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I don’t know how many times at conferences over the years librarians have told me how much they look forward to Donna Seaman’s reviews and essays in Booklist. It probably won’t surprise Donna’s many admirers to learn that her first love, along with books, was art. “I’ve been an avid reader since I first puzzled out words on a page,” Donna notes, “but I’ve also always loved art. My mother, Elayne Seaman, is an artist, and I grew up watching her work and attending her openings and those of her artist friends. I love both libraries and museums, and as bookish as I’ve always been, I attended art school instead of college and so spent some years sculpting and painting, even though I knew in my heart that reading and writing were more truly my calling.”
Donna’s reviews of art books have long been one of the special pleasures of reading Booklist, but whatever her subject, her flowing, image-rich sentences are always composed with a painterly precision and texture, layering words upon words like a painter blends colors. How fitting, then, that Donna brings together these two lifetime obsessions, art and literature, in her latest book, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. Always a lover of biographies and a devoted fan of the profile form, as in the New Yorker, Donna “often thought about writing artist profiles, an impulse that became a mission as I noticed, while reviewing art books for Booklist, that many women artists whose work I loved, and who I thought were firmly established, were being left out of art-history surveys. I also came across artists new to me about whom little had been written. A list of potential artists began to take shape.”
And what a multifaceted, fascinating list it is, both in terms of the art and the artists’ lives. Donna explains her selection process this way: “The first criteria was all-out love for their work. The best-known artist in the book, Louise Nevelson, was a favorite of mine as a girl, and I was shocked to find her so neglected after her death. I was immersed in weaving and fiber arts in high school and found my way to Lenore Tawney, who was also an amazingly fine and witty collagist. I learned about the incredibly evocative Chicago artists Gertrude Abercrombie, Christina Ramberg, and Ree Morton, who taught here briefly, when I moved to Chicago. I knew a lot of people at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I met Christina Ramberg, and I thought about writing about her ever since her early death, in 1995. I first saw work by Loïs Mailou Jones at the Milwaukee Art Museum and was instantly intrigued. And a book I reviewed for Booklist introduced me to the immensely gifted and intrepid Joan Brown.”
Like many nonfiction writers who revel in the opportunity to dig deeper, Donna found the research to be the most enjoyable part of writing her book. Asked to tell us a couple of her favorite research experiences, she responded enthusiastically. “I had the writer’s dream experience when I took the train to Springfield, Illinois, and spent two days at the Illinois State Museum, where I was allowed to work my way through flat files and enter the large, basement vault to handle and study original works by Gertrude Abercrombie. It was thrilling to see her paintings so intimately.”
“Another exciting research trip,” Donna continues, “took me to New York City and the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, where the director kindly showed me an array of Tawney’s fiber art pieces and some of the regal clothes she made and allowed me to read a stack of Tawney’s notebooks.” Some of her research, on the other hand, didn’t require road trips. Just down the hall from the Booklist offices sits ALA’s Headquarters Library, where Donna examined microfilm on interlibrary loan from “the treasury that is the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Many a night I sat and rolled through these reels in the library, after the staff kindly showed me how to thread that old-fashioned resource through the hardware that was linked to software that brought the often dusty, dim, crooked images to the screen.”
In the introduction to these seven revealing profiles, Donna notes that, as a student reading art histories, she was often frustrated by photographs of famous artists (Max Ernst, Jackson Pollack, or Mark Rothko) hanging out with one another in bars or posing in studios. Often there was a woman in those photographs, too. But who was she? “The reader,” Donna says, “leans in, curious about her, only to find the tag: ‘identity unknown.’” No one writer can reveal the identities of all the unfairly unknown or too-little-known women artists, but for those willing to do the work, Donna has shown the way.
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