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The Special Art of Women 

Getting to know the Palouse chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art

Since the days when Jane Austen sat scribbling at her little desk when she was supposed to be doing needlework and making polite, restrained conversation, times have changed for creative women.

Austen may have only dreamed of getting together with a talkative group of like-minded female friends, but such gatherings are a regular event for members of the Palouse chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art (WCA).

"It's a gas," said University of Idaho art professor Sally Machlis. "We have such a wide variety of artists in the group, representing both the university and the community, and a broad age range as well."

"Generally, everyone in our group is a firecracker," said Michelle Hal of Troy. "We have jewelers and painters and printmakers and sculptors and digital artists. And videographers and dancers and architects and ceramic artists and glass artists ... In fact, why don't you join us? We'd love to have you."

Even for someone as club-phobic as myself, it's a pretty tempting invite. My first introduction to the group was at one of their more informal meetings, in the Washington State University (WSU) fine arts building lobby, before a guest lecturer on collaborative art. Members took turns chatting and checking out the show at the adjacent museum, before gathering themselves up and making their way to the auditorium for the lecture.

"We're really not ourselves, here, since we're not drinking wine and eating cookies," joked Machlis.

The WCA is a national organization, founded in 1972 in connection with the College Art Association (CAA). "Caucus," in this usage, simply means a special interest group.

The WCA's mission, according to their Web site, includes "education about the contributions of women, opportunities for the exhibition of women's work, publication of women's writing about art, inclusion of women in the history of art, professional equity for all, respect for all individuals without discrimination and support for legislation relevant to their goals."

The Palouse WCA chapter espouses that mission, of course. Some of their recent activities include sponsoring feminist artist Yara Clubor­--a well-known photographer--as a visiting artist to the University of Idaho; choosing which Moscow high school art student would be the recipient of the WCA's annual $100 art-supplies scholarship; creating works for their "Art Sustains!" exhibit, held last fall in conjunction with Sustainability Month at WSU; creating a new Web site for themselves; and preparing for their upcoming show of new works, set to open April 13 at the Above the Rim Gallery in Moscow.

But they are equally enthusiastic about some of the group's "fuzzier" goals, too, such as encouragement, appreciation, camaraderie and inspiration.

"It's hard to meet people, especially in rural areas," said Gina Murray, president of the Palouse WCA and a sculptor who works in wood, stone and glass. "When I got here, I called the caucus right away. It's all about talking about our art and doing things together."

"I joined the Women's Art Caucus mainly to reconnect with other women artists and to have an avenue to begin showing my work again," said Carol Bradford of Kendrick. "Since I work and live in quiet isolation--on a bluff overlooking the confluence of two rivers--I find the connection with other women artists a great balance for me socially and professionally."

The members meet monthly, September through June. Most meetings include a short business discussion, and then a demonstration, portfolio review or an off-site visit for an exhibit or lecture.

"We have an annual Christmas ornament exchange, where we all make an artistic ornament for a Chinese gift auction," Murray said. "It's very competitive and fun. And, of course, we participate in Moscow's "Artwalk" every summer, but this past summer, we were 'art, walking'--we made fabulous hats and strolled around downtown in them on the night of the opening receptions."

At age 37, Hal is one of the group's youngest members. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and earned her bachelor's in ceramics there but was drawn to the University of Idaho for graduate school.

"I had to choose between East Carolina and the U of I, and the light out here [is] really great," she said.

Hal earned her master's of fine arts in sculpture in 2000, and has been teaching art as an adjunct professor at the U of I, as well as cooking for a sorority at WSU.

"I believe there is a strong tie between cooking and art, and there are several sorority houses bickering over who will get me next year," Hal said. "But I have applied for a teaching job at WSU, so I'd like to tell them all 'no'!"

Hal loves foundry work and welding, which she uses to do installations--huge works of art that sometimes weigh a ton or more, always take up a lot of space and are never available for sale.

"The general size I like to work with is 14 by 40 feet. You can walk away from a painting or a sculpture, but when you're in an installation, you have to interact with it," Hal said. "One of the largest ones I've done here was on Main Street in Troy, in a building that used to be a pizza parlor and theater. It used 200 yards of hand-dyed muslin, and two tons of found steel objects. You could have eaten dinner inside it."

Hal has begun working with less dangerous media, so she doesn't have to worry so much about hurting herself or begging people to help move things.

"I've gotten away from metal since it's so heavy. I'm getting older, let's be honest. So now, I do a lot of jewelry and digital imaging. Photoshop is a lot of fun," she said. One particularly colorful digital collage she showed me was a self-portrait that she completed in 2001.

"We had just moved to a new place, and I didn't know anybody at all," she recalled. "I had a lot of time to think about things. A physical representation of myself is way too literal­--you may look the same but the inside of you is not the same today as tomorrow­--so I looked for the most diverse and vibrant images I could find that related to various aspects of my life, and arranged them in a way that forces you to work through it without focusing on any one image."

And the single quote on the portrait? "What if there was only one god? And it was you?"

"That refers to that total feeling of artistic power that you occasionally get, when everything is right. There's a feeling, a gestalt, that flows through you."

For Hal, that feeling has nothing to do with commercial success.

"Too many people worry about selling art, but I don't make it for money. I don't make it for anyone else. It's a part of who I am."

Her enthusiasm for the sheer joy of creativity makes Hal well-suited for expanding the WCA's membership. In her two years in the WCA, Hal has regularly invited new members to join. She strongly believes in the value of the support network that the organization provides.

"It really pushes you to do more artistically than you otherwise would," she said.

Hal is also the one who usually takes responsibility for sending the group's "art trading cards" off to other chapters when they've organized a trade.

Talk long enough to any member of the Palouse WCA and you'll hear about these art trading cards: a card exactly the size of a baseball card that each member individually designs and then gives away.

"We can't sell them, they're only for trading," explained Louise Colson, a glass artist from Viola who frequently works collaboratively with Murray on glass sculptures. "But they had an interesting effect. We started meeting for coffee and trading them; we even arranged a group trade with a caucus in New Hampshire. And after about six months, lots of artists in our group who hadn't really been working on things started working again, and lots of people had shows after that."

Art trading cards as catalyst or muse? Oh, yes. Take, for example, Linda Puccio.

"I love doing those trading cards and I love seeing what other people come up with on a little piece of paper."

Puccio lives in Moscow, cooks for a fraternity house and creates in a variety of media, such as sculpture, textiles and painting. Lately, she's been working a lot with collages that she creates from handmade paper. She also creates designs on--and with--fabric.

Puccio has also created shadow boxes, such as a box with a woodsy theme that includes water, mountains, grasses, butterflies and dragonflies. Another box depicted a seascape.

But not so long ago, Puccio wasn't nearly so productive, artistically speaking.

"I'm an art teacher but had quit teaching to take care of my grandchildren. And I set my artwork aside for awhile," Puccio said. "Three years ago, my sister had a stroke during surgery for a cerebral brain aneurysm, and it left her quite handicapped. My focus had been her.

"Then a couple [of] years ago, one of my artist friends said, 'This might be really good for you, Linda. Come to our meeting. We're making art trading cards [and] you can make anything you want.' They gave us a theme to work with­--'what our mothers tell us growing up'­--and I took off on those, and then went on to other things.

"So I got back into my artwork again as a way to direct myself away from obsessing over my sister, but I've also been able to do some artwork with her, which is wonderful."

Puccio loves to work in three dimensions and considers herself "whimsical."

"I'm really into color and abstract things," she said. "I've made some fabulous silk scarves, drawing on them with a gutta resist and then dyeing them. It's like doing batik, only using gutta instead of wax."

Puccio has three or four projects going on right now, in preparation for the upcoming WCA show of new works.

One project is a fabric picture, a rural African scene "that jumps out at you" with women, animals and plants. Another is a doily of filet crochet ("It's really beautiful. [It's] not hard but you have to pay attention to the counting"). She's also doing another shadowbox project, on the theme of "everything you can fit in a shoebox."

Puccio is the kind of creative person who is always working on something, even if it's simply crochet, but the Palouse WCA has helped her stretch herself as a working artist.

"Gathering together with the group is beneficial. You get to exchange ideas and information, and I like the way we discuss things," Puccio said.

"Now that I'm back into it I don't want to leave it again. And it's pretty cool to see what the ladies are doing."

"New Works," April 13-June 10. Opening reception April 13, 5-7 p.m. Above the Rim Gallery, 513 S. Main St., Moscow, 208-883-8321,www.abovetherimgallery.com.

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