At the PDNB gallery, artist Jeanine Michna-Bales walks in the footsteps of the female suffragist
Have you ever wished that a heroic soul would come and ride a horse to save the day and protect the rights of people as seen in old Hollywood movies? The rich and deeply nuanced exhibition by artist Jeanine Michna-Bales at the Photographs Do Not Bend gallery and the accompanying publication explore a woman’s, sometimes on horseback, crusade to achieve it.
“Standing Together: Inez Milholland’s Final Campaign for Women’s Suffrage” features photographs of Michna-Bales, a selection of antique props and a beautiful hand-sewn railroad map inviting viewers on a journey recreating the journeys of the suffragette in 1916. A yellow stitched line crosses the map from New York to the West Coast, offering a glimpse of Milholland’s long drive across the country.
The goal was for this outspoken lawyer to influence Western voters on behalf of the National Woman’s Party and build support for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would guarantee women’s suffrage. Outgoing President Woodrow Wilson dragged his feet on the amendment before the 1916 election.
Visually, the exhibition features images taken as Mishna-Bales retraced Milholland’s historic journey across the country with his sister Vida, as well as staged photos and vignettes offering contextual information on times, places and modes of transport. In the publication accompanying the exhibition, the artist writes that “the landscape photographs represent what I imagine Inez saw with her own eyes as she traveled through the Wild West a century ago. The “autochromes” return to history through reconstructions and still lifes of moments of his journey.
A series of grandiose, almost pictorial landscapes recount the panoramas, flora and fauna that Inez Milholland would have encountered along the railway line during his autumn journey. Blue Gem, Washington (2019), a dreamlike image of a tree-lined mountain ridge covered in fog, was taken in the early morning outside of Seattle. The artist says such images gave her a better understanding of Milholland’s experience as she retraced the footsteps of the suffragist. Images such as Arrival (2019) recreate Milholland arriving by train in Chicago with his sister to see their father as they set off on a trip. Michna-Bales says she purchased a single white dress resembling the one worn by Milholland in all available sizes so that she could involve a range of League of Women Voters friends and women in her photo essay.
Mishna-Bales’s research and preparation included reading Milholland’s letters, newspaper clippings, and historical documents. The handwritten notes offered key information about our protagonist’s relationships, including with her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain. His serious health problems, exacerbated by his arduous journey, would cost him his life in November 1916 at the age of 30. Milholland is said to have suffered from pernicious anemia, strep throat and tonsillitis and was taking a prescribed mixture of iron, arsenic and strychnine during his trip. A series of blurry, blurry photographs allude to Milholland’s deteriorating health, the delusional visions brought on by his medication, and the grueling nature of the journey of endless lectures.
Some images, like a solo, slightly off-center Star of hope (2019) crown, also offer important narrative clues for those who may not be familiar with Milholland’s history, or why these landscape images are interspersed with historically recreated moments. The chronological order of the images and details of the various speeches by Milholland in the Stand together The post may be more successful in creating a linear understanding of the terrain covered by the campaign and the personal sacrifices made, as well as giving extra meaning to the woman behind it all through the use of poetic imagery with quotes. from Milholland. Perhaps when the exhibit moves to other locations, it may be possible to include some of these items in the wall labels.
Two black birds sweeping a snow covered field called Special flying envoys, Montana (2019) pays homage to the purpose and camaraderie shared by Inez Milholland and his sister Vida on their epic journey. And a beautiful foreshadowing of Milholland’s death is referenced by a woman wearing that same white dress as she walks in the water by the ocean in Transition (2019). Milholland died in Los Angeles 30 days after collapsing on stage during her last engagement.
Mishna-Bales should be commended for her major commitment to uncovering and recovering the incredible story of Milholland. This research and recovery work is reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s iconic and revisionist Dinner (1974-1979) installation, which literally gave more than 1,000 women a place at the table of history.
As a former publicity manager, Michna-Bales says her desire to marry concepts and images has led to her path as an artist. In reviews of this work and its 2017 From darkness to light: Photographs along the Underground Railroad exhibition and publication, the artist has gained a reputation as a visual historian.
Inez Milholland’s activism and crusade for the right to vote make his story incredibly prescient given recent laws passed by Texas to restrict voting and reproductive rights. Will we see efforts like Milholland’s as people start to rally and protest? Are individuals prepared to endure the pain and sacrifice to effect change? As only time will tell, Mishna-Bales hopes that her work will encourage dialogue and exchange about our humanity and our common rights.
The exhibition: “Stand Up Together: Inez Milholland’s Final Campaign for Women’s Suffrage” runs through November 13 at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, 150 Manufacturing St., Suite 203, in Dallas. Free entry. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call 214-969-1852, email [email protected] or visit pdnbgallery.com.