Saturday, May 23, 2020

Texas Notes: Badass Women


     The latest report from EGD's Austin bureau chief, Caren Jeskey.

     We all know Jane Addams (1860-1935), a progressive social reformer and the mother of social work who said “old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled.”
      You’ve probably heard of Emma Goldman (1869-1940) who was an anarchist social justice advocate who said “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.” 
      You may even know Sissy Farenthold (born 1926, 93 years old today), a human rights activist who was nominated to be Vice President of the United States in 1972 and finished second at the Democratic Convention that year. She said “I am working for the time when unqualified blacks, browns and women join the unqualified men in running our government.” 
     But I betcha don’t know Elisabet Ney. Grab your pipe and a cup of tea, have a seat in your cozy overstuffed armchair and let’s fix that right now.
     Elisabet Ney was a stone sculptor from Prussia who moved to the US and built a modest castle for herself in 1892 in Austin where she could sculpt and showcase her art. It also became a salon where progressive folks sat to share ideas and debate the state of the world. Elisabet shocked her 19th century community by daring to wear bloomers. That’s right. A woman in pants, scandalous! Though kind of makes sense for person who rides horses, don’t you think? Anyway. She also used her — can I even say it? — maiden name. That’s right. The maiden had an opinion and deemed herself worthy enough to express it, including living her life on her own terms. As shocking as it is, there are some brilliant and talented women in the world who have their very own ideas and make their own choices about how they will live their lives. Some even become bad ass sculptors or — if you want to be dramatic — sculptresses, while they are at it.
     Elisabet named her castle Formosa from the Latin formosus meaning beautifully formed. Formosa is now a museum closed due to COVID-19 that can at least be visited on a YouTube channel today. When I first saw this stone castle in the middle of the city during a COVID walkabout I thought “oh, Austin, there you go again.” This is a city of hidden gems. I returned to this magical place in the city time and time again before I realized how much meaning I’d find behind the walls, which I still have not had the delight of entering. On my first visit I ogled the structure with its grand balconies where I could picture Elisabet sitting and watching the sunset after a day of strenuous building. I stood in front of the columns and exquisitely detailed stonework and felt this woman’s power. I sat on the front stoop and enjoyed the view of the carefully tended gardens.
     On my next visit I gravitated along the gravel path weaving through what reminds me of a prairie restoration project one would see along the lakefront at Montrose Beach or around the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum in Chicago, but with Texas live oaks boldly claiming their space in the landscape. I weaved around to the back of the castle and noticed modern sculptures in the backyard, including bright blue felted birds’ nests appearing real on the limbs of a tree. The windows in the back of the castle were too high for me to see into, but I was entranced to find just the head of a larger than life graceful stone woman looking longingly into the distance in one of the rooms, and in the room next to her a solitary man doing the same. I wanted to climb the wall and go into those rooms, but I am sure there were cameras and a good security system so resisted this strong urge.
     On one of my visits two police officers — and I thanked them for their service — approached me and asked me if I worked there, since they were responding to the alarm going off. I said no and we chatted until the true proprietors arrived. The irony of the fact that one of these officers mansplained incorrect information about Elisabet Ney to me was not lost on me. “Her husband never lived here in Texas with her. She sculpted the Goddess of Liberty on the top of the Capitol building.” Wrong, and wrong. I tried to tell him, but he was sure he was right so I let it go. After all, he was the one with the gun, the badge, and let’s face it, the anatomical right to silence me. I’m used to it.
     The plaque in front of the museum mentions that Elisabet had strong opinions, thus was considered eccentric. I guffawed. A woman with opinions? In the South! Well, she must be eccentric. That odd bird. When I read more about her online after this visit I fell even more deeply in love. She viewed the institution of marriage as a state of bondage for women — not to say I think it always is — and is quoted to have said “women are fools to be bothered with housework. Look at me; I sleep in a hammock which requires no making up. I break an egg and sip it raw. I make lemonade in a glass, and then rinse it, and my housework is done for the day.” She went on a hunger strike for weeks when her parents opposed her being a sculptor and not only did she get her way and followed her dreams, but her works are showcased in the Texas State Capitol building today (no not the one on the top, Officer).
     She was an early leader of the Texas Women’s Movement and a civil rights, education and arts advocate. I noticed that diminutively she’s described as “one of a kind” somewhere online. Oh that funny, odd, pants-wearing chick! Haha! She may have studied with the top sculptors of her time, excelled in her art, moved thousands of miles to a new land, learned a new language, built an impressive home for herself and her creations, and her work stands next to the more highly lauded male sculptors of her time, yet she’s called odd and eccentric and it almost seems as though folks found her cute. She’s not cute.  She’s a force of nature.
     I wonder how many men would feel comfortable changing their last names to theirs wives names, wearing skirts even when pants made more sense, being forced to study things that they were not interested in to conform to societal norms, and to be condescendingly called “one of a kind” for expressing their true selves? There are hundreds, thousands, probably millions of us who would walk in Elisabet Ney’s footsteps if we could, and we try. We will continue to try. Maybe one day this world will be equally led by women of strong heart and mind, unafraid to forge unique and powerful paths and will not be considered unusual.






15 comments:

  1. I wonder how many Texans know that a group of rich Chicagoans paid for their state capitol building?
    It's true.
    The Farwell Brothers [they have a street named after them in Rogers Park] paid over $3.2 million for 3 million acres of land in the Panhandle & the state used that money to build the capitol building.
    And the Farwells led the construction team.

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    1. I bet the street’s not in East Rogers Park, amirite? ;)

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    2. LOL! Farwell starts almost at the lake and there are small stretches of it all the way across the city to the other side of Harlem Ave. So, it's definitely in east Rogers Park, as well as central and west RP, along with even West Ridge, but the legendary "East Rogers Park?" Please! ; )

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    3. Damn betcha it is, and Farwell Pier is at the end of it. Went there a lot when my grandmother lived on Estes in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and as an adult in the Seventies and Eighties.

      Saw the cops and the firefighters come screaming down Farwell one Fourth of July, after a guy dove off the pier and never came up. The water is quite shallow there. I stuck around until his body was located and fished out and hauled away.

      But most of my memories of Farwell Pier are better ones. It was always a popular fishing spot. The adjoining park was a big hippie hangout for a while. And one of the busiest outdoor basketball courts on the lakefront was just to the west of the pier, until the city tore it out.

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  2. Interesting! I did not know that.

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  3. Well now I know something about the fascinating and redoubtable Elisabet Ney. In the years I have been visiting Austin I have twice stopped with my partner to try to visit that unique building which bears her name. Both times the damn place was closed to visitors and we left slightly irritated and frustrated. We shall return. Pity Ms Ney won't, or her like, I fear. She would be a great asset in these troubled times. I'd pay to listen to her opinion of Trump, McConnell and Graham!... Caren, thank you for rekindling my interest and making me determined to make Ms Ney's acquaintance in the future. Who, knows, perhaps we can visit her stronghold together when this current madness has ended and made travel a possibility again!

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  4. Yes Ian. We will climb that wall if we have to.

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  5. Brava! A 5-star performance. My only beef: I read almost the entire piece before realizing that Caren was talking about Austin, Texas rather than Austin, Chicago, which has its own beautiful architecture, although no castles that I know of.

    john

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    1. Ah, I can see that! Though the Texas Notes in title might help with that for some?

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  6. Looking forward to Caren's column after she gets to go inside.

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    1. Ha! I only know Caren as an outdoorswoman. Not sure I'd recognize her as an indoor-type!

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  7. Every week I read and enjoy your writings, Caren!

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  8. In all my years in Austin, I've never been inside the Ney museum. I'm discovering - with Caren's excellent wandering assistance - many corners of my city that I didn't know before.

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