Editor’s note: This is the second of three stories about female artists in Louisiana celebrating Women’s History Month.
Neighborhood Cora Kelley
In 2011, no one seemed to care about Cora Kelley Ward or the art she created.
She was just another artist forgotten by time, and the Hilliard Art Museum was holding a sale of her abstract paintings at a low price. Very low prices per foot, in fact.
It was Ward’s favorite genre: the abstract. Painting was his only passion, which was not the norm for a child born into the family of a pastor Eunice in 1920.
The Southern Baptist minister was Ward’s mother’s second husband. She married him after he preached the funeral of her first husband, a lumber worker. He too died, and Ward’s mother trained at the Acadiana Baptist Academy outside of Eunice to become a Southern Baptist missionary, then married a third time.
Ward’s husband, Simon Ward, also granted her a divorce so she could pursue painting. She eventually settled into a loft in New York’s Greenwich Village, which also served as her studio.
Ward was calm, poised and beautiful like a movie star. But even these qualities, combined with his prolific creativity, did not generate much interest in his work. She kept most of what she painted, resulting in over 1,000 pieces piled up in her apartment when she died in 1989.
She was 69 and it is said that ovarian cancer was the cause. Nevertheless, his siblings brought his work to New Orleans, where it remained for 15 years in a storage unit.
Ward’s brother Houston Badon moved his sister’s paintings to his home after Hurricane Katrina. From there, the family donated it to the Hilliard Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The location was perfect, given Ward’s Acadian roots, but the museum was overwhelmed.
“We had no financial or physical means to store the paintings,” said former Hilliard manager Mark Tullos. “I’m proud of the solution we’ve found. It’s sparked a lot of interest in Cora Kelley Ward.”
The solution? The museum was selling Ward’s paintings for $2 a square foot. That is, after choosing 30 choice pieces for his permanent collection and then donating more to museums across the South, including the Black River College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina, where Ward studied in 1950.
Then, in 2012, the museum displayed its collection of 30 in the exhibition “Cora Kelley Ward: A Work in Progress”.
“We wanted to establish provenance and documentation,” said Tullos, now president and CEO of Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian, Mississippi. “We wanted new collectors to know why his work is important.”
So while the sale wasn’t really a case of rejecting Ward’s work. It pushed her into the limelight, which she avoided in life.
“From what we read, she was a little introverted,” Tullos said. “In the art world, you either have to have a good gallery to promote you or be good at promoting your own work. And I think she was too humble to do that.”
But the museum has educated potential collectors by handing out printed bio sheets at the art sale. So who was Cora Kelley Ward?
She was an artist who continually perfected her craft at a time when a full-time career as an artist was not always a viable option for a woman.
She studied painting at Newcomb College in New Orleans, then earned a nursing degree and Master of Arts from Hunter College in New York. Nurse was a guaranteed job at the hospital near Greenwich Village when she needed money to support her painting.
Ward moved in artistic circles that included fellow abstract painters Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and even Robert Rauschenberg.
She also took classes with Clement Greenberg, one of the most influential essayists and art critics of the 20th century, and among the first published critics to praise the work of Jackson Pollock. Greenburg admired her work and wrote a posthumous essay for the catalog of her final exhibition, saying, “Cora was a dear and unselfish friend. But I can say with confidence that it does not influence me. It is only with these paintings from the 80s that I can wholeheartedly salute his art. It makes me happy – unfortunately because she’s not there to read what I write.
Ward was also a photographer. A New York gallery has already hosted an exhibition of his photographs.
And thanks to the Hilliard University Art Museum, its collectors are numerous.
“Part of our mission as a museum was to teach potential collectors how to build a collection,” Tullos said. “We made it so college students could afford the paintings, and I can’t help but believe that 10 years later, a lot of students are proud of those paintings they bought. for a few bucks.”
Still, Tullos believes one of Ward’s greatest accomplishments was becoming an abstract painter at a time when the field was dominated by men.
“Women weren’t taken seriously back then,” he said. “But she never let that stop her.
Louisiana sculptor Clyde Connell also didn’t let society’s views of women stop him. Connell’s work also ventured into a form of abstraction.
“Clyde Connell was known for her totems,” said Baton Rouge museum curator and consultant Elizabeth Weinstein. “She was well educated and ended up living in a very rural area.”
The writers tied Connell to the southern Georgia O’Keeffe. Others have compared his works to the writing of William Faulkner.
Minnie Clyde Dixon Connell was born on September 19, 1901, at Wood’s Place Plantation, one of five plantations in her family near Shreveport. Although Clyde is considered a boy’s name, his father made a deal with two friends to name all of their firstborns Clyde.
She attended Brenau College in Atlanta, then Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and eventually married TD Connell, with whom she had three children.
Connell’s artistic pursuit did not begin until he was 50, after a period of civil rights activism through his involvement with the Presbyterian Church and the Home Missions Committee of National Churches of Christ. At this time, she visited avant-garde galleries in New York, where she discovered abstract expressionism.
Meanwhile, Connell’s husband lost his job as superintendent of the Caddo Parish Penal Farm. The couple experienced difficult times and settled in Lac Bisteneau.
“For three years I really relaxed, and it took three years because I had no desire to do anything,” Connell said in the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. 64parishes.org. “One day I looked around and said that this place needed carvings. I started carving for the first time. It all started somewhere inside me.”
“I think she used art as a way to express something inside of her, to convey her feelings,” Weinstein said. “Her work is more abstract, these totemic shapes covered in papier-mâché with attached elements that connect with the rural and the environment she found herself in.”
They also express his spiritual side.
“With all the prejudice that she saw around her, I think for her, her job was kind of to rise above it all,” Weinstein said.
Although Connell used nature to construct her artwork, she said her soul was filled with the spirits of former slaves and their descendants who lived on the family plantations in northern Louisiana. She spoke of one such inspiration, an elderly black woman named Susan, who lived on one of the Dixons’ plantations.
“She would take me for long walks on train tracks,” Connell said. “If anything had happened, like a nigger had been whipped, the news had spread. They all knew. Word got around quickly. She was just moaning and singing about what was happening to people in her race. It made me feel like my race was terrible. … My work represents those feelings.
Connell was in her 50s when she became a professional artist. His work has been seen around the world and his national awards are numerous. She died at age 97 on May 4, 1988 in Shreveport.
“Louisiana had great female artists who were breaking through and doing what they could,” Weinstein said. “And what they were doing was a great job.”