Mary Beth Edelson: Small Paintings and Drawings with Various Themes

Throughout her career Edelson made numerous small paintings and drawings with themes that connect to her other creative practices. Some of these examples include plans for projects such as the "Goddess Picture Book" concept from 1975 in which she outlines her plans to include “300 images of the Goddess in her many guises and sacred ritual objects.” This sketch also explains her ideas to perform rituals in locations to which she would travel and her wish to collaborate with an historian or art historian. 

Litergy Transitions, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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Other drawings are sketches for different works or performances such as "Liturgy Transitions: Ritual Movements" (1977). This lays out Edelson’s intentions, movements, actions, props, and sounds for group ritual performances with a note indicating that this was to be performed with women in Chico and women’s studies students in San Jose, both in California. Documents such as these highlight Edelson’s working process and intentions and form a vital part in the study and understanding of the artist’s work.

Girls Night Out, Mary Beth Edelson, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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These three drawings are indicative of some of the musings found in the numerous small drawings in this 10 x 12-inch format that are rarely seen in exhibitions. "Girls Night Out" is a spirited and lively drawing of women dancing as a flying goddess looks on.

Self Portrait in the Carribean with Punk Hair Cut by Mary Beth EdelsonThe Feminist Institute

"Self Portrait in the Caribbean with Punk Hair Cut is unique in that Edelson rarely drew herself. Rather, photographic-based images of her body were integral to her private and public performances.

Sketches of Fish Dream Healing Arts Ears Licked Clean and Having Seen Too Much (1985) by Mary Beth EdelsonThe Feminist Institute

These works, however, provide examples of the artist’s style of drawing, a practice she continued alongside the diverse range a media and approaches she used over the decades.

Trick or Treat: More Big Hearted Babes (1978) by Mary Beth EdelsonThe Feminist Institute

Baubo and Sheela-Na-Gig

Many of Edelson’s works contain images of Baubo, Sheela-Na-Gig, Medusa, Venus, snakes, and movie stars, themes found in many of these 10 x 12-inch pieces. Edelson turns to the figures of the Sheela-Na-Gig and Baubo beginning in the 1970s, a moment when many feminists sought out alternative sources of power and spirituality that reflected not only an alternative to western religious structures but also spiritual histories in which women held significant positions and power. 

One Blue Eye Eager Beaver, Mary Beth Edelson, 1978, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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"One Blue Eye, Eager Beaver" (1978), "Trick or Treat" (1978), and "Three Muses" from the "Tricksters Night Out" series (1978) include images of the Sheela-Na-Gig, a figure found on the British Isles, especially in Ireland, as stone carvings depicted as female, crouching in a wide-kneed position and exposing her genitals.

Three Muses: Tricksters Night Out series, Mary Beth Edelson, 1978, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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Located on churches, bridges, castles, and walls of dwelling places in country settings dating to the Middle Ages, the Sheela-Na-Gig is associated with fertility powers and linked with life after death, and served as a model for someone like Edelson seeking new inspirations and social models as alternatives to patriarchal structures. These three images show a smiling, playful Sheela as she opens herself and exposes her female power.

Snakes Eating Out of Her Hands (1974/1982) by Mary Beth EdelsonThe Feminist Institute

Let the Games Begin, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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The origins and symbolism of the ancient figure of Baubo remain elusive even though she was mentioned in Greek and Latin sources. What appears most consistent is that Baubo was a servant to Demeter and she exposed her genitals in order to make Demeter laugh when she was in mourning over the loss of her daughter, Persephone.

Thumbs Up, Mary Beth Edelson, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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The Baubo figure is most commonly depicted as a face on an abdomen with legs and a skirt-like hood revealing a vulva. Edelson looked to this figure for its symbolism of female power, or as the artist and writer Winifred Milius Lubell has explained, “Baubo can be seen as a much older symbol for the power and energy of female sexuality. She can also be viewed as a trickster figure, who with her own jokes, magic, and laughter embodied fecundity and fertility.” (Lubell, 1994, 1-3) The trickster element of Baubo’s character certainly appeals to Edelson. In the undated "Thumbs Up", Edelson contrasts the image of Baubo with the gun slinging Gena Rowlands from the film Gloria, a playful figure full of female sexual power combined with the don’t mess with me attitude of Rowlands.

I Am Not Your Vessel, Mary Beth Edelson, 1977, From the collection of: The Feminist Institute
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Credits: Story

Written by Dr. Kathleen Wentrack
(c) 2019 Kathleen Wentrack

Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, is a Professor of Art History at The City University of New York, Queensborough CC and the editor of the forthcoming book "Collaboration, Empowerment, Change: Women’s Art Collectives." She recently published “1970s Feminist Practice as Heterotopian: The Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst and the Schule für kreativen Feminismus,” in "All Women Art Spaces in the Long 1970s" edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor to Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice and a co-coordinator of The Feminist Art Project in New York City.

Produced by Erica Galluscio

Photography of studio space provided by Kolin Mendez Photography

Accola Griefen Fine Art exhibition photos courtesy of Accola Griefen Fine Art: Rob van Erve

Images of "Goddess Tribe" installation courtesy of David Lewis New York

Select Bibliography

Buszek, Maria Elena. “Mothers and Daughters, Sluts and Goddesses: Mary Beth Edelson and Annie Sprinkle.” In: It’s Time for Action (There’s No Option). About Feminism. Ed. Heike Munder. Zurich: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and JRP/Ringier, 2007, 228-61.

Edelson, Mary Beth. The Art of Mary Beth Edelson. New York: Seven Cycles, 2002.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Firsthand: Photographs by Mary Beth Edelson, 1973-1993 and Shooter Series. Essay by Jan Avgikos, “No Reverse Gear.” Mary Beth Edelson: New York, 1993.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Interview with Kathleen Wentrack. New York, 12 September 2008.

Edelson, Mary Beth. "Male Grazing: An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” In: Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000.” Ed. Hilary Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, 592-94. First published as “Objections of a ‘Goddess Artist:’ An open Letter to Thomas McEvilley.” New Art Examiner 16, No. 8 (April 1989): 34-38.

Edelson, Mary Beth. “Pilgrimage/See for Yourself: A Journey to a Neolithic Goddess Cave, 1977. Grapceva, Hvar Island Yugoslavia.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics #5, Spring 1978: 96-99.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Seven Cycles: Public Rituals. With an Introduction by Lucy R. Lippard." New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1980.

Edelson. Mary Beth. Shape Shifter: Seven Mediums. New York: Mary Beth Edelson, 1990.

Edelson. Mary Beth. “Success Has 1,000 Mothers: Art and Activism from Mary Beth Edelson’s Point of View.” In: Women’s Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Ed. Gayle Kimball. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2005, 27-60..

Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unraveling an Enigma. London: Routledge, 2004

Gimbutas, Marija. Gods and Goddess of Old Europe, 7000 to 3500 BC/Myths, Legends, and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Griefen, Kat. “Considering Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists.” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2019, 38-9.

Höglinger, Nora. “Mary Beth Edelson: “The Goddess is Us.” In: Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s, The Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna. Ed. Gabriele Schor. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016, 120-25.

Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses. Ed. Vincent Hale and Vincent Croce. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing and Rosen Publishing Group, 2014.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Dial Press, 1976.

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.

Winifred Milius Lubell, The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy, Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1994

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