Say Her Name: Women of the AAP

Author: Emi Finkelstein

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

Say their names: Tina Williams Brewer, Fran Gialamas, Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer. A collection of works by these three artists and members of Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP) are on display in the University Art Gallery through the end of March. The exhibition Three Artists (Three Women) was inspired in part by the work of Mary Ethel McAuley, an AAP artist from the early 20th century, whose paintings of Germany during wartime are on display in the front gallery of the UAG. Together, these four local women artists, whose work differs greatly in subject, form, media, and scale, share a commitment to pushing forward what it means to be a woman artist working in Pittsburgh—whether today or a century ago.

The plans for Three Artists (Three Women) kicked off with a visit from Madeline Gent (Executive Director of AAP), Brewer, Gialamas and Cuellar-Shaffer to the UAG in January, where the artists saw McAuley’s paintings for the first time and were inspired to display work that created a dialogue between her art and their own. The following weeks were a whirlwind of research, studio visits across the city, and discussions with the artists. Our first studio visit took place at Fran Gialamas’s Aspinwall studio. Next to the front door were stacked a series of large-scale canvases, which we slowly unwrapped and examined with Gialamas. Watching the artist revisit almost four decades of her own work was an exciting perspective into her long career, which included serving for a few years as president of the AAP and advocating for artist equity. 

The next day, we traveled to Brewer’s residence in Homewood. Seated on her living room floor, we discussed the artist’s life and work—her frequent collaborations, her materials collected from all over the world, and the way she translates her spirituality into her art quilts. One of the most memorable moments came when UAG Director Sylvia Rhor found herself wrapped up with the artist in a large dancing skirt, which is now elegantly folded and hung at the front of the UAG exhibition. Greensburg-based artist Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer’s studio was too far away for us to travel to, so we followed her process via text message as she painted three new works for our exhibition. When the works were delivered by Cuellar-Shaffer we arranged them as a tryptic against a gallery wall and sat before them, discussing the artist’s own experiences as a Columbian immigrant and Latina woman living in the US. 

Throughout the period of research and curation, our team frequently returned to our initial conversation with the artists in the gallery in early January, when we shared the story of Mary Ethel McAuley and her nearly forgotten paintings with the artists. When Brewer heard this, she exclaimed “say her name!” quoting the title of one of her own art quilts. This phrase became an important touchstone for our team, and we decided to place the phrase on the wall of the UAG’s Rotunda space in four languages—English after Brewer’s work, Spanish for Cuellar-Shaffer, Greek to reference Gialamas’s childhood and heritage, and German, for Mary Ethel McAuley. The space will be transformed into a feminist maker space and reading room for Women’s History Month in March, casting light on the achievements of many women artists—here in Pittsburgh and across the globe.