Women Strong group continues to break diversity barriers, exhibits art creations in Dayton

‘Women are natural peace makers and often this can be seen through our art and our stories.’

The two women had been hanging out together for a while when they began to realize their relationship might be a bit unusual.

“We’d go to dinner, do other things, and we’d notice we were the only people we’d see who were mixing cultures,” said Audrey Davis about her relationship with her friend, Janet Lasley. “I’d be the dark person, she’d be the white person. Janet was of German ancestry and couldn’t keep a curl. She was the real deal — loving, giving.”

The two first met when they happened to sit next to each other at a Reach Across Dayton conference at Sinclair Community College in 2012. The annual event was designed to promote cross-cultural understanding and education between African American, Appalachian, Latino, Native American and other ethnic communities in the Miami Valley.

The women quickly realized they shared a passion for art. Davis, the wife of renowned local artist Bing Davis, is a jewelry designer who uses natural stones in her work. Lasley taught art at Chaminade-Julienne Catholic High School.

“We decided we’d try to see what we could do to encourage people to mix it up and get to know one another,” recalled Davis, emphasizing that it was a time when African-Americans and whites were not mixing socially. She had seen a New York Times article that said 75 percent of Americans and 90 percent of Ohioans had never had a meal or sat in the home of someone outside of their own culture.

“They were living on lies and misconceptions but not what they actually knew,” Davis said. “Since we both liked art, we decided to form a group of 10 artists of mixed ages, cultures and religions and take the time to get to know one another.”

Fast forward to April, 2024 when two art exhibitions created by the members of “Women Strong” are currently on show at the International Peace Museum and The Dayton Woman’s Club. Janet Lasley has recently passed away and the group honors her memory with their exhibits.

Members of Women Strong

Davis said she and Lasley were deliberate in their choice of members. They didn’t want the group to be so big that they couldn’t gather in one another’s homes and they wanted to make certain that each of the women took pride in her heritage.

“We invited a Native American, Diane Barr; we invited Nasrine Majidi, who was born in Iran and moved to the United States in 2000. We have Erin Morgan Smith Glenn who is a single mother and Lois Fortson Kirk, a former Methodist minister and a former member of the internationally known Fisk Jubilee Singers. Francis Turner was my next door neighbor who made dolls.”

Invites also went to Yu Feng Wang who was born and educated in China and incorporates Chinese folklore and history in her ink drawings, paintings and sculpture. Yvette Walker Dalton’s art career began when she designed greeting cards; she is also a pastor who blends theology with her art.

Marsha Pippenger, well-known for her colorful collages, calls herself the “wasp” in the group. She was invited to join by Janet Lasley, who was her children’s art teacher. The youngest member is Cydnie King who is in her 30s; the newest member is Elyssa Wortzman, a Jewish artist.

“One of my goals is to bring community into my art-making process,” said Wortzman, who is currently the featured artist in the Peace Museum’s “Women Strong” exhibit, “Do You Hear Me?” It’s been fascinating, she noted, to see how divergent cultural heritages are transmitted through each artist in the group.

Wortzman invited a group of women at Beth Abraham Synagogue, ages 28 to 70s, to participate in creating the materials for her series on protecting and encouraging women’s voices and the voices of others who are often excluded.

“More than 25 women joined me in a two- hour workshop, taking red string — a cross-cultural symbol of protection — and imbuing it with our intentions and prayers for the peaceful expression of women’s voices. We meditated together, we shared stories of our voices being suppressed, and created a sacred space in which we felt safe and heard. "

At the end of the workshop, all of the women wrapped themselves with the red string, creating a visible web of interconnection and protection.

“That string, replete with our blessings and intentions, was woven into over 20 pieces I created on the theme of protected spaces for all voices,” Wortzman said.

Davis said the group typically emphasizes women’s roles in its exhibitions and is also selective when it’s time to choose exhibit venues. The Peace Museum and The Dayton Woman’s Club are good examples.

“This is a good fit for our museum because historically, women have played vital roles in peacebuilding,” said Alice Young Basora, director of education at the Peace Museum. “Women are natural peace makers and often this can be seen through our art and our stories. Sharing these stories can catalyze societal change and promote gender-inclusivity in approaches to peace and security. Research has shown that peace agreements are more durable when women are involved in their negotiation and implementation.”

The “Women Strong” group continues to meet both in restaurants and in one another’s homes.

“We want other people to see us doing this together and we’re showing our children and grandchildren there’s another way to live than being separate,” Davis said.

While she believes the art aspect of the group is important, Davis insists it’s mainly about getting to know and respect one another.

“If we can do this, so can anyone,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be artists; maybe it could be a book group. This ridiculousness of separation and distance and dislike doesn’t have to be. We shouldn’t have to be separate.”

In a tribute to Lasley, who died in January, Pippenger wrote:

In 2018 we all came together for the first time. We shared food, life experiences, artistic goals, and gradually began to know each other. We laughed and ate and several hours later, all agreed that this was a good thing and we wanted to continue. Together we have shown our paintings, collages, sculptures, jewelry and fibers all over Dayton and the Miami Valley. People see that we not only have art in common, but other things, even though we are Jewish, African-American, Iranian, Chinese, Native American and White. We love and care for each other. Through this process of sharing, we have become lifelong friends.

How to go

What: “Do You Hear Me?” An exhibit by Women Strong

Where: The International Peace Museum, Courthouse Plaza Southwest, 10 N. Ludlow St., Dayton

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Groups can also visit Tuesday through Thursday by advanced reservation only. Through May 11.

Admission: $5

More info: 937-227-3223. Some of the artwork is available for sale.

What: Women Strong Art Exhibit

Where: The Dayton Woman’s Club, 225 N. Ludlow St., Dayton

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Lunch is open to the public on Wednesdays. The exhibit will be up until April 26.

Admission: Free

More info: 937-228-1124

Note: Artwork is available for purchase with 20 percent of the sale benefiting The Dayton Woman’s Club and Children’s Historical Publishing.

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