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Pioneering Women: Nearly Forgotten Artists Find New Life - and Admirers - in Moraga

They were ahead of their time. They captured California on canvas and their lives were as interesting as their subjects. Here's your VIP pass to "Superbly Independent," opening July 25 at the Hearst Gallery.

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.

bryan July 18, 2010 at 05:57 AM
That's good to hear!
Barbara Wilcox July 26, 2010 at 03:25 AM
I was at the opening this afternoon: had never been to the St. Mary's campus; it's beautiful. Was especially happy to see so many women plein air painters doing a "paint-in" to honor their predecessors. Drove from Castro Valley on Redwood Road...wishing I had a convertible...so happy when art so harmoniously imitates life. By the way, several of the plein-air painters will be at Scene on the Strait Aug. 14 in Martinez. This is a terrific (free) event that benefits the local environmental education center.
Zoe Claire July 26, 2010 at 02:02 PM
Yes thank you for covering this and bringing it to my attention. It was lovely out there.
KPorter July 26, 2010 at 08:42 PM
What a fabulous exhibit! Everyone should make their way out to Saint Mary's and check out this show. Thoughtfully curated and exceptionally designed. Don't miss it.
Louise Moody October 29, 2012 at 11:29 PM
I own an Annie Harmon painting. I believe it must have been acquired by my great-grandmother who lived in San Francisco at the same time as Annie and may have been a gift to my g-grandmother. The subject matter is an oak tree near a field of California poppies! It is a cigar box size.

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