Girl Power 

Annual We Art Women benefit grows up

It's mid-afternoon on Main Street, and the sun has thawed the clumps of snow that once crowded the sidewalk in front of Humpin' Hannah's. Inside the bar, there are no seasons, only the colorful glow of bar lights and the chatter of day-drinkers. Performer and co-owner Rocci Johnson wraps up band practice and pulls a chair up next to local artist Zella Bardsley to discuss the second-annual We Art Women benefit.

Johnson founded A Celebration of Women in the Arts—the predecessor to We Art Women—13 years ago.

"I always wanted to get all the girls together that I knew were talented and put on this great show, and I could never figure out how to do it," recalled Johnson. "Then I went, 'Wait a second. We have the venue, and we've got the band.' A friend of mine said, 'Well, let's put visual art with it.' So it just kind of blossomed."

Bardsley joined the fundraiser in its second year as an artist and came on board as the event's visual arts chair the following year. As both Johnson and Bardsley make indelibly clear, organizing the event is a full-time job.

"We work on it year-round," Bardsley added, "and then we start meeting about six months out. It's pretty much in the back of our heads all year."

A Celebration of Women in the Arts marked 11 years at Humpin' Hannah's, each year growing in size and scope.

"We had five hours of performance art and then we even walled off Main Street. With 60 visual artists involved, it just got too big," Johnson elaborated. "And the main thing was that we weren't raising the funds."

So two years ago, Johnson, Bardsley and their team of loyal volunteers overhauled the benefit. They changed the name to We Art Women and moved it from Hannah's informal bar setting to the more grown-up Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy. They nudged the visual art center stage and wheeled the musical and performance aspects to the back.

"We just sort of focus more on the female visual artists now, showcasing their art and also still doing the silent auction and still having live music," explained Bardsley.

This more acute focus means more attention can be given to the event's cause celebre: raising funds for The Women's and Children's Alliance.

At a celebration event a couple of years ago, Johnson took to the stage at Hannah's and gave one of her honest talks. She spoke candidly about an issue that makes people uncomfortable, an issue that often goes unmentioned yet lies at the heart of this benefit: domestic violence. Johnson was a victim of domestic violence as a child and spent 14 years in an abusive marriage.

"It's not like I was a weak person," Johnson made clear. "It's just that I was caught in a cycle."

Fortunately, that night marked the end of a cycle for a woman in the audience who sat quietly absorbing Johnson's every word. At the following year's celebration, the woman approached Johnson and told her how she had been motivated seek help at Boise's Women's and Children's Alliance.

"She told me," Johnson recalled, tears welling, "'you know what? I listened to you, and I knew I could do it.'"

Stories like these have kept Johnson and the benefit for the WCA going strong for the past 13 years. And this year's event promises to be more spectacular than ever.

"We try to represent anybody that's a female artist that applies," noted Bardsley. "We have about 80 artists at this point, so we're scrambling, trying to figure out where we're going to put them all."

Bardsley and Johnson have made every effort to create an environment that is both nurturing and noncompetitive.

"What's been really inspiring are the women that have never shown their work before," Bardsley beamed. "This is the place that they feel welcome and feel able to do that. They're not judged, and it's been really nice because we've had a lot of artists that have started with us and have gone on to go to galleries or do other shows. It's an empowering environment."

One artist who has benefited significantly from the fundraiser's exposure is Bardsley, whose art is now represented by 12 galleries around the Pacific Northwest. Bardsley works primarily in recycled mixed metals, crafting delicate quilts and public sculptures using torches and MIG welders. Describing what draws her to this medium, Bardsley said:

"I think it's taking a very traditional, very hard form and making it sort of organic and feminine and yet still very powerful and strong."

Alongside Bardsley's "Metal Quilt," this year's exhibition will house an array of local artwork. Equine sculptural pieces like Mary Van De Bogart's Canyon Horse and Bernie Jestrabek-Hart's Poco Dan will be saddled up next to Susan Moore's landscape linocuts and Kellie Cosho's ink-on-foam abstractions. Many of these works will be available for bidding during the benefit's silent and live auctions—with 20 to 100 percent of the selling price going directly to the WCA. Attendees can vote for their favorite artwork for the People's Choice Award, which will be given out later in the evening along with awards for Best in Show and first and second runners up.

In addition to the fine art exhibition, this year's fundraiser will also include a Quick Draw and a raffle. The quick-draw event will feature the work of Nicole Lefavour, Jany Seda, Erin Cunningham and Julie Clemons. Each woman will compose a piece of artwork under the watchful eyes of benefit attendees, and that work will be auctioned off later in the evening.

Of course, any event hosted by Rocci Johnson has to have live music. Following in the tradition of years past, guests will be serenaded by the likes of locals Gayle Chapman, the Frim Fram Four, Rebecca Scott and Deb Sager. The art, music and refreshments are the primary colors—the Mondrian painting, so to speak—of a great night out.

As the daylight starts to fade outside of Hannah's windows, the subtle hum of the radio imbues Johnson's closing words with an almost cinematic resonance.

"It's part of our inner nature that we want to create beauty and want to create great things with our art. And by the same token, we want to make this about our lives. We want to improve that around us that needs work. And it's just essential to me as a person that I give back."

We Art Women, Thursday, Feb. 28, 5-9 p.m., Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, 516 S. 9th St. The $25 donation includes full catering by Smoky Mountain Pizza and Pasta.

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