When Words Are Not Enough, #ArtToo, Can Reinvigorate: A Fellow Artist Reflects On the Power of Art by Women Artists

By Lori Crawford

Artists know rejection all too well: rejection from galleries, selection committees, jobs, teaching assignments, grants, fellowships, residencies and of course lovers. The sting of the “NO” is not lessened even when caressed between gorgeously handsome accolades and achievements like “Congratulations, your work has been accepted into…” or “It is our pleasure to announce…”. A recent personal blow came when I was denied promotion to full professor after teaching at the university level for 25 years and earning tenure. My personal professional grievance ballooned with the realization that much of my scholarship, creative endeavors, service and teaching had been for naught. The blaring negative recommendations had me questioning whether my gender was an impediment, or was it my race, or a combination of the two. I thought, why was my MFA good enough to be hired right out of graduate school, but it was not terminal enough to be promoted to full professor decades later? My MFA qualified me to Chair the Art Department at the mere age of 35 and again 12 years later, but somehow it was insufficient now? My graduate degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design was historical, for it was the first time a Black woman was bestowed a Master of Fine of Arts degree in Computer Art, affording me many opportunities and gubernatorial appointments to Delaware’s Arts Council and museum boards, only to feel like my accomplishments and contributions were not enough. But I did not wallow in pity for long. Instead, I found refuge in the art and creativity of women artists, including my own. I discovered works of art addressing trauma, discrimination, pain, grief, and inequality; works that invigorated me beyond words. 

Like American activist and movement founder Tarana Burke, “#MeToo” inspired women and girls to speak up about sexual wrongdoings, “Art Too” is my personal movement to look to the many forms of art that have captured our stories for centuries and to find common threads. Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter from the 17th century, was one of the earliest professional female painters in a time when it was illegal for women to study the visual arts. Artemisia, if she were alive, might have posted on the #MeToo platform because she too was victimized by rape. Rebecca Mead, writer, with The New Yorker had this to say about Gentileschi in 2020, “Artemisia’s art is increasingly being appreciated for the knowingness with which she made use of elements of her life—not just sexual violation but also motherhood, erotic passion, and professional ambition.”1 Women were often the primary subjects in Artemisia’s work. Judith, notable in the bible, was the subject of two paintings by the artist. Both works created nearly 10 years apart, graphically depict the heroine beheading of a man in horror film like detail. Judith, strong and robust, manhandled the antagonist, Holofernes, who can be seen withering under her determined grip in typical baroque lighting for dramatic effect. The blood-stained sheets soak up the life being drained from the shirtless man whose mission to destroy an entire village was interrupted by the machete wielding woman and her maidservant. 

Now, I’ll evaluate two works from the expressionism era. At first glance, the high contrast, emotion filled works of Käthe Kollwitz cuts right to the anguish of the unknown. According to the artist’s biography on the National Gallery of Women in the Arts website, she was formally trained and leaned more on printmaking techniques to reach more people with images of pain and suffering.2 Furthermore, the German artist lived through both world wars. I feel as though I am Kollwitz in The Self Portrait with Hand to Forehead (1910) (figure 1). In the etching, her eyes peer intently, challenging the viewer to a dueling stare, which ultimately she wins because most turn away from difficult situations. Who can’t relate to the hand on the forehead moments when you fret over paying bills, feeding your child or caring for an aging parent? The loosely hatched markings capture textures of skin and hair, leaving bare spaces as highlights on the forehead, rendering even her gender ambiguous. Unfortunately, what is clear, is the compounded trauma that most Americans have been experiencing in recent years with mass shootings in schools like; Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and most recently Robb Elementary School. Our society’s most vulnerable are at risk on a daily basis. Käthe Kollwitz, was too a mother who grieved the loss of a child and a grandchild. She was angry at death and at life for being unfair. The artist costumed death with human attributes. How sadly fitting that an imaginative, dark caped figure drawn in 1934 and titled Death Grabbing at a Group of Children, that was possibly attributed to childhood death from disease, could so easily be a billboard for an AR-15 toting mass killer in black clothing. Today’s “Super-Zero” like figure swooped so comfortably into school rooms, movie theaters, supermarkets, places of worship, and celebratory parades, leaving behind rivers of tears, bloodshed and the stench of gun powder. The limited palette of black and white is void of pleasantries and leaves the viewer grappling with the stark ugly truth of suffering. 

Suffering and color are two powerful themes seen in the work of Frida Kahlo, the self-taught painter from Mexico. The hemoglobin-filled reddish hue can be found in multiple works such as Without Hope (1945), Henry Ford Hospital (1932) and The Two Frida’s (1939), all of which are self-portraits that put her distress on display. These works, like Kollwitz, are fraught with the fragility of life. The cyclonic mass, emitting from the figures’ mouth in Without Hope, is composed of raw flesh, feathered foul, scaled fish and other edibles rendered in warm tones. The painting provides us with a visual of what forced feeding must have felt like to the weakened, bed ridden patient. Henry Ford Hospital leaves little to the imagination about the agony of miscarriage. Kahlo, who had suffered a serious bus accident years prior, endured over 30 surgeries which put her at high risk to miscarry. The hospital painting crudely lays out the loss of life before our eyes. The blood-stained sheets with the artist’s protruding belly encircled by 6 floating iconic symbols, including one of her still-born child, are uniquely related to her life of suffering. Unwittingly, her womb rejected the small life that Kahlo so desperately desired. It is admirable that Frida Kahlo persevered and continued to tell her story visually in ways that words could not; Art Too consoles.

African American artists who have boldly taken on injustices in their art are numerous. Two who stand out to me are Saar and Catlett. Betye Saar, a California native known for her three-dimensional assemblages, confronted racial stereotypes head on in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). The work is filled with iconographic imagery, both positive and negative, that have been associated with Black culture. If anyone was curious about the visual evolution of the southern maid servant, Saar gives us three depictions in the shadow-boxed work. A smiling Black woman’s head in three-quarter view is repeated and plastered like wall paper on the back  and thought to be a more socially acceptable image. The second figure is shown in the middle holding a screaming white baby against her large breasts. The third is a ceramic vessel, a relic from the past, to reinforce the narrative of servitude in the Black community, and to remind the races of their place in society. Saar’s three-dimensional “Mammy” is painted in tar colored blackface with bulging eyes and the exaggerated big red lips, deceptively smiling back at us. The head wrapped figurine stands upon a bed of cotton as if they had just been plucked from a plantation. Aunt Jemima is armed with a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. A black power fist is strategically placed in the bottom center to demonstrate self-actualization and freedom. The compilation provided a genuine, tangible example of Black pride that African Americans could hold on to for generations. #ArtToo can inspire.

Racial dignity embodies the work of  Elizabeth Catlett, a multi-disciplinary artist of African descent. She was unapologetically frank about her source of inspiration. “I have always wanted my art to service my people–to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”3 The artist’s wood carvings, in my opinion, are more impactful than her two-dimensional works. Her elegantly abstracted figures of women make my heart swell. Catlett’s Homage to Black Women Poets (1984) allows me to envelope my go-to literary greats into this visual tribute. But first, this life size sculpture was made from one massive block of timber. The female figure stands tall with one outstretched arm and clenched fist. The other arm is bent and resting on top a tilted head with eyes gazing upward. An expression of solemnity is incised in the face. Five precisely carved folds mimic layers of fabric expertly wrapped around apple bottom sized hips. The woman depicted is not reminiscent of any one poet or person but could very well be Catlett herself standing in solidarity with her sisters. 

My favorite poets are Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman as seen at President Biden’s inauguration. Many women, Black or otherwise can see themselves in the descriptive prose in “Still I Rise” by Angelou. “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt but still like dust, I’ll rise.” 4 Sonia Sanchez’ melodic way in which she delivers her written truths has resonated with me for over 30 years since I first met her in undergraduate school at Morehead State University in Eastern Kentucky. Poetry, good poetry, allows us to conjure up our own visual images. Poetry is art, and I appreciate that Catlett sought to honor poets whose writings will continue to resonate with all creatives young and old.

There was no shortage of material to draw from when it comes to inequality. Unjust treatment of women is a global phenomenon. Shirin Neshat’s photographic assault of traditional Islamic customs toward women and girls is an example of bravery at its best and got her exiled from her native land, Iran. According to an NPR interview in 2015 Neshat conceptualized and directed black and white photographs for The Women of Allah Series5. Women in chadors posed with rifles and adorned with Arabic text, painted calligraphically across their faces are jaw dropping images. Neshat herself is often captured in print. The fact that photography as an art form is largely prohibited in Muslim faiths, is yet another point of serious contention for the artist and her art. Art Too is forbidden.

One Neshat piece that left an indelible mark on me about customs, feminism and inequality is titled Speechless (1996). The black and white photograph is a close up of a woman’s face split nearly down the middle, leaving the right side fully cut off from view. The figures expressionless face is incised deliberately line by line with Arabic writings. Nestled between the head scarf are two circular shapes, one on top of the other that dangle like an earring would at first glance, only to reveal themselves to be the barrel of a rifle at closer inspection. I now see and hear more clearly the culturally submissive voice that so often is muzzled by religious practices in Speechless and other works by Neshat.

And Lori Crawford, a woman, a Black woman to be exact, mother, passionate art enthusiast and educator. I am an artist. Creating works that encourage self-reflection and expose ills in society are most important to me. My art calls attention to some societal ills. One such work is titled, The Bag Lady Kicking Out Sexism (2010) (Figure 2), which has been exhibited at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute among other places. Here, I used ordinary, household paper bags that I crumbled and twisted, as a receptacle of artistic expression. The relief has been refashioned into dimensional figures that is composed of discarded and recycled paper bag portraits. My female subjects are fabricated from brown paper bags as paradoxical symbols in tribute to a decades-old, polarizing practice within the Black community called the “Brown Paper Bag Test.” The test involved comparing another’s skin color to that of a brown paper bag. If the complexion was the same or lighter than the bag they “passed the test”. But if the opposite were true then they failed and did not gain entrance into that particular organization, church, school or any other designated function. Although, this test is no longer used, skin color preferences and many other intra-racial biases persist and plague our communities today. 

This Bag Lady was created over 10 years ago when my mindset was primarily focused on gender discrimination and quid pro quo sexual advances commonly seen in work environments. The woman on her back is kicking and defending herself against an unseen attacker. Women today must fight off others in the bedroom, the board room, the classroom, and the courtroom. The overturning of Roe v. Wade shocked the world as women’s right to reproductive choice has been snatched away. Our zip code now determines whether we have sovereignty over our own bodies. We must kick out, stomp out and fight against injustice in all its forms. 

Life is not easy; life is not fair. We all have experienced disappointments, rejections and loss, both personally and professionally. Some of us, unfortunately, have also experienced deep physical and emotional traumas. Through all of the darkness, however, light is there in the form of creative expression. “Art Too” can be therapeutic. Art Too can heal and inspire the soul like the Me Too movement did for sexual assault victims. Six artists were discussed who are diverse in race, age and practice. It is my hope that this essay will inspire each of you to look up the images discussed with which you were unfamiliar and let this be the beginning of new relationships formed with “Art Too” at the center.


  1. Mead, Rebecca (2020, September 28). A Fuller Picture of Artemisia Gentileschi. Onward and Upward With The Arts
  2. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. https://nmwa.org/art/artists/kathe-kollwitz/
  3. Artnet. Elizabeth Catlett. http://www.artnet.com/artists/elizabeth-catlett/. Accessed July 10, 2022
  4. Poetry foundation. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelo. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems46446/still-i-rise. Accessed July 11, 2022
  5. NPR, All Things Considered (May 18, 2015). Artist Shirin Neshat Captures Iran’s Sharp Contrast In Black and White

(Figure 1) Self Portrait with Hand to Forehead, Käthe Kollwitz, 1910, Etching and dry point

(Figure 1) Bag Lady: Kicking Out Sexism, Lori Crawford, 2010, Brown Paper Bag Relief

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