It's a challenge indeed in these fast-moving times to generate a genuine buzz for events like the upcoming national board meeting of the Women's Caucus for Art that'll take place here in town, along with ancillary exhibits organized by WCA's Florida chapter. Ask anyone who tried to light a fire under our city's dwellers over the issue of reproductive rights prior to the last presidential election and you'll understand what I mean – it's hard to connect the women thriving in today's much-improved climate with the struggle for equality that was the main agenda of pioneers like artist Nancy Azara, a special guest of WCA's summer assembly.

Azara, 65, who founded the New York Feminist Art Institute in 1979 (and now lives in the Catskill Mountains area), was chosen to handpick works by WCA artists nationwide for the Re-Visioning exhibition that opens Friday, July 29, at Maitland Art Center (6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; through Aug. 28). What a progressive lot they are: The exhibit features striking entries by 61 artists working in myriad media, both vintage and high-tech. There's sculpture, photography, paintings and crossbreeds thereof. The collection as a whole serves as an overview of creative progressions in the visual manifestations of "feminism." It's a word that doesn't always conjure a clear picture; the images included run the gamut from lovely landscapes to declarations of activism.

"It's a spectrum of what women are doing today," says Azara. Among the Central Florida contributors in the show are Charon Luebbers ("Mother Goddess"), Karen Carasik ("A Mother's Journey"), Judith Segall ("Eye of the Storm No. 1-30") and Bonnie Sprung ("Domination of Woman").

But there's definitely a historical context to keep in mind, and Azara represents it well. When she was schooled in the 1970s, she received the highest compliment an aspiring woman artist could expect: She was told that she would "make a good wife for an artist." While it's a now-laughable anecdote, the comment at the time imparted a sensation of sinking in cement boots, and goes a long way toward explaining her lifelong commitment to advancing women's contributions in the world of art, primarily through education.

"If you don't educate women about their rights, then they will settle for what they have," Azara says. And as for the sticky issue of furthering women's art – as opposed to art in general, which stands independent of gender or ethnicity – she hopes that there will come a time when equality is genuinely achieved and a concentrated push isn't necessary.

"The experience of living is very challenging for everybody, and sometimes people forget that," she acknowledges. "But equality is not a choice, it's a right." Thus the need for remembering the past, even as we celebrate the present and dream of the future. While the creative output of women is less closeted at this juncture, Azara says prejudice is "still insidious today, and it's still very hard for a woman to make a go of it."

COMMA Gallery is the host site for Spirit Taking Form, Azara's own small but representational exhibit of her sculpture and "rubbings" (through July 31). As she explains on her website (www.nancyazara.com), her sculptures are "carved, assembled and highly painted wood with gold and silver leaf and encaustic. The wood, the paint and the layers that make up the sculpture record a journey of memory, images and ideas."

As for the rubbings, they evoke nostalgia in me for that kiddie art class that called for taking a thin sheet of paper, placing it over a textured surface and then rubbing like crazy with the side of a crayon for an imprint. Azara says her rubbings (such as the leaf imprint shown here) are indeed about memory and a sense of connection. "A leaf is intangible – we touch it but it shrivels up and dies – but we carry the memory through life and connect it to what we can."

She'll explain more about her process in a gallery talk at COMMA (6 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, July 28) – an event that doubles as a signing for her 2002 book, also titled Spirit Taking Form. She says the book sums up what she's been teaching for years in her workshops and classes: that the creative process is a spiritual one, and how her methodology can help to tap into that force.

Two other public happenings fall under the WCA umbrella: Artists Anjal Soler of Fort Lauderdale and Eleanor Merritt of Sarasota, who both will be awarded WCA lifetime achievement awards, have exhibits on display at the DeLand Museum of Art through Sept. 11 (public ceremony 7 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at the museum). And artists can bring their own creations to share and discuss at a free forum, "The 'F' Word, Feminism in Art" (2:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30). The local WCA website is the best resource for details of the entire schedule: www.wcafl.org.

To use the lyrics of Pete Seeger, when it comes to women in art, it's been a "long time passing."

Nancy Azara
Gallery talk, book signing
6 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, July 28
COMMA Gallery


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