Lessons from the Suffrage Centennial Project

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By Gayle Seymour, Associate Dean CAHSS | Professor of Art, Art History »

Suffrage Rugs: Amplifying Voices of Unheard Women Team Members Pose for a Photo During Installation, Oct. 5, 2020. L to R: Desiree Coleman, Maegan Wise, Logan Gaston, Melissa Cowper-Smith, Adrianna Kimble-Ray, Claire Webre, Savannah Pelley, and Robby Burton. Glass, crushed stone, sand, colored rubber mulch, Alumni Circle, University of Central Arkansas (photo courtesy Seth Foley)

In early 2019, a friend asked me what UCA was doing to mark the suffrage centennial in 2020. What a fantastic opportunity, I thought, to use the arts—sculpture, fibers, clay, graphic design, music, video, dance, spoken word, poetry, fashion—to mark the passage of the 19th Amendment, which made voting for 27 million white women the law of the land in 1920. Together with my project co-PI, Jennifer Deering, founder of Grantfully Yours, we began conceptualizing a series of events that would foreground the voices of Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latina women who were not served by the amendment and to stress that 1920 was just one moment of progress in a larger story of struggle for universal equality.

Top view of Suffrage Rugs.

We wrote and received seven grants to fund these projects, including a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The centerpiece of the project, all along, would be a temporary public art installation, Suffrage Rugs: Amplifying Voices of Unheard Women, by New York-based artist Sharon Louden. The rugs, made of crushed stone, colored glass, white sand, and recycled colored rubber mulch, would double as performance venues for other suffrage performances.

Despite a global pandemic, and inspired by the attributes that fueled the original suffragists—determination, flexibility, resilience, and persistence—we moved Louden’s project forward. Unable to travel from her studio in Brooklyn to Arkansas due to COVID-19, we determined that Louden and her project manager/husband Vinson Valega could create the project remotely with the help of a local team. Louden hired a team of six student apprentices, on-site construction manager Robby Burton (UCA Art and Design Lab Technician), and on-site project coordinator Melissa Cowper-Smith (Arkansas-based artist). UCA Physical Plant personnel, Jon Davis, Russ Hooper, Larry Lawrence, Mark Mize, Mark White, and others were also critical to the success of the project.

In January 2020, Louden interviewed 13 Art and Design students and selected six to collaborate on the project who would see it through the stages of development and project management through to completion. The selected students are Desiree Coleman, Logan Gaston, Adrianna Kimble-Ray, Savannah Pelley, Claire Webre, and Maegan Wise. Over the course of four months, from July to October, Louden hosted eleven Zoom meetings (mostly Sundays) with her team.

Freshman Desiree Coleman, despite her apprehensions, jumped at the chance of working with an internationally-known artist:

When I first interviewed for this apprenticeship, I had many doubts about going to the interview in fear of not having the right answers or not getting the job altogether. Once I found out I would be one of the students working with Sharon and Vinson I jumped for joy and promised myself to be as much help as possible. With this opportunity, I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to work with other artists and people who appreciate art. I have also gotten experience and lessons on project management and professional development that required me to step out of my comfort zone at times.

Cowper-Smith reflected on the lessons she learned from her participation in the project:

I see this project as an example of the emerging field of social practice art. Sharon directed us to research, sketch, think, and talk about the history of women’s suffrage and from our own experience as women. We became inspired by the women who had been left out of the larger historic narratives. The group participated in every aspect of making this work from drawing to calling suppliers. It was fascinating watching the process unfold. One thing I value in this experience was the way Sharon and Vinson motivated a positive empathetic outlook on the project, especially when there was any type of problem or tension. They found ways to describe and reframe issues that made it easy to see solutions and to stay positive. They taught us to communicate with kindness, braveness, and clarity.

Senior Maegan Wise expressed her thoughts about the project:

This project was really eye opening for me. As an art history major, I often see finished works but working on the Suffrage Rugs helped me to see what actually goes into creating a monumental piece like this. I benefitted from so many first-hand experiences like sourcing materials and creating invoices. I can take these skills with me into the future, really no matter what my career is. Being part of this group of women artists and seeing the final result has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Savannah Pelley, a senior, found the suffrage subject matter surprisingly inspiring:

I have learned so much through this project and am proud to be able to hold up the women of the past for their bravery and hard work. Sharon and Vince were incredible teachers who guided us through research, design, and professional communication with vendors and each other. This experience has opened my eyes to the far-reaching implications of public art installation and the ability art has to make a social impact. I am so grateful for this incredible opportunity to be a part of such a hardworking and creative team!

Robby Burton, clearly a supporter of women, reflected on the strong women in his life and the significance of the hard-fought 19th Amendment:

I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Sharon, Vinson, Melissa, and all of the other young women who were involved. My eyes have been opened to the need for more work like these suffrage rugs. . ..  I had never realized how much women in history really had to go through to be considered equal. It saddens me when walls are put up and excuses are made to divide us. This project and installation reaffirm to me that we all have to work together to make it through this crazy world.

Graphic design student Adrianna Kimble-Ray, who is a junior, summarized her thoughts about art making during a pandemic:

“All in all, this project really helped me get through quarantine! It gave me something to look forward to on a Sunday and something to occupy my time outside of school! In this crazy world, this project gave me a light of hope.”

For more information about the Suffrage Rugs and other projects and performances involved in the UCA Suffrage Centennial Celebration, visit the project website UCA.edu/go/suffrage100.

The Suffrage Centennial project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit arts.gov. Other sources of funding include Arkansas Arts Council, Delta Kappa Gamma Educational Foundation, Kappa State Educational Foundation, Mid-America Arts Alliance, the UCA Artists in Residence program funded by Arts Fees, UCA Foundation, UCA Sponsored Programs, UCA Women’s Giving Circle, Pat-Becker Wallis and gifts from generous donors.