Women Who Made Waves at the National Gallery of Art

Artist Betye Saar

The National Gallery of Art is one of the many destinations that we partner with at Live It Learn It. Their robust and diverse collection features drawings, paintings, sculpture, photography, and prints from the Middle Ages to present day. Their sundrenched-galleries draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, from across the world.

On a field experience to the National Gallery of Art, our students dive deep into sculpture by analyzing contemporary works, including those of Alexander Calder, whose largest mobile hangs in the Mezzanine of the museum’s East Building. Equipped with the vocabulary of sculpture from an engaging pre-lesson, students are able to examine three-dimensional works of art at the museum, as well as hone in on the materials, subject matter, and message of the art they observe. For our students and many others, the National Gallery of Art is a place of learning and experience. The National Gallery of Art is a hallmark of the world of art and a national treasure.

Over 124,000 works of art fill the institution. However, out of the 13,000 artists present at the National Gallery of Art, less than a fraction of them are women. Within the art world, there is a large disparity between the celebration and recognition of male artists compared to women artists. According to a study by Judy Chicago in the Guardian, artwork by women artists makes up only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. The National Gallery of Art is no exception to this statistic. Few women are represented at this institution of learning and this post is dedicated to them.

In true Live It Learn It fashion, we are all about being hands-on. We believe people learn best when they experience the world for themselves: when they (as our name suggests) “live it.” So through this post, we hope to encourage you to visit the National Gallery of Art and experience the art of the women we will highlight. We will equip you with the tools, knowledge, and vocabulary to have an engaging experience and adventure.

First, we will give you a guide. This guide is entitled, Women Who Made Waves. It showcases five artists at the National Gallery of Art and will guide you through the museums’ East Building and help you locate their art.


 The guide that we have provided is modeled after a zine. For those who are unfamiliar — a zine, pronounced ZEEN and short for magazine, is a self-published, handmade publication. Zines pull from a do-it-yourself philosophy, where anyone regardless of title, race, gender, etc feels empowered to create.

During the 1990’s, the underground feminist punk movement called Riotgrrrl used this very philosophy to empower women. Zines were a staple within this underground community and were used to address issues faced by women and LGBTQ folks that the mainstream media often neglected to highlight.

Following in this tradition, I have modeled Women Who Made Waves after a zine. As zines tended to be anti-establishment, I believe this aesthetic would be most fitting to showcase women artists at the National Gallery of Art, who have often been left out the canon and seldom taught in academia.  

Each page of Women Who Made Waves , the zine, is dedicated to a different artist and tells you a little bit about their background, the kind of art they created, where in the museum their work is located, and details about that particular work of art on view. This zine, which you can see below, will be your guide when moving through the National Gallery of Art. When in the museum, you can simply enlarge the zine on your phone and use your index finger to swipe through it.


For our units at Live It Learn It, each field experience is prepared for with a pre-lesson and followed by a post-lesson. To prepare you for a field experience to the National Gallery of Art with a focus on women, the text below will equip you with art vocabulary and knowledge to better understand who the women were that were making waves and what they were creating.  

Art Vocabulary:

Abstract Art is a departure from representing images realistically. Objects are often simplified or distorted.

Collage Art is the combination of pieces of diverse materials, such as newspaper, magazines, package, paint and photos, paper, cloth, wood into one composition, making something completely new.

Multimedia Art is the use of a variety of artistic or communicative media, including text, audio, images, animation, and video.

Expressionism was a movement that originated in Germany in the early 20th century. The style was known for its angles, flattened forms, garish colors, and distorted views which distorted perspective and created an emotional effect on the viewer.

Oils or oil paints are made by mixing dry powder pigments with refined linseed oil to a stiff paste and grinding with steel roller mills. Oil-based pigments are used with paint thinner, turpentine, or other non-water-based suspension.

Sculpture is three-dimensional artwork.

The Women Who Made Waves

Lee Bontecou

 Lee Bontecou is completely unconventional. Her work has its own unique style; big, dark circular sculptures that often resembles black holes or voids. When she emerged on the art scene in the 60’s, her work was completely different from the happy and commercial pop art that was popular at the time, which made her stand out and brought her a lot of attention. However, at the height of her stardom, she left New York and retreated to rural Pennsylvania for a quieter life. When looking at her art, notice the texture of her sculptures. Notice the hues of gray and the unconventional materials.

Grace Hartigan

Grace Hartigan is hard to categorize. She was a painter, but didn’t enjoy labels and refused to be boxed into anyone one group of art. However, her artwork is very abstract and filled with expression. It is vivid and bold, inspired by coloring books, films, advertisements and paint-by-number paintings. She was heavily inspired by the painters of her time like Jackson Pollock, and you can see it in her work, which is littered with shapes and general brushwork. When looking at her piece Essex and Hester, which depicts a street corner, notice the movement in the work and the shapes.

Yayoi Kusama

You may have heard of Yayoi Kusama for her Infinity Rooms exhibit which drew thousands of people to the Hirshhorn Museum last year. She is known for her large installations and wacky style of dots and patterns, and her almost 30-year stint at a psych ward but she is much more than that. Kusama is a world-renowned abstractionist, pulling upon her Japanese heritage and vivid imagination to make art that is exciting and engaging.


Not to be mistaken with singer Joni Mitchell,
Joan Mitchell was an amazing abstract expressionist painter. She spent most of her life living and working in the countryside outside of Paris. Her work was made of bold colors and gestural brushstrokes. Her paintings were often large and multi-paneled. She pulled inspiration from many things, including nature and poetry. Prior to moving to France, she experienced a lot of success in New York, which at the time was unheard of for a woman. When looking at her work, notice its size. Do you have an emotional reaction to what you see? Mitchell hoped to convey emotion in her work, instead of set images.

Betye Saar

When it comes to recognizing women within the art world, women of color are even more invisible and struggle even harder to have their voices heard. Betye Saar, a multimedia artist challenges this in her work. Through her collages, altars, box assembles and installations with found objects, she tells stories; she disassembles and tackles stereotypes and myths about blackness and womanhood; she deserves to be celebrated!


Post – Activity:

Now that you have enjoyed a wonderful field experience and discovered the power of the women artist in this unit and learned a little about the history of the zine; I encourage you to make your own zine pulling inspiration from what you saw at the National Gallery Art! 

What you will need:

  • A sheet of copy paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue or Tape
  • A stapler
  • Images and/or Magazines or Newspapers

Follow the steps in the infographic below to cut and assemble your zine. Then use any images, stickers, markers, crayons…whatever you desire to bring your zine to life.

Wonderful, now that you have completed all the steps we want to see your final product! Post it on social media and tag us: @liveitlearnit. Or shoot us an email at communicationas@liveitlearnit.org or comment below. We want to see and showcase your wonderful art!

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