Pastel artist Wendy Edwards visited the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) on Wednesday afternoon to speak on the exhibit “Powdered Pigments: Three Centuries of Pastel Drawings” currently on display.
The exhibit features more than 30 pieces from the Museum’s collection, showcasing over 300 years of the innovative use of oil pastels. Edwards worked as a professor at Brown University from 1980 until her retirement in June 2020. Her 1984 piece, “Cushion”, is featured in the exhibit.
Frank Goodyear, co-director of the BCMA, opened the talk by thanking Lily Weafer ’23 for her help curating the exhibit. Weafer, who is currently studying abroad in Spain, began working on the exhibit during her internship at the Museum last summer by mining through the collection and researching pieces before ultimately making selections for display.
While she spoke, Edwards guided patrons to the pastels she found most striking.
“I think that this Museum is doing a lot for the community at large,” Edwards said. “They seem to be very active and responsive to current problems: good things, bad things, confusing things. This is a difficult time in the world, and for that reason, it’s actually a very exciting time for artists and I think this group of drawings reaches over a period of time, showing their active ability to make art and express themselves.”
Of the pieces that interested her, Edwards focused on Mary Cassatt’s “The Barefoot Child” and Anne Harris’s “Twin Study with Cord,” both of which include images of infant children. Cassatt’s work is a vibrant image of a mother holding her child set against a bright orange background. Harris’s work, which an audience member stated was created while she was a professor at the College, is a soft gray-toned image of a baby after childbirth.
“What’s better than a baby?” Edwards asked. “I’m a new grandmother and I have a grandson that turns one next week, so I’m more drawn to these images than ever before.”
Edwards and her husband Jerry Mischak, who is also an artist, shared some of their own anecdotes about pastels. Her husband recalled being stopped in a Spanish airport for the large pastels in their suitcases. The pastels resembled sticks of dynamite and concerned airport workers.
“At the time, it was about the same size,” Mischak said. “So the guy shows them to me like, ‘What are these for?’ And you know, I was ready to grab one and get on the ground and start drawing.”
Edwards’ piece “Cushion” was created during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and layers many different pastel colors with dominant blue and green tones.
“I had a dear friend that was one of the first people who was diagnosed with AIDS in New York,” Edwards said. “My husband and I drove back and forth to New York and cared for him. So this body of work really started with a need and a desire to hold on to life … I give it a whole series of drawings, large drawings and paintings.”
Not long after this project, Edwards decided to stop using pastels. She believed the materials were not healthy to work with, especially since she hoped to have children. Some pastels have been linked to toxic materials that can cause bodily harm if ingested or after extensive exposure.
Edwards believes that pastels can act as expressive, active and personal tools for artists. Through rubbing the pigment on various materials or finding specific edges of the pastel to use, Edwards found power in this art form.
“We’re so privileged to have the opportunity to have such a wide range of gorgeous pastel drawings in this exhibit,” Edwards said.
The pastel exhibit will be on display at the Museum throughout the rest of the summer.