She opened paths previously closed and unknown to women artists, past and present, trained and untrained.
Since the 70’s, Miriam Schapiro has raised women’s consciousness through her writing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and teaching. She invented the word femmage to describe her medium-using this to refer to the combination of paint and fabric in compositions with a theme on meaning that pertained to women taking her imagery primarily from the women’s sphere of culture and life: quilts, houses, and clothing.
She has battled to pay homage to women and their undervalued domestic traditions. She lectured extensively on feminist issues to professional conferences, university audiences, art classes and women’s groups.
Schapiro was one of the leaders of Pattern and Decoration (also called Pattern Painting), a major movement of the mid-to late 70’s which offered an alternative to the rigidity and persistence of the Minimalist and Conceptual movements of the 1960’s. A major advocate of large-scale decoration, she frequently incorporated colorful ribbons and fabrics into her canvases, often over a geometric pattern, creating a feminine aesthetic.
In 1979, she co-founded the New York Feminist Art Institute, which held workshops and hosted lectures by women.
Miriam Schapiro was born in Toronto, Canada, in November, 1923, the only child of Russian Jewish parents, Fannie Cohen and Theodore Schapiro.
Her maternal grandfather invented the first movable doll’s eyes in the United States and manufactured ‘Teddy Bears’ named after Theodore Roosevelt. Her paternal grandfather was both a rabbi in a New York synagogue and a tailor who sewed Artic clothes for Admiral Peary and his explorers. Both men were amateur scholars. Her maternal grandmother had 8 children, her paternal grandmother had 6 and both grandmothers were working woman, helping their husbands and rearing children. Schapiro’s father, an artist and intellectual, was studying at the Beaux Arts in New York at the time of Miriam’s birth.
Miriam began sketching at the age of six. Her homemaker mother, an ardent Zionist, was highly supportive of Miriam’s wish to be a professional artist.
Schapiro’s higher education was at State University of Iowa where she met a fellow student Paul Brach. They married in 1946, their son Peter was born in 1955. Paul was a painter and teacher who became the first dean of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts and a mentor to some of the brightest stars of the art world of the 1980’s.
In California, Schapiro participated in women’s consciousness-raising groups. In the late 1960’s her involvement in the budding feminist movement was manifested in her computer-generated painting XO (1967).
Painted in pinks and orange with mechanical precision, OX became one of the signature works of the early feminist movement because of its vaginal reference.
In the 1970’s after years of personal and professional experiences as a female in a patriarchal art world, Miriam became profoundly committed to the cause of feminist art. Together with Judy Chicago, she founded and led the nation’s first feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts.
She regarded her work as a personal and political struggle to publicize and strengthen the achievements of anonymous women of the past and their traditional art forms. Her feminist contention concerned the plight of all women, whether from third-world nations, ancient cultures or our modern era.
Inspired by theatre and dance mid-1980’s, she returned to figurative art, using fabric and more dynamic brushwork and motifs.
Miriam Schapiro’s work is included in numerous collections in the United States, Germany, Israel and Australia. As a leading figure in the feminist art movement, she encouraged and challenged the aspirations of countless women artists for a bright future. Her impact is seen in the feminist art history courses taught throughout colleges and universities and in the number of women artists now represented in many art history texts.
Miriam ( Mimi) Schapiro died in June, 2015, at the age of 91.