Living Work of Art

Ferris Olin/ Photo courtesy Mark Czajkowski

The MacMillan online dictionary defines sabbatical as “A period away from work when… college or university teachers can study, rest, or travel.”

This is a sabbatical year for Rutgers University professor of art history Ferris Olin. Study, check; travel, check. Rest?

On a random week last fall, Dr. Olin had attended 15 meetings after returning from London, Paris and Venice, and has been busy working with colleague Judy Brodsky, planning Fertile Crescent: Contemporary Women Artists of the Middle East Diaspora, a series of exhibits, lectures, screenings, literary events and presentations exploring contemporary Middle Eastern women in society and culture.

Dr. Olin — curator, arts administrator, women’s studies scholar, librarian and, with Brodsky, cofounder of the Institute for Women and Art — will be receiving the National Women’s Caucus for Art 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles Feb. 25. Past recipients have included Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson, Faith Ringgold, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Kay WalkingStick, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono and Ms. Brodsky.

Fertile Crescent aims to do no less than showcase the work of Muslim and other Middle Eastern women artists, filmmakers, and writers, and their contributions to art, literature and film; show how artists, filmmakers and writers help clarify dialogue on contentious issues and provide new perspectives; and stimulate conversation and instill pride in the cultural heritage of New Jersey’s growing population from the Muslim and Middle Eastern diaspora.

The events will take place at venues from New Brunswick to Trenton, including Princeton University Art Museum, Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Public Library, West Windsor Arts Council, and libraries between Princeton and New Brunswick, in fall 2012.

It has grown beyond Dr. Olin’s wildest dreams. “People of all ages will find the broad range of topics engaging, including workshops for young adults,” she says. There will be an exhibition catalog, and a website will go live this month.

While I’m exhausted just reading the scheduled events — the project description alone is 25 pages — Dr. Olin is preparing to embark on a four-week trip to India: first Delhi, then south to Mysore, Bangalore, and other areas where she will explore Chikan embroidery and look at historic sites. As an art historian, Dr. Olin is fluent in Romance languages and German, but when traveling to Thailand, Japan, Korea and China, learns enough words so she can hail a taxi, communicate with bank tellers, and say “hello” and “good-bye” and “the food is very delicious.”

This is her third trip to India, exploring crafts, textiles and NGOs that help women in microdevelopment projects. “I’m always looking at contemporary women artists from places around the world. I like to go and experience, then come back and read,” she says. “And I’ll run into Princeton people there – it’s serendipitous.” She ran into her next-door neighbors at the Venice Biennale in October.

She’ll have a week at home before heading to the West Coast for the Women’s Caucus award, then will receive another award right here in Princeton, the YWCA Tribute to Women in Industry.

Dr. Olin’s collaborative relationship with Ms. Brodsky began in 1976, when Ms. Brodsky was president of the New Jersey chapter, Women’s Caucus for Art, and Dr. Olin was director of Art Libraries for Rutgers. At that time, Dr. Olin had master’s degrees in library science and art history, with a specialization on women and under represented populations. She went on to complete her doctoral dissertation on women art collectors in the U.S.

Together the two women have created one organization after another to promote women, making Rutgers the leading center for study of the Feminist Art Movement.  They founded and directed the Institute for Women and Art, the Feminist Art Project, the Women Artists Archive National Directory and the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists at Rutgers. They have curated many exhibits together, including How American Women Artists Invented Postmodernism: 1970-1975, in 2005. Louise Bourgeois, June Wayne, Betye Saar, Diane Burko, Joan Snyder and Ringgold are among the artists Dr. Olin has exhibited through the Dana Women’s Artist Series.

Dr. Olin and Ms. Brodsky played a leading role in bringing the Women’s Caucus for Art and the Women’s Art Journal to Rutgers and established a legacy planning program for artists. “It takes years and years of conceiving and talking to grow something like this,” says Dr. Olin. “We are both engaged and passionate about what we do. We respond and listen to each other, have the same work ethic, the lines of communication are always open, we’re not afraid to think out of the box and take risks, and one picks up the slack where the other left off.” After all these years, they copy each other on e-mails, and write collaboratively: One begins a draft, the other develops it, and they go back and forth.

Dr. Olin’s Princeton home is filled with artwork she has collected in the past decade, including everything from Faith Ringgold dolls, a Joan Snyder print made at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, a Ben Shahn print inherited from her parents, Judy Brodsky prints and her daughter’s self-portrait. One whole wall of the dining room contains a carved wood doorway to a Burmese temple that Dr. Olin bought at a flea market in Santa Fe. On top of an antique cabinet, a native American pot speaks to a ceramic pot by Hopewell artist Connie Bracci-McIndoe, just as artwork in the exhibits she curates speaks to each other.

Her eye for color and pattern developed while growing up in Ewing. Ferris’s mother was an interior decorator and an aunt was a sculptor who trained at Pratt. “I’m not an artist in the traditional sense – I’m not very creative in knitting or basket making or papermaking. My medium is curating,” says Dr. Olin. She collects textiles from all over the world, and designs the clothing she wears.

“Ferris is… always exquisitely dressed in her extraordinary collection of Eastern textiles,” says Michele Wallace, City College of New York professor and daughter of Faith Ringgold.

“She walks around as a living work of art, dressed in splendid fabrics and eye-catching jewelry,” says Ms. Brodsky. “While pursuing her professional life, Ferris also has a rich personal life.  She adopted two Korean children who are now adults, has studied the culinary arts in Italy, and knows as much about the production of hand-woven textiles in Japan, Thailand, India, or Laos as anyone.”

When I remark on how busy she is even during sabbatical, responding to e-mails in the wee hours, Dr. Olin changes the subject to point out how her colleague, Ms. Brodsky, may be retired, but “is the most fully engaged a person can be.”

Just the preceding day, Dr. Olin recounts, the two met with an artist in Philadelphia about writing a catalog essay for an art salon series, then returned to Princeton for a 5 p.m. meeting about teaching online courses. She and Ms. Brodsky team taught an online course on Gender, Art and Society last spring, and it was so successful they now have adjuncts, curators, gallerists and art historians teaching it.

“It’s a great revenue generator for the Institute,” adds Dr. Olin — her success as a fundraiser is cited in the Women’s Caucus award statement. For Fertile Crescent, she secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation and New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Ms. Brodsky estimates that together, the women have raised millions of dollars. “If Ferris were in the business world, she would have made millions for herself,” says Ms. Brodsky.  “Instead, she has created institutions for the good of women and raised millions for them instead of herself.”

But the day wasn’t over. Dr. Olin met with a colleague about the salon series over dinner, then returned to her home office for follow-up. “That’s just a typical day in my life,” she says.

In her 36 years at Rutgers, this is Dr. Olin’s first full-year sabbatical. “I’m so engaged, it’s hard to get away,” she admits. The only real difference between being on sabbatical is not going to the office every day, and having time to be reflective, without the constant onslaught of phone calls and e-mails. She has time to read more in areas she is working on, and to make studio visits to artists. “I’m still high-energy, but not so frenetic, and have more time for creative drift.”

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One Response to Living Work of Art

  1. Pingback: Fertile Crescent Challenges Stereotypes of Middle Eastern Women | The Artful Blogger

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