Annie Harmon, artist, was nearly lost and gone forever. Fortunately, four determined women instigated her recovery.
Harmon, a 19th century landscape painter, studied under renowned California artist William Keith, whose work is central to the permanent collection at the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College. And although Keith may be saluted for encouraging the career of a female artist in the late 1800's, a radical position, he is not Harmon's modern day knight in shining armor.
Instead, Harmon's textured, luminous paintings and her legacy to art history were rescued by Betty Boone Williams, Alberta Parker Horn, and Karen Pope, a Senior Lecturer at Baylor University. Approximately five years ago, Williams and Pope approached the Hearst about mounting an exhibit of the little-known artist's work. Julie Armistead, Exhibition Curator and the Collections Manager at the Hearst, was immediately interested: she had dreamed of mounting an exhibit featuring Keith's students.
Charged with curating the annual summer landscape exhibit, she became the fourth woman involved in the rescue. "I went out to Alberta Horn's house in Point Richmond," Armistead says, "she wasn't there - a neighbor let me in - and I looked at Annie's paintings." What she saw were miniature gems; cigar box-sized paintings that whet her appetite for more. "I felt she needed to be re-discovered," Armistead recalls. She began to formulate a plan for the exhibit opening in Moraga on Sunday, July 25th: "Superbly Independent: Early California Paintings by Annie Harmon, Mary DeNeale Morgan and Marion Kavanagh Wachtel.
Recognizing the potent mix of pioneering spirit and artistic talent in Harmon was immediate for Armistead. Surprisingly, so was finding two other artists to compliment and contrast Harmon's work.
"I wanted to pick artists with a connection to Keith," she explains. "But mostly, I chose these three because they were great artists…and I was happy they fit together so well."
Beyond a shared mentor and an interest in trees, painting en plein air is the primary thread connecting the work. A French term meaning in the open air, plein air painters work on location. In the late 1800's, a woman leaving home and family to capture nature on canvas was notable. The selected artists share not only a genre, but a certain separation from gender-related conventions of their time.
Teresa Onoda is a 21st-century plein air artist based in Lamorinda. "It's kind of like a contact sport," she says, of painting outdoors. "You don't know what nature is going to throw at you." She laughs, describing a recent scramble up a cliff to escape the tide and being soaked by sudden rains. "It's not something even we (artists) could imagine; the changing light, the surprises. It's a thrill."
Onoda's enthusiasm creates an instant bridge to the three artists: women of old, women of today, all striving for meaningful, fulfilling expression and adventure. Onoda "would challenge anyone to tell the difference" between art produced by men and that of women, but acknowledges the historical disparities. Free from 19th-century societal restrictions, she says, "I can't wait to see the exhibit. I plan to go over there five times a week. They're going to get sick of me!"
Beyond the significant statement the exhibit makes about women in art history, the work of Harmon, Morgan and Wachtel is ultimately a tribute to the beauty of the California Coast. From Harmon's densely textured renderings of Redwoods to Morgan's elegantly-twisted Cypress, to Wachtel's sweeping, olive-toned Eucalyptus, these women saw the splendor along the full expanse of our Pacific rim. What's more, they weren't afraid to venture outdoors to paint it.