“Silence Breakers,” a 2018 group exhibition hosted by Nasty Women Connecticut, spilled into every corner of the Ely Center of Contemporary Art. My own piece blended into a feminist landscape of human forms concealed beneath white sheets, paint-stained handkerchiefs and bright canvases, a collage of a belligerent president’s polemic mouth. The Connecticut-based organization curates the annual open-call showcase, now in its third year, as a part of its mission to celebrate the voices of marginalized artists and cultivate community through the arts.
Luciana Q. McClure, a co-founder of Nasty Women Connecticut, felt the urgent need to respond to the political climate after the 2016 election.
“I’m an artist. What [could] I really do?” she asked herself. Art became her means of expression and mobilization. The work of Jessamyn Fiore and Roxanne Jackson, the co-founders of the original Nasty Women New York exhibition, inspired her to start Nasty Women Connecticut. At the time she thought, “I want to do this, but I don’t know how. I have no experience curating shows. I’ve only been an artist, but I think we need to do something.”
McClure reached out to members of the New Haven community, and in a matter of months, the first Nasty Women Connecticut exhibit became a reality, with 350 artists and over 1,000 attendees. On the day of the first opening reception, she realized that the project was not just an exhibition. It was a movement.
“I don’t think we can create any kind of change until we start right here,” she said. “There’s so much work to do right here.” She constantly reflects on her interactions with her community and what she can do to help elevate the voices of people around her, from participating in a photo campaign about immigrants in New Haven to encouraging young people to embrace their artistic vision. Her desire to connect with others motivates her to make a local difference through the arts.
McClure moved to New Haven in 1999 from São Paulo, Brazil. She attributes her determination and drive to become an artist to her mother, a trailblazer in her own right who raised her children to pursue their passions.
“She defied so many expectations — cultural, social — and she never gave up on her sense of happiness … even when it was really tough for her.” In the midst of discovering her interest in art as a teenager, McClure searched the history books for female role models. She soon discovered, however, that the history of art almost entirely excluded women.
McClure then turned to feminist theory. She encountered terms like “erasure” in the works of Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Linda Nochlin, whose 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” illuminated the gaping holes in historical narratives where women ought to have been represented. She discovered, through her own research, that there had been great female artists. Mary Cassatt, Faith Ringgold and Martha Rosler emerged as inspiration.
As a college student at Southern Connecticut State University, McClure continued to learn about female artists who found their ways around institutional barriers intended to impede their success. She critically examined how we allow gender roles to restrict and regulate expression, especially in the arts.
“I guess I didn’t realize so much of the expectations … of what a woman should be like or act like,” she said. McClure was intent on allowing herself to grow and change without the pressure of adhering to societal expectations.
Much of her photography centers around the experience of solitude, as she navigates the physical environment and contemplates her place in it. Her latest exhibition, “Wander Wonder,” is a photo collection about “escaping and seeking solace, entering this space that’s so much bigger than we are, but as we’re wandering […] we might stumble upon moments of wonder, as well.” Rendered in black and white, the images meditate primarily on stillness in nature: an impossibly long tree branch arches its back to reach across to the other side of the frame. Nestled in the midst of an unfolding forest, a small child stands in the center. In another photo, a small girl has her back facing the camera, several feet away from a tree stump and the remains of a fallen tree. The only people included in the collection are her children.
“It’s about how sometimes I feel about wandering through life and being mostly on my own, but realizing that I’m not,” McClure said.
She recalled her time as an art teacher at the Foote School, striving to make students feel proud of their work and artistic expression. As we grow up, she explained, “we are taught differently, that we should be less concerned about what’s important to us and more [concerned about] what’s important to others.” McClure shared that motherhood opened her eyes to the value of embracing your own voice. She raises her children to do the same. Reflection, despair and solitude are acts of bravery in her eyes and considering a sense of belonging is essential to her feminist organizing.
Over the years, loneliness has often found its way into her personal photography and writing. “It’s funny how sadness is necessary in our life,” she said. “It’s an important part of who we are and it helps us with empathy, with the way we understand others and ourselves.” Taking the time to quietly reflect, to figure out what she needs to be well enough to give to others and to patiently process her negative emotions: This makes her feel whole.
The theme of the third annual exhibition was “Complicit: Erasure of the Body.” The open call for submissions accepted one work from each artist who entered. “It’s less about the aesthetics of what is on the canvas,” McClure said. “It’s about giving [everyone] a chance to make their voices and themselves be seen and heard. I don’t think people get that opportunity often.” Curation has proven to be a challenge for McClure, but one she has found gratifying. She meets new community members, educates people about intersectional feminism and creates a space for sharing stories and taking pride in expression. Her own political organizing continues to be inspired, first and foremost, by the people she meets every day. “That’s why I continue to do the work I do,” McClure said. “Because of my children. Because I don’t want to feel that I am just watching things happen and doing nothing.”