Girlfriend art

The temptation to label the seven women, who met in art class at SMU and have maintained a loosely constructed collaboration in fine art for nearly 15 years, is uncontrollable. Even as you try to resist it, a litany of stereotypes comes to mind -- housewives, mothers, grandmothers, DMA docents, hospital volunteers, charity gala chairwomen, PTA presidents. Ladies who lunch.

Your compulsion is to push these women, like smooth, cylindrical pegs, into round holes, where they seem to belong. Apart from Judy DeSanders -- who wears simple ethnic clothing, embodies the bohemian lifestyle, and seldom makes nice -- these women don't look like artists.

It's hard to picture, say, Nancy Hanley -- whose North Dallas home is their gathering place this day -- disheveled, disheartened, and grungy, working in a studio littered with paint tubes, brushes, and rolls of canvas. Nancy seems more the June Cleaver type, neat and proper with close-cropped gray hair and animated features. She offers advice and insight into herself and everyone in her dining room. She's the leader, it turns out, but just now she is offering Perrier over ice to Marilu Flores Gruben -- the short, diplomatic one, and June Francis, the tentative, quiet one.

It's hard to imagine that Susan Shiels Johnson -- the outdoor type -- ever sold a painting for half what it was worth, just to be able to buy more paint. Johnson sports a casual chic like the women who favor Suburbans for picking up their kids at private school. She has children -- ages 12 to 16 -- and she's just beginning to get a sense of freedom from their everyday care. She says she uses that freedom to paint. Her twin sister, Sally Shiels Shupp, looks just like her, they say. She couldn't be here today. She's in Colorado, still painting. Carolyn Burson couldn't come either. She lives near Austin in Wimberley. She's busy and couldn't make time to drive to Dallas. Not today. Not two weeks before their show.

You can't imagine that the personal passions of these women, their inner drive or determination, are ever focused on anything other than their children, their husbands, their homes, or their active social lives. And if they make art as they say they do, is it crafty Martha Stewart stuff? Is it watercolored bluebonnets? Are they portrait sketchers or perpetrators of the dreaded kitten art? When they say they paint, do they mean the occasional zoo-themed mural in a grandkid's bedroom?

To all these conventional ideas and searing insults, to all these attempts to classify and categorize, these seven women shout, in unison, "Get over it!" They are serious artists, making time for what they want and must do, despite traditional demands on their lives. "This is a different need," Burson says later. "Art is our prime focus, so you make time for it first." They are mounting an exhibition of their recent work at Conduit Gallery, coming together as they do every year or so to get something out to a usually appreciative public and off their collective chest. Even the show's title -- Seven Artists, Four Days -- serves to capsulize who they truly are and how they are satisfied to produce, hang, and show more than 50 examples of their new work for a short-lived exhibition. "We've overpowered some people with our sheer, feminine wonder," jokes Hanley.

The girl group got started and first exhibited in 1984, at Dallas' respected, and now defunct, DWGallery. DW stood for Dallas Women's, and Hanley was a founding member and organized five women who met at SMU in a life-drawing class. "Our dissimilarities as artists really pulled us together," she says. "Our styles were different; we used different media and different approaches."

DeSanders, for example, is an experimenter, an explorer of every medium. Her body of work contains stained glass, found-object assemblages, paintings with tough, socio-political content, and even wild dollhouses, made from dismantled, 1950s TV cabinets that she refinished and outfitted with tiny people, furniture, rugs, and curtains. Gruben's art slips in and out of Mexico, her ancestral home, she says, and reflects both real and imagined journeys in haunting paintings, or in her latest medium, fabric. Francis' small, constricted drawings, which use a near-pointillistic, painstaking technique, have loosened up lately as she found that watercolor gives her a freer hand, and adds color where only black ink existed before.

Their different personalities don't conflict, and their compatibility led to lasting, collegial friendships. They hit it off on campus, but found the crowded figure-drawing classroom too confining. "We couldn't talk," Hanley says, so they created a splinter group, found their own models, met at one another's studios, and continued to focus on the figure. But as each left academia behind, they took different paths to self-expression, and they would never work in the same studio again. "We do our own thing, in our own space," DeSanders says.

Johnson favors working outside the studio altogether, traveling to missions in New Mexico to paint, or to Colorado to indulge her penchant for landscapes. "I'm a really slow painter," she says. "Sally is really fast, prolific." The sisters sometimes paint together, but not too often. As they took off in different directions -- painting, sculpting, drawing, assemblage, casting glass, arranging layers of fabric -- they discussed how the diversity in their work could make an interesting concept for an art show. All the current members show and sell their work independently throughout the year, but they continue to come together for what they say is a special event. "I like the structure of having this deadline, of knowing when this show is planned," Johnson says. "I work alone, but the group show keeps me disciplined, focused, and productive."

The artists explain how liberating art is in their lives and how the loose fabric of the group set a foundation for moral support. "We all learn from each other all the time, and get the benefit from the association with other artists, the exchange of ideas. In conversations with non-artists, this is mostly absent," Burson says. Francis expresses some regret that during a lifetime of social commitments in Shreveport and family obligations, she pushed down her artist self to make other people happy. "My art is who I am, more so than all the other things I did that I thought I was supposed to do," she says. "Now I've been able to give most of that up and concentrate on art." Unspoken in her quiet declaration is the feeling that the group helped her finally break out.

In a nutshell, the show is diverse yet complementary, technique-obsessed in places, often surprisingly edgy, consistently unexpected, and occasionally brilliant. Hanley's latest work in cast glass grew from seeing some of DeSanders' experimentation with new materials. When Hanley expressed an interest, DeSanders taught her what she knew about glass. They never work together in a studio, and rarely see each other, but Burson says they talk regularly. They don't meet to critique one another's work, but they're observant and curious about what each is doing. "We complement each other in a strange way," Burson says. "We are drawn to showing together, and it's always an inspiration to see each other's work. We're never all together unless it's time to show again. When we're ready to exhibit, the energy begins to flow between us."

Gruben says mutual respect plays a big part in the collaboration. "I respect the seriousness of everyone in the group, and their integrity," she says. "When we get together, we never discuss our personal lives. It is always the business of art, or the content or the materials." Gruben says she loves monoprints, and was drawn to what Johnson was doing in that medium. "We always respected each other's individuality," DeSanders says. "The nicest thing is we don't have to conform, like in other groups. We do this, and we do it this way, because it works. It's not necessary to scrutinize it."

Conduit gallery-goers will be scrutinizing the work, though, or at least hunting for something fresh to chew on as the slow summer visual-arts season ends with a plaintive whimper. To tease the potentially teeming masses that will have to hurry in order not to miss Seven Artists, Four Days, each artist came up with a concise one-liner to characterize her latest efforts. "Fleshy, illuminated still lifes," Burson says. "Geometric illusions that move," DeSanders says. "Figurative work that insinuates," June Francis says. "Agitated, empty dresses," Gruben says. "Cremated narratives of fused glass," Hanley says. "Virulently florid roads not taken," Johnson says. "Landscapes where something is about to happen," Shupp says.

Heady stuff for a group that some would say was ripe for a midlife crisis.

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Annabelle Massey Helber