When the Mt. Airy Art Garage opened seven years ago, it was the realization of a lifelong dream for Arleen Olshan.
She and her partner, Linda Slodki, created the space to showcase emerging artists and empower the local community—a goal they’re still striving for today by celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month every year.
“I was a part of a women’s art celebration back in the 1970s, in the early part of the feminist movement, and we did a whole citywide exhibit,” Olshan said. “Every major institution in the city was highlighting the work of women artists. And a few years ago, I realized there was very little going on for women’s history or International Women’s Day.”
This year’s exhibition, “No Longer Anonymous,” focuses on fiber art made by female artists. The exhibit opened on March 4 and will run through May 1 at the garage, on Mt. Airy Avenue near Germantown Avenue.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a Virginia Woolf quote: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
Woolf and other female artists during that time influenced many of the artists for the exhibit.
“Women even went to the extent of changing their names to men’s names,” said Karoline Wallace, an art quiltmaker and contributor to the exhibition. “So I think this not being anonymous anymore is staking our claim to the same traditions that men have enjoyed for millennia.”
“There are so many young women and people who don’t know about where International Women’s Day came from and what it symbolizes, and this is always an opportunity for us to talk about empowering women, no matter how old they are,” Slodki added.
Opportunities for women are limited, Slodki said, because “It’s still a man’s world, and if you’re a woman of color it’s even harder.”
Slodki said someone playing devil’s advocate once asked her if a lack of opportunity is familiar to all artists, or if men and women are on an equal playing field as artists.
“No,” Slodki said. “We’re not. We’re still running to catch the train.”
These issues were discussed in the exhibit’s panel on March 6. There will be two more events presented by the Mt. Airy Art Garage during Women’s History Month: a night of live performances by women musicians in partnership with the Philadelphia Folksong Society last Saturday and a women’s writing circle on Sunday.
“The intention is to empower, and to feel comfortable to just talk,” Slodki said. “It’s that sense of, ‘This is my story and these are the challenges that I have had and these are some of my successes, but I’ve got a long way to go.’ And I’m really good at what I do and yet, there have been these roadblocks.”
“It was wonderful to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of [the] Fine Arts, it was a great school,” Olshan said. “But it’s true that more than 50 percent of the students in art schools are women, and less than 20 percent of the teachers and administration and executives in art schools are women, and it’s gotten worse over the years rather than better.”
Kathy Robinson, who has been making wearable batik art for more than 30 years, is contributing several pieces to the exhibition. She is excited to see what other women artists in the community are creating.
“Women have different kinds of issues than men, or kind of sensibilities, and I think it’s important for them to have a venue to see the female version of things,” Robinson said. “As diverse as that can be within the female artist population, too.”
“It’s their expression of their art and their experience as women,” Slodki said. “And it may no longer be anonymous because it just grabs you and it takes you and you see this work and you just go, ‘Wow. This is not silent, this is not quiet, this is needed to get out there.’”
Morgan Slutzky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.