For two months of the fall semester, the University of Central Arkansas campus was buzzing with art exhibitions, concerts, poetry and more all in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
The UCA Suffrage Centennial, held from late August through late October, utilized art to celebrate the women’s suffrage movement and connect the campus community to what it means in the present day.
“The arts were a big part of the suffrage movement in general,” said Gayle Seymour, associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, who spearheaded the project. “Anyone who’s involved in a revolution understands that the arts are this perfect thing to inspire and motivate people.”
The celebration kick-started Aug. 26 with the opening of the “Threads Through Time” art exhibit in McCastlain Hall’s Baum Gallery. The exhibit featured modern and contemporary fiber art that explored the evolution of women-created textiles. The showing served as a companion piece to “Suffrage Rugs,” a sculptural installation led by New York artist Sharon Louden that used recycled materials to highlight often-overlooked suffragists. “Suffrage Rugs” was installed in Alumni Circle in late September.
Not only did the celebration welcome students and the community, it also worked closely with them. Louden recruited six female art and design students, a faculty member and a staff member to work on the concept, design and implementation of “Suffrage Rugs.”
The event also hosted a faculty chamber concert titled “American Women in Music and Prose,” which Linda Hsu, professor of violin, curated. The performance featured Patricia Poulter, UCA provost and executive vice president, leading a poetry reading.
“It was a really incredible concert,” Seymour said. “I think people felt some kind of joy over hearing live music in this little bubble of art we created in this one-hour concert. It was just incredible.”
The celebration’s “United: The Acorn Project,” led by Liz Smith, associate chair of the Department of Art and Design, also worked with students, faculty and even Arkansans from across the state to create more than 3,000 handmade clay acorns. The project was installed as a mural in the style of the American flag in Alumni Circle on Oct. 12.
“The acorn grows into something lasting, just as a vote,” Smith said. “Every person’s vote will impact legislation, and legislation is lasting.”
Students, members of the UCA softball team and various Recognized Student Organizations, along with alumnae members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority across the state, contributed to the project and, before COVID-19, gathered with their respective groups to discuss the impact of the suffrage movement while creating the pieces. Smith also led workshops with clients at Conway’s Independent Living Services and residents at Bethlehem House to create acorns. All genders, various age groups and different backgrounds took part.
“To have a true union, we need to represent everybody in the country, regardless of skin tone, regardless of shape, regardless of ability,” Smith said. “We are all human beings, and we all are living in the United States, and we all need to be represented by our government.”
Also a part of the celebration was a Community Suffrage Centennial Sing-Along and Persona Poetry reading, which featured recordings of students reading their poetry projected in Alumni Circle.
Core Dance Co. held public performances of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” on Oct. 22, which included poetry from Little Rock Central High School group The Writeous Poets and fashions from Jillian Gregory. The UCA theatre student created costumes to illustrate how clothing constricted women’s bodies during the suffrage movement.
Seymour hadn’t thought of honoring the suffrage movement in such a way on campus until more than a year and a half ago, when alumna Nan Snow ’57 asked what was planned for the anniversary of the ratification. Seymour and local grant writer Jennifer Deering led the charge to secure grants ranging from $500 to $25,000 that made the events possible.
Over the course of the planning, and despite a pandemic, at least 678 people were directly involved in the celebration, Seymour noted.
“Women can do any of these things,” she said. “Women have amazing power. That’s really what this project is about in lots of ways.”
Seymour said she hopes that everyone who viewed any aspect of the celebration reflects on the history of the movement and the barriers to voting that still exist today.
“It’s still a world where women are silenced, where we’re talked over in meetings and where women’s work isn’t valued,” Seymour said. “I just think that maybe these events will put some of those ideas into focus and that we can all strive to show more empathy toward one another and to do better and be better.”