When Virginia Historical Society (VHS) Exhibition Designer Andrew Gladwell met Helen McGehee Umaña (known professionally as Helen McGehee) for the first time at a meeting organized by a mutual friend, he expected to talk to her about doing an exhibition based on her career as a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. But Helen […]
When Virginia Historical Society (VHS) Exhibition Designer Andrew Gladwell met Helen McGehee Umaña (known professionally as Helen McGehee) for the first time at a meeting organized by a mutual friend, he expected to talk to her about doing an exhibition based on her career as a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. But Helen McGehee deflected the attention from her work and suggested Gladwell incorporate art from her family—three previous generations of women whose talent is lesser known.
After seeing the wealth of material Helen had in her personal collection painted by her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother, Gladwell realized the VHS could not pass up an opportunity to open an art exhibition that tells the story of the family’s creative past.
A Creative Dynasty: Four Generations of Virginia Women, which opens at the Society on August 16, 2008, is a unique combination of history and art, women’s and family history, and the presentation of fine arts and performance art. The exhibition concerns a century of artistic accomplishment by Julia Anne (Morrison) Blount (1831−1877); her daughter, Sallie Lee (Blount) Mahood (1864−1953); her daughter, Helen Gray (Mahood) McGehee (1892−1980); and her daughter, Helen Gray (McGehee) Umaña (b. 1921).
“Through the work in this show, visitors will see how women’s roles in society have changed,” said Gladwell, exhibition curator. “Each successive generation was afforded opportunities for greater success.”
This exhibit features more than thirty paintings, portraits, photographs, sculpture, and film clips. Most of the material has not been seen for 20 or 30 years, and some of the art has never been displayed before in public.
Julia Anne Blount took up painting out of necessity to support herself and her daughter after her husband was shot. Sallie Lee Mahood studied art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and in Paris, and became a successful portrait artist, painting notable Virginians such as Dr. Edward Christian Glass and George Morgan Jones.
After attending Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Helen McGehee became an accomplished miniaturist and orchestra musician. Her daughter, Mrs. Umaña (known as Helen McGehee), was a renowned modern dancer and choreographer and was a founding member of the Juilliard School of Dance, serving on the faculty there from 1951 to 1984.
“My favorite items in this exhibition are the portraits that family members painted of each other,” Gladwell said. “It is interesting to see how the women interpreted their relatives through art.”
These stories of four generations of Virginia female artists and examples of their artistic achievements in painting, the graphic arts, music, and dance will be presented at the VHS in A Creative Dynasty: Four Generations of Virginia Women until January 17, 2009.
Educators who work at Virginia schools may visit the VHS to see the exhibition free of charge during the month of August, and the museum is always free to patrons on Sundays. Helen McGehee, who lives in Lynchburg, will be at the Society on September 25th to present a noontime Banner Lecture titled “To Be a Dancer: Helen McGehee on Modern Dance.”
McGehee will offer the same advice to the VHS audience in her talk as she did in a 1960s film produced by the Martha Graham Dance Company, saying, “I hope that each person here will find something in your life which is as significant for you as dancing is for me.”
For more information, please call (804) 358-4901 or visit www.vahistorical.org.
– The information above was provided by Jennifer Mason at the VHS.