Empowering Women Through Art: An Interview with Betty LaDuke
by Diane Leon Ferdico
Most people travel with a laptop and cell phone to stay connected to the world. Not so with artist, activist, Betty LaDuke. LaDuke stays connected with people around the world through art. She transforms what she sees and how people see themselves with an 11×14 inch sketch book and long, black stylus tip pen. In a recent conversation Betty LaDuke had returned from a trip to Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania. April 28 May 11, 2006. As with all her trips during her life as a global artist, she sees art as a form of activism. What she does is magical. Her art captures the people, culture, social and political issues in remote areas of the world.
Since 2003 LaDuke has been traveling with Heifer International, a humanitarian assistance organization who helps millions of people in 128 countries move towards independence and self-reliance through livestock, training. On this most recent trip Heifer's agenda was integrated agricultural products, HIV focused projects, and Micro enterprises.
In LaDuke's visit to a remote village in Zimbabwe she was amazed to see a lifestyle that hasn't changed for centuries. Without running water or electricity the people lacked the basics to survive in the 21st century. What did impress LaDuke was how the role of women had changed in Zimbabwe. Tererai Trent, an employee of Heifer, came from the Zuipani Village in Zimbabwe and raised five children after her husband died of aids. She was now looked upon as a woman empowered. Tererai was able to get an education and return to her village. LaDuke said, She often repeated, Tinogona which means it is achieved, you can achieve, I can achieve, it is achievable. This village represented a lifestyle and symbol of how millions of others throughout the world live. Everyone wants and needs to be able to provide for themselves, family, have medical care and an education. Heifer International provided villages like this one with help. They created fresh water wells, education and clothing.
LaDuke was invited by Heifer International to conduct one of her famous workshops. LaDuke states, The importance of these workshops is to give the people a voice to their social issues. The Heifer staff had never seen LaDuke conduct one of them. As she unpacked the heavy paper and cardboard, along with black pens and started to hand them out to the children, she noticed the entire village of 125 men, women and children were enthusiastic to do art.
What LaDuke does to create a nurturing environment is to show the villagers color postcards of her own work and drawings from other people who had attended the numerous workshops conducted throughout Africa and Ecuador. People identify with the images they saw because the need to work the land and help their families was universal. For example, in one of the images she showed a woman who had drawn large hands that were used as a symbol to help people after an earthquake. In relationship to the large hands extended to help was a small head on the figure. This impressed the Zimbabwe villagers. Soon they began drawing how they worked the land and how they also used their ands to feed themselves and their families. LaDuke sees her art as a challenge. These workshops are a vehicle for communication and how to learn from seeing other images. It inspires and gives a voice to people to show what is important to them through art.
Heifer International has helped with the HIV crisis and made a difference in the way women have been perceived. They created sex workshops where women of the village come with their children. They also offer them a way to become a productive part of the community and that gives them dignity. Heifer also provides them a piece of land for gardening projects. They learn basic skills and how to become traders. They make a wax floor polish from a plastic cornmeal bags, milk cartons and candle wax all of which they trade for a retail price. Heifer educates the women to go into night clubs and speak with other women about the spread of aids. They go into high density places to educate other women. It makes them independent and gives them a sense of pride. The women cannot measure their success in terms of money, but he sense of dignity they now have.
Art for social change evolved for LaDuke over the years. She says, It's all a matter of process. My role models were African(Americans artists, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, who I was introduced to while attending an interracial camp sponsored by the International Workers Order in New Jersey as a child. Sharing their works and seeing how artists could respond to the community had an impact on me. It reflected the images of people in social formats.
She has always painted, but in the process of completing her BA at the California State University in Los Angeles and master's she took a printmaking course. She recalls, At the time I was living in a whole different living situation. Printmaking was wonderful. I loved the etching process. Since then I have my own etching press. Her multicultural images circulate the world.
Later this response to view people in other cultures was particularly important for women. With LaDuke it started when she began teaching at the Southern Oregon State College in Ashland in 1964. Prior to that I lived in Los Angeles and became aware of the College Art Association and other organizations. I came from an urban background, the Bronx. I had seen women's strength through art. However, Oregon at that time was banning Of Mice and Men. I was involved in Civil Rights and Voter's registration. I had a growing sense of awareness and I wanted to deal with that in my art. Going to these organizations I became aware of women of color and their struggle, plus my love of travel made me evolve as a painter who portrayed the diversity of women around the world.
For example, LaDuke remembers in the 1980s in Latin America. She was conscious of the political protests and social changes happening. I interviewed women. It was important when I met women that they knew I was an artist. I would show them other sketches and paintings made in order to establish a base of credibility and one based in trust.
The use of images of women in LaDuke's work came from other artists, I learned a lot and was inspired by other women artists from the United States and from the countries she visited. It was a growing experience. I valued their insights and learned to appreciate women who were self(taught. I also listened to their stories because this was their motivation to create. Telling their own stories was vital to understanding their art.
It's not just the images in LaDuke's work that is impressive, but her vibrant colors. Her style developed over the years. One can spot a LaDuke anywhere. Her strong color began as a cultural explosion, especially in India with their color and texture. She loved the brilliant designs of the Kuna Indians, native South American people of San Blas Islands in the Panama. The painters of Haiti folk art and patterns emerged into her own style of art. Even going back to her childhood growing up in New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Modern Museum of Art were an influence. Artists such as Van Gogh and Marc Chagall and later Georgia O'Keeffe made an impression.
LaDuke feels the role art plays in advocating social change is tangible and intangible. She believes it is a form of empowerment. 'Art is an outlet in their community. It becomes a growth of solidarity among women and shows they are not alone. It is an accumulation of care and respect as women in society share their story. That is very important.
LaDuke as a mentor for art as a form of activism says, There is no need for travel, if you want to help people you carry your sketchbook and pen and go into any local shelter in your community and help. The driving force is to find the things that are meaningful to you in your community whether it is unemployment and women who need to learn office skills, or disease, the key thing is to find the issues that will bring consolation.
From 1964 to 1994 as an art professor at Southern Oregon State University in Ashland, with regard to her students, the challenge was how do I take students from Oregon and broaden their world view? Her goal was to show them there is no one definition of good art. We all have a way of expressing ourselves. It is a learning experience.
Over the years the role of women has changed. The word LaDuke uses to sum it up is empowerment. In villages what has changed is the role of women and family. Women are the ones who produce the food for their families. They are the ones who need to be informed about agriculture. Years ago this information was given to the men, but today it is the women who are being educated about the land and how to live off it.
Feminist cultural changes are also noticeable. In 1994-5 when she traveled to Zimbabwe she noticed the famous stone sculptures were created by men. She asked the local museum, Are there any women sculptures? at the time it was mostly men and only four or five women who worked in stone. On this trip there was a festival and it dealt with social issues of the women. What had emerged was a larger consciousness. Art is now used as a way to deal with the social messages. All the women spoke proudly about their work. Women have always created strong crafts and they used cloth works that told their stories. LaDuke was fascinated with the way they work the designs and images. The women used Sadza, a corn based mixture on the cloth to draw. This method was introduced to them in 1994 by a German who helped with a workshop.
When LaDuke travel and absorbs the culture she responds to the issues of local people. Since 2003 traveling with Heifer International she has visited Rwanda and Uganda. She was very impressed with Heifer's response to the issues of the local people.
She has created a series of paintings called, Dreaming Cows. It revolves around a family of five children who was given one cow that gave them milk to nourish them, milk to sell that in turn bought the children clothes and shoes. Her paintings come from that experience. That is her challenge. To see how people live in their situation and create work in response to that.
In LaDuke's travels to Latin America, Ecuador and Peru, Eastern Europe, Cambodia and Viet Nam she gleans the diversity of world cultures and how they adapt to the environment and the different animals that sustain their living conditions. Her work has been exhibited at the United Nations. One of her series represents visits to 14 African nations, African Myth, Magic and Reality feature paintings and etchings. Besides original paintings works are available as giclee prints, note cards, videos and books.
Betty LaDuke sums of what her art work achieves. I share and comment on local traditions, I cross ethnic lines and everyone shows a respect for my work.
Her work embodies a powerful energy. Its important art because of the lives it touched from the moment LaDuke takes her pen on a blank sketch page to a finished series of oil paintings or etchings. She has used her art as a way to empower and enrich the lives and concerns of Third World woman. Betty LaDuke continues to stay connected in a way that really matters.
Dreaming Cows Exhibition
September 1, 2006 - Long Island Children's Museum-II, NY
North Dakota Art Gallery, Association
November 1, 2006 - Feinstein Center, University of Rhode Island-II
Gumtree Museum of Art, Celebrating Womens' Creative Hands and Spirits
January 1, 2007 - Staten Island Children's Museum-ll, NY
Schattenn Gallery, Woodruff Library
September 1, 2007 Waterloo Center for the Arts