Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Not Your Ordinary Madonna

            The winter months in Oklahoma always present a conumdrum for me. Minus the yardwork and outside activities of summer, I have plenty of time to write, but the post-holiday letdown and the bleak and bleary landscape don’t provide much in the way of inspiration or ideas.  It’s sort of like when you’re working, you have money but no time to shop. Then when you’re not working, you have time but no money. 
            But this past weekend, friend Nancy rescued me from my winter malaise with the suggestion we take in the “Madonnas of the Prairie” Exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I found plenty to write about there.
            The exhibit was organized and curated by Michael R. Grauer at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. The more than one hundred works are tributes to the women of the American West—both native and transplanted—from the late 19th century through the present. They depict a wide range of artistic styles as well as varied notions about the women, either past or present, who embody the western spirit. They also elicit an array of emotions.
            I was amused by the renditions of the “Cow-Boy Girl,” a popular image in the early 1900s and a by-product of the rise of Western fiction. No longer a passive object of pity or adoration, this woman could plow, ride, shoot, and bring outlaws to justice with the best of men. And as the paintings suggest, she could do it all with flawless hair and make-up. Talk about “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan”! Eventually, at the hands of advertisers and commercial artists, these rough and ready women evolved into a sort of Western “pin-up” girl. Found on calendars and in ads, this booted beauty with her denim short-shorts, cinched waist, and perfectly coifed hair was clearly more fantasy than fact. But she still proved herself extremely competent in boosting sales of just about anything.
Madonna, framed by a windmill
"halo," keeps a vigilant watch.

            Many of the paintings inspired me, especially the “Madonnas,” for which the exhibit was named. Borrowing from Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, artists such as William S. Jewett, George Caleb Bingham, and Emanuel Leutze depicted pioneer women in a holy light, often framed by “halos” of real world objects such as the blades of a windmill or the opening in a  wagon cover. In many of these works, the women strike poses of either determined strength or of patient waiting.
            For me, the paintings by far the most moving were those that reflected the hardships western women endured. You have to look at only a few to grasp the severity of the challenges these women faced day in and day out. In one particular work, a woman stands hunch-backed in front of her sod house tending a withering garden. Around her stretches miles and miles of prairie, with no sign of another human being. I thought that of all the trials the women faced—relentless toil, sickness, hunger, uncertainty—isolation might have been the most devastating. And I might not be too far off the mark with that conjecture. As one of the placards in the exhibit explained, that era of history accounted for an unusually high rate of suicides and mental illnesses.
            As you can probably tell from this post, I’m no art critic. I can’t comment on style or technique or medium with any degree of expertise. But I know what moves me, and this exhibit did. If pressed to name the emotion I experienced most from it, I would say gratitude. Gratitude for women who were survivors; women who faced danger with courage and fortitude; women who carved out a better life for themselves, their families, and their descendants.
            The exhibit will be on display until May 10. If you want to be amused, inspired, moved, and infused with gratitude all within a matter of a few hours, be sure to take it in.

No Cow-Boy Girl here. If this side saddle had been
on a real horse, I would've never stayed on!



  1. A few years ago I was discussing the LIttle House on the Prairie books with a massage therapist. She said, "I think Pa was incredibly irresponsible to take his family to the middle of nowhere, so far from family ties!" Of course, he wasn't the only one, and it wasn't only men initiating such moves. But I must say that I read those stories differently now than when I was a starry-eyed eight-year-old.

    1. I thought of those books often while was touring this exhibit, especially the one that told about the winter they almost all perished! But I also recalled Letters of a Pioneer Woman, in which a transplanted city girl was in her element in the wilds of Wyoming (?).


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