The Bradley University art gallery shows its feminine side this fall with Camera Della Donna, an exhibition featuring 10 female photographers from Italy and the United States. It’s featured October 16 to November 22 in the Hartmann Art Center Gallery.

A Room of One’s Own

The idea for this exhibition originated from fine art photographers Joanne Leonard and Suzanne Hanson in 1999 at the American Academy in Rome, according to Bradley University Director of Galleries, Exhibitions and Collections Pamela Ayres. “Camera Della Donna was conceived as a way to bring together a group of significant Italian and American photographers to share recent explorations. Giulia Caira, born and raised in Italy; and Regina Huber, Sukran Moral, Nathalie Perisse, and Suzanne Santoro, who have chosen to make Rome their home, here encounter Americans Joanne Leonard, Carol Jacobsen, Suzanne Hanson, Susan Meiselas, and Marilyn Zimmerman.”

The exhibition was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s insistence on “a room of her own,” a physical space for every woman’s creative or intellectual work, Ayres said. “It takes as a point of departure the Italian word for ‘room,’ which is the origin of the English word ‘camera.’ The ‘room’ and the ‘camera’ are actual, physical necessities for these artists, who nevertheless turn their lenses outward to critique, oppose, and re-envision. Whether addressing private spaces of body and sexuality, or public spheres of global politics, the works comprise an exhibition which demonstrates personal and political interrelationships are significant to artists across geographic boundaries.

“The formal means of expression of these artists are diverse, with photographic processes ranging from black and white, color, documentary, photomontage, collage, appropriated photographs, digital images, and video. These works are brought together to reveal their many overlapping concerns and issues, while offering a deeper understanding of their rich individual, geographic, and cultural differences,” she said.

Ayres said the project came together when Leonard and Hanson decided this was the right moment for an exhibition of women photographers in Temple Gallery at Rome’s Temple University. “In recent years, photography has become of particular interest to the public in Rome, perhaps for its ability to join the aesthetic of painting to the new requirements of technological investigation—or perhaps as an alternative to the more conceptual taste for installation and mixed media prevalent since the late 1980s. The renewed interest in the use of the camera coincides with an increased focus by Roman artists in politically or socially charged subject matter. This second point helped to determine the selection of a specific group of female—if not decidedly feminist—artists.”

The exhibition was secured for Bradley’s gallery—and the enjoyment of all central Illinois residents—through the efforts of Bradley Associate Professor of Art Beth Linn. “She’s always played an important role as fine art coordinator for the Jack and Lorrie Bunn Lectureship on Photography at Bradley, which presents renowned fine artists and photo-journalists,” Ayres said.

Finding a Home at Bradley

Bradley’s newest exhibition is right at home within the school’s consistently pro-arts environment. “The university galleries offer a series of exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and demonstrations specifically planned to provide a stimulating forum, featuring primarily professional artists, to the audience in central Illinois. The gallery serves the university and the Peoria community by showing professional exhibitions that address contemporary art and social issues and stimulate discussions and debates about these issues. The galleries at the university also host the second oldest print and drawing exhibition in the country, which brings a level of prestige and notoriety in the arts community to Bradley University,” Ayres said.

Camera Della Donna isn’t the only new addition to Bradley. Ayres, too, has only been in the area a short time. “My husband and I decided to move to the Midwest last year when he was offered a job as gallery director at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. I then set about discovering communities and universities that fit my unique background. I was referred to Bradley University by the fine arts office at Indiana State, and I called and spoke to Chairperson Harold Linton. He was very professional and straightforward, and I knew this was exactly the kind of place I wanted to see. When I was selected for an interview, I had an opportunity to meet a faculty that struck me as energetic, progressive, and excited about their department. When they offered me the position in their gallery, I was pleased to except, believing we would be able to work as a team to create a wonderful gallery program,” she said.

Ayres moved to Peoria in June, and she said even though it’s been a challenge to get a handle on such an aggressive gallery schedule, she’s reveling in her day-to-day work. “I coordinate and install all of Bradley’s art exhibitions in both the Heuser Art Center Gallery and Hartmann Art Center Gallery. I serve as a member of the campus outdoor sculpture committee, write grants to help fund the exhibitions and lectures hosted by the gallery and art department, and supervise and maintain the university’s educational archive and permanent collection,” she explained.

Her responsibilities may sound extensive, but Ayres is well qualified for the duties. After a successful high school art career in her hometown of Scottdale, Penn., she decided to pursue sculpture, painting, and arts education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “My mentor at IUP, Dr. James Nestor, encouraged me to begin to show professionally my second semester of sculpture class. After my first show with the Sculpture Society at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, I began to understand the importance of showing your work to the public. It was very exciting and a valuable experience to meet this large and growing artist community and be part of the Pittsburgh cultural movement and downtown revival,” she said.

After graduation, Ayres received a teaching assistantship to work toward a master of fine arts degree at C.W. Post/Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y. “C.W. Post was a private university and was very attractive at the time because of the Hillwood Art Museum and Curator Dr. Judy Collishan. In my course of study at the university, I began to develop an understanding of curation and its importance to the artists, students, and area community. Then I was given the challenge of being the graduate coordinator for South American performance artist Jonas DosSantos, and my perceptions about the way people create and express themselves was expanded. We worked with all kinds of people with many different focuses and levels of being performing and visual artists.”

Upon receiving her master’s degree in 1993, Ayres found securing a teaching job at the university level was difficult. “A lot of the country had cut back on the arts, and there were fewer jobs for many more people. One day the University of Bridgeport asked me to conduct a performance art workshop and asked my husband to teach a course in printmaking. While we were in Bridgeport, Conn., we discovered a city in a state of bankruptcy trying to keep its head above water. The attendance at the university had fallen, and the art department was in a state of disarray.”

Ayres and her husband were approached to hang a show in the university’s deserted gallery space. “It became clear to me this was an opportunity to use my unique experiences of Pittsburgh community cooperation and New York artistic acceptance. For the next four years, we created a professional exhibition series that not only demonstrated great integrity, but also had a contemporary curatorial premise. During this time I also began to work with a not-for-profit organization—the Music and Arts Center for Humanity. I became the educational director and assisted with bringing an Alvin Ailey Camp to the inner city youth of Bridgeport,” she said.

A Good Fit

Her experience in diverse art forms prepared Ayres well for the challenges of directing the Camera Della Donna exhibition and the various activities of the Bradley galleries, as well as opening her to the necessity of exhibiting distinct shows. “Showing art that’s strongly female oriented is as important as showing art that’s strongly male oriented, design oriented, or multi-culturally oriented. What I mean is, different issues arise, and artists are affected—as are all people—but it’s the role of the artist, author, playwright, songwriter, etc., to express what they perceive and to record the present to affect change. Female issues and perspectives are important and deserve equal time in venues like the Bradley University galleries. I’ve always sought out the work of women professionals and have always been struck by their varied and insightful approaches to the visual arts.”

Ayres said she anticipates much more collaborative work during her tenure at Bradley. “I’ll be working with a team of professional artists that comprise the faculty of Bradley University, and I’ll work with representatives from the theater department, the library special collections, and members of Peoria’s art community in the form of a review and selection committee. We’re doing a national call for proposals from artists and independent curators to put together an aggressive exhibition schedule. I hope to raise the Bradley National Print and Drawing exhibition to the next level by gaining international recognition and participation. I’d like the gallery lecture series to be accessible on Internet 2 in a real-time format, and it would be a tremendous success to have our extensive and historically important educational archive online for Peoria schools’ art departments to utilize as a research resource.”

In her short time in Peoria, Ayres said she’s been impressed with the area arts organizations. “My understanding is the community cares about their cultural profile, and if they know about an event, they go. That’s the best support a community can give to its arts organizations. There’s a strong volunteer ethic here. The only thing I could suggest is to write to the city and state representatives and tell them what a positive impact the arts are having on the community, and encourage them to keep an arts focus as the downtown continues with its redevelopment.”

For more information about Camera Della Donna, call 677-2989. AA!