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Art exhibition honoring 21 women who wore collars and changed history | Pro Club Bd

When it comes to wearing chokers, artist Carolyn Marks Johnson hints that there has been a gender battle over the cleavage accessory for centuries. And the women win.

“For men, it’s kind of boring — a symbol of the office, something they have to wear,” she says. “Women use it better because they enjoy it, they look good and it frames the face.”

Her new exhibition at the Heritage Society, Woman, the Spirit of the Universe, features 21 bronze collar sculptures forged in honor of the women who wore them well. The collection took eight years to complete. Were it not for the pandemic, Johnson doubts it would have ended them all.

Topics range from first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt to lesser-known names. Margaret Brent, who immigrated from England in 1638 and became the first known woman lawyer in America, partly inspired the project. Her legacy was immortalized by the American Bar Association Commission in 1991; the late US Representative Barbara Jordan and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg – who also appear in Woman, the Spirit of the Universe – are both recipients of the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.

This trio and their respective connections to the law set Johnson’s creative wheels in motion. “Ruth was maybe the most popular judge we’ve ever had,” she says. “These are all strong ladies who have achieved great and small things.”

“Woman, the Spirit of the Universe”

Where: Heritage Society Museum at Sam Houston Park, 1100 Bagby

When: until September 30th

Details: Tickets $2 and up; erbegesellschaft.org


The artist has lived several lives. In the 1960s she wrote obituaries for the Dallas Morning News; then, after falling in love and marrying a Houstonian, he moved to Bayou City and became a lecturer for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Heritage Society. To be competent in her position, Johnson enrolled at MFAH’s Glassell School of Art, graduating in 2014 with a degree in painting. Today she studies sculpture and is also a retired district judge – hence her main occupation with women lawyers.

“My mother was a seamstress. She supported her family by sewing clothes for our neighbors,” says Johnson. “Once I cut a new hem on a dress she was just finishing.”

A lifelong fascination with fabrics was born. Betsy Ross’ bronze sculpture pays homage to the seamstress who is often credited with sewing the first US flag and to Johnson’s mother.

Another major influence behind the exhibition is Philip Renteria, her late Glassell teacher who taught 2-D design. Johnson acquired one of his paintings during the school’s annual art auction and benefit. He later explained that the mythical artwork was a homage to women and his personal belief that the spirit of the universe was female.

Renteria’s piece is currently housed alongside two of Johnson’s paintings at the Heritage Society Museum as an introduction to Woman, the Spirit of the Universe. There is also a painting by Patrick Palmer of Queen Elizabeth I. The long-reigning monarch was known to wear a ruff-style collar previously worn exclusively by men.

Johnson wants to make it clear that her exhibition is not a critique of the status quo, but a celebration of what women have achieved despite limitations throughout history.

The sculptures by Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth stand side by side. “Harriet Tubman has gotten a lot of attention for the Underground Railroad, and rightly so, but I’ve always felt very close to Sojourner. She saw the situation of suffrage and abolition better than anyone.”

When Nancy Pelosi was first sworn in as Speaker of the US House of Representatives, she invited her grandchildren to the podium to witness the moment. It hit a nerve. “She behaves like a woman when she wields power.”

The Texans also make a strong impression. Joining Jordan is former Governor Ann Richards and NASA astronaut Sally Ride.

A collar, explains Johnson, brings light and softness to the face. “And hid the fact that these were such strong women.”

Pearls can have the same “halo” effect. In recent years, political figures including former First Lady Barbara Bush and Vice President Kamala Harris have made white versions of the shell a part of their signature looks.

When it comes to collars, however, Ginsberg has single-handedly made the trend relevant again.

“Ever since an RBG collar was attached to the bronze sculpture ‘Fearless Girl’ on Wall Street, young women — usually lawyers — have been wearing Ruth Bader Ginsberg pins on their collars,” says Johnson. “She brought it into the 21st century.”

amber.elliott@chron.com

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