Feminist Beginnings: An Interview with Six Founding Members of La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse – Eliana Stratica-Mihail

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“The great possibility of the women’s movement comes from the ability to create organic, functional groups, and then be able to recognize that a theory may have evolved from personal experience,” states Billie Jo Mericle.[1] One could say that this is how Powerhouse came into existence, the first feminist art gallery in Canada, and one of the first artist-run centres in Montreal.

But how did it all start? The Flaming Apron crafts store, located in Westmount at 5108 Sherbrooke Street West, was created by eight women, including Mericle, Stansje Plantenga and Claire Trepanier, three of the founding members of Powerhouse.[2] They sold crafts and other handmade items created by women, including pottery, clothing, stuffed animals, prints, macramé and jewelry. All submissions were accepted, and the founders regarded the store as an educational, consciousness-raising space that made women realize that their creations were valuable.[3] According to Mericle, the store was only one step “toward the further liberation of women.”[4]

The founders of the Flaming Apron also organized a total of twelve consciousness-raising groups, a form of political activism that was the backbone of the Women’s Liberation Movement. By discussing their issues in a group, women realized that “the personal is political.”[5] One of these groups was for women artists only. The artists visited their studios and homes, and soon decided to organize a group show to exhibit their works. They were also joined by other artists they knew, but who were not part of the discussion group. The exhibition took place in a second-floor apartment that they rented in Westmount at 1210 Greene Avenue, a space that later became the first embodiment of Powerhouse. The show was called Windows: From the Inside Out, and ran from May 20th to June 21st, 1973. It was unjuried, just like the Flaming Apron, and consisted of a variety of media and styles, including paintings, installations, pottery, photography, prints, and macramé. The artists that participated in this exhibition were Elizabeth Bertoldi, Leslie Busch, Isobel Dowler, Margaret Griffin, Clara Gutsche, Billie Jo Mericle, Stansje Plantenga and Pat Walsh.

Soon after the first show, some of the artists decided that they wanted to have a permanent exhibition space for women artists, and others joined them in the creation of the gallery. The founding members are Ros Aylmer Cameron, Elizabeth Bertoldi, Leslie Busch, Isobel Dowler, Margaret Griffin, Clara Gutsche, Chery Holmes, Tanya Mars, Billie Jo Mericle, Stansje Plantenga, Jill Smith, Claire Trepanier and Pat Walsh. Some of these members, however, like Griffin and Gutsche, stopped being involved with the gallery right after the Windows exhibition, while others, such as Mars, joined soon afterwards.

 

Eliana Stratica-Mihail: What were your motivations to found Powerhouse, and how did it all start?

Stansje Plantenga: It came out of the consciousness-raising movement. We, as women, felt that we didn’t have a voice, and that we weren’t respected. I remember as we were going around to get funding, and also to set up the ArtFemme ‘75 exhibition in 1975, some of the responses from men were “well, you’re just a flash in the pan,” and “you’re going to get pregnant, and then it will be all over.” At the beginning of the 1970s, there were also not many roles for women, and certainly men artists were predominant, while women artists weren’t respected. So it was essential to get a voice, and create a space for ourselves.

Isobel Dowler: At the beginning of the 1970s, when there was a show featuring women, it was announced as “women’s art,” and considered not mainstream and inferior. After my studies at the Montreal Museum, Banff School, Hayter’s studio in Paris, with awards and encouragement, I still was unable to get a show in Montreal. Besides the sexism that I felt, women were seen as less desirable in the gallery “stable” if they were married and had children. I was actually told that at one gallery. I didn’t have one female teacher at art school, or at the subsequent classes I took at Concordia, and women students had no female mentoring. Powerhouse was empowering. We showed quality art work by women that could include feminist content, and art from a female point of view. It was valuable work to us, and should have been acceptable to everybody, but in the 1970s it wasn’t.

Pat Walsh: It started when I was 17. I went away to Mount Allison University in 1966, and I was staying in residence. The girls had rules that they had to be back by a certain time, while boys didn’t have those rules. I thought that was wrong so I wrote a letter to the school paper, and then someone from a consciousness-raising group at the university got in touch with me, and asked me to talk to them about why I had taken this position. I was only 17, so I didn’t know much but it just seemed wrong to me so I had to do something about it. Years later, after I moved back to Montreal, and Powerhouse gallery started off as a women artists’ discussion group, we would just go to each other’s studios, and talk over issues. We then decided it would be fun to have a show together. We applied to some of the galleries in the city, and they said they wouldn’t take us because we were women. We were furious. Some of us knew Rita Fraticelli, who was working at the Women’s Information and Referral Centre that later became the Women’s Centre, and who told us that they were leaving their premises on Greene Avenue, and asked us if we wanted to take over their lease. So we rented the space on 1210 Greene Avenue in Westmount.

Margaret Griffin: There used to be a feminist crafts store in N.D.G. called The Flaming Apron, where I sold ceramics. It was also a neighbourhood drop-in place with an active bulletin board. One day, there was a notice about a consciousness-raising group specifically for women artists. The group met a couple of times, until we decided that we wanted to do something concrete, and not just talk. So we decided to have an exhibition. Originally, that was just going to be a pop-up exhibition, but the space on Greene Avenue was so nice that we decided to keep it. We applied for the Local Initiative Program five months later. Having a full-time job qualified me to be the official sponsor of the project. The grant was used to pay various people to run the gallery, including a gallery manager, a studio manager, a secretary/bookkeeper, a children’s corner manager, and a public relations and sales agent. Until then, the gallery was financed by donations from the founding members.

Clara Gutsche: I heard through Margaret Griffin about the women artists’ discussion group, and I wanted to join because I had already been part of three consciousness-raising groups. The notice at the Flaming Apron said: “Are you interested in a consciousness-raising group for women artists?” I found the idea very appealing. It combined a consciousness-raising group with the specificity of the situation of women artists. Once we started meeting, the group moved very quickly from discussions of our personal lives, and our difficulties as artists to the decision to do something very practical. By consensus, we felt that we wanted to initiate a concrete project.

Tanya Mars: It was very liberal times. I think it came from a hippie sensibility, from a feminist sensibility, and from a war sensibility. It was in the air, it was being talked about everywhere. Not just my Powerhouse colleagues and friends were concerned with feminism. It was at the same time as the FLQ crisis, and when politics were very heated in Montreal. The sexism that I was experiencing at that time in Montreal was from instructors at school. One instructor told me that I draw like a man, and he didn’t say it with praise, but disdain. The conversation that I remember the most, and that made me determined to make Powerhouse work and stay involved, happened when I was having coffee with one of my drawing instructors. I was very young, excited about becoming an artist, and naïve, and he said to me that women don’t make it as artists, and that I should think about being an art historian. I was in my early 20s, I was a young mom, I was going to art school at night, and I needed a community. I was attracted to the idea of making something happen.

ESM: How did you meet the other founding members of Powerhouse gallery?

SP: A couple of people, including myself, decided to set up a consciousness-raising group for women artists, and we put up an ad in the Flaming Apron. People like Margaret Griffin and Isobel Dowler came because they saw the ad. Some of them, like Margaret, lived in lower Westmount, and the store was just on the boundaries of N.D.G. and Westmount.

ID: The women artists’ consciousness-raising group met in the artists’ studios and homes where we worked, whichever we had. I think seven people signed up, and we looked at each other’s work. This was very supportive because all of us had difficulties getting exhibitions. Then we realized that if we could rent a really cheap space we could show our work, and other women’s work as well. So that’s why we rented the space on Greene Avenue. We had a lot of fixing to do, but it was great to have a place. And then we had a first exhibition of everybody showing what they had.

PW: I came back to Montreal a couple of years after I graduated university, and someone told me about a discussion group for women artists that came out of the Flaming Apron. That’s how I met the other founding members.

CG: Prior to participating in the consciousness-raising group that became Powerhouse, I had attended three, one in Boston in 1969, and two in Montreal at the Women’s Centre on Ste-Famille, between 1970 and 1973. When Margaret Griffin told me about the new discussion group I was very enthusiastic, and wanted to meet other Montreal artists.

TM: I became involved with Powerhouse right after the first exhibition. I met Stansje Plantenga during the first exhibition, which I attended because the same woman who was taking care of her son and my daughter suggested that we should meet. We used to call each other the mothers and daughters of Powerhouse. I was a daughter because I wasn’t part of the initial consciousness-raising group, or the first exhibition, but I got involved as soon as the space became a gallery in 1973.

ESM: How did you come up with the name Powerhouse?

CG:I remember being at that meeting. It was a magical moment. Everybody came up with different words, different ideas…  I remember the meeting as a turning point, and creating the name crystallized the idea that we would open a gallery for women artists. We wanted to include the idea of empowerment, and Margaret Griffin was aware of the ceramics studio called “Powerhouse” at John Abbott College. The notions of community and collectivity were important; and the word “house” signaled our respect for the full range of women’s work. Many ideas were thrown out, but everything concretized around Margaret’s suggestion of “Powerhouse.” It was one of those moments when the collective energy produces something that an individual probably wouldn’t come up with. From what I remember, all subsequent meetings were practical, and we decided to find and rent our own space.

MG: We were looking for a name, and I thought of “Powerhouse” because at the time I knew people who were teaching ceramics at John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The ceramics studio was in a little building at the edge of the MacDonald campus, and it was called “Powerhouse,” because it was the actual powerhouse of the college. When students got their class schedules, it would say that the ceramics classes were at the “Powerhouse.”

ID: “Powerhouse” was also the name of a chocolate bar in the United States. It just seemed a really good conceptual name because here we were a group of women, very related to the home, as all women are to some extent, and, on the other hand, by having this house, this gallery, it gave us power, it empowered us.

PW: I can’t exactly remember who came up with the name. Power could be any kind of energy. Someone who is a powerhouse is a person who is tremendously forceful. I think all of those thoughts went into the name. We added “La Centrale” when we received a letter from the government when the gallery was on St. Dominique saying that the name had to be bilingual. The government decided that the translation was “la centrale électrique” which is the official name for a power station. And then the members removed the word “électrique.” I think La Centrale is very good though: it’s open-ended, it refers to a centre, the centre of art made by women in this case.

ESM: In the 1960s and 1970s, American feminist texts had a great impact on the Women’s Liberation Movement worldwide. Furthermore, some of the founding members of Powerhouse, such as Busch, Griffin, Gutsche, Mars and Mericle are originally from the States. What are some of the writers and texts that informed your feminist thinking in the 1960s and 1970s?

MG: I enjoyed reading Germaine Greer’s well-written books. Ms. Magazine was also often entertaining.

CG:A woman writer that inspired me directly is the art historian Linda Nochlin, and her article “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” (1971). Anne Tucker and her book The Woman’s Eye (1973) also inspired me when I was becoming a photographer. “The Personal is Political” and The Second Sex were highly influential. I have always preferred reading novels written by women.

TM: I read all the feminist books that I could get my hands on: Shulamith Firestone, The Second Sex, etc.

PW: I read Simone de Beauvoir when I was 15, but social injustice always resonated with me, and social injustices have never made any sense to me. It’s not because I read a book that I am feminist but because something is wrong, and we’re going to fix it.

ID: Having been socialized in a patriarchal society, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique was very important for advancing feminist thought to our generation. Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine gave me more clarity about what the position of women was in society. Simone de Beauvoir came later. Powerhouse was a member’s gallery devoted to showing good art, but while running the gallery, we talked about gender problems both artistic and personal, and this provided a “consciousness-raising” as well.

 

Interviewing the founding members reveals that there is no single history to the inception of Powerhouse, and that the basis of its creation is multiple and diverse. The beginnings of the gallery are part of a larger history of Canadian feminist art that still needs to be recorded. Looking at the present, the founding members acknowledged the dire need for an art space and more opportunities for women artists in the 1970s, while at the same time noting that progress is still necessary today, and that the feminist battle is far from being over.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Billie Jo Bruhy, “The Flaming Apron Women’s Craft Store: An Experience Through the Collectivity” (M.A. thesis, Concordia University, 1973), 25.

[2]Ibid., 19.

[3]Ibid., 57.

[4]  The Flaming Apron flyer, 1973. Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection, University of Ottawa.

[5] Carol Hanish, “The Personal is Political,” Notes from the Second Year; Women’s Liberation: Major Writings of the Radical Feminists, edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt (New York: Radical Feminism, 1970), 77.

Eliana Stratica-Mihail is an independent writer and curator based in Montreal, and a recent graduate of the M.A. in Art History at Concordia University. In her thesis, for which she received the Red Square Financial Support from the Artexte Research Centre, she explored feminist art created in Montreal at the beginning of the 1970s. As a result of this research, she was appointed to a curatorial internship at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse in September 2013, where she has remained involved in the organization of the gallery’s fortieth anniversary. Stratica-Mihail gained curatorial experience by working for Montreal festivals Art Souterrain and Art Matters, and as the display cabinet coordinator of Concordia’s Art History Department. Until recently, she was a research and teaching assistant for various art history classes at Concordia University.