The arts at Rowan celebrate women and their stories

The arts at Rowan celebrate women and their stories

Craig Terry

Reviewing the extensive list of Rowan University activities celebrating Women’s History Month, a good percentage focused on theatre, art, poetry, dance, film, literature and other artistic endeavors.

“The arts are a lens through which we can visualize issues and then provoke conversation,” notes director/choreographer and Associate Dean of the College of Performing Arts, Melanie Stewart. “We’re in a time when it remains important to cast a light on the powerful attributes of women.”

One of the concluding events on that month-long schedule is Rowan University Art Gallery West’s historic re-staging of “The Sister Chapel,” the landmark installation created at the height of the 1970s women’s art movement getting its first showing anywhere in 36 years. The exhibit serves as just one example of how women are being honored and depicted in a range of artistic and cultural programming presented by the Gallery, the Department of Art, and the College of Performing Arts on campus; and not just during this one month.

“This exhibit makes a visible statement about the important contributions women make and have made to the arts and culture,” says Mary Salvante, Gallery & Exhibitions Program Director at Rowan, noting that women are often underrepresented in major museums and collections.

It is also represents a historic moment for the university. Rowan’s presentation of “The Sister Chapel” is only the third time all the paintings have been exhibited together, and the first time since 1980. Additionally, a tent-like structure – designed to house the installation for its original showing but never executed – has been fabricated here; so that, for the first time in its history, “The Sister Chapel” is exhibited as originally intended.

The installation, conceived by artist Ilise Greenstein in 1974 and first exhibited in 1978, uses a nominal pun on Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling as a challenge to what she saw as a patriarchal vision of history. Greenstein sought to utilize the cooperative spirit of the women’s art movement and celebrate female role models from a female perspective. She and 12 other women created the structure and the 11 nine-foot canvases depicting heroic woman. Contemporary and historical women, deities, and conceptual figures are featured, including Joan of Arc, congresswoman and activist Bella Abzug, celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the Hindu goddess Durga, poet Marianne Moore, and many others.

The effort to honor and depict women in the stories and artistic endeavors being told on campus is not limited to visual art, however.

The Department of Theatre & Dance concludes a season of productions focusing on female characters with the award-winning musical Nine, presented in association with the Department of Music. In telling the story of troubled Italian film director Guido Contini, the show examines his life through the complicated relationships he has with a range of influential and powerful women.

“These are beautifully written, beautifully scored, strong women,” says director and faculty member Christopher Roche. Among his goals in telling this story, Roche hopes audiences understand that this central male character’s evolution in learning to take responsibility for his actions is inspired by seeing himself in the faces of these women.

The Theatre & Dance season has gone beyond the stage and the its own department this year, working in collaboration with the Women’s and Gender Studies program to foster dialogue and examine ideas with opening-night talkbacks in conjunction with themes explored in each show. Connecting with other areas of the university community is integral to spreading the message being shared through these stories.

Moderated by Dr. Timothy Vaden from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the April 14 panel for Nine includes Dr. Zena Meadowsong and Claire Falck from the Department of English; Samantha Wagner from the Office of Social Justice, Inclusion, & Conflict Resolution; and Kristy Jo Slough, a junior theatre major and cast member.

It may be a talk back after a theatrical production, a panel discussion at a gallery reception, or a guest artist’s masterclass or open studio, but Rowan’s cultural communities are intent on exploring ideas beyond the entertainment value of a single performance or exhibit.

“The arts have always demanded a certain level of advocacy,” Stewart notes, adding that she sees the arts at Rowan serving as a catalyst for engaging with others from across the campus and beyond in broad-based discussion on issues, whether they be about women or other concerns in society.

Visit for information on “The Sister Chapel” (running through June 30), other gallery exhibit and events. For more on Nine (running April 14 – 17) and other performances, visit

Support for programming at Rowan University Art Galleries has been made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.