Mary Werner, Director of Visual Arts at Newman University in Wichita, employs clothing as a primary reference in her paintings. Whether exploring flat, patterned surfaces or assembled, three-dimensional canvases, Werner sees her investigation of clothing as consistent with that of other artists around the world. “For American artists the exploration of clothing as subject became monumental in the 1970s with the Feminist movement. The use of clothing to tell a story, document an important event or make a political statement continues to stir my thoughts and interests in exploring this theme from my own sensibility.”
REB: Tell us a bit about your background with feminism.
MW: I was born in 1952, so I grew up in the 50s-60s with all the traditional gender roles – women who wore house dresses and aprons and all the limitations on what they could do, what they could say, what professions they could have, and so on. (I find it interesting how that time period is portrayed on TVs Mad Men.) Along with the limitations there were of course comforts as well. Women today who work 40-50 hours a week still have to keep up the laundry, cook, keep the house and now the added guilt of not raising their own children and often single. The stresses are great. Along with freedom comes great responsibility and exhaustion. The feminists wrote many great books in the 70s. Women were written back into art history as well.
Mary Werner, “My Inheritance Was a Black Lamb”
REB: How do you feel that critical issues of gender influence your work? And how do the dress paintings fit into this?
MW: I hope the dress paintings let us laugh at our own experiences. I think you have to go full circle with feminism and find your own particular place. I can remember thinking that if I were a male, my father would have passed on or down his particular profession. My sister and I did make a living following his example but not as partners in his business. As it turns out I love being who I am and being a woman in modern times. I love the differences in that I experience as a women but that doesn’t address the inequities. The dresses are happy and optimistic about being female.
The images speak as an alter ego who boldly comments on female roles and experiences. The underlying sentiment comes from images from the 50s and 60s. As a child I could not bear to watch “I Love Lucy,” while others laughed at her antics I was completely embarrassed as she manipulated the characters around her. My view through the dress is one of self-respect and humor. These narratives allow me to voice freedom of thought while incorporating images from the simplicity and repetitiveness of daily life and the beauty of nature. I have two strong female traditions in my family. One that came from Irish-Catholic pioneer stock, where the women are outspoken, tenacious, and self-sufficient: the other influence was German-Mennonite with very strong religious beliefs that dictated gender roles. The dress paintings are an expression of this collective experience.
Mary Werner, “Wistful Charm”
REB: Can you tell us a bit about Ruby’s Diary and its significance for your work?
MW: I had been painting dresses (and other forms of women’s clothing) for quite some time when I inherited the little dress diaries that my grandmother had made in the 1930s. They were confirmation in some way for the subject I had chosen. Ruby speaking in the voice of the little girl created a story about a dress, connecting the hand drawn image, fabric sample and photo of Lorna the little girl. Finding the diaries was to add a new voice to the equation.
Mary Werner, “Grandma Buster’s Hot Plate”
REB: As an educator, how do you discuss (or do you discuss) issues of gender in art with your students?
MW: It is easy to have that discussion in class starting with the women artists of the Renaissance, many of whom were left out of art history until the feminist writers put them back into their place in history. Then on to the salons and academies who would not allow women to join or exhibit…many good examples. The young women in class are shocked to hear the stories. They don’t know the path others have paved for their benefit.