The Power of Beauty

Miriam Schapiro forged a path for women artists and helped lead two major movements in 20th-century art. At 80, she's still going strong — and still making art of astonishing beauty

Few artists pioneer an entire movement. Miriam Schapiro was in the vanguard of two: Pattern & Decoration painting and the first wave of feminist art, breaking ground for generations of women.Maybe that's why there's a hum in the air this October evening at the University of Tampa's sparkling new R.K. Bailey Art Studios. Guests have gathered for a preview of the inaugural exhibition, the stunning Miriam Schapiro in Tampa, beautifully mounted and lit in the building's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery. Schapiro is here for the opening, and there's a collective anticipation that's almost palpable.

Or maybe the buzz is attributable to the work itself. Consider the dazzling fan-shaped "Pleasure Dome," for instance, on the far back wall of the gallery. The title is more than apt: meticulously applied fabric infused with vivacious color and pattern translates surface into all-over pageantry. It's deliciously, decadently decorative, a 21st-century echo of the '70s P&D movement, that shows the artist, now 80, at the top of her form. At the same time it suggests the dualities that have always flowed through Schapiro's life and art, its organic floral patterns pulsing against the order and precision of the fan's colorful struts.

As Schapiro mingles with the crowd, you catch glimpses of her complex persona. Dressed simply in black, gray hair stylishly coiffed, her warm smile accented by bright red lipstick, she's a diminutive woman who seems comfortable in her own skin. A public artist, she thrives on collaboration. Yet she also retains a zone of privacy, the aura of someone fiercely protective of her own boundaries.

A fighter and a nurturer; a champion of independent women artists whose work pays tribute to homemakers' crafts; a crusader against the male power structure whose own career benefited from a supportive father and husband — Miriam Schapiro is as complex and fascinating as the art she creates.

This season, Tampa Bay has a rare opportunity to learn more about her. In addition to her exhibition, on Oct. 12 she'll lecture about her career, and, culminating her two-week residency at UT's STUDIO-f print facility, during a reception on Friday evening, Oct. 15, the public is invited to view her mono-prints.

But the best place to begin talking about her remarkable journey is in her own home.

JUNE IN THE HAMPTONS

It's my first foray to this Long Island mecca for artists, wannabes and summering celebs. Schapiro lives here, in Wainscott, N.Y., one of the small picturesque towns within greater East Hampton, and, in anticipation of the Tampa exhibition, I'm meeting her for an interview and lunch.

The artist greets me at the door of her weathered clapboard house. Inside there's the ambiance and illogic of an older home; in the back, overlooking a small pristine wooded yard, is an informal living room with paintings by Schapiro and her husband, Paul Brach.

She insists that my husband join us for lunch, together with her assistant and Brach, a formidable figure in his own right: painter, influential administrator and educator, and occasional critic. A table set by the kitchen window is a charming backdrop to lively conversation ranging from the casually erudite to art world gossip. Married since 1946, the couple's friends drew from a legendary art crowd with names like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Willem DeKooning, most of whom populated the area in the early '50s. Memories remain fresh: Brach remembers sitting up nights with Krasner, Pollock's wife, while the notoriously self-destructive artist was out "drinking and driving around." (Pollock died in a 1956 auto accident.)

The Schapiro-Brach pair are legends themselves now, each a key player — one out front and one behind the scenes — during one of the most dynamic art epochs of the 20th century. But at lunch, it's not Schapiro's status as art-world powerhouse that you're aware of; it's the "nurturing, maternal" persona described by her major collector and friend, Winter Haven's Norma Canelas Roth. Roth defines the artist as "especially protective" of Paul, but also "tough as nails — the female warrior side."

After lunch the artist leads me from the kitchen through her office, pointing to family photos on the wall, and then into her studio. Skylights and clerestory windows light the room, where a large table holds unfinished works on paper. Stacked against walls are exuberant canvases, mostly from the last two decades, some with seductive, mesmerizing and methodical elements of P&D. I had only seen these works in catalogs, paintings she innovated with fabric cutouts glued onto spray-painted backgrounds; she calls them "femmages" (female + collage), a word she coined, now synonymous with her name and the process. Both reflect her advocacy of anonymous women and crafts considered women's work.

Schapiro asks if I'd like to see the cabinet where she stores her fabrics. She leads me to a darkened storage closet in the back of the studio, turns on the light and opens a wooden chest, its shelves stacked with folded fabrics. It's a touching moment as the artist shares the patterned material she's collected, some from flea markets she frequents while lecturing or opening exhibitions around the country. Here is the symbolic heart of her art-making.

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