Johnson’s collars spotlights women’s contributions

An installation shot of “Woman, the Spirit of the Universe,” an exhibition of bronze collars by Carolyn Marks Johnson at the Museum of the Gulf Coast through May 30. Photo by Andy Coughlan

For most of us, a collar is simply an adornment for a shirt or dress. In Carolyn Marks Johnson’s art, a collar symbolizes the struggle to establish women’s rights.

Johnson’s exhibition, “Woman, the Spirit of the Universe,” on display at the Museum of the Gulf Coast though May 30, features 21 bronzed collars that spotlight historical women and their contributions to society, from Margaret Brent, who practiced de facto law in the late 1600s to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Johnson started working on the series nearly eight years ago, part of an art class at the Glassell School in Houston.

“Ruth Bader Ginsberg” by Carolyn Marks Johnson.

“I accidentally moved into collars,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to use fabric of some sort, I wanted to create the objects myself. I actually started out with an idea to go from simple to complex. It almost worked out that way, except it begins with complex and works down to simple with Justice Ginsburg’s collar, which by the time I was able to finish the exhibit and get it together had definitely become an identifiable icon.”

Many of the women had significant legal ties, which reflect Johnson’s career as a judge.

“It allows me to do the art but still express my commitment to what I’ve chosen to do with my life,” she said. “In a very real sense, that exhibit is the circle of my life. It starts with my first experience, and it really has no end. I like these women. I like talking about them. I like telling people what they did. And it’s always wonderful when I see a little bit of surprise on (people’s) faces, ‘I didn’t know that.’ Then I have a feeling they liked them, too.”

Not every woman represented is from the law, though. Dorothea Lange whose Depression-era photos documented the plight of the poor, is an interesting choice. We do not normally see her as the focus of the art as she is usually behind the lens. Lange’s work raised awareness of the poor, especially women.

Johnson has included two giants of Texas politics, Gov. Ann Richards and Rep. Barbara Jordan.

Collars depicting Barbara Jordan, left, and Ann Richards by Carolyn Marks Johnson. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Johnson said she has four notebooks with different women in them and narrowing the lists down to the 21 in the show was a difficult process. Ultimately, as she worked on them, the next one presented itself naturally, she said.

“These women had important effects on the legal life of women in our country, but each of them, it seemed to me, was entitled to come in under a certain category of experiences,” Johnson said. “It just became that person that was next in line for doing the things that I had a personal interest in knowing who these women were — knowing why they did that and knowing how hard it was for them to make that particular step forward.”

The final list includes Brent, Abigail Smith Adams, Betsy Ross, Deborah Sampson Gannett, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Myra Bradwell, Elizabeth Blackwell, Margaret Louise Higgins Sanger, Dorothea Lange, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Mazie Keiko Hirono, Jordan, Richards, Georgia O’Keefe, Wilma Mankiller, Dolores Huerta, Sally Ride, Nancy Pelosi, Sonia Sotomayor and Ginsberg.

A bronze sculpture of Betsy Ross’ collar, part of “Woman, the Spirit of the Universe,” an exhibition of bronze collars by Carolyn Marks Johnson at the Museum of the Gulf Coast through May 30.

The process is slow and painstaking. Johnson handmade all of the collars from 100% cotton. They were then individually dipped in wax and placed in a plaster foundation. The interior was burned out at a high temperature — destroying the original cotton collar — leaving a cast into which molten bronze was poured. When it cooled, the cast was removed and polished.

Johnson said her classmates wondered why she would spend so much time on the collars. She said it was important to make a statement that they represented someone who was important to her.

“And they finally came along with me and agreed that it does make a statement,” she said.

Johnson said her classmates would come to class and do something different each night, but she stuck to her task methodically.

“Here I am plodding along, collar after collar,” she said. “You’re dipping in wax and cleaning the wax off. It’s a very tedious process. But it was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

An installation shot of “Woman, the Spirit of the Universe,” an exhibition of bronze collars by Carolyn Marks Johnson at the Museum of the Gulf Coast through May 30. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Such was the workmanship of Johnson’s original cotton collars, so much so that her sculpture teacher at the Glassell School wondered if Johnson should display them as they were, without creating the cast and pouring in molten bronze.

“As I approached the point where I had a lot of collars, and we were getting into the process of dipping and having them prepared for the bronze process, he said, ‘You know, you don’t have to ruin these because they’re beautiful like they are, and it’s okay to have a 100% cotton exhibit for women.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know that. But it’s not what I want for them.’”

The Harriet Tubman display in “Woman, the Spirit of the Universe.”

The end result of Johnson’s labors is impressive. The exhibition has dignity and gravitas. Visitors should take the time to examine each of the collars in detail, including looking at the contextual material.

A collar is ephemeral thing. They get washed, they fall apart, and they are eventually replaced. But by bronzing them, like bronzing baby shoes, Johnson has secured the particular woman’s spirit. The casting elevates the mundane to high art. What was inconsequential now has great consequence because of the way she’s captured them.

“I feel that some of these women have literally waited 400 years to make a statement. And I’m thrilled and honored to be the person that brings them back out and allows them to speak again. (I’m) able to look at them and say, ‘Now what did they did do?’ And then we can talk about that and what they did. And it’s a wonderful experience for me.”

The Museum of the Gulf Coast is located at 700 Procter St. in Port Arthur. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is $8.

An exhibition catalogue with histories of each of the women is available for $35.

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