The Legacy of June Wayne: Artist and Change Agent

11/11/2011 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

When you think of visual artists, you expect them to be working from flashes of inspiration, totally expressive, struggling and poor, sometimes even stoned or promiscuous. You don't expect profound thinking, great discipline, political activism, guerrilla training for protégés, and the creation of new techniques. You don't expect someone like June Wayne to be included in the fabulous Pacific Standard Time's gang of artists who, for the most part, hung out together. June didn't hang out, but she was included in the show. She counts a fine artist and even more, a master change agent in the world of art.

In the 1980's, I had the privilege of knowing June, who just died at 93. We had shared our thoughts and actions as feminists. While I was writing and speaking about ways to coach women into the world of work and crack the glass ceiling, June told me about the impossibility of women artists' work being accepted in museums and galleries. She had sent out identical slides, but signed them all with different names-- men's names, women's names, and gender-neutral names, like Lee. In almost every case, responses came to the slides thought to have been created by men, and even some to the ones with neutral names, but none at all to those signed by women. June was outraged about the continuous injustice of the world of male artists who used women, usually nude and on a pedestal, as total objects in so much of their own art, yet refused to consider women painters as equals. It's not very different today. Most women artists cannot make a living supporting themselves from their art, so they teach or take other jobs to support their passion, which the world ignores. Not that it's easy for men either. Something is wrong with our system, which is America's own social invention, which refuses to support working artists. Yet should an artist hit big time, his art becomes a status symbol that the wealthiest people buy, enriching the galleries and auction houses with little (if any) going to the artists themselves.

This comes as no surprise to any of us. I was indoctrinated as an undergraduate in a Fine Arts 140 general art history two semester course at The University of Pennsylvania with the most celebrated Professor Janson who had just written the text that nearly every university used. In it he mentioned only one female artist, Mary Cassatt, and only her paintings of mothers and children. When students asked why there were no other women artists included (and we did, even back then), the professor said that women simply did not have artistic ability. I never forgot that answer and our collective sense of shame. Later, Janson's son updated the book to include what his father was blind to.

Decades later, I remember seeing some of the masterpieces by those great but unacknowledged women artists at a groundbreaking LACMA show, complete with wall texts that explained that most of the women artists from the 1600's on had to sign their work with the name of the their father or brother or husband. As I walked through those aisles, I noticed that the fronts of the blouses of other women visitors were wet from tears, falling as they read of the grotesque secrets of what they had assumed to be great works of art by men. No one spoke, and that silence still reverberates with me. But so little has changed. A recent poll asked people coming from the Whitney Museum to name three living female American artists. Not one educated museumgoer that day could think of anyone besides the deceased Frieda Kahlo from Mexico.

In 1960, June Wayne created Tamarind, named for both the seed and the street where she lived and worked. With this new institute, she revived fine-art printing and lithography, which was nearly extinct in the United States. She accomplished the near impossible: inviting and convincing already famous artists such as Sam Francis, Richard Diebekorn, and Louise Nevelson to collaborate with professional printers. Tamarind Institute's home now is in Albuquerque.

June, a high school dropout, took it upon herself to change the consciousness of young women artists being ignored and remaining ignorant. Gilah Yellin Hersh, artist and Professor of Art and Design at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was one of the eight speakers at June's memorial service. She recounted joining June's first six-week seminar for twenty young female artists in order to learn the business of art when no such course existed anywhere. She recalled the benefit of being educated and coached by June, who became a missionary for the lives of these women. In turn, such information has been slowly included in higher education's curriculum for the business side of art -- strategies for submission to and negotiation with galleries and museums. Over the years, Gilah witnessed June as a pioneer in organizing feminist artist collectives, such as the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, which became a model for many other cities.

June Wayne left us so much more than her unique body of work, depicting everything from the highly personal portraits of herself and her mother, to magisterial French tapestries, to the great mysteries of DNA and outer space. She brought lithography to us and, even more, she created an army of protégés whose lives she has transformed. In addition to Gilah Hersh, seven other significant people spoke at June's memorial: Andrea Rich, Executive Vice Chancellor of UCLA and Emerita President and Director of LACMA; Paula Holt, former President of The International Women's Forum; Ruth Weisberg, Artist and Professor at USC; Leah Lehmbeck, Associate Curator of the Norton Simon Museum; Cynthia Burlingham, Director of the Grunwald Center and Deputy Director of Collections at the Hammer Museum (where the service was held); Ariane Junah Claire, June's granddaughter; and Larry Workman, Director of The June Wayne Collection. They each recalled their personal and unique relationships with June, but each one also attested to the great and curious span of her art, and to the seeds of her expansive imagination, diligent research, and constant courage to change what needed to be changed.

I'd like to leave you with June Wayne's own words, which were printed on the program at the memorial: "I think that freedom is always at risk. I think artists like everybody else need freedom. I think if we have any obligation at all, it is the obligation to keep freedom intact: to allow people to develop decently and express themselves well."