Treasures from the Vault: Mary Beth Edelson

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

The showstopper in any exhibition is, arguably, when there is a site-specific work of art created for the space. This particular artwork can take the form of a sculpture, interactive installation, or even performance, but it’s typically a painting or mural. (In fact, you can see a site-specific mural at FWMoA right now, Heather Day’s Cinder Scaffold #2, as part of the By Women exhibition). Works of art along these lines often directly address the underlying tone or theme of an exhibition, embodying elements from surrounding artwork and bringing everything together with one piece. Unfortunately, site-specific artwork is regularly dismantled and destroyed once an exhibition closes, especially if it’s a painting or mural created directly on the gallery walls. As a result, treasures like this can only be seen for a short time before they are lost. There are times, however, when we’re lucky enough to have a sketch or model of the work, allowing us a glimpse into the artist’s planning process and a peek at art that once graced the gallery walls.

Mary Beth Edelson’s Working Drawing for “Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums” is one such rare treasure. This drawing allows us a glimpse into Edelson’s creative process as she visually worked through her composition. As we can see from this drawing, the painting was divided into three main panels: the green sections on either end contained suspended baby girl heads of various sizes, and a central, larger black panel possessed birds surrounding a snake with a candle for a tail. Simply put, we have a lot to dig into with this treasure. But, before we unpack what all these images represent, I want to first briefly introduce Edelson.

Edelson is a pioneer in feminist art, with her work from the 1960s and 1970s forging a new chapter in American art history. Her interest in political activism, feminine history, ancient civilizations and religions, and female-centered spirituality inspired by Jungian archetypes results in works of art brimming with rich symbolism that challenge viewers to reevaluate the world around them and search for a path to a better, more inclusive future. Her goal was to question the hegemonic patriarchal values that are ingrained in Western culture, utilizing chaos imagery to instigate change and release tension in society. Essentially, she seeks to disrupt her viewer’s sense of complacency and instigate investigative thought. To convey her message to viewers, Edelson developed a catalog, or library, of imagery that she often references. These symbols include numerous details found in Shape Shifter, such as the baby girl’s head, birds, and the combination of a snake and candle. Now, let’s take a look at Shape Shifter’s imagery in light of our knowledge of Edelson.

Mary Beth Edelson, American, b. 1933. Working drawing for “Shape Shifters: Seven Mediums”. Mixed media, 1989. Gift of the Artist, 1989.18. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Shape Shifter was a site-specific painting for FWMoA’s exhibition of Edelson’s traveling retrospective in 1989, also titled Shape Shifter. As such, it’s no surprise that this one piece contained symbolism referencing important imagery from her career – and thanks to her drawing, we’re able to see what it contained. First, let’s talk about the baby girl. This image (which I’ve dubbed Gerber Baby Girl) crops up in numerous works by Edelson, one of which was on display in her retrospective. This 1988 work (see below) was titled It’s a Girl, and featured Gerber Baby Girl’s head balanced on top of a skull. The baby’s head is part of Edelson’s “vocabulary images” that she references regularly, and it has meaning on numerous levels. First, it possesses what Edelson calls a universal meaning: the skull symbolizes the paradigm of death while the baby symbolizes that of emerging life. Life and death are something that everyone experiences, which allows her work to speak to large audiences. Next, it has a meaning that’s much more personal to Edelson: the dichotomy of the baby girl and skull represent the death of Edelson’s mother and the communication between them in life that’s now been severed. While I haven’t experienced the loss of my own mother, I’ve heard time and time again from those who have that, once she’s gone, every question you never asked comes back again, but it can no longer be answered. By referencing this innate bond between mother and daughter, Edelson is recalling the generations of women who have come before her, connecting them with those who will come after. This shared female history unites us all and isn’t something to disregard.

Next, in the central black panel we see birds and the snake. Bird imagery has a strong presence in Edelson’s artwork, and they’re traditionally viewed as messengers. We can tell that Edelson was thinking along the same lines, as under her sketch of a bird in the upper left corner, she’s written “CARRIER”. But what are the birds in Shape Shifter carrying? Perhaps these birds can convey messages across generations of women?

Then we have the snake, which is dead center in our drawing (and presumably the finished work of art as well). The tail of the snake ends in a candle flame, with rays of light emanating outward, while its body weaves away to the bottom right of the panel. This exact snake was featured in another painting in the exhibition (seen above), 1989’s Years of Good Luck , which also featured our little Gerber Baby Girl head. Additionally, Edelson often references the Minoan snake goddess in her work. This goddess was traditionally viewed as the protector of the home, which is further emphasized with its pairing to the baby girl. While Edelson specifically references the Minoan snake goddess, I think it’s interesting to point out that there are other ancient religions that have snake myths that possess female characteristics. For instance, the Greek Dionysiac cult snake was viewed as feminine and symbolized wisdom and fertility, giving snakes and women both a place of prominence, when traditionally western Christian culture places them both in the center of sin and deception. Rather than follow these lines, however, Edelson references cultures where women have power. With this in mind, we can assume that Edelson is once again referencing the power of the feminine, both young and old, and the prominence women should have in the world. The ancient Minoan goddess protected the home for centuries, and women will continue to be strong and protective.

There’s a lot of dense symbolism contained within Shape Shifter, which is typical for Edelson. She wanted her pieces to not only grab viewers’ attention, but also invite them in to analyze their own preconceived beliefs and ideals. Her work is introspective, beckoning her audience to reevaluate the world around them and see how they can help make a change.

It’s clear that the final Shape Shifter was an important work of art within Edelson’s exhibition and was in line with her overall oeuvre, as seen through her imagery. What I find most interesting about our drawing for Shape Shifter is the inclusion of Edelson’s notes. This gives us a typically private and secret look into her planning process – we can literally see how her mind is working through compositional quandaries. Additionally, we can see if our analysis is in line with the message Edelson sought to convey.

We’ve already talked about the hummingbird in the upper left, but there are many notes in addition to it. We see numerous sketches of dashes and polygrams across the top with references to time – “FUTURE TIME, PRESENT TIME, PAST TIME”, and, “TIME A PROBABILITY NETWORK”. These patterns can just be seen against the black background, but it’s hard to make out their exact pattern – it’s likely that at least some of them were directly translated to the final piece. But, one of the most interesting notes pertains to the baby heads, and it’s stationed above the left panel, “HEADS FLOATING REPRESENT GLOBAL RACIAL AND ETHNIC GROUPS OF VARIOUS OPEN FACED SMILING CHILDREN, WITH LOTS OF CHARACTER.” So, with this note, our earlier interpretation of the piece is called into question – it looks like the final piece was not in fact just about women through history; rather, it focused on ethnic groups who, like women, have been historically oppressed. While Edelson used her Gerber Baby Girl head in this sketch, after reading this note we could safely hypothesize that she may have used different heads of ethnic children in the final piece. This, when taken into account with Edelson’s numerous notes on time, tells us that she was creating a politically charged work of art, one that was meant to stir her audiences into rethinking the state of global racism and how they can change it. That’s why a working drawing like this is so important – so we can see what influenced a work of art that we no longer have and what the message truly was.

Throughout her career, Edelson often tied the ideas of feminism and race together, as the two are often marginalized in both art and art history. This means that our initial analysis doesn’t need to be completely thrown out after reading Edelson’s notes. While we know that the final Shape Shifter didn’t pertain to women specifically, she was still encouraging her viewers to analyze history and instigate change. This was the crux of much of her imagery – to call her viewers to perpetuate change rather than be complacent with the state of the world. So, what is the “shape shifter”? Is it the seven mediums that she used throughout the exhibition, or is she challenging humanity to shift and change?

If you’re interested in viewing more of Edelson’s work, she is currently on display both in the John S. and James L. Knight Learning Center (left) and By Women: Selections from the Permanent Collection (right), on display until September 13, 2020.

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