In a society obsessed with youth and physical beauty, women of a certain age vanish from the zeitgeist just when they have the most to offer as fonts of institutional knowledge, cultural history and creative energy.
An exhibit opening at LeMoyne Arts on Oct. 14 aims to change that, on the local level at least. “Women Among Us: Portraits of Strength” spotlights 17 Tallahassee women in large, arresting black-and-white photographic portraits printed on aluminum with accompanying haiku and biographic blurbs encapsulating each woman’s gifts and achievements.
The seed of an idea for the project was planted three years ago in a casual conversation between wildflower maven and native plant advocate Eleanor Dietrich and friend and artist Linda Hall.
“I had just met Althemese Barnes (founder and former executive director of the John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture), and that made me think how many older women (in our community) are so special,” Dietrich said. “Linda and I talked about it and we decided to do something to spotlight these women, all over the age of 65 and from diverse backgrounds.
“After that, everything just happened organically.”
“It was around Eleanor’s 75th birthday,” Hall said. “She said she wanted to surround herself with wise women to help her through this transitional stage in life.
“The more we talked about it, the more we realized these women’s stories should be heard by the community, and we started talking about photographing them. We saw Becki (Rutta) at an art opening and mentioned the project to her and she immediately said she’d love to participate.”
Rutta’s style of photographic portraiture was a perfect fit for the project. The stark intimacy of her work is built on empathy and compassion.
“It can be uncomfortable,” Rutta said of her photographic style. “But I’ve found ways to allow people to be themselves without me doing the ‘say cheese’ thing.
“I do it through calmly asking them questions (about themselves) and making it more about that conversation than about putting a camera in their face. I try to make the camera part of the conversation rather than a separation between the subject and myself.”
It was a group effort to help the women featured in the exhibition relax. Hall would pick them up at their homes and deliver them to the photo studio. Dietrich would be there to coach them and poet/author Mary Jane Ryals was there to interview the women for the biographic write-ups and haiku poems that accompany each portrait.
For Ryals, listening to the women’s stories was absorbing and illuminating.
“It was mesmerizing to hear their stories,” she said. “These women persevered and prospered. They have grit. They are completely themselves — there’s no artifice to them.”
A suggestion from Rutta prompted Ryals to condense the biographical information for each subject into haiku form.
“I tried to capture the core of each one — what makes her strong, what is her essence,” Ryals said.
Lynne Knight came on board as a project collaborator after being photographed and interviewed as a subject.
“I was one of the last ones to be photographed,” Knight said. “When I found out about the idea for the exhibit, I told them they needed a book (to go with the images and poems), so I volunteered to do the book.”
Knight brought a formidable and varied skillset to the project. A co-director of Anhinga Press who’s designed and edited books and covers for the publisher since 1992, Knight is also a videographer, graphic artist, published poet and author who’s working on the fourth in a series of young adult novels.
Along with the book to accompany the exhibit, Knight put together a fundraising brochure, produced a video and created invitations and thank-you cards to be sent to donors.
“Working with this group of women has been such a profound experience,” Rutta said. “I think it shows in the end results. We want older women to be seen and recognized.”
If people want to see the exhibit, they’ll have to be active, Hall said. It’ll be up for a two-week run, coming down at the end of October to make way for LeMoyne’s annual holiday show.
“We want these women to be celebrated and we want them to look at these images of themselves and see the power there,” Hall said.
If you go
What: “Women Among Us: Portraits of Strength”
When: Opening reception 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 14; exhibit runs through Oct. 30; hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Where: LeMoyne Arts, 125 N. Gadsden St.
Cost: Free for LeMoyne members, $5 for non-members
Contact: Visit lemoyne.org or call 850-222-8800
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.