Editor’s note: This is the second of three stories about female artists from Louisiana celebrating Women’s History Month.
Cora Kelley Ward
Back in 2011, no one seemed to care about Cora Kelley Ward or the art she created.
She was just another artist that time forgot, and the Hilliard Art Museum was staging a sale of her abstract paintings at low prices. Very low prices by the foot, in fact.
That was Ward’s preferred genre: abstract. Painting was her sole passion, which wasn’t the norm for a kid born into a Eunice minister’s family in 1920.
The Southern Baptist minister was the second husband to Ward’s mom. She married him after he preached the funeral of her first husband, a worker in the lumber industry. He, too, died, and Ward’s mother trained at the Acadiana Baptist Academy outside of Eunice to become a Southern Baptist missionary, then married a third time.
Ward’s husband, Simon Ward, also granted her a divorce so she could pursue painting. She finally settled into a loft apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which also doubled as her studio.
Ward was quiet, poised and movie-star beautiful. But even these qualities, combined with her prolific creativity, didn’t generate much interest in her work. She kept most of what she painted, resulting in more than 1,000 pieces stacked in her apartment at her death in 1989.
She was 69, and it’s said ovarian cancer was the cause. Nevertheless, her brothers and sisters brought her work to New Orleans, where it stayed 15 years in a storage unit.
Ward’s brother, Houston Badon, moved his sister’s paintings to his house after Hurricane Katrina. From there, the family donated them to the Hilliard Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The location was perfect, considering Ward’s Acadiana roots, but the museum was overwhelmed.
“We had no financial or physical way to store the paintings,” said former Hilliard director Mark Tullos. “I’m proud of the solution we drummed up. It generated a lot of interest in Cora Kelley Ward.”
The solution? The museum sold Ward’s paintings as cheap as $2 a square foot. That is, after choosing 30 prime pieces for its permanent collection, then donating others to museums throughout the South, including Black River College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina, where Ward studied in 1950.
Then, in 2012, the museum exhibited its collection of 30 in the show, “Cora Kelley Ward: A Work in Progress.”
“We wanted to establish provenance and documentation,” said Tullos, now president and CEO of the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian, Mississippi. “We wanted the new collectors to know why her work is important.”
So, while the sale really wasn’t a case of tossing aside Ward’s work. It pushed her into the spotlight, something she avoided in life.
“From what we read, she was a bit of an introvert,” Tullos said. “In the art world, you either have to have a good gallery to promote you or you have to be good at promoting your own work. And I believe that she was too humble to do that.”
But the museum educated potential collectors by handing out printed bio sheets at the art sale. So, who was Cora Kelley Ward?
She was an artist who continuously honed her craft in a time when a full-time artist career wasn’t always a viable option for a woman.
She studied painting at Newcomb College in New Orleans, then received a degree in nursing and a master of arts degree from Hunter College in New York. Nursing was a guaranteed job at the hospital near Greenwich Village when she needed money to support her painting.
Ward moved in artistic 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. Greenburg admired her work and wrote a posthumous essay for the catalog for her final show, saying, “Cora was a dear friend and selfless. But I can confidently say that doesn’t sway me. It’s only with these paintings of the ’80s that I am able to hail her art without reservation. That makes me glad — regretfully because she’s not here to read what I write.”
Ward was also a photographer. A New York gallery once hosted a show of her photography.
And thanks to the Hilliard University Art Museum, her collectors are many.
“Part of our mission as a museum was to teach potential collectors how to build a collection,” Tullos said. “We made it so the students at the university could afford the paintings, and I can’t help but believe that, 10 years later, a lot of students are proud of these paintings they bought for a few dollars.”
Still, Tullos believes that one of Ward’s greatest achievements was becoming an abstract painter in a time when the field was dominated by men.
“Women weren’t taken seriously back then,” he said. “But she never let that stop her.
Louisiana sculptor Clyde Connell didn’t let society’s views on women stop her either. Connell’s work also ventured into a form of abstraction.
“Clyde Connell was known for her totems,” Baton Rouge museum curator and consultant Elizabeth Weinstein said. “She was well educated and wound up living in a very rural area.”
Writers pegged Connell the southern Georgia O’Keeffe. Others compared her artwork to the writing of William Faulkner.
Minnie Clyde Dixon Connell was born on Sept. 19, 1901, at Wood’s Place Plantation, one of her family’s five plantations near Shreveport. Though Clyde is considered a boy’s name, her dad made a deal with two friends that they would all name their firstborn children Clyde.
She attended Brenau College in Atlanta, then Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and finally settled into marriage with T. D. Connell, with whom she had three children.
Connell’s artistic pursuit didn’t begin until her 50s, after a stint of civil rights activism through her involvement in the Presbyterian Church and the Home Missions Committee of the National Churches of Christ. She visited avant-garde galleries in New York at this time, where she discovered abstract expressionism.
Meanwhile, Connell’s husband lost his job as superintendent of the Caddo Parish Penal Farm. The couple fell on hard times and moved to Lake Bisteneau.
“For three years I really relaxed, and it took three years because I had no desire to do anything,” Connell is quoted in Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ 64parishes.org. “One day, I looked around and I said this place needs sculpture. I began for the first time to do sculpture. It just all started out of me from somewhere.”
“I think she used art as a way of expressing something inside of her, to convey her feelings,” Weinstein said. “Her work is more abstract, these totemic forms covered in papier-mâché with elements attached that connect with the rural and environment in which she found herself in.”
They also express her spiritual side.
“With all the prejudice that she saw around her, I think for her, her work was to kind of rise above all of that,” Weinstein said.
Though Connell used nature to construct her work, she said its soul was filled with the spirits of former slaves and their descendants who lived on her family’s north Louisiana plantations. She spoke of one such inspiration, an elderly black woman named Susan, who lived on one of the Dixons’ plantations.
“She would take me on long walks down the railroad tracks,” Connell said. “If anything had happened, like a Negro had been whipped, word got around. They all knew. Word passed quickly. She would just moan and chant over what was happening to people in her race. That made me feel my race was terrible. … My work represents those feelings.”
Connell was in her 50s when she became a professional artist. Her work has been seen worldwide and her national awards are many. She died at age 97 on May 4, 1988, in Shreveport.
“Louisiana had great women artists who were making in-roads and doing what they could,” Weinstein said. “And what they were doing was great work.”