy Gillespie set out to do something about that misnomer, along with millions of other women during this era of consciousness-raising and stereotype-bashing.

“I tell you, Rembrandt has never washed the dishes first. Do your work first while you’re fresh. Then do the things you have to do. They don’t take much brains.”

– Dorothy Gillespie

The two-week residency in our fair city, sponsored by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, the Fort Wayne National Bank, the Indiana Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts resulted in more than 200 Gillespie works exhibited in public spaces throughout the city. Fabric banners, scaled-down movable sculpture in the museum’s Children’s Wing, outdoor installations, a site-specific sculpture for the museum’s stairwell, framed paintings, miniature table-top sculptures, and an abundance of sculptures in the museum’s galleries were curated to delight the viewers. An array of activities included installation workshops, a lecture on women artists’ rights, and a dinner and awarding of the City Seal by LaDonna Huntley, the first woman to serve as the Mayor’s Public Affairs Director; accomplished women were claiming their rightful places in the world. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art took this and Dorothy Gillespie to heart.

“I discovered a unique thing in Fort Wayne, the museum here is one of the most active museums I’ve found, I’m amazed. I had no idea I would find this kind of art involvement.”

– Dorothy Gillespie
Dorothy Gillespie's "Pick Up Sticks" on the lawn of the Fort Wayne Museum of art, now the Castle Gallery, at 1202 W Wayne St, April 1979.
Dorothy Gillespie’s “Pick Up Sticks” on the lawn of the Fort Wayne Museum of art, now the Castle Gallery, at 1202 W Wayne St, April 1979. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, Dorothy, at the age of five, was already navigating her artistic path.  When it came time to think about college, her parents were uneasy about permitting her to attend art school – art schools were thought to attract those who were not so nice—until a trusted man of the cloth praised her artistic skill as a gift from God.  Dorothy was allowed to attend Radford University in Virginia, and later, the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore.

Dorothy moved to New York in 1943 where she worked as Assistant Art Director for the B. Altman and Company department store and also joined the Art Students League, the Clay Club, and Atelier 17 where she was influenced by printmaker Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988). While in New York, she married Bernard Israel, had three children, and for several years owned and operated a Greenwich Village nightclub with her husband all while continuing to paint, study, teach, and advocate. Though she never identified herself as a feminist artist she didn’t hesitate to participate in social commentary and to irreverently poke at the status quo. Her installation “happenings”, American Way of Death (with Sam Goodman), Made in U.S.A. and Ritual ‘71 shocked, amused, and enlightened 1970s New Yorkers.

The artist with volunteers installing "Gambol Series No. 1" in front of the Community Center for the Performing Arts (now the Arts United Center), April, 1979. The 43-foot long sculpture was borrowed from its home location on Roosevelt Island, New York for the event in Fort Wayne.
The artist with volunteers installing “Gambol Series No. 1” in front of the Community Center for the Performing Arts (now the Arts United Center), April, 1979. The 43-foot long sculpture was borrowed from its home location on Roosevelt Island, New York for the event in Fort Wayne. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

She explored various media, including experimental film, and over time, found that abstract painting and sculpture best suited her vision. Later, a deep interest in archaeology took her to South America and Great Britain where her experiences on digs uncovering artifacts unseen for centuries provided personal insights into her artistic motivations – the joy in creating that which had not yet been seen. Her artistic path took her from traditional representative two-dimensional contained work to outside-the-frame exuberance, climbing to the ceiling and spilling to the floor in streams and rolls of painted paper, steel, aluminum, and Mylar. She had a sense that her art was preconceived, and that she was the medium executing it. For her, creating abstract art in color, form, and space was exhilarating.  As her expertise in various materials expanded, so did the scale of her work as murals and large-scale architecture-centered pieces were added to her repertoire. Yet, she continued to paint, lecture, teach, and advocate for women artists. From 1947-2012 her efforts included 123 solo shows, 61 group shows, 35 commissions, 2 ballet sets, 60 lectures and served as visiting artist at 16 universities. Not bad for a “woman artist”!

Image courtesy of The Fort Wayne News Sentinel.

“I just work all the time. That’s what it’s all about. Actually, it’s not even work for me – it’s a way of life.”

– Dorothy Gillespie

Throughout her career, Gillespie worked strenuously to support women in the arts through education, training, and collaboration.

“Artists need other artists badly. You must have contacts with other artists, a network, a supportive system you can have all your life.”

– Dorothy Gillespie

She was co-founder of the Women’s Interart Center and the Women’s Caucus for Art in New York in the 1970s.  In 2001 she was awarded the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Service Award which recognizes the contributions made by women who have distinguished themselves by their activism and commitment to the women’s movement and the arts.

“Whether or not they realize it, artists through the ages will owe much to Gillespie. She was among those who transformed the art world, opening doors for women artists. She forged her own styles, expressing a vision to which people responded, visually and viscerally.”

– Douglas Covington, President, Radford University

Dorothy Gillespie, “woman artist”, gave of herself in the production of her vibrant, life-affirming art and also in her tireless support of artists, especially young women artists who now stand on her shoulders. In 2020, the centennial of her birth, let’s all celebrate the phenomenal life of Dorothy Gillespie, artist.

“The more generous you are, the more you have to be generous with.”

– Dorothy Gillespie

Here are a few photographs of Dorothy Gillespie installing her 1979 exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

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