By Suzanne Venino
In 1971 a handful of women artists in Southern California decided to band together to promote their work through art shows and advertising. “Back then it was difficult, if not impossible, for women artists to get recognition,” says oil painter Joan Wright, one of the original members of Women Artists of the West. “We weren’t taken seriously. People thought we were housewives. A lot of the artists signed their paintings with only their last name so people wouldn’t know they were done by a woman.”
Much has changed in nearly 40 years. The organization has grown from fewer than 10 members to more than 250 professional artists. Originally restricted to women who lived in the West and painted western-themed subjects, today WAOW boasts members from coast to coast and has expanded to include all genres, styles, and mediums. In contrast to the early days, when artists drove for miles and miles to attend meetings, members now stay connected through email, the WAOW website, and online forums where they celebrate each other’s awards and accomplishments as well as share information on business practices, advertising opportunities, and upcoming shows.
With emails flying back and forth, the group plans at least one juried, members-only show each year. The most recent show took place in February at Saks Galleries in Denver, CO. Eighty WAOW members—along with guest artists Louisa McElwain, Jill Soukup, and Cammie Lundeen—exhibited their work.
“People drove down from Wyoming and up from New Mexico just to see the show,” says Catherine Saks, co-owner of the gallery. “We had a nonstop parade of clients, students, and artists coming through the gallery. WAOW did an incredibly effective job of advertising the exhibit and getting the word out.”
Over the decades, shows have been held in big cities, in small towns, and in such prestigious venues as the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, TX, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. Every five years, the group sponsors a national juried show open to all women artists. Festivities include art demonstrations, lectures and workshops by guest artists, an awards banquet, and receptions for artists, collectors, and sponsors. It is also a time when WAOW members get to spend time with each other face to face.
This summer, WAOW holds its first online art show and sale. Entitled Women Revealed: WAOW Showcases Their World, it will be posted on the group’s website from August 1 to September 30. “The Internet is more and more important in marketing,” says web mistress Mary Ann Cherry, an oil painter from Idaho. “We have members in rural areas, in major metropolitan areas, in places all across the country—and they will all be represented. An online show makes more art available to more people.”
While the organization has changed over the years, some things remain the same: the high level of accomplishment required for membership, the hard work and dedication of the member artists, and the shared effort of a group of professionals helping each other advance their careers.
“Most important is the camaraderie of working together toward a common goal,” says Wright, who during her 38 years in the organization has served as a board member, as president, and, more recently, as WAOW historian. “There’s been a lot of laughter. I’ve made a lot of best friends.”
Women Revealed: WAOW Showcases Their World, online show and sale, www.waow.org, August 1-Septmber 30.
Featured in August 2009