Curatorial essay for exhibition at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art: December 10, 2011 – January 15, 2012
Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Agent of Change encourages the viewer to consider the historical and material importance of an individual who created with a true awareness of the impact an artist can make in and out of the art world. Mary Tuthill Lindheim (1912 -2004) integrated her life and artwork in such a way that a simple chronological exhibition layout would fail to capture the inspirational spirit of this incredible Bay Area artist. Therefore, visitors will find the artwork arranged according to the ways Lindheim served as an agent of change. As a fiercely independent woman, as an environmentalist, as an activist for social justice, and as a ceramicist, Lindheim fought against inequality. These four ways in which Lindheim served as an agent of change should be considered lenses through which to view and analyze her work. The four sections of the exhibition overlap in many ways, and the artworks in one section should not be seen as valuable only according to that section’s theme, however, I believe that a consideration of these particular artworks through these particular lenses enriches our understanding of the individual pieces, of the collection of work as a whole, and of Lindheim as an artist.
“I, Mary, am a woman of intense and deep feelings.” Mary Tuthill Lindheim’s sculptures of the female figure and motherhood reflect the experiences of a strong, independent woman growing up in a culture suspicious of such characteristics as unfeminine, but in a family that encouraged such characteristics to flourish. At only 10 years old, Lindheim was given permission to travel on horseback with a family friend for 500 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona. Her father, Ernest Tuthill, was an Episcopal minister whose public stances for worker’s rights and against racism inspired Mary, but embarrassed her mother, Laura Tuthill, who regretted marrying, as she put it, “below herself.” Mary married early, at 16 years old, but the marriage lasted only 2 years because, as Mary explained, they were “incompatible sexually.” Mary had many romantic relationships, none lasting more than 7 years, and two, to brothers, ended tragically when Norvin Lindheim died in 1939 following a routine surgery, and Donald Lindheim, whom Mary married in 1941, was killed during military service in World War II. None of her relationships resulted in childbirth, but after staying with a Native American family in New Mexico while on a months long solo camping trip, Mary was asked to take with her a young girl in the family so as to provide her with a good education. Mary did so, and many years later, when the girl, Yvonne Yazzie, was in her 30s, Mary became her legally adoptive mother. This biographical information sheds a different light on the works included in this section, and one might notice that the female figures, such as Iron Woman , Standing Nude, or even the non-objective Green Goddess depict forms in active poses with strong, precise, confident lines, and a notable weight and volume. They are not lacking traditional notions of feminine beauty, but neither are they damsels in distress. Sculptures depicting a maternal relationship, such as Mother and Child, present a nearly non-objective mother serving as a protective shield, cradling the infant form, yet giving it considerable space and freedom. Source, a stone sculpture of another strong female figure, suggests through its title the concept of woman as the source of life, as a productive artist, or perhaps as “Mother Earth.”
“There is a flow of silent music in stones . . . Pregnant with vibrations of billions of centuries.” Lindheim maintained a great respect for the natural environment throughout her life, and often settled in locations that allowed her to be surrounded by nature. She understood the smallest stones, pebbles, and shells as providing a spiritual connection from one generation to the next. In addition, she acted on behalf of the environment on a political level, forming the Save the Cove committee in 1959. Lindheim moved to Sausalito in 1952 and within a few years got word that a 36 unit apartment building was planned for the Sausalito waterfront. The Save the Cove committee raised $60,000 to buy the lots in question and prevent the construction from moving forward. She was instrumental in maintaining the character of Marin County that many of us now treasure as current residents. It is important, then, while viewing artworks like Sun Vase or Beach Series #1 to see not only the ways Lindheim literally integrates stones and natural forms into her work, but also to remember that Lindheim’s interest in the environment as an artist was linked directly to a level of activism that produced change in her local community.
“Never count the cost of standing up for convictions.” At age 14, Lindheim joined the NAACP and initiated a lifelong fight for social justice. Lindheim met with senators in support of anti-lynching legislation, supported the war effort during World War II, traveled to Sacramento on behalf of veterans’ housing, organized artists against the Vietnam war, and participated in countless other acts of protest against injustice. Lindheim expresses her passion for social justice through her artwork on a decidedly personal level, however, refraining from shocking depictions of lynching or literal representations of Native American genocide. Instead, viewers will find artworks such as Voices of Protest, in which three bird-like figures reach hungrily into the air open-mouthed. Rather than galloping stallions or Greek athletes, Lindheim chooses to depict as voices of protest chirping birds in need of nourishment. She chooses an unassuming group rather than a thunderous single voice or intimidating herd. She seems to understand the importance of protest as necessary no matter one’s position or stature, and encourages her audience to develop a hunger for social justice. Artworks such as Universal Soldier reflect Lindheim’s complicated relationship with the concept of war, having lost a husband to war and been proud of his efforts, but not consistently supportive of war in general. Universal Soldier, made anonymous through abstraction and lacking symbols that might tie the figure to a particular time period, presents a contemplative figure, resting rather than wielding his/her weapon, somewhat unaffected by the bloodied mask pierced by the rod in the soldier’s hand. The title may indicate that the complications of war affect all soldiers, no matter the era, or it may serve as an analogy for the ways we all fight battles.
“The potter, if he loves his own work as a creative art, must find his own way.” Lindheim worked in many and various media, but the artworks in this section are all ceramic. This seems fitting for an exhibition entitled “Agent of Change,” as ceramicists not only transform materials like artists working in other media, but they also work as chemists, exploring the effects of heat on different glazes and different types of clay. Lindheim worked with and developed friendships with artists such as Alexander Archipenko and Antonio Prieto, and viewers may recognize the influence of those artists on Lindheim’s ceramic work, but Lindheim was also innovative on her own, developing new techniques and new glazes, including the heavily textured white matte glaze found on Planter. As with any other aspect of her life, Lindheim became an artistic leader in the Bay Area and beyond, serving as chairperson and then president of the Association of San Francisco Potters; teaching at the California Labor School and the California School of Fine Arts; working on the model and layout for the 2nd Sausalito Art Festival, which broke attendance records that year; founding the Designer-Craftsmen of California; serving as 2nd Vice President and Program Chairperson of San Francisco Women Artists; and acting as juror for Marin Society of Artists and the Sausalito Art Festival, among many others. Lindheim was an artist who fought for progressive change within the art world, and who fought on behalf of artists, regardless of the medium. She was an artist and a person deserving of great celebration.
-Heather Murray, Curator