Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut—the first city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy—I knew few professionals. The women in my parent’s circle were housewives, waitresses, and secretaries, and those men who weren’t disabled were truck drivers, salesmen, or construction workers. I never heard anyone described as a community organizer.
I moved to Manhattan in the 1970s, a scholarship student at New York University. My program of study mandated an internship and as a sophomore I was assigned to work at the Metropolitan Council on Housing. There, I met a petite, white-haired activist named Jane Benedict.
Benedict was passionate about the need for affordable housing and fearlessly stood up to pompous politicians and greedy realtors. Unlike the beaten-down women of my childhood, Benedict radiated determination and her example offered a close encounter with lived feminism. I was immediately smitten, having found both a role model and a political niche.
It’s been less than a year since Benedict’s death at age 93, leaving something of a void in the tenant’s rights movement. What’s more, while there have been several organizational tributes to her, her years of dogged work have received scant public recognition. This reality made an email I received in early October especially sweet. The message told me about the creation of a 3300-square-foot mural, “When Women Pursue Justice,” on a Bedford-Stuyvesant wall. The sender, Met Council’s current Executive Director, wrote that the mural depicted 90 American women: nine 19th century ancestors and 81 20th and 21st century progressive activists—including Benedict.
The mural can best be described as breathtaking. Thirteen women are rendered in seven-by-eight foot panels: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day; teacher/writer/organizer Angela Davis; feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; The Guerilla Girls; anarchist Emma Goldman; civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer; farm worker leader Dolores Huerta; unionist Clara Lemlich; writer Audre Lorde; Native American activist Wilma Mankiller; and suffragist Alice Paul. Other women, including Cindy Sheehan, Pacifica radio’s Amy Goodman, actors Uta Hagen and Ruby Dee, Eleanor Roosevelt and attorney Sarah Weddington—while visually smaller—join Benedict in a colorful celebration of female militance.
The painting is the brainchild of artist Janet Braun-Reinitz and arts administrator Jane Weissman. Colleagues since 1987, the pair is presently working on a book about New York City murals.
“We were writing about the Pathfinder mural and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a collaboration of women, about women,” says Braun-Reinitz. Artists met to discuss the idea. “We told everyone that we had no money but we had a plan in which each woman would create a panel, in whatever style, demonstrating her take on the particular person. We’d put it up and I’d create a design for the piece to fit into,” she continues.
Still, getting from idea to execution was not seamless. “We knew we wanted the mural to be in Shirley Chisholm’s district,” says Weissman. “When I saw the wall at Nostrand and Greene, I said, ‘Janet, there it is.’ She looked and said, ‘In your dreams.’ It was the side of a private house overlooking a New York City Housing Authority garden.”
After continued searching turned up nothing suitable, they summoned their courage and returned to the building. “A woman was coming out and we introduced ourselves and asked if she knew the owners,” Weissman recalls. “She went upstairs and brought Timotheus Ballard down. He said his mother was at work and his father was in North Carolina, but, yes, they might be interested. We finally reached them, sent them a proposal, and they agreed to speak to us. That was February 2005.”
Once the Ballards heard the details, they gave the women permission to paint the mural. “We gave them no money,” says Braun-Reinitz. “But once we pay off our expenses, if there’s any extra, they’ll get some.”
Thirteen professional artists, five art students from the High School of Fashion Industries, and 30 volunteers worked full-time for two months on the project. Each artist chose whom to paint and how to paint her. “There are a lot of fabulous women who aren’t known for being in the streets,” says Braun-Reinitz. “Toni Morrison, for example, isn’t on the wall. We wanted women who’d risked it all for what they believed. We also decided no one would go up because she’d done something first. That’s a different mural.”
“This was not going to be a historically comprehensive term paper,” Weissman adds.
Some artists utilized a brush; others, like Lady Pink, used spray. Braun-Reinitz and Kristi Pfister painted the dramatic center figure, an armor-clad Shirley Chisholm, on a horse, decorated with Kente cloth and African symbols. Their representational portrait sits alongside impressionist images.
Despite the array of styles, Weissman says that community feedback has been “quite grand. People tell us how they campaigned for Chisholm when she first ran. Others tell us they see their role models and mentors up there. Two guys from Con Ed saw us working and gave us money. Some stop and ask questions.”
Yet despite the accolades, both Weissman and Braun-Reinitz admit that the project is meant to advance a political agenda. “It’s a celebratory mural and people feel good when they see it. But it’s also true that while it celebrates what we’ve done, it reminds us how much organizing and political work still remains to be done for women’s equality and social justice to become real,” Weissman says.
Indeed. Weissman and Braun-Reinitz believe that art repairs the world, nurturing the spirit that makes social activism possible. As for Jane Benedict, I envision her smiling, pleased to be in the company of so many savvy, audacious women.
"When Women Pursue Justice" is located on the corner of Nostrand and Greene Avenues.
Drawings for individual panels will be on display at the following locations:
Brooklyn Public Library, GrandArmyPlaza, Youth Wing, February 1 –March 26, 2006. [718.230.2100]
St. Joseph’s College, 245 Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn, NY April 6 -27, 2006. [718.399.0068]
Bread and Roses Gallery 1199, 310 West 43rd Street, NY, NY 10036, April 27-May 31, 2006. [212.582.1890]
Despite raising more than $30,000 from individual donors and foundations, and obtaining in-kind contributions from numerous businesses, Weissman and Braun-Reinitz need $25,000 to pay outstanding mural expenses. They are also seeking funds to create an exhibition catalog. Contributions can be sent to New York Foundation for the Arts, 372 DeKalb Avenue, #4A, Brooklyn, NY11205. Include a notation that the check is for Artmakers.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader