FOA artists celebrate the myths, mysteries and magic of women this March


March is Women’s History Month – a time to commemorate the vital role women have always played in American history, and to celebrate their important contributions. The Festival of Arts (FOA) is taking this opportunity to honor a few of their female artists, particularly those whose work reflects the power and strength of women, and whose stories may have remained largely untold.

Oil painter Elizabeth McGhee, mixed media artist Jayne Dion and photographer Hailley Howard all place women in the center of their art. In pieces that are both empowering and enlightening, each one uses her unique voice to highlight women’s stories and share parts of their own. The result is work that feels timeless (time, in Dion’s case, explored literally), crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries, and bringing new understandings of women’s lived experiences to the forefront.

Elizabeth McGhee redefines ancient mythologies

This summer will be Elizabeth McGhee’s 14th year at the FOA. She follows a long lineage of women in the arts. Her great-grandmother, Charlotte Light, was also an FOA exhibitor in 1957. Her great-great-grandmother was the first female head of the art department of The Iowa State Normal School in the 1890s. Two other 19th century Irish relatives were oil painters.

McGhee’s work often incorporates playful elements, imbued with nostalgia and laden with symbolism. Her Mythica series is a good example. She intended the series to be a collection of roughly a dozen paintings focused on women in ancient Greek mythology. But as she worked, she decided to expand the project to 80 pieces that included both goddesses and mortals. She’s a little more than halfway through.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Elizabeth McGhee poses with “Nausicaa” from Homer’s Odyssey. Encountering a naked Odysseus, Nausicaa offered him clothing from her laundry line.

“Rather than being illustrative recreations of myths, each portrait is a psychological character study of mostly overlooked or historically incidental individuals,” McGhee said. “Most of the ancient Greek myths that survived were from the male perspective since the majority of writers and scholars over the centuries were male. The Eleusinian Mysteries are an example of an exclusively female interpretation of myths that was never written down, and aspects of it are still a mystery today.”

One fascinating aspect of Greek mythology is its evolution over time. “There was no one correct way to interpret a mythological story,” McGhee said, comparing ancient mythology to modern-day superhero stories. Spider-Man, after all, was played by both Tobey McGuire and Tom Holland. Much like the myth of Artemis was told in different versions by Euripides and Hyginus.

“So, if we know that mythological characters were flexible in their stories, depending on the author, and we know that women in the past had their own versions of those stories, it opens the door to explore what those stories could possibly be,” McGhee said.

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

Elizabeth McGhee works on her “Mythica” series at her FOA booth one summer

With the rise of artificial intelligence, McGhee says human interpretation and reevaluation of myths and history is critical. Because AI analyzes and learns from data that already exists, and uses that data to imagine something new, it’s working from inherent biases built into our system. “Female or nonbinary interpretations are all the more important to add to our cultural encyclopedia,” McGhee said. “I also want to encourage my viewers to think about the world around them in new and novel ways, and not just depend on what they’ve been told.”

(Stop by McGhee’s booth this summer and ask about her take on the Medusa myth. You’ll never see that snake-haired head the same way again.)

Jayne Dion’s indigenous symbols

Jayne Dion’s mixed media sculptures, often featuring antique clocks sprouting whimsical trees, have shown at the FOA for the past two summers. This year, she’s introducing Nested, a piece infused with symbolism about her own harmonious roles as woman, artist and mother, and pays homage to her Native American heritage. Like her other works, Nested incorporates time and nature with a tree growing around a clockface.

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Courtesy of Jayne Dion

Jayne Dion has exhibited at the FOA since 2022. “Nested” is part of her upcoming 2024 exhibition.

“I’m part Native American. The Acjachemen, also known as the Juaneño, are from the San Juan Capistrano Band of Mission Indians,” Dion said. “Blue birds symbolize the return of spring, prosperity and fertility for Native Americans. They’re also messengers of joy, optimism, hope, love and renewal in other cultures. Fly agaric mushrooms, which I use in many of my pieces, symbolize good luck.”

Dion’s eggs represent her children. She’s the mother bird, protecting her nest. The tiny illustrations are made of ink and paper, all cut by hand. The piece also contains 200 Lucite leaves that symbolize growth and optimism for the future. Trees provide food, clothing and shelter, and symbolize interconnectedness in indigenous cultures.

“Every piece I create is an extension of inner thoughts, both conscious and subconscious,” said Dion, whose work explicitly explores nature. “But I rely on spiritual and ancestral inspiration at a subconscious level.”

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Courtesy of Jayne Dion

Primarily a self-taught artist, Jayne Dion went back to college at age 45 to study sculpture and illustration

Dion often spends her summers counseling young girls and women who visit the Festival on how to pursue a career in the arts. “It’s wonderful to talk about their dreams and aspirations. They frequently ask what they can do to become successful artists. My answer is always: (1) draw every day, (2) take as many classes as you can, (3) ask for honest critiques from teachers and peers and (4) don’t be offended by their answers. When we fail, we grow.

She also tells young artists not to throw their work away, encouraging them to keep it so they can see their evolution or allow it to inspire new ideas. “Don’t expect things to happen right away. Take your time to find out who you are as an artist and what you want to say. And never let anyone tell you not to be an artist.”

Then she asks them to close their eyes, think about the shoes and clothes they’re wearing, their car, their house, and even street signs. “I remind them all those things were conceived, designed and created by artists.”

Hailley Howard’s exploration of authentic beauty

Building on last year’s Women series, Hailley Howard’s 2024 photographic work – Women II – continues to celebrate women’s freedom and self-expression. With images both playful and vulnerable, Howard captures women’s authenticity and opens a dialogue about our culture’s standards of beauty.

“Because I’m not a solo artist, and I require both the participation and energetic exchange of another [meaning her model], I wait for these ‘visions’ to hit me and I seek out a collaborator to bring the story to life,” Howard said.

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Photo by Hailley Howard

“Rejoice” by Hailley Howard appeared in the 2023 FOA show

This year, her collaborator came to her. “My model approached me during the 2023 show and let me know that she would be interested in working together,” Howard said. “When a convergence of this kind happens, I let the ideas come on their own and, if something feels special, I let it ride.”

Howard is working with her model, Joy, in a three-part series that examines different notions of beauty and the Black experience, specifically as it relates to hair. “This year’s work will be powerful in its beauty and messaging around femininity and our interconnectedness to the natural world, as well as political messaging around physical beauty standards, specifically hair, in the Black community,” Howard said.

“The story…has begun to reveal its interconnectedness to the enigmatic relationship between the artist and his/her inspiration from a kind of divine source. I often say that my inspiration and ideas come from a ‘psychic realm’ – coming through me and through the interweaving of our shared experience on this plane.”

Much like the models in her photographs, Howard doesn’t only aim for superficial aesthetic beauty in her work. She strives for emotional impact. “It’s important to me that I do not merely create beautiful work, but that it is evocative and the message behind it is powerful enough to not only be heard, but also felt,” she said.

Howard describes her photographs as “a tapestry of inspiration drawn from the world around me – encompassing what captivates me as much as what challenges me. My art reflects the mystique of life and how I interpret reality.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

A modern artist and storyteller, Hailley aims to encourage emotion and intimacy through her photographs

“The hair story has written itself through my muse, Joy. While I am here to share this experience with my audience, these images are just the beginning in the experience of understanding, respecting and beholding the power of women and how they choose to express themselves and how that, in itself, can be – and is – controversial.”

All three artists will be on display this summer at the Festival of Arts. For more information about each of them, their work and the FOA, visit the Festival’s website by clicking here.

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