Artists and Artisans

Important Collections Continue to Grow
From a journal of Judy Chicago. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFrom a journal of Judy Chicago. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library

Manuscript collections at the library grow all the time. Sometimes they expand with the addition of just a few items, sometimes with several cartons. Sometimes material is added to a collection every year; sometimes decades pass between additions. Addenda bring collections up-to-date, add rich detail, and fill in gaps. Among the collections that grew this year are those of the artists Irene Rice Pereira and Judy Chicago and the North Bennet Street Industrial School, whose graduates include jewelry and furniture makers, bookbinders, and potters.

Irene Rice Pereira

In 1979, the Irene Rice Pereira Foundation gave the library 10+ cartons of the artist’s papers. Pereira had died in 1971, in Spain, alone and burdened by a sense that her work was underappreciated. This past spring, the library acquired two more cartons of Pereira’s papers, which fill in details of her story and extend it to the early 1980s, when a new generation of artists, scholars, critics, curators, and feminists in the vanguard of reclaiming women’s history were rediscovering her work.

Born in 1902, Pereira immersed herself in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village in the mid-1920s and embraced the European art avant-garde—Bauhaus, Cubism, and Constructivism. In the 1930s, her paintings began to gain recognition. At first, she signed her work I. Rice Pereira, because, she said, of the discrimination that beset women in the art world. With an exhibit of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1953, she became one of the first women to have a retrospective at a major New York museum.

Painting by Irene Rice Pereira. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPainting by Irene Rice Pereira. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In the late 1950s, Pereira’s work fell into disfavor, and she began to have difficulties with gallery owners and museum directors. Her letters and notebooks in the recent addenda reveal an increasing paranoia. Pereira wrote that her telephone was being tapped, her mail tampered with, and her art intentionally suppressed. Also detailed in the addenda is confirmation that her work would again be celebrated, but after her death. Pereira’s works now hang at the Hirschhorn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and other major art museums across the country. The library is fortunate to own two of Pereira’s paintings, one on public display.

North Bennet Street Industrial School

From 1968 to 1976, the North Bennet Street Industrial School (NBSIS) donated to the library more than 80 linear feet of records covering 1880 to 1973. These records chart the growth of what began in 1879 as a modest charity serving the needs of recent immigrants in Boston’s North End to include a nursery school and kindergarten, job skill training classes, social clubs, a lending library, and a gymnasium. Named the North Bennet Street Industrial School in 1885, this bustling settlement house helped thousands of immigrants transition to American life. Readers of Anita Diamant’s recent novel The Boston Girl (Scribner, 2015) will easily recognize the NBSIS, the school’s Saturday Evening Girls, and their famous pottery, which are central to this North End story. Vocational classes in watch repair, cabinet and jewelry making, printing, and piano tuning were added for returning veterans after World War I and expanded after WWII.

The addition of 22 feet of NBSIS records in July includes board minutes, catalogs, photographs, and administrative records that fill in gaps and carry the story forward. By the 1970s, immigrant families in the North End were being replaced by middle-income professionals. City, state, and federal programs were in place to serve the poor, and NBSIS had become primarily a center for training in fine crafts. In 1982, the board voted to drop “Industrial” from the school’s name and reorganize as an accredited trade and technical school, but the North Bennet Street School, still in the North End, continues to train skilled craftswomen and men whose beautiful work recalls the school’s past.

Judy Chicago

In July, the feminist artist, educator, and writer Judy Chicago sent the library the first nine volumes of the diaries she began keeping in 1971. More will arrive in batches until they reach the 50-year mark, when Chicago plans to stop writing. These first volumes cover 1971 to 1980—extremely important years in Chicago’s life and work—and they are already open to researchers. Her diaries join Chicago’s large and rich collection of papers, photographs, audio and video tapes, needlework, and mixed media, which began with a core group of papers in 1996 and has grown with addenda to more than 200 linear feet.

When the first diary begins, Chicago had already been politically active for several years and had begun to explore issues of sexuality in her work and in the women’s art courses and programs she pioneered. Her first book, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist (Doubleday, 1975), chronicled her efforts to find her own identity. Chicago was strongly influenced by the historian Gerda Lerner, whose papers are also at the library and who argued that women who continued to be ignorant of their history would always struggle for self-awareness. Chicago decided to embark on the enormous and enormously provocative collaborative work The Dinner Party, which took five years (1974–1979) to complete, a process chronicled in the diaries. The next group of Chicago’s diaries will cover the years of her subsequent large collaborative work, The Birth Project.

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