Despite how it may sound, Petticoat Painters isn’t a group of women artists gallivanting in floor-length day dresses with underskirts. Although it probably was when it was founded in 1953. Instead, it’s an all-women arts group that supports Sarasota-based artists.
The group formed because, in those days, women weren’t well represented in exhibitions. Although that’s not as true these days, group members still find importance in their mission of exhibiting women’s work.
Today, the group is known for its prestigious and selective nature. There are only 20 Petticoat Painters at a time, and members can only join by invitation. In addition, the only way the group invites new members is if one the current members retires or dies. This way, the work represented in the group’s one big exhibition a year is always of a high caliber.
Contemporary artist Eleanor Merritt joined the exclusive group in 1996. Merritt has two pieces featured in the annual exhibition opening May 9, at Selby Gallery, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design.
She, like the rest of the artists in the group, is showing new work in the exhibit.
On a Tuesday morning 10 days before the exhibit opens, Merritt works to finish her second piece. The piece she’s working on today is full of blue hues and bright pink ink without any fabric or paper — working solely with ink is unusual for her.
You can see an abstract expressionist influence in her brush strokes. In college, her teachers were famed abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and James Ernst at Brooklyn College (CUNY).
Merritt usually works in the mornings in her tiled-floor studio with great natural light. The white walls are covered with family portraits. One whole wall is full of her granddaughter, Amara Merritt’s art. Where there’s room, Merritt’s own paintings are on display. They span from throughout her career.
The pieces from her early days in Sarasota are vastly different from the piece she’s working on now. Her early work used earthy colors and clean lines. It’s less abstract.
But her work has always been bold. These days, it’s usually mixed media typically involving ink or acrylic, paper and fabrics. Sometimes there are African themes. Most times there’s a subtlety referenced matriarchal figure or three; three is the lucky number.
Throughout time as Merritt has aged, her work has become more experimental. For instance, you have to look for the figure to find it inside the piece. She focuses much more on texture, color and movement than her early days. Her work stands out. She has always stood out.
In elementary school, her teacher called Merritt’s mother in for a meeting. The teacher was unhappy with her constant “disruptive” doodling, despite Merritt’s best efforts to keep her doodling out of detection under her desk.
“But she’s still getting A’s on her report card,” Merritt’s mother said to the teacher. “So, you must not be giving her enough work.”
Some teachers were more conducive to her special talent, and had her use it to draw maps for the rest of the class. But by high school, she was admitted into an arts school with likeminded creative brains — the High School for Music and Art. It’s the school on which they based “Fame.”
She lived in New York where she taught art and practiced it on the side for 30 years. In 1983, Merritt moved from her native New York City to Sarasota.
She showed her contemporary work here for the first time at Art Center Sarasota. Her piece starkly contrasted the birds, palm trees and traditional Florida landscape paintings featured there. Her piece hung away from others near the bathroom — it didn’t fit.
In the center of that work is an orange figure. Once you’ve found her, you realize she’s accompanied by two other female figures in warm blue and purple hues — the three goddesses. It’s spiritual in nature. It has the kind of restless energy one might get on a hot Sarasota summer night just as the sun sets.
The images come from me, Merritt says, pointing to her heart.
“Women of my family have always been my symbol of strength, so I guess a lot of women and females are all the time emerging (in my work),” she says.
Merritt says although that piece seemed misplaced nearly two decades ago, she found that as the arts scene began to develop, more Sarasota artists started taking risks with their work. It became more sophisticated. Merritt points to 1987 when Sarasota Ballet was founded. Arts Center Sarasota grew and expanded beginning in the late ’90s. Around this same time, Sarasota Orchestra (then the Florida West Coast Symphony) became a fully paid professional orchestra. In 2000, Florida State University began stewarding The Ringling.
“Things started happening here culturally,” she says.
It was in the late ’90s that Merritt was invited to join the Petticoat Painters. Petticoat Painters might draw thoughts of little old ladies who lunch and drink tea — but that’s not the case. They’re ages 55 to 85, all as bold as Merritt in their own special ways.
She says every artist involved is an individual doing the same work she’s been doing her whole career.
Some are more traditional. Others more experimental, like Merritt.
“I think a lot of the work is very provocative,” she says. “It’s always a good show.”
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