“I am staring out the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Than a friend, a fellow artist, calls…he asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine…and you?” I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything…I’ve never felt this way before…” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work…not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job.” I feel foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed…This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Mabel Carney | Houston Street station on the 1 train
First off let me just say that there’s not a ton of readily available information on Mabel Carney. Not even a crappy Wikipedia entry. So I found myself digging through the New York Times and Columbia University digital archives and reading scholarly journal articles in barn burners like “The International Journal of African Historical Studies” and “Historical Studies in Education.”
Here’s what I do know: Most women were not educated before the 1920s but Mabel got a BA in 1917, an MS in 1919 and was offered a full-time faculty appointment as Associate Professor of Rural Education at Teachers College, Columbia University that same year.
At the time, Columbia had a problem with its student population [they wanted to limit Jews] and saw its close proximity to the vibrant intellectual, political, and cultural life of Harlem as both problematic [oh, the poverty!] and promising [oh, the research opportunities!]. There was also an ongoing debate about how to “suitably” educate African Americans: Booker T. Washington wanted to focus on basic literacy and respectable blue color jobs [subservience] and W.E.B. DuBois wanted a liberal arts focus and equal participation in American society broadly [advancement].
Mabel landed on Team DuBois.
She became a pioneer in utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to examining educational and social problems. She was a data driven academic, but her work was guided by personal beliefs and relationships. She grew to become an outspoken critic of systemic inequality, perhaps aided by the “loose cannon” label given by her male colleagues, but was always advocate for the individuals within the system. For her African-Columbia students, she was piggy bank [reparations!], job placement officer and mentor.
Jane Ellen McAllister was the world’s first female African American doctoral candidate in Education. And when she completed the program in 1929, she became the nation’s first black woman to earn an Education Ph.D. Her advisor? None other than Mabel Carney, who died on this day in 1969.
Here she is, the indomitable and prolific artist known as Lee Krasner. Born in Brooklyn on this day in 1908 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Lee changed American art.
It’s fitting I return to this project today because Lee’s story challenges the idea that women haven’t played an active role in history, except perhaps as help maids and villains. Correcting the record is fundamental to the City of Women and our efforts to change the maps.
Her story is utterly compelling, both as a woman and a painter challenging social norms. Lee was by all accounts “a marvelous pain in the ass” who “detested stupidity.” She was tenacious, driven, a forthright and stalwart accolade. There is little complication here, perhaps an odd thing to say about an artist who was the “mother courage” of abstract expressionism. But it was how she saw herself: “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”
She kept working, even when as a young student the great Hans Hofmann said to her, “This is so good, you would not know it was done by a woman,” as a WPA muralist finishing de Kooning’s work, relegated first to the “ladies union” and later to little more than Mrs. Jackson Pollock, later still as his widow. All along she simply wanted to be seen for what she was: a painter. “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
Standing before her life’s work at the Barbicon earlier this year was unexpectedly emotional. I was gob smacked by her talent, the breadth of her work, its scale and boldness. And I was angry that we had been deprived of this genius all these many years. This is an artist who deserves to be known.