On Exhibit: Artifacts, artwork tell stories of these women

“Tell Her Story: New Acquisitions” is at the Albany Institute of History & Art

Categories: Art, Entertainment, Life & Arts

In photos: Left, Clara Harris Rathbone (1834-1883), photograph by John Goldin, c. 1865. Right: Evening Coat and Gown made by Anabel Heath, c. 1964, for Athena V. Lord.

A typewriter doesn’t just help authors churn out stories; it also gives away clues about the life of the writer.  

At least that’s the case in “Tell Her Story: New Acquisitions” at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

The exhibition combines artifacts and artwork from a variety of women around the greater Capital Region. All of the featured pieces have been acquired by the Institute in the last four years and curator Diane Shewchuk felt that with the centennial of women’s suffrage, 2020 would be the perfect time to bring these stories together. 

“I wanted to represent everything from the 1700s to the present day. So I ended up with 26 stories [spanning from] an 18th-century poet to a factory worker who works at Extreme Molding in the Watervliet Arsenal complex,” Shewchuk said.  

The exhibit begins with artwork from local artists like Dana Matthews, whose vibrant green and red piece called “The Carrion Cactus Flower” commands one wall. Matthews was featured in the most recent “Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region” exhibition and her work represents some of the ways that women are moving photography forward today. 

On the other side of the room, the exhibit goes back in time with a sweeping photo of portraitist Samantha Littlefield Huntley. It shows her at work painting Martin Glynn, a politician who eventually became the governor of New York State. 

“Samantha Huntley was one of the first people to have an exhibition in this building when we reopened in 1908. So it was important for me to have something of Samantha’s in the show,” Shewchuk said. 

The Institute has in its collection the easel, as well as the tapestry and the portrait of Glynn featured in the photo. Huntley supported herself as a portrait painter throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, painting some of the top dignitaries around the country. She often worked out of her studio in Albany, though she traveled all over the country. 

Not too far away, the exhibition turns its focus to history rather than art with the mysterious and tragic story of Clara Harris Rathbone. 

“One of the other notorious stories is about a woman who was at the wrong place at the right time to become famous,” Shewchuk said. 

Clara and her husband, Henry, were both Albany natives and friends with President Abraham Lincoln’s family. On April 14, 1865, the couple was invited to attend a play at Ford’s Theatre with the Lincoln family. Henry and Clara were sitting in the same box when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. 

“This Albany couple witnessed everything,” Shewchuk said. 

Booth also stabbed Henry in the arm and the latter was taken home while Clara remained with Lincoln’s wife overnight. The doctors who were caring for Henry and Lincoln sent notes back and forth throughout that evening. Clara kept the notes, which are featured in the exhibit and contain updates about Lincoln’s condition. According to one expert, the notes are the last known documents related to the Lincoln administration.  

“The tragic part of this story is that this is [also] a case of domestic abuse,” Shewchuk said. 

In 1883, the family had moved to Hanover, Germany, where Henry was working as a diplomat. 

On Dec. 23 of that year, he killed Clara and attempted suicide. 

“We don’t know why. There’s a lot of speculation. He was a Civil War veteran and witnessed a lot of horrors. . . . He also couldn’t stop Lincoln from being shot,” Shewchuk said. 

In one of the exhibit cases, there are family scrapbooks as well as Clara’s diary from the year before she was killed. The diary is ominously opened up to the last entry, dated December 19th, 1883. 

While some research has been done surrounding this story, and many pieces of historical fiction have been written based on it, Shewchuk said there’s more to discover.

“There’s so much to learn from this story. I have new clues to gain even more knowledge about this story,” Shewchuk said. 

Beyond Clara’s story, the exhibition delves into pioneering women like Elaine Drooz, who was the women’s programming director at radio station WABY (“The Voice of Albany”) in 1948. She led programs like “The Bookmark,” “Mask and Wig” and “The Psychologist’s Notebook.” Throughout her career, which later took her to WROW, she kept track of her career and accomplishments in scrapbooks. 

“They really create a snapshot. She was interviewing people about what to do with displaced people after the war. Then on another segment, she’d talk about Frigidinners,” Shewchuk said.  

Frigidinners were some of the first frozen single-serve meals, which became popular in the 1950s. 

Next to Drooz’ scrapbooks stands a golden yellow coat and floral sleeveless gown worn by Athena Vavuras Lord to the Institute’s 1964 Champagne Ball.

Lord is an author and community activist who was recently recognized as a Literary Legend by the Albany Public Library. On exhibit is her typewriter, a green and taupe 1953 Smith Corona which was possibly used to write some of her children’s books such as “Pilot for Spaceship Earth: R. Buckminster Fuller” or “A Spirit to Ride the Whirlwind.”

The exhibit also includes snapshots of women in the workforce, with a photo of hundreds of young women working at a local collar factory in the early 1900s next to a photo of a woman working at Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute circa 1950. Viewers get a modern-day perspective with two dresses from Ursula of Switzerland, a woman-owned company based in Waterford, and with baby products from Extreme Molding. 

The company, founded by Lynn Momrow-Zielinski and Joanne Moon Duncan, produces silicone and plastic healthcare products for infants and women like the popular Baby Banana Training Toothbrush and Teether. It operates out of the Watervliet Arsenal campus; a campus which has produced weapons since the War of 1812. 

“I love that contrast,” Shewchuk said. 

“Telling Her Story,” presented by Bank of America, uses objects to explore narratives both historic and current that many visitors may not otherwise have been privy to. The exhibition is up through Sunday, June 7 at the Albany Institute of History & Art. For more information visit albanyinstitute.org

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