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Celebrating Women in the Arts

Updated: May 4, 2021

Five Contemporary "Great Women" in the Arts

Close up of 'Survivor' (2018) by Bisa Butler, Textile
Close up of 'Survivor' (2018) by Bisa Butler, Textile

Arts history, especially in the West, has often been regarded as favoring male artists and maintaining the idea that the arts are the domain of "great men." To the average Northern American a list most famous visual artists and composers would probably include revered artists such as Claud Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso and J. S. Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. They may no be aware of the genius of polymath Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – Sept. 17, 1179); Baroque master painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593 – 1653); pianist, composer, and wife of Robert Schumann, Clara Weick Schumann (Sept. 13, 1819 – May 20, 1896); Song Dynasty Chinese poet Li Qingzhao (March 13, 1084 – May 12, 1155); or the influential music theory and composition educator who taught many of those so-called "great men," Nadia Boulanger (Sept.16, 1887 – Oct. 22, 1979) or her equally brilliant pianist-composer sister Lili (Aug. 21, 1893 – March 15, 1918).

Practical Arts or Handicrafts have long been the domain of women artists.
Handicrafts has long been the domain of women artists.

Although a majority of the great artists we remember from history are men, women have always made art and been artists. Practical arts traditions or "handicrafts" such as weaving, sewing, quilting, embroidery, needlework, and china painting are generally considered "women's work." Today, women make up about half (46%) of the professional visual artists today, about one-third (36%) of professional musicians, and only about one-fifth (19%) of today's composers. In today's post, we will learn about a few of these "great women" who are working in today's arts world.

Bisa Butler

Survivor (2018) Cotton and Chiffon; appliquéd and quilted
Survivor (2018) Cotton and Chiffon; appliquéd and quilted

American fiber artist Bisa Butler was born in 1973 in Orange, NJ. Her mother was a French teacher from New Orleans and her father, a college president originally from Ghana. She majored fine art at historically Black Howard University, but she discovered her medium of textiles while studying for her master's in art education at Montclair State University. She was pregnant with her daughter at the time and wanted to find a way to continue to create but avoid toxic paints and paint thinners. She graduated in 2004 and taught high school art for 13 years. Textiles made a personal connection with her. She said, "As a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a portrait quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been making art quilts ever since.”

Butler uses fabric to create portraits that paint the faces and figures of notable and everyday Black people. She tells stories of ordinary Black people from historical photographs. Some of these everyday people are seen in the images above The Equestrian (2019), The Tea (2017), and Family (2017). Her art draws from African textiles as well as the rich African American quilting tradition. She explains,

"African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scarps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being. Some enslaved peoples were so talented that they were tasked for creating beautiful quilts that adorned their enslavers beds. My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father’s homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century, I want them to have their African Ancestry back, I want them to take their place in American History. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them."
Francis and Violette (Grandparents) (2002) by Bisa Butler
Francis and Violette (Grandparents) (2002) by Bisa Butler
Dear Mama (2017)
Dear Mama (2017)

She also lists fellow textile artist Faith Ringgold (b. Oct. 8, 1930), the philosophies of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, and the collages of Romare Bearden (Sept. 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988) as influences on her as an artist.

If you are in Chicagoland, I encourage you to view 20 of Butler's exquisite portrait quilts at the Art Institute of Chicago, where her first solo museum exhibition, Bisa Butler: Portraits is on display until Sept. 6, 2021. Butler explains that she often feels like a "song is being sung into quilts." Butler and her husband, John, a professional DJ, have curated a list of 30 songs to accompany the quilts—illustrating the fabric that visual art and music weave together. I was fortunate to recently have viewed this exhibit and her work and the stories it reveals is simply astonishing.

Cindy Sherman

Untitled Film Still #21 Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #21 (1979) by Cindy Sherman

American visual artist Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on January 19, 1954 in Green Ridge,NJ. She is the youngest of five children, and her father was an engineer and her mother, a teacher to children with learning difficulties. Her work can be considered some of the earliest "selfies," since it is primarily self-portrait photographs, depicting herself in many contexts and as various characters.

Like Butler, Sherman began as a painter, studying visual arts at Buffalo State College. While a student, she began shifting together outfits and creating characters for her art. At the time, she became frustrated with what she saw as the limitation of painting and took up photography. She has said,

"There was nothing more to say. I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead."

Ironically, she failed her first photography course but focused the rest of her college years on photography.

Untitled Film Still #5 Cindy Sherman Date: 1977
Untitled Film Still #5 (1977) by Cindy Sherman

In her break-through photo series, Untitled Film Stills, (1977–80), Sherman appears as several characters representing B-movie and film noir actresses. She uses herself as a model and actress making stories come alive in still photographs. She has said that she feel anonymous in her self-portraits, as they are not photos of her but of the characters.

Sherman was collaborated with musicians and fashion designers. Her work has bridged the gap between "high art" and commercial art, creating advertisements for brands such as Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga. She also took a step into film with Office Killer (1997), starring Jeanna Tripplehorn, Molly Ringwald, and Carol Kane.

Last year, Sherman emerged from COVID quarantine with two new art shows. Interestingly, although she may be one of the forerunners of the "selfie generation," she has said she dislikes social media although maintaining an Instagram featuring her selfies.

Barbara Kruger

Untitled (Questions) Barbara Kruger Date: 1991
Untitled (Questions) (1991) by Barbara Kruger

American conceptual artist and collagist Barbara Kruger was born January 26, 1945 in Newark, NJ. Most of her work features black and white photographs, overlaid with text set in white on red Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed font. Kruger's father was a chemical technician and her mother, a legal secretary.

Kruger spent a year at Syracuse University in 1964 and a semester at Parsons School of Design in New York in 1965, where she studied with photographer Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) and artist, photographer, painter, and art director Marvin Israel (July 3, 1924 – May 7, 1984). In 1966, she began work in the design department of Mademoiselle magazine at Condé Nast Publishing, and a year later, she lead the department. In 1969, she began to move from commercial to high art, creating large wall hangings woven of yarn, beads, sequins, feathers, and ribbons, bringing traditionally "feminine" art into the gallery.

Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987) by Barbara Kruger
Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987) by Barbara Kruger

In Fall 1976, Kruger moved to Berkeley, California and taught at the University of California for four years. In 1977, she became interested in photography. She published as an artist’s book, Picture/Readings (1979) consisting of photos of architectural exteriors and her musings about who lived inside the walls. In the 1980s, she began combining her experience as a visual artist with her experience as a graphic designer and found her iconic style. Her works often critique materialism, consumerism, misogyny, and prejudice in American culture and the military-industrial complex. Her influential works include Untitled (Perfect) (1980), a collage featuring a woman with hands in prayer echoing the Virgin Mary; Untitled (We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture) (1982), the image of a woman with leaves over her eyes, representing the women who are seen as those who give birth to children and are therefore a part of nature in traditional Western culture reclaiming that they themselves can also give birth to culture (art); and Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987), a declaration of materialism set in visual reference to a credit card.

Kruger currently lives and works in New York and Los Angeles. She is a Distinguished Professor of New Genres at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

Untitled (Memory is your image of perfection) Barbara Kruger
Untitled (Memory is your image of perfection) (1982) by Barbara Kruger

Jennifer Higdon

Stained glass
" the sky. Where all possibilities soar." – Jennifer Higdon

American composer Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, NY on Dec.31, 1962. Her father was a visual artist and painter, and he encouraged his children to take up and experiment with visual art. Despite no formal music education, she taught herself to play flute at the age of 15. At 18, she began her formal musical studies at 18, starting to compose at 21. Higdon has earned a Bachelor's Degree in Music from Bowling Green State University, an Artist Diploma from The Curtis Institute of Music, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from the Hartt School and Bowling Green State University. For Classical composers, Higdon may be considered a later-bloomer, yet that has not stopped her from winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto and three grammy awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, in 2010, 2018, and 2020. With its delicate balance of familiar and modern, her music may be compared to that of Impressionist Claude Debussy (Aug. 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918).

Higdon's works are frequently performed with more than 200 performances each year. Her lush orchestral work, blue cathedral (2000), is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works in the repertoire with more than 650 performances since its premiere. Her works are relatable and familiar but include interesting tonal shifts and contemporary themes. In the blue cathedral program notes, she wrote,

" the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals...a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression...serving as a symbolic doorway in to and out of this world.... I began writing this piece at a unique juncture in my life and found myself pondering the question of what makes a life. The recent loss of my younger brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make in our lives, crossing paths with so many individuals singularly and collectively, learning and growing each step of the way."

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA.

Pamela Z

Pamela Z combines technology with live musical performance.
Pamela Z combines technology with live musical performance.

Electro-acoustic composer, performer, and media artist Pamela Z was born in 1956 in Buffalo, NY. She grew up in the Denver, CO Metro area and earned her bachelor's degree in music from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1978, where she majored in classical voice. After college, she worked as a singer-songwriter on voice with guitar throughout Colorado in the style of Joni Mitchell (b. Nov. 7, 1943) or Laura Nyro (Oct. 18, 1947 – April 8, 1997) under the name Pam Brooks. She began working with live looping and vocal effects in the 1980s and began working in the new music world.

She is best known for her solo works for voice with electronic processing, but she has also composed chamber works for soloists and ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, flutist Claire Chase, and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, among others. in her works, she employs extended vocal techniques, operatic bel canto singing, found objects, text, and digital processing. She uses MAX/MSP and Isadora software on a MacBook Pro along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound and image with physical gestures.

Pamela is the recipient of many awards and honors including the Rome Prize, United States Artists, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency, the Guggenheim, the Doris Duke Artist Impact Award, Herb Alpert Award, an Ars Electronica honorable mention, and the NEA Japan/US Friendship Commission Fellowship.

Pamela currently performs and teaches, currently she's offering live-streaming lectures and artist talks.

These five women are only a very tiny selection of the women artists who are creating art and shaping the culture of today. Look for future Women in Arts and Women in Music posts to learn more.


Further Reading

Schiller, Hannah, Where Are the Women Composers? How Classical Music is Faring in the Fight for Gender Equality. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

National Endowment for the Arts. Women Artists: 1990 To 2005. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Brooklyn Musuem. Women's Work. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Art Institute of Chicago. Bisa Butler: Portraits. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Bisa Butler. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

American Federation of the Arts. Artist Spotlight: Bisa Butler. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Cindy Sherman. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Schweitzer, Dahlia. Cindy Sherman's Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster. Bristol: Intellect, 2014. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Instagram: Cindy Sherman. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Wikiart. Cindy Sherman.

Guggenhiem Museum. Barbara Kruger. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Barbara Kruger. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Jennifer Higdon. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Hidden, Jennifer. Program Notes: Blue Cathedral. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Pamela Z. (Accessed 22 March 2021).

Lyon, Eric. SEAMUS Online: Interview with Pamela Z. (Accessed 22 March 2021).


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.


Photos of Bisa Butler works by Janae Jean Almen

Photos of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger works from


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