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At home on the range

From paintings to metates, a sprawling new Autry exhibit, 'Home Lands,' tells the story of women's roles in shaping the American West.

May 10, 2010|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The exhibition "Home Lands: How Women Made the West" at the Autry Museum of the American West is the institution's largest yet to present a sprawling picture of the West through the experience of women, from its first inhabitants to its eventual settlement by Europeans and Americans.

It might appear that it is the latest in the Autry's expanded view of Western history, from the typical conquest-and-cowboys stories to a wider narrative encompassing Native Americans, Chinese Americans and even gays.

But interest in women as part of this wider narrative has been present from the museum's creation, says the Autry's director, John Gray, who will be retiring this year.

"Jackie has insisted on women's stories being told from the start," he said, referring to Jackie Autry, founding chair of the museum and widow of actor and entertainment entrepreneur Gene Autry, after whom the museum is named.

From the outset, co-curator Virginia Scharff believed that the large topic required a large exhibition. "We really wanted to put women at the center of Western history," she said, communicating by speakerphone from Albuquerque, where she is a history professor at the University of New Mexico. Her co-curator, Carolyn Brucken, sitting in a conference room at the Autry, also participated in the call.

"I wanted to show their impact on this entire historical and cultural landscape, and I felt that we needed a major exhibition to make that point," Scharff said.

The exhibition is told through artifacts and ephemera from three geographic areas — northern New Mexico; the Colorado Front Range; and Puget Sound, Wash.

"Basically, we hope that seeing women in the history of these three places will help people see the Western past from a new point of view," said Brucken. "That the place that we call the West has been a home far longer than we think, and home to diverse peoples."

In 2003, Scharff was appointed chair of the Women in the West project, and Brucken was hired as assistant curator for Western women's history (she is now associate curator). Brucken is based at the museum, and Scharff in Albuquerque. While Scharff does occasionally travel to Los Angeles, the two usually work together via long-distance communication. "Lots of e-mails, lots of phone calls," Brucken said with a laugh.

The two worked out their ideas through storyboarding. They took over a large wall in the museum and tacked up pictures of people, places and objects. Museum staff were invited to make comments, as were various advisers.

They wanted to utilize the Autry's collection as much as they could. About two-thirds of the 200 objects in "Home Lands" are from the collection.

In addition to display cases, the show employs novel means to catch the eye and create atmosphere — full-sized figurative sculptures of women, walls textured with corn husks, books by and about women seemingly floating in mid-air (they are encased in Plexiglas) with excerpted readings available on earpieces.

Objects from Native American culture evoke a more familiar West. There are domestic items — the oldest artifact in the exhibition is a metate (a corn grinding stone) about 1,000 years old from the Southwest. There are objects for special occasions, such as a 19th century Cheyenne woman's deerskin dress decorated with blue beads and cowrie shells, indicating her elevated status.

Art of and by women is also included, such as an Edward S. Curtis photogravure of "The Mussel Gatherer," the Georgia O'Keeffe oil painting "Red Hills, Gray Sky" and cut-paper illustrations by contemporary Northwest artist Aki Sogabe.

The exhibition also highlights women's efforts outside the home, including those who worked in factories during World War II. Individuals featured include Justina Ford, a black woman doctor who trained in Chicago and followed her husband to Denver in 1902. She was initially denied a medical license, then refused membership into medical associations and hospital visiting privileges, so she had to practice general medicine in her office and in private homes. By her own estimate, she delivered about 7,000 babies during her five-decade career. On display is a photograph of Ford holding an infant, as well as her doctor's bag, microscope and forceps.

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