A Museum of Her Own: Women Artists Shine in Washington D.C.

 If you’re visiting Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March—or for any other reason—take time to bask in the vibrant National Museum of Women in the Arts, an entire building devoted to female-created paintings, sculpture, photography, book-art, multimedia art, and film through the centuries.

Closeup of Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky"

Closeup of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” See details below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A few blocks off the National Mall, this museum is a gem—and it doesn’t attract the huge crowds that the Smithsonian Museums do, which makes it pleasant—though I wish this museum were better known. Every time I’m in Washington, I set aside time to visit and see some of my favorite permanent pieces as well as the unique temporary exhibitions.

I also support this museum by buying an annual membership, which gains me free access. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is, after all, the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of female artists.

With its collections, exhibitions, and programs, the museum advocates for better representation of women artists and addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past—while promoting great women artists working today. Here are a few highlights from one of my recent trips:

Judith Leyster (1609–1633) 

Yes, you read the dates correctly! Judith Leyster was a Dutch woman who lived before Vermeer and was a contemporary of Rembrandt.

"The Concert" by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633.

“The Concert” by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leyster established her painting career independently and was the first woman admitted to Haarlem’s prestigious Guild of St. Luke. She was also the first woman to maintain a workshop with students and to actively sell art on the open market. In The Concert (pictured here), the sitter on the left has been identified as her husband, and the central figure may be the artist herself.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Like many Mexican artists working after the Revolutionary decade that began in 1910, Kahlo was influenced in her art and life by the nationalistic fervor known as Mexicanidad.

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky" by Frida Kahlo, 1937

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” by Frida Kahlo, 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The artists involved in this movement rejected European influences and favored a return to the country’s native roots and folk traditions.Kahlo often wore the distinctive clothing of the Tehuantepec women in southwest Mexico; she also looked to pre-Columbian art and Mexican folk art for forms and symbols in her paintings.

The compositional elements of the stage and curtains, for example, draw upon Mexican vernacular paintings called retablos, devotional images of the Virgin or Christian saints painted on tin, which Kahlo collected.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937, oil on Masonite) commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937.

In this painting, she presents herself elegantly clothed in a long, embroidered skirt and fringed shawl. She holds a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to Trotsky that states, “with all my love.” Although this isn’t one of Kahlo’s more visceral images, it’s still amazing to see the work of the great maestra.

"La Llamada" (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961

“La Llamada” (The Call) by Remedios Varo, 1961. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

One of my favorite painters of all time is the Spanish Surrealist, a woman named Remedios Varo, who fled to France to escape the Spanish Civil War and then left France for Mexico during WWII, when modern artists were persecuted.

This painting, La Llamada (The Call) hangs prominently in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is my favorite of all her works. Because of this work, visiting the museum is always a bit of a pilgrimage for me—a chance to experience her vision firsthand. (In the early 2000s, the museum had a temporary exhibition of about 30 of her works, and I flew to Washington, D.C. specifically to view that show.)

Like many figures in Remedios Varo’s paintings, the subject of The Call (1961) is intensely and solemnly focused, as though she were in the middle of an adventure. Wearing flowing robes and carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle hanging like a necklace, she traverses a courtyard. Her hair forms a brilliant swirl of light, which seems to bring her energy from a celestial source.

Closeup of "The Call" by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Closeup of “The Call” by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love how the woman in the painting is illuminated in fiery orange-gold tones and walks fearlessly and purposefully past the shadowy men entombed in tree bark. I feel like she has a creative spark—in fact, she is herself a creative spark connected to the heavens—and she seems determined to follow her own magical creative path, undaunted by the onlooking men.

Varo created this work near the end of her life, while living in Mexico where her artistic reputation was growing. It reflects her Surrealist influences and her interests—she dabbled in alchemical experiments—as well as her talent for evoking ambiguous narratives through art.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

When I walked into the room with this seven-foot wide creation, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s the bold and lively creation of Faith Ringgold, who trained as a painter but originated the African-American story-quilt revival in the late 1970s.

"Jo Baker's Bananas" by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Jo Baker’s Bananas” by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

This piece, Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997), depicts Josephine Baker, the famous American entertainer who became a stage legend in France where she lived most of her life. Baker’s figure is represented five times across the top, implying movement across a stage. The so-called “Banana Dance” she performed in 1926 at Paris’s Folies Bergère music hall cemented her fame. Off stage, Baker used her fame to support the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Jo Baker’s Bananas is actually an acrylic painting on canvas, but the border is quilted. Don’t you love the color and movement in Ringgold’s creation?

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

"After the Storm" by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

“After the Storm” by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

Internationally known as an actor in 19th-century Paris, Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor.

Bernhardt witnessed a Breton woman holding her dying grandson, who’d become entangled in his fishing net. She immortalized that scene in her sculpture After the Storm.

The artist chose a classical composition that recalls the Pietá by Michelangelo, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the crucified Christ. Done in marble, this piece was created circa 1876.

Maria Martinez (1887–1980)

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For years I admired the shiny-black Native American pottery I saw when visiting New Mexico, but only a decade ago did I realize that most of it was created by a woman who lived in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

Maria Martinez learned to make pottery from her mother and grandmother, and she became legendary in the Southwest, especially for her black-on-black pottery.

Although this ancient pottery style had been used by ancestors of the Pueblo people, knowledge of how to create it had been lost. Through study and experimentation, Maria and her husband, Julian, perfected their process for making it in 1921. Throughout her life, Martinez collaborated with a number of members of her family.

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because of her work, Puebloan traditions continue to thrive today, helping preserve the heritage of this often female-made art form in an era when clay pots have been replaced by modern cookware.

The photo of Maria Martinez (above) is by photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), who created a female vision of the American Southwest, which was typically depicted as a masculine place of rugged conquest. She and Martinez were longtime friends, and much of her work highlighted the native people and art-making traditions of the American Southwest. She distinguished herself as a platinum-print photographer, and her work appears in museums around the world.

Lee Krasner (1908–1984)

I love how the curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts juxtaposed the two pieces of art shown below. The painting on the wall that combines circles, ovals, and chevron shapes is by Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner. Her canvas is titled The Springs (1964), which refers to the village near East Hampton, Long Island, where Krasner and her husband, artist Jackson Pollock, moved in 1945. After his death in 1956, Krasner began using the small barn on the couple’s property as her studio. The nature-based hues in The Springs, along with its arcing lines and interlaced forms, are reminiscent of a wind-blown landscape.

Lee Krasner's "The Springs" and Frida Baranak's" "Untitled" sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lee Krasner’s “The Springs” and Frida Baranak’s” “Untitled” sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Frida Baranek (b. 1961)

The Brazilian artist’s Untitled sculpture (1991) looks as if it were flying in the wind. Though it appears to be light, Baranek’s sculpture is actually made of rusted iron wire and rods—and it weighs about 90 pounds. The museum notes that the interweaving of wire and rods gives the sculpture a linear quality, as if it were a “drawing in space.” Baranek is interested  in using her art to comment on environmental issues in her native Brazil and globally.

Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955)

Inspired by Andy Warhol, Polly Apfelbaum often incorporates flower forms into her compositions. The custom-carved woodblocks made for her flower prints—this one is titled Love Alley 4—are based on her hand-drawn doodles and printed on handmade paper.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

"Love Alley 4" by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Love Alley 4” by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Denver’s Tuba Christmas: Heavy Metal for the Holidays

I like quirky events—in any part of the world. They highlight lesser-known facets of our culture, reminding me that there’s so much diversity in any given country, state, or city.

A tuba player gets in the spirit of the season during downtown Denver’s annual Tuba Christmas concert. About 250 tubas participated in this year’s event. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Denver, for example, isn’t just a Broncos-watching, ski-crazy, cowboy-hat-wearing Western metropolis. It’s got plenty of arts and culture: a symphony, opera and ballet companies, jazz clubs, a theatre complex, art galleries.

And then there are the tubas.

Yes, every December, literally hundreds of tubas and their variants serenade downtown Denver with Christmas carols played in the surprisingly mellow tones of these unwieldy low-brass instruments.

In an orchestra, tubas are tucked in the back of the ensemble because, really, no one could see the conductor if the tuba sat farther forward. So it’s satisfying when the tuba get its moment in the spotlight at the annual Tuba Christmas. (Full disclosure: I play bassoon, another orchestral bass instrument, so I have an affinity for tubas. We rarely get showy solos, but a symphony wouldn’t sound the same without us!)

Imagine the delight of the masses this year when a choir of 250 tubas gathered in their Santa hats to play harmonious renditions of “Joy to the World,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Silent Night.”

Trust me, your Christmas is not complete without the bass, baritone, and tenor tones of tubas.

A pair of euphoniums were introduced at the annual Tuba Christmas concert. ©Ken Aikin

In 2018, Denver’s annual Tuba Christmas concert takes place on December 16 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex in downtown. Featuring tuba players from all over the region—and a few from other states, including New York—Tuba Christmas is one of the most celebrated and longest-running holiday festivities in Colorado.

When we went a few years ago, my husband (who plays trumpet, the highest voice of the brass section) and I elbowed our way through a crowd of around 500 people to get closer to the low-brass ensemble, many of whom wore Tuba Christmas stocking caps and decked out their instrument with seasonal décor. (There is nothing bah-humbug about these tubas!)

The Biggest Concert of the Year

Tuba Christmas was founded by the Harvey Phillips Foundation, which focuses on developing, expanding, and preserving the musical arts—with special attention given to instruments not ordinarily the “object of other support.” (Ahem…this means that despite their size, tubas get overlooked.) The first Tuba Christmas was held in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink in 1974. Today, concerts take place across the globe.

In addition to conducting merry carols—many of us crowd members sang along— retired music professor Bill Clark introduced the metallic musicians with the assistance of Jeanie Schroder, the tuba player in indie-pop group DeVotchka. Playing with 2014’s Tuba Christmas were tuba players from schools and colleges all over the state. They ranged from age 7 to 90, and quite a few multigenerational families performed. Clearly, tuba players enjoy longevity and musical genes.

In addition, we audience members learned that tubas come in all shapes and sizes. There were traditional bass tubas that consist of 18 feet of tubing. There were flashy sousaphones—the ones seen in marching bands with the huge bells that usually spell out the name of a high school mascot. There were euphoniums, sometimes called “tenor tubas,” which look like mini-tubas. A few double-belled euphoniums were present; the joke is they can play duets with themselves.

I believe it’s impossible to listen to a multitude of tubas playing Christmas carols without smiling, singing, and even dancing around. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself! Tuba Christmas always takes place in Denver on the third Sunday of December—snow or shine.

Let heaven and tubas sing!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Denver’s 2014 Tuba Christmas concert attracted tuba, euphonium, and sousaphone players of all ages from all over the country. Onlookers enjoyed singing along.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

 

 

Sleep in the Straw in Switzerland

Spending the night in a Swiss barn is fun and adventurous. Photo courtesy Schlaf im Stroh

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for unique and independently owned places to stay that will benefit the local economy. Switzerland offers a sustainable, economical, family-friendly bed-and-breakfast experience I’ll never forget: sleeping in the straw on a farm.

Switzerland’s Sleep in Straw association (it’s called Schlaf im Stroh in German) consists of 150 Swiss farms and helps travelers easily connect with the hayloft of their choice.

Bed in a Barn

At Bruffhof Farm in Switzerland’s cheese-making Emmental region, the sound of cowbells and mooing woke me at dawn. I sat up in my sleeping bag, shook the straw from my hair, and looked around the hayloft to see if my friends were up.

Bruffhof Farm, in Switzerland’s Emmenthal region, was flowering and beautiful when I visited. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Bruffhof is just one of Switzerland’s Sleep-in-Straw network in which visitors bed down in the barn—not with the animals, but sometimes in an adjacent area. (At most farms, restrooms and showers are located in separate buildings.)

Guests can volunteer, if they like, to help out with farm chores: collecting eggs, picking vegetables, helping milk cows. The side effects: plenty of fresh air, a lot of fun (provided your loft-mates don’t snore too loudly), and a better understanding and appreciation about where your food comes from and the hard work that farmers do.

For breakfast: fresh-baked farm rolls. The food at Bruffhof was outstanding. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

My breakfast at Bruffhof was heavenly, with homemade bread, jam, and muesli. The cheese, yogurt, butter and honey were from the farm’s own cows and bees. “Families stay here so their children learn where food comes from,” said farmer Franz Schwarz (who spoke just a little English).

Bruffhof Farm grows organic herbs—many for the Ricola cough-drop company, based in Switzerland. The rest of the farm is certified as “Integrated Production,” a Swiss designation that allows only minimal pesticide/herbicide use. Farmer Franz and his equally hard-working wife, Rita, also raise goats and dairy cows.

How well did I sleep in the straw? Pretty well, actually. The fresh, sweet-scented hay was soft, and I managed to arrange it beneath me in a relatively comfy contour.

How Farmhouse B&Bs Work

At a Sleep-in-Straw farm, there’s always the possibility you’ll be sharing the hayloft with strangers. I traveled with a group in late September, so we had the entire sleeping area to ourselves, but if you’re traveling singly, as a couple, or with a small family in the busy summer, you’re likely to get to get acquainted with fellow snoozers from all over the world.

This beautiful, handpainted sign pointed the way to the Signer farm B&B in Switzerland’s Appenzell region. © Laurel Kallenbach

To make reservations, you choose a farm in the region of your choice and book your “sleep in straw” experience directly with the host family—they’re the ones who benefit from the fee.

(These days, running a family farm requires entrepreneurial ingenuity, and the farm owners truly need the extra income generated from this B&B program. One of the joys of staying on a farm is that you’re experiencing a different place in an authentic way—and your money goes to a great cause: the continuation of small-scale, responsible agriculture.)

It’s best to book in advance. You bring your own sleeping bag or pay a bit extra to use one of  the farm’s. Blankets are provided by the hosts. Many of them also offer pillows; if not you can always bunch up straw inside a blanket for that purpose as well.

The Details

  • Sleep in Straw: The per night fee is economical and includes breakfast. Some Sleep in Straw farms offer other amenities (such as dinners and even beds in bunkhouses) for an extra fee.
  • If you’re not comfortable communicating in German, French, or Italian (Switzerland’s three national languages) be sure to find a farm with English speakers. At Bruffhof, where the family was German speaking, it was easy communicating with hand signals, and one of the Schwarz daughters was a excellent student of English at school.

    My friends and I felt like kids at a “lofty” sleepover! © Ursula Beamish

  • Many Sleep-in-Straw farms are accessible by bicycle. Eurotrek rents bikes, maps out self-guided routes for you, and organizes daily luggage transfers between accommo-dations, including farm-stays.
  • For more information: Schlaf im Stroh (click “Catalog” for downloadable, multilingual information on the farms).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer and editor

Originally posted in July 2013.

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

 

Eating Raclette in a Swiss Castle

The “national” dish of the Swiss canton of Valais is raclette (AKA: pools of melted alp cheese), and the best place to eat it is the Château de Villa in the winemaking town of Sierre (not far from the cantonal capital of Sion).

Raclette is a traditional Swiss melted-cheese dish. Here, Alex Aldel scrapes the bubbly raclette onto a plate at the Château de Villa. Behind him, you can see another half-cheese heating under the raclette-oven burner. ©Laurel Kallenbach

By the way, in Switzerland I heard the dish pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: RAH-clet. And the name is from the French word, racler: “to scrape.” (Keep reading! You’ll see why soon.)

The Château de Villa is a restored 16th-century castle, so you’re dining in ancient ambiance. The Château’s restaurant was established in the early 1950s to promote local, traditional foods: specifically Valaisian wineair-dried beef and raclette made using raw milk from alpine meadows.

The 16th-century Château de Villa in Sierre serves raclette; it also specializes in Valais wine, which it sells in its extensive wine cellar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Château’s literature proclaims itself as “Le Temple de la Raclette,” and it’s earned the designation: Both Swiss gourmands and visitors (like me!) flock here to worship its gooey cheese. In fact, the Château de Villa is so popular that you should book a reservation a month in advance. They serve 15 tons of cheese a year!

How the Cheese Bubbles

Château de Villa offers a special tasting of five mountain-alp cheeses for 31 CHF (Swiss francs) per person. You can see on a map the tiny villages where each cheese is made.

Tonight, Alex Aldel is our racleur (the scraper of the raclette), and he can keep multiple plates going at once. He’s like a master of ceremonies; he keeps the cheese rolling. I have privately dubbed him The Cheese Meister.

The melted raclette on my plate with boiled potatoes, cornichons, pickled onion, and a small bit of the cheese’s crust. This heat-crisp crust is called “la religieuse” (the nun). ©Laurel Kallenbach

Here’s how the raclette process happens:

1. The racleur selects a half-cheese (Cheese #1) and places it under the raclette-oven burner. He also sets out a row of plates to warm.

2. He checks the cheese from time to time, watching until the surface starts to bubble. Meanwhile, he’s usually watching other varieties of cheese in process.

3. When the cheese is bubbling, the racleur uses a small knife and deftly scrapes a portion onto a plate, usually with one swoop.

4. The racleur whisks the warm plates to the table, and we diners scramble to add boiled potatoes, cornichons (teensy pickles), sourdough rye bread (another Valais specialty), and pickled onions to eat with our cheese while it’s still hot.

5. When you’ve finished your plate, the whole process starts over with Cheese #2.

Half-wheels of raclette cheese from all over the Valais region await melting. Each tastes slightly different. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tonight, I sample nutty, buttery, toasty raclette cheeses from the Bagnes Valley, Les Haudères in the Hérens Valley, Les Marais in the Anniviers Valley, Turtmann, and the Goms Valley.

They’re all delicious. Some are mild, some more strong. I can detect differences in flavor, but honestly my palette isn’t as tuned to the distinctions as a local would be.

Martin Hannart with Sierre-Anniviers Tourism says: “We people of Valais learn how to make raclette before we learn to walk!”

And that, in a nutshell, sums up how the Swiss feel about their cheese.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted in October 2010

Read more about my travels in Switzerland: