lois_weber1

Lois Weber (1881-1939) was a pioneering early U.S. film director, writer, producer and actress, who helped to establish the new medium as a forum for social commentary and as an art form worthy of attention and respect. She also founded her own company, Lois Weber Productions, and was the first woman member of the Motion Picture Director’s Association, forerunner of the Directors Guild of America.

Fortunately, a number of Lois Weber’s films are available today for viewing on DVD:

Suspense (1913), (included in the collections “Saved From the Flames” and “Unseen Cinema”) is an innovative short film in which a mother and child are trapped in their home by a would-be thief.

How Men Propose (1913) (included in the collection “The Origins of Film”) tells the story of a female researcher who studies, appropriately enough, “how men propose”, much to the consternation of her several suitors.

Hypocrites (1915) is a fairly heavy-handed film dealing with political and religious corruption.

Where Are My Children? (1916) (included in the collection “Treasures III”) is a remarkable film dealing with abortion and birth control (in 1913!). Many viewers will be surprised at the generally patriarchal tone given that this film was written and directed by a woman; nevertheless, “Where Are My Children” is well worth seeing.

The Blot (1921) tells the story of two families: one a native-born family, living in relative poverty, led by an academic clergyman; the other an immigrant clan led by a wealthy tradesman. The issues of class pride and jealousy are particularly resonant in this film.

Too Wise Wives (1921) (included in the collection “The Origins of Film”) tells contrasting stories of two couples while illustrating some common attitudes about women in the early 1920s.

While no full biography of Lois Weber is currently in print, we recommend seeking out Anthony Slide’s “Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way In History”, published by Greenwood Press in 1996.

In the Western canon, what has been traditionally defined as art has excluded centuries of traditional women’s arts, such as weaving, quilting, embroidery and appliqué.

It is astonishing to me that, even when women did not have access to art education or patronage and had the responsibility of managing their households and raising their children, there were those who took the time to create complex patterns to weave into cloth and made natural dyes from roots, nuts and flowers to color them. I can only imagine that the desire to use skill and knowledge and create beauty was their motivation.

Inspired by the second wave feminist movement of the 70’s, Miriam Schapiro, a professional artist since 1955, worked to bring recognition to these women artisans. In 1972 Schapiro, then a teacher at the California Institute of the Arts, along with artist Judy Chicago and 21 of their students created an exhibition called Womanhouse to show the history of women’s work and art and how it related to women’s common experience. This was considered controversial by the art establishment but it was a watershed event for Schapiro, bringing her not only new direction and inspiration for her art but insight into herself and a sense of fellowship with all women.

“I felt that by making a large canvas magnificent in color, design, and proportion, filling it with fabrics and quilt blocks, I could raise a housewife’s lowered consciousness.”
Miriam Schapiro

Schapiro created an original genre she called “femage” — collages of fabric scraps, buttons and other trimmings — and helped give rise to the Pattern and Decoration movement. She continued in both her art and consciousness-raising, gaining recognition and awards along the way. Her art career has lasted over 40 years and her pioneering vision both blazed a trail and left a legacy for the artists to follow her.

Additional reading:

Miriam Schapiro : shaping the fragments of art and life
Gouma-Peterson, Thalia

Biographies

Wikipedia – Miriam Schapiro
Clara: Database of Women Artists
Mariam Shapiro: Works on Paper, A Thirty Year Retrospective

1989 interview with Schapiro
Oral history interview with Miriam Schapiro

Images of some of Schapiro’s works
Catalog of links keyed to Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society
Miriam Schapiro: A Retrospective

Info about video of WOMANHOUSE
Women Make Movies