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ATX Art: The Women Behind the Work

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Women & Their Work Executive Director Chris Cowden and painter Laura Lit discuss the gallery and Lit’s new show.

By Abigail Rosenthal, Photos by Laura Lit

A few weeks ago, when I first visited Women & Their Work, a nonprofit visual- and performing-arts gallery in downtown Austin, painter Abby Bagby’s exhibition Kingdom was in its final week of display. Mannequins modeling clothing made from human hair stood in a circle in the expansive space—behind which a partition played a video of previous installations. It was late in the afternoon and as a novice gallery-goer, I took a moment to appreciate the quiet that fell upon the space. I was spared from the bustling street outside and offered a chance to view the intriguing collection with little distraction.

Since Women & Their Work was founded by three women artists in 1978, the gallery has hosted hundreds of exhibitions, from giant sculptures made of cake frosting to a performance with scissors. Executive Director Chris Cowden has been involved with the gallery since the mid-1980s and has seen it become increasingly popular in the Austin art scene.

“We’ve seen it grow quite a bit,” she says. “In the years before I came here, even in the ’80s and early ’90s, we would get phone calls from people thinking Women & Their Work was a maid service or a secretary pool.”

The gallery was founded during the alternative space movement, a time when groups of artists began creating their own spaces within the art world.

“At the time, it was really referencing a nationwide move to seek control over one’s own destiny,” Cowden says. “There were African-American, Latino, Asian-American, gay and lesbian, women. … A lot of groups formed throughout the country during that period in the ’70s. Really, before that time, there were very few people besides white men in any kind of art form.”

Showcasing new artists every five weeks, Women & Their Work selects artists based on what they’ve previously created while encouraging them to produce new works as well.

For nearly a year, painter Laura Lit prepared for her upcoming show, Where You End and I Begin. Lit is planning to show 21 paintings and seven drawings in the gallery’s first painting show in more than two years. Her work is mainly focused on classic straight portraiture, with some featuring embroidery or projected images.

“The only theme is me trying to become a better painter and creating scenes that have certain challenges in them,” she says.

Since moving to Austin from Los Angeles two years ago, Lit has found the Austin art scene to be more encouraging than that of LA, even though Austin is more well-known for its music culture.

“The Austin art scene has been really welcoming and not as daunting as the LA art scene,” she says. “I love being in a city that is music-heavy because I find music and art totally on the same level in terms of creativity. It’s music-heavy, but that also means people like to go out and see shows and they like creative things.”

Lit has had quite the year. She found out that she was pregnant at the same time she was chosen as a featured artist by Women & Their Work. Thus, she began meticulously timing her work to coincide with the arrival of her daughter.

“I really had to pay attention to my timing, which meant I couldn’t just spend forever on a painting,” she says. “There were no ah moments, like, ‘Ah, having a baby is like having a…’ No, I was doing painting and the baby was different. It helped me focus and I was getting to do something I loved while I was pregnant.”

Lit believes galleries like Women & Their Work have played an important role in honoring women artists like her without sacrificing the quality of the art shown.

“I do feel like there’s some catching up to do in terms of female representation in galleries and museums,” Lit says. “There are way more male artists than female artists. I think anything that highlights us, it’s not giving us a leg up; it’s more highlighting. That’s how I’m OK with it. I’m not getting special treatment. I still have to be good to get into this gallery.”

Women & Their Work holds more than 50 events throughout the year, including events geared toward students. To Cowden, it’s museums and galleries like Women & Their Work that are among the most important aspects of cultivating a growing and vibrant art scene in Austin.

“We really want to encourage kids and their parents to see art as an important part of everyone’s life,” Cowden says. “It can raise questions, it can be fun, it can be silly, it can be heartbreaking. … It’s just a huge range, so that’s what’s really great to introduce them to the possibilities because they’re endless.”

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