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Berkeley’s Women Artist Trailblazers

Berkeley claims one of the first graphic novels, famous communist sculptors, and more

December 1, 2022
by Laura Smith
Shirin Neshat (right) with subject Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, in front of Neshat's painting Neshat (right) with subject Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient (Jorge Herrerera/NPG/Camera P​ress/Redux)

A surprising number of acclaimed women artists have come out of Berkeley, working in a wide array of mediums and styles and hailing from different backgrounds. Here are a few we’d like to draw your attention to because their work was/is startlingly original and their messages carry a lasting urgency. And of course, they have a good story to tell.

Jay DeFeo

Jay DeFeo painting The Rose
Jay DeFeo painting The Rose, San Francisco, 1960 (Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos)

It took Jay DeFeo nearly eight years to complete her painting The Rose. During that time, she worked on little else. It was, as she said, “an idea that had a center to it.” When she was done in 1966, the canvas had become “a marriage between painting and sculpture,” so thick with oil paint that it had to be fork-lifted out of the bay window of her second-story apartment in San Francisco. After that, she didn’t touch oil for another 16 years, experimenting instead with collage, photography, and other media. 

Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1929, DeFeo became a distinctly Californian artist. She received her bachelor’s and master’s from Berkeley (’50, M.A. ’51), and joined a community of San Francisco beat artists, writers, and musicians who were exploring new forms of expression and living. (DeFeo was in the audience alongside Jack Kerouac when Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time.) When she died from cancer in 1989, The Rose was tucked away in storage at the San Francisco Art Institute. Twenty-five years later, it reemerged, and now lives at the Whitney in New York.

Miné Okubo

Drawing of Miné and Toku standing with their luggage
Miné and Toku standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California, 1942 (Japanese American National Museum – Gift of MinÉ Okubo Estate, 2007.62.23)

In 1942, Miné Okubo and her brother were incarcerated in the Tanforan “assembly center” in San Bruno, California, where they slept on sacks of straw in horse stalls that stank of manure. Then they were shipped off to Topaz, a camp in Utah where she would remain until 1944. President Roosevelt had just issued an executive order resulting in the forced “evacuation” of all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. Okubo had studied art and anthropology at Berkeley (’35, M.A. ’36) and, ironically, before Pearl Harbor, her work was encouraged by the government through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Now, as the government’s prisoner, she turned her pen against it, incessantly recording the true indignities of the camps. She sketched the living conditions, the lack of privacy, and the boredom. While still interned, one of her drawings, of soldiers on watch, was displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). From those 2,000 camp sketches, she created a graphic memoir, Citizen 13660. One of the first personal accounts of the camps and one of the earliest graphic novels, it won the American Book Award in 1984.

Miné and Toku standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California, 1942

Mary Fuller

Fuller next to her sculpture
(Calabi Gallery)

In 1951, Mary Fuller was fired from her job teaching art in Point Richmond, California, for refusing to sign an oath against communism. Fearing what this could mean for leftists like her, she and her husband, the American modernist Robert McChesney, drove their camper to Guadalajara, Mexico. They only stayed a year, but it made an impression. 

Inspired by pre-Columbian art and mythology, Fuller began constructing totemic sculptures made from vermiculite, sand, and cement. While the rest of her Northern Californian contemporaries were focused on abstract expressionism, Fuller became an important outlier. An avowed feminist, she believed society could “bypass the entire patriarchal ideology and vision” by returning 
to ancient cultures and thereby arrive at “an authentic concept 
of women, and of men.”

Her refusal to sign the anticommunist oath was not her first act of resistance. At Cal, she had been a philosophy major with excellent grades, but she grew disillusioned with “studying philosophy and reading stuff by a bunch of dead white men, while the world was blowing up around me.” And so she left Berkeley and became a welder in the Richmond shipyards. Through her large, often public sculptures, she found a way to marry her leftist ideology with a reality she could touch and feel. 

Shirin Neshat

Neshat with subject Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, in front of her portrait
National Portrait Gallery unveils a portrait of Malala Yousafzai by Iranian-born artist and filmaker, Shirin Neshat, at the National Portrait Gallery on October 2, 2018, in London, England.

Shirin Neshat left Iran to study art at Berkeley (’79, MFA ’82) just before the Islamic Revolution. When she returned more than a decade later, she was shocked by the country’s descent into religious militancy. So began the obsession that would define the rest of her career: the female experience in male dominated spaces. She started by exploring issues of female identity, femininity, and Islamic fundamentalism through photography of women in veils, sometimes with guns, overlaid with calligraphy. At the center of much of her work is the question of women’s relationship to religion, and her art tells a nuanced story, portraying both the women who chose to adhere to Islamic fundamentalism, and those who were persecuted by it. In 1999, her film Turbulent won a Venice Biennale prize. It contrasted the experience of a man singing in front of an all-male audience with a woman singing to an empty room. Her work has been shown all over the world, but never in Iran, where it is banned. 

Squeak Carnwath

"The future is present" painting
Now, 2020 (M Lee Fatherree. © 2022 Squeak Carnwath / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)

As a child, painter Squeak Carnwath was disappointed to learn that Joan Miró wasn’t a woman. She didn’t know of many women artists, so, she said, “We had to make up our own role models.” Later, at California College of Arts and Crafts, she noticed that the professors were almost always men, though most of the students were women. When she first joined the Berkeley faculty in 1982, at Joan Brown’s urging (see mainbar), she told her classes, “Look around, the two guys in this class will be out there in a gallery before you unless you work hard.” 

Carnwath was born in 1947 in Abington, Pennsylvania. While much of her work is characterized by grids and contrasting bands of color, her later paintings are looser, with icons and words floating freely. Often, the paintings include words or simple iconography suggesting a wider social concern, but with ample room for interpretation. 

These days, Carnwath is focused on protecting the past for the sake of the future. In 2000, she created the Artists’ Legacy Foundation. “It’s meant to look after the artwork of artists who have died and steward it into the future,” she explained. “It costs money to steward and promote somebody’s work after they’re gone. Somebody has to be the artist in absentia.” 

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