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Women's Voices Echo in New Art Exhibit

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – [Open with flute solo music]

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1: Poet Jacquelyn Spier says there are voices that echo through the Chihuahuan Desert near her El Paso home. They are the voices from generations of women who inspired Spier to become a writer. Jacqueline Spier, Poet: I'm telling the story that women today have a voice; and today we're able to tell the truth about who we are, what we feel, and what's happened to us - both the pain, the sadness and the joys.

Sprague: Spier has been writing poetry for more than 20 years. But in the mid-1990s, she began collaborating with a group of women in El Paso who called themselves the "DIVAS," for Diversity in the Visual Arts. Spier would write poems based on the drawings and paintings of the other artists; and, in turn, they would read Spier's poems as inspiration for some of their work. This is part of "Primrose," Spier's poem about the aftermath of her mother's hysterectomy.

Spier: I didn't know what to say.Maybe she just wanted me to hold herthe way my children do. I don't know what I did.Watered my Mexican primrose, I guess.They are so relentless, have a secrettunnel underneath the ground,always keep a way in and out.Something my mother never knew,never wanted anyone to knowshe was Mexican and closed down.

Sprague: Out of this poem was born Jean McGee's painting, "I Guess I Watered My Mexican Primrose," of a woman working in an abundant garden.

Jean McGee, Painter: Jackie wrote this poem, and when I read it, I was absolutely stunned by the power of what she was talking about it; and I related to it because I also loved a garden; and so it came to me, the vision of what you do when something dreadful happens or something tough, you work in the garden.

Sprague: McGee says this collaboration between painter and poet made her a better artist.

McGee: I think that before this group and before painting with Jackie, I was a much more superficial painter; and this has helped me to feel more deeply what I'm painting; and it's just been a mind-expanding thing all around to be involved in.

Sprague: Others admired the work as well. Last year, Leadership Texas, a women's leadership forum based in Austin, helped publish a book of the DIVAS' paintings and poems. Although the artists no longer work together formally, they remain friends and support each other's artistic ventures. And now, many of their works are on display at The Women's Museum in an exhibit called "Desert Echo: Women Illuminate the Sacred."

Jacqueline Bell, Marketing Directo, The Women's Museum: And more than an exhibit of artwork, it's about the conversations between women and the friendships between women, and a support mechanism that women provide, one to the other.

Sprague: Jacqueline Bell is the Museum's marketing director.

Bell: And the subtitle, of course, "Women Illuminate the Sacred," talks about the way in which women identify and embrace that which is sacred. The sacredness of their lives, the sacredness of their families, the sacredness of their environments, the sacredness of the everyday common things that make our lives special.

Sprague: The artists in this exhibit have painted families, flowers and scenes from the desert Southwest. They use watercolors and oils, pastels and acrylics. Sometimes their colors are strong and bright. In other works, they're more muted tones. But every painting tells a story, something the artists sought to teach students during a master class they held at Booker T. Washington High School.

Spier (addressing the classroom): You're going to hear a poem about women my age (laughing).

Sprague: Spier read one of her poems to the group of hopeful artists. The DIVAS discussed their collaboration. And they asked students like 11th grader Chloe Hogg to write or draw something that expressed what they liked about themselves.

Chloe Hogg, Student, Booker T. Washington High School: I wrote about myself. I have no title, but it goes like this: Light brown eyes that lure men, beast, woman or child. Small nose. Full lips. Deep dimples. Small hips. Muscle legs sit down low and love to show my fat big toe.

Sprague: It may be just a beginning, but Chloe seems to like the idea of women working together for artistic inspiration.

Hogg: I think it's good. 'Cause we're all on one chord. You know women. It would be different 'cause usually men are always controlling, but now we're in there.

Sprague: These are the words many of the DIVAS didn't hear when they were teenagers. But they're giving a voice to them now. Their exhibit, "Desert Echo," runs through July 27th in Dallas. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.