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Family From Harriet Tubman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, bronze collar exhibit celebrates 21 trailblazing women

21:12  28 july  2022
21:12  28 july  2022 Source:   houstonchronicle.com

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When it comes to wearing collars, artist Carolyn Marks Johnson suggests that a battle of the sexes over the neckline accessory has been waging on for centuries. And the women are winning.

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"For men it's kind of boring — a symbol of the office the hold, something they have to wear," she says. "Women make better use of it because they enjoy it, makes them look good and frames the face."

Her new exhibit at the Heritage Society, "Woman, the Spirit of the Universe" showcases 21 bronze collar sculptures forged in honor of the women who wore them well. The collection took eight years to complete. Without the pandemic, Johnson doubts she would have finished them all.

Subjects range from first ladies, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, to less familiar names. Margaret Brent, who migrated from England in 1638 and became the first known-female lawyer in America, partly inspired the project. Her legacy was immortalized by the American Bar Association commission in 1991; the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- who also appear in "Woman, the Spirit of the Universe" — are both recipients of the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.

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That trio, and their respective connections to law, got Johnson's creative wheels spinning. "Ruth was perhaps the most beloved judge we've ever had," she says. "All of these are strong ladies who've done large things and small things."

The artist has lived several lives. In the 1960s she wrote obituaries for the Dallas Morning News; then, after falling in love with and marrying a Houstonian, moved to Bayou City and became a docent for Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Heritage Society. To be proficient in her position, Johnson enrolled at MFAH's Glassell School of Art and graduated with a painting degree in 2014. Today, she studies sculpture and is also a retired senior district judge -- hence her pre-occupation with fellow women of law.

"My mother was a seamstress. She supported her family by making dresses for our neighbors," Johnson shares. "Once, I cut a new hem on a dress she just finished."

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A life-long fascination with fabric was born. The Betsy Ross bronze sculpture pays tribute to both the seamstress often credited with sewing the first U.S. flag and Johnson's mother.

Another big influence behind the exhibit is Philip Renteria, her late Glassell instructor who taught 2-D design. Johnson purchased one of his painting's during the school's annual art auction and benefit. He later explained the mythical artwork is an homage to women and his personal belief that the spirit of the universe is feminine.

Renteria's piece currently sits next to two of Johnson's paintings inside the Heritage Society's museum as an introduction into "Woman, the Spirit of the Universe." There's a painting by Patrick Palmer of Queen Elizabeth I as well. The long-reigning monarch famously donned a ruff-style collar previously worn exclusively by men.

Johnson wants to make clear that her exhibit is not a criticism of the status quo, but rather a celebration of what women have accomplished despite restrictions throughout history.

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth's sculptures are side-by-side. "Harriet Tubman got a lot of attention for the Underground Railroad, and rightfully so, but I've always felt really close to Sojourner. She saw the suffrage and abolition situations better than anyone."

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When Nancy Pelosi was first sworn in as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, she invited her grandchildren up to the podium to share the moment. It struck a chord. "She acts the way a woman does when exercising power."

Texans also make a strong showing. In addition to Jordan, former Governor Ann Richards and NASA astronaut Sally Ride are featured.

A collar, Johnson explains, brings light and softness to the face. "And hid the fact these were such strong women."

Pearls can have the same "halo" effect. In recent years, political figures including former first lady Barbara Bush and vice president Kamala Harris have made white versions of the shell part of their signature look.

In terms of collars, however, Ginsburg single-handedly made the trend relevant again.

"Ever since a RBG collar was placed on the 'Fearless Girl' bronze sculpture off Wall Street, young women -- usually lawyers -- have been wearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg pins on their collars," Johnson says. "She brought it into the 21st century."

amber.elliott@chron.com

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This is interesting!