WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews: Suzanne Benton (Part 1)

Suzanne Performs The Bengali Bride

When I asked Suzanne what inspired her for more than 70 years of making art. She smiles big before replying, “I’m in awe of life.” I smiled knowingly.  One only has to flip through her robust catalogue of interdisciplinary work, in order to witness the commitment to a life of wonder, needed to create.  

Benton has built an illustrious career that has spanned more than 32 countries, oftentimes, with her daughter at her side.  She is a keeper and teller of many stories and her fervent activism on the behalf of women around the world, has been a voice for the voiceless. 

Benton, a metal mask maker, mask performance artist, printmaker, and painter was born January 21, 1936, in Brooklyn, NY during the Great Depression. With the men off to war it was “a women’s town.” Perhaps this is where she first learned how to be courageous. Witnessing women working, leading, building community, and thriving while men were off to war was somewhat of a foreshadowing of her future.

Activism is the spirit that seems to drive her. She is the current President of WCA-FL, after reviving the chapter in 2019. Benton went on to lead the largest Women’s March on Washington in St. Petersburg, FL on January 21, 2017.

Her work has been featured in Who’s Who In American Art, Feminists Who Changed America, and purchased by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library Archive.

Suzanne Benton’s Performances through the years.

Three years after reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique she recalls the moment that she was instantaneously transformed into a feminist.

When NOW’s founding had been announced by Betty and the other founders of NOW were featured on the front cover of the NY Times Book Review Section, I wrote to Betty via the NY Times. In reply, I received a letter on NOW stationary, became a member of NOW.”

The immediacy she felt after receiving that letter on NOW stationary catapulted her into action. In 1971 Suzanne formed both the Central and Western Connecticut branches of NOW.   

She is widely known for her feminist mask tales. Often drawing from stories of women in the Bible, and around the world, she uses her masks to tell the truth of their lives.

During our meeting she grabs the mask she uses in her “Bengali Bride” performance. Without missing a beat, she immediately places the mask in front of her face and begins telling the story. I was immediately pulled into the tale of sorrow and servitude faced by the young Bengali Bride. It was purely magical.

Mary Church Terrell Life Cycle, monoprint with Chine collé, 27 1/8x 19 7/8 inches, 2018

Experiencing her 70 year catalogue feels novel-esque. Her latest series of paintings, All About Color, were inspired by the safe inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Continuum, oil on canvas, 40×30 inches, All About Color series, 2021

The paintings are luminescent, vibrant, and other worldly in their construction. These were the paintings that have been “pouring out of her” since the pandemic she says. 

Although the pandemic was, and still is, hard for most of us. I found it interesting that she chose to focus on bright beautiful colors instead of venturing into a more somber palette. 

However, with someone who is writing a memoir entitled “Spirit of Hope,” I wouldn’t expect anything less. 

“We can never lose hope,” she says. 

Especially when there is so much work to be done.

You can learn more about Suzanne and her work at http://suzannebentonartist.com and  https://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/vfa-pioneer-histories-project-suzanne-benton

Margaret Parker: The Castine Quilt

Margaret Parker: The Castine Quilt

Margaret Parker: The Castine Bicentennial Quilt

A few weeks ago I was introduced to WCA member Margaret Parker. It was suggested that her story would be perfect for the blog. One of the things I appreciate about being a member of WCA is connecting with other women artists, art historians and curators from all over the world. Through correspondence and FaceTime conversation I learned about her project, the Castine Bicentennial Quilt. This collaborative creative project, designed by Parker and produced by a large group of talented, dedicated women, continues to educate and delight both locals and visitors of Castine, Maine.

Many thanks again to Margaret Parker for sharing her work and contributing to the blog this month. I truly enjoyed meeting her and learning about the Castine Bicentennial Quilt. It prompted me to think about other textile works from art history and revisit the Bayeux Tapestry – What connections do you find in the quilt? As always, if you have an idea for a post, we welcome your contributions. – Marianne McGrath

Margaret Parker

Margaret Parker grew up in an art making family and continues that path with artwork that invites viewers to interact with the complex issues of our day. Early experience in dance and theatre led her to collaborations that cross media boundaries. Her art has been shown nationally, in Canada and Mexico, is in the permanent collection of the United States Capitol, the State Department Art Bank, the Maine Maritime Academy, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the UM Rackham Graduate School, the Chelsea Medical Center, and many private collections. Since 2014 she has been bringing her poetry to the public as well.

Parker attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during middle school, Bennington College for two years, and received a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design in 1969. Parker lived in Ann Arbor after graduating and began painting and showing her work. She also designed for theatre and the University Opera. She met her husband, Mark Hodesh, there and in 1979 they moved to New York City. From 1981 to 1997, Margaret and her family moved to Castine, Maine, where they owned and ran the Castine Inn. She continued to paint, and became increasingly interested in public art, making her first public art works as community projects in Castine. Creating the design for the Castine Bicentennial Quilt and working with the community throughout the project was the largest and most intricate project she’d done, which took 80 people to complete and a year to finish. In 1997, the family moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she continues to work. Parker’s a founding member of the Michigan Chapter of the WCA, Chapter President from 2015-19, and was on the National WCA Board from 2016-18.

To learn more about the artist: https://www.margaretparkerstudio.com

The Castine Quilt

Castine Bicentennial Quilt, 1996
A community project of the Town of Castine, ME, designer Margaret Parker
6’ H x 24’ L
Quilt, cotton face and backing, appliqué, embroidery, couching, beading, overlapping fabric, all hand made, hand quilted by community members
Period: 1 year; Size: approximately 144 sq. ft.
Contacts: Castine Historical Society, http://www.castinehistoricalsociety.org/history.html, Charlene Wiseman, Tarratine St., Castine, ME, 04421, Coordinator Quilt Project
. Image courtesy of Margaret Parker.

How the Castine Bicentennial Quilt was Made

By Margaret Parker

In 1995, my husband, daughter and I were living in Castine, Maine, a small town on a peninsula in the Penobscot Bay where we owned and ran a twenty room summer hotel, the Castine Inn. I was also painting murals of the town and coastline, including one that circled the dining room of the Inn which was very popular. With the bicentennial of Castine approaching, a group of women in town proposed making a quilt to commemorate the town’s changing role in the early European settlement of the continent, and they asked me to design it. My mother, Pauline Parker, had made many quilts, so I was familiar with the process, though I hadn’t done it myself. So I depended completely on the skills and compatibility of the steering committee and all the participants. The core group of quilters had already collaborated on several quilts, one of the churches in town, another of boats built there, they had established a working relationship. Charleen Wiseman, an established quilter and quilting teacher, led the group. The steering committee had secured funds for the project, and a permanent exhibition space for the finished piece had been reserved in the newly renovated Castine Historical Society building. My only job was to come up with a design.

The Castine Bicentennial Quilt Steering Committee: (From left) Sylvia Larsson, Charleen Wiseman, Sylvia Muszala, Margaret Parker, Caroline Livermore, Lois Cyr. Image courtesy of Margaret Parker.

I attended many early meetings where the themes for the quilt were endlessly discussed – the history of the area, it’s rich natural habitat, the ships that had been built or sailed into the harbor, and of course the flags! I researched the history for months, found old photographs, and began drawing that summer. I aimed to include as many of the themes as possible.

The historical themes suggested a long horizontal format, eventually seven historic scenes became the backbone of the design. On each side of them were eight nature panels, that were tall and narrow. Above the history squares, descriptions of each scene were stitched in embroidery. Six flags fit above the nature panels, filled out on the two ends with the sun and moon, a tribute to the indigenous peoples.

A strip of water all along the bottom made room for the boats, ships, canoes and kayaks that had sailed through the town’s 200 year history. Above and below, the piece is framed by a dark curve suggesting the edge of the earth, a world view, stitched with white clouds.

Many people were eager to work on this piece. So another design requirement was that it had to start with small sections that people could work on at home, that would then be sewn together into it’s completed form. This dictated how the composition was composed.

Castine Bicentennial Quilt, 1996. Work in progress on square #6, late 19th and early 20th century history. Image courtesy of Margaret Parker.

Participants organized into groups and selection the section that they wanted to complete. The original drawings were printed as blueprints in sections, so each group could take home their section along with its selected fabrics. They then copied elements of the design from the blueprint and used those patterns to cut the fabric. This gave very exact replicas of the drawings. A great suggestion from Charleen was to leave extra fabric along the edges of the panels that could overlap onto the next panels. When the overlap was sewn down, the whole piece became seamless. The masts and sails of the ships also overlapped onto the panels above them, making it look like the boats were sailing in front of the scenes on land. This was one of the central unifying elements of the whole design.

The 24 ft. long, 6 ft. high quilted tapestry took a year to complete, using the labor of nearly 50 people, mostly women over fifty. I worked throughout the project, solving design problems at every step from fabric selection and thread color to techniques of couching and beadwork, and ensuring that the project was completed by the July 4, 1996, deadline. It is on permanent display at the Castine Historical Society.

Installation view. Castine Bicentennial Quilt, 1996
A community project of the Town of Castine, ME, designer Margaret Parker
6’ H x 24’ L
Quilt, cotton face and backing, appliqué, embroidery, couching, beading, overlapping fabric, all hand made, hand quilted by community members
. Image courtesy of Margaret Parker.

For more information visit: The Castine Historical Society.