A Work in Progress: Museum exhibit features abstract expressionist art of Cora Kelley Ward
By Robin Miller
October 29, 2012
Some days were spent working at the hospital near Greenwich Village.
But only some.
That’s when the nursing degree came in handy, when Cora Kelley Ward needed money.
The rest of the time was spent inside her studio loft, brushing paint on large canvases that were either tacked to the wall or spread on the floor.
Mark Tullos hasn’t quite figured out Cora Kelley Ward’s work process, but he knows she didn’t start out with stretched canvases. He knows she latched on to a concept and worked with it through painting after painting until it finally became her own.
And he knows she liked to paint large.
This is one reason the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum will be keeping only some 30 of Ward’s pieces out of the collection of more than 1,000 — a collection gathered by her family after her death in 1989.
Tullos is director of the museum, which is hosting an exhibit of Ward’s works, Cora Kelley Ward: A Work in Progress.
The seven words in the title perfectly paint a portrait of Ward’s life, because she continuously worked on her art even in a time when the title of full-time artist wasn’t always a viable option for a woman.
But Ward didn’t let convention stop her.
Art was her calling, specifically abstract expressionism. It’s what she painted, how she painted. She moved in circles that included fellow abstract painters Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and even Robert Rauschenberg.
She also attended classes with Clement Greenberg, one of the most influential art essayists and critics in the 20th century, and among the first published critics to praise the work of Jackson Pollock. He became an admirer of her work and wrote a posthumous essay for the catalog for her final show.
“Clem’s wife, Jenny, is still alive and she called me recently,” Ward’s brother Marcel Badon said. “She was asking permission to use a couple of Cora’s photographs of Clem in a book she’s written about him. Cora was also a photographer, and would go to her artist friends’ shows and photograph them. A gallery in New York once hosted a show of her photographs.”
Badon remembers that his first memories of his sister are through a child’s eyes, and her visits home special occasions.
Badon and his five siblings were excited to hear Ward’s stories, to be at her side. A place like New York was exotic, filled with people and places that sparkled with energy.
“And she loved the energy of the city,” Badon said.
Badon later became a social worker and taught classes in child welfare at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. He is actually Ward’s half-brother. “Our mother was married to a man in the lumber industry, and they had our older sister,” Badon said. “But he died when our sister was a baby, and the preacher who preached his funeral fell in love with our mother. They married two years later, and they had Cora.”
But the minister also died.
“He died when Cora was very young, and she never really knew him,” Badon said. “So, our mother was left with two small children to raise, and she went to Acadiana tist Academy and became a Southern Baptist missionary.”
Then mom met and married Badon’s father, and the couple became parents to five children, all of whom were much younger than Ward. But Ward remained close to her mother and siblings, and Badon, along with his sisters, made the trip to New York to gather Ward’s work after her death in 1989.
He doesn’t know how many pieces filled her studio, but Tullos has counted 1,100 that were donated to the Hilliard museum.
The family first stored the collection in New Orleans, then moved it to Hammond in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
“I tried marketing to a few galleries at first,” Badon said. “But one gallery owner told me that if Cora had painted magnolias or antebellum homes, he could sell them in this area, but abstract expressionism just wasn’t going to sell. That’s when I started thinking about universities.”
Southeastern hosted a show of her works, and Ward’s family donated several of her watercolors to the school afterward. Then Badon offered the bulk of the collection to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The Hilliard is the university’s art museum, and Tullos immediately was interested in the collection.
“He contacted us about four or five years ago,” Tullos said. “But we weren’t able to process it right away, because we were in the process of hiring a curator.”
The museum hired Lee Gray, who eventually processed the work and curated this show.
Visitors will notice that this show is as unconventional as was Ward’s personality. Paintings are propped against the walls in no certain order, photos fill a portion of the wall and 1950s-style table and chairs offer viewers a place to sit and thumb through art books and catalogs from that era. “We wanted it to look like how you would find Cora Kelley Ward’s studio,” Tullos said. “We chose the 1950s era, because that’s when she had moved to New York. It kind of looks like a Mad Men theme in here.”
But paintings chosen for this show actually are among those that hung in her final exhibit, some of which were part of the 1983 show simply titled Paintings in the Gallery Space on Greene Street in New York.
Mauve and gray were the dominant colors in this series, which the gallery’s curator Valentin Tatransky called the artist’s best.
“Never has Ward painted as well as she has this past year,” Tatransky wrote at the time. “The surfaces of all the pictures here are alive. Looking at her swirls, stains, puddles and lines, it’s obvious that this artist knows that paint has a life of its own. This isn’t just a matter of flinging paint around. We’re not talking about physical unity.”
But then Tatransky added an interesting note at the end of his essay.
“We are presently living for the first time in recorded art in a period in which female painters and sculptors paint and sculpt as well as men — not just as exceptions, but as part of the abundance,” he wrote. “Ward belongs to that abundance.”
Tatransky’s statement was complimentary, but it might not be quite accurate, because Ward wasn’t simply part of the abundance.
She was one of the pioneers who helped paved the way.
“She was an artist during a time when it was a male-dominated field,” Tullos said. “And she was respected.”
Ward was born Jan. 4, 1920, in Eunice, where she eventually was graduated from the Acadiana Baptist Academy.
The school has since closed and is now a retreat center, but it was from there that Ward enrolled in nursing school at the Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans and met her husband, physician Simon Ward.
Simon Ward soon was called to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II, so Cora Ward began taking painting classes at Newcomb College while awaiting his return.
It was also there that she discovered her true calling.
“She and her husband lived in Virginia Beach, Va., for a while,” Badon said. “But they eventually divorced in 1948. There were no children, and she never remarried.”
Instead, Ward moved to Chicago to pursue her bachelor of science degree in visual design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which she earned in 1953. She later earned a master’s degree in art from Hunter College in New York, and in the summers of 1949 and 1950, she attended classes at Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C.
It was here that she met and studied with some of the most influential artists and critics of the mid-20th century, including Greenberg and abstract painter Josef Albers. Classes were taught in communal atmosphere by European artists who settled there after fleeing Hitler’s “purification” of German culture.
“These teachers also taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which is why she went there,” Badon said.
Meaning Ward’s experiences at Black Mountain College shaped and defined her artistic career.
“If you look in the corner of our exhibit, you’ll notice that there are two canvases in the corner that haven’t been stretched,” Tullos said. “They’re rolled up, but you can still see that the colors are different than the ones we’ve had stretched and framed and put on display. The different colors in the other paintings show how she was influenced by different artists’ work at the time, and she was influenced by so many during her career.”
Greenwich Village was known as a hotbed for those influences when Ward moved there in 1955, yet her contemporaries most remembered her more for her photography than her painting. And with good reason.
“She was also a photographer and spent many hours photographing artists, art world dignitaries, friends and colleagues as they moved through the world of exhibition receptions, lectures or classes,” the museum’s label states. “The shy Ward would attend events, camera in hand, where she captured the interaction and excitement of the contemporary art world.”
Some of those photos hang in the exhibit; others can be found in a binder of plastic sleeves on a table in the center of the gallery.
“Visitors are welcome to look through the binder,” Tullos said. “It’s amazing to see the artists she captured here.”
Badon later pointed out that Life magazine published some of the photos. But that was later.
Tullos stood in the gallery at this particular moment, surrounded by work by an artist who is relatively unknown in her home state.
Oh, she never forgot her home. She visited twice a year, staying long enough to see all of her family members and friends.
“She and my mother were very close,” Badon said. “She wrote beautiful letters to mother, and mother saved them all. And when she would come home, she would make each of us feel special and loved. It was always an exciting time when Cora came home, and it was so special.”
Ward shared stories of her adventures, about the time she backpacked through France, visiting small art museums along the way.
And about all of the sights and sounds of the biggest city in the world.
And about the art world personalities she met.
She wasn’t bragging; just sharing. And Badon looked forward to each visit.
“I never visited her in New York, because she was always visiting here,” he said.
Cancer claimed his sister’s life at age 69. Her final show was installed after her death.
“Cora was a dear and selfless friend,” Greenberg wrote in the accompanying catalog. “But I can confidently say that that doesn’t sway me. It’s only with these paintings of the eighties that I am able to hail her art without reservation. That makes me glad — regretfully so because she’s not here to read what I write.”
And regretfully, she’s not around to see that she’s come full circle, for this show at the Hilliard museum is a welcome home of sorts.
Tatransky was correct when he wrote in his 1983 essay that Ward understood that paint has a life of its own. But what he failed to point out is how Ward breathed life into these canvases.
Her energy is present in each stroke, and now that energy is part of Louisiana’s artistic landscape.
“I called everyone in my family in before I donated the works to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette,” Badon said. “I let them choose which pieces they wanted. I know my house is filled with them.”
Pieces also have been donated to the Mobile Museum of Art, Black Mountain College and museums in New York and North Carolina.
And now the Hilliard museum is in the process of choosing pieces it will keep.
“We don’t have the storage capacity to keep them all,” Tullos said. “So, we’ve contacted other museums in the area and region about giving them pieces. So, we’re going to distribute her work among the museums.”
And a new world of art lovers will come to know Cora Kelley Ward in the process.