Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Wednesdays at Michael's by Diane Clehane

Lunch with British Parliament Artist in Residence Mary Branson

Mary Branson & Diane Clehane
Click images for full size view

Judging by the decibel level in the dining room at Michael’s today, the movers and shakers in the front room had plenty to talk about. We certainly did at my table. I was joined today by British artist Mary Branson thanks to British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger and his wife, Amy Griggs Kliger, who thought I’d be interested in hearing about Mary’s groundbreaking work, New Dawn, a contemporary light sculpture and memorial of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. The first contemporary artwork to become a permanent exhibit in the Houses of Parliament, New Dawn hangs above the passage used by suffragists as they fought for women's rights. As just about everyone who knows me knows, I’m an unabashed anglophile, so jumped at the chance to learn about this intriguing artist and her work.


Last night, Mary spoke at the Borough of Manhattan Community College downtown at an event sponsored by British Heritage Travel and BMCC Women’s Resource Center where she talked about the fascinating, untold stories of the suffragettes and suffragists (Yes, there’s a difference) who, one hundred years ago, fought and sacrificed so women in Britain and America could vote and how her discoveries about them informed New Dawn. (In case you didn’t know women got the right to vote in Britain in 1918. It happened two years later in the states.) Mary is headed back to England tomorrow after her visit to the states which also included lecture stops at the International Churchill Society in Washington, D.C. and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. In October, she’ll be part of a private tour of Parliament for travelers on British Heritage Travel’s “Cross the Atlantic” cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 when it docks in London.

New Dawn light installation

In preparation for our interview, I watched a video about New Dawn on Mary’s website (marybranson.com) and was struck by its quietly commanding beauty and even more impressed by the fascinating story behind the art. In March 2014, when Mary became Artist in Residence at the Houses of Parliament. Dr. Mari Takayanagi, a senior archivist at the Parliamentary Archives and co-creator and project manager of Vote 100, a celebration of 100 years of the Parliamentary vote for some women and all men in 2018, took her through the archives. Mary was astonished by what she discovered. “Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the story of the suffragettes. People know about Emmeline Pankhurst; that what the movie [2015’s Suffragette starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep] was about,” she told me. “I thought [the story of getting the vote] was all about the suffragettes, but there were loads of suffrage organizations. One of the biggest was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. There were 10,000 suffragettes and 100,000 suffragists, but they never get talked about.”

The suffrage movement in Britain spans 52 years from 1866 until 1918. Mary learned that the suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett beginning in 1866, believed in petitioning, lobbying and marching in contrast to the more militant methods of suffragettes. “I felt very much aligned to the suffragists. I don’t think I’d have been able to go get involved in a bloody protest,” she said. But both factions played a part in winning the vote. “It all kind of came together. You couldn’t have one without the other.”

When Mary was brought to the Act Room where every act of Parliament for the past 500 years is kept, the images of the scrolls “stayed with me” during her six months of research sparking the beginnings of the creation of New Dawn and ultimately becoming the heart and soul of its design. “I wanted to see who, in the records of the Sergeant at Arms [Parliament security], was protesting and where.” In digging into the archives, Mary was also surprised by her own reactions to her discoveries. “I thought I’d get excited about seeing the well-known names [on the lists] but what was most exciting was seeing how many ordinary women were protesting and getting arrested. I wanted to make an artwork that celebrated those women.”

And that she did. New Dawn is massive in scale to reflect the size of the suffrage campaign. The hand-blown circular glass scrolls that make up its dawning sun  reflect the many individuals who were involved in the movement and their ever-lasting contribution to modern democracy. The glass scrolls are mounted on a portcullis structure – the principal emblem of Parliament. Mary told me the colors of the lights represent the different suffrage organizations that all had their own signature colors used on banners and buttons during marches. “I didn’t know how big this was,” said Mary who told me there were 16,500 petitions filed with nearly 4 million signatures over the course of the movement. “I really needed to make a statement piece, not something that would be put in the corner somewhere.”

Mary said she was immediately drawn to historic Westminster Hall, the oldest part of Parliament and a large “overlooked” space above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall. It was also, she learned, the site of numerous demonstrations where thousands of protesters came to Parliament to fight for women’s right to the vote. “I wanted to puncture the building with a strong female energy through light.” She was “surprised” and thrilled when her proposal to install New Dawn in the space was approved.

In June 2016 New Dawn was revealed 150 years to the day that the first mass petition calling for women’s votes in the House of Commons. Mary explained the installation’s 168 glass scrolls are backlit and linked to the tides of the Thames River which is programmed using specially developed software. “The intensity of the light ebbs and flows based on the tides,” she said. Mary was inspired by the imagery she found on historical posters from the period which often included renderings of a sunrise and drawings of tides and waves of water symbolically bringing change.” The result is a visually stunning and emotionally arresting work that literally puts viewers in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of women and men who fought for women’s right to the vote.

Mary told me when the lords of both houses approved her design, they joking requested that her installation be designed to “last 400 years” but Mary went beyond that working with a team of lighting designers, engineers and technology consultants (including her husband Mat Clark) to create a system where the art can remain the same but the technology can be removed and replaced with new innovations that are sure to come over the course of time. “The people who fought for this and were very brave to take [this issue] on, deserve to be remembered,” said Mary. Seeing New Dawn, you will never forget them.

I was so taken with Mary’s story about the creation of New Dawn, I barely had time to ask her how she came to work as an artist with light. I was surprised to learn she didn’t a full-time artist until she was in her thirties. After a decade working as a stewardess for British Airways, she went back to school and got her first class honors degree in Fine Art from the Surrey Institute in 2002 followed by an MA in Art and Space at Kingston University in 2004. “It’s never too late to reinvent yourself.”

When I told Mary the mission of the suffragists and suffragettes to fight for equal rights is not unlike that of women all over the world who touched off a seismic cultural movement with Women’s March in 2017, she concurred. “What really struck me is women one hundred years ago are very much the same as we are now days,” she said as we finished our coffee. As I stood at the corner of 55th and Fifth trying (in vain) to hail a cab in this afternoon’s monsoon, I felt hopeful thinking about how women, when we band together, can prevail. But I also remembered the words of poet George Santayana - - "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."



Seen & Heard Around the Room

Broadway benefactress Fran Weissler and Mickey Ateyeh on Table Two … Faye Wattleton on Three …GIII’s Morris Goldfarb on Four … New York Mets’ COO Jeff Wilpon on Five … Frank McCourt and Michael Eisner on Six … Long time no see! Bisila Bokoko on Eight.

And there’s more...

Producer Joan Gelman and Nancy Haberman on Table Eleven … Lisa Dallos with a squadron of suits on Twelve … Tom Rogers, who I met when he came over to heap praise on last week’s lunch date, Gretchen Carlson ( LINK TO COLUMN HERE), on Fourteen with Hank RatnerJim Casella on Fifteen and United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky at his usual perch, Table Sixteen … Matt Rich on Twenty-One … Actress Leesa Rowland on Twenty-Six ... Stuart Synder on Eighty-One.

Finally, we just have to ask – Who was that elegant, silver-haired woman in the red suit and matching hat? On her way out the door, she smiled knowingly in our direction and we were dazzled. Evidently, it’s a big week for hats.

See you next week!



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