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Exhibit showcases suffragists' struggle for 'Safe Ground'

Exhibit showcases suffragists' struggle for 'Safe Ground'

'I was more determined than ever to learn about the suffragists so I could tell their story'
Exhibit showcases suffragists' struggle for 'Safe Ground'
The exhibit “Truth is the Only Safe Ground to Stand Upon" is on view at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie.
Photographer: Indiana Nash

CANAJOHARIE — The room remained quiet, as museum-goers milled about, stopping at each piece. But every once in awhile, someone let out a soft “Wow.”

“I wonder what kept their fire going,” said Pat Edwards, one visitor at the Arkell Museum. 

She was referencing the portraits of suffragists featured in the museum's exhibit “Truth is the Only Safe Ground to Stand Upon.” 

The portraits were created by Cooperstown artist Christine Heller in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New York state. The 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920.

“She was very much inspired by the election,” said Sue Friedlander, the director of the Arkell Museum, said of the 2016 campaign. The outpouring of women supporting and working on the Hillary Clinton campaign prompted Heller to think back a hundred years or so ago. 

“That’s when I began to think about the women who worked to get women the vote. And after the election, I was more determined than ever to learn about the suffragists so I could tell their story,” Heller said in an email to the Gazette. 

Heller gathered stories from the New York State Historical Association and from a slew of books from a Cooperstown Graduate Program Suffrage reading group. She narrowed her focus to women who fought for the vote specifically in New York state and worked from old photographs and portraits (some that weren’t in the best condition) to capture the likeness of each suffragette. 

“They look so luminous,” remarked another museum-goer, upon entering. 

The portraits seem to play around with the adage “the eyes are windows to the soul.” Each portrait — done on mylar with artist crayon — is loosely sketched. The hair and the other features are done in a light shad and look almost wispy, but the eyes are dark and captivate the viewer. 

“I worked hard to convey the determination, perseverance and courage of the women in their eyes and in the set of their mouths,” Heller said. 

While walking through the exhibit, some viewers wondered how the suffragists were able to keep up the fight for the vote. The movement lasted around 70 years and, according to Heller, it was a tough fight. 

“I feel that without the conviction of the suffragists for 70 years, we might not have the vote today. ... It was never a sure thing that we would get the vote. It was a rough, tough and sustained fight,” Heller said.   

There were many setbacks along the way: Many women were against the movement and called themselves the “antis.” 

“Many of the anti-suffragist women believed that women should have equal pay for equal work and believed in property rights, custody rights, divorce laws but they didn’t want to enter the rough male sphere of politics, and commerce, outside the home which they thought would happen if they got the vote,” Heller said. 

The exhibit gives a glimpse into these struggles and how they were overcome.  

“It’s a different kind of exhibit for us. We’re not usually lucky enough to have a living artist on display,” Friedlander said. 

The exhibit will be up until Sept. 3

While you’re there ...

In celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the groundbreaking on the Erie Canal, the exhibit “Mingling in the Waters: 200 years of the Erie Canal” brings together a collection of portraits, landscapes and books which depict the the story behind the canal and all the changes it brought. On display through Sept. 3.

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