Oklahoma City artist Marilyn Artus had driven nearly 22,000 miles and visited 18 states by the end of 2019, as part of her large-scale art project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. She had 18 more to go.
When the “Her Flag” art project ends, she’ll have visited each of the first 36 states that ratified the 19th Amendment, which led to women getting the right to vote in 1920. That victory was 72 years in the making; the movement began officially in 1848 with the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
The length of time “just fascinated me, especially with the culture we live in. We want everything done so fast,” Artus says, noting that many of the women who started the campaign for the right to vote didn’t live to see it happen.
Artus’ nationally focused project involves an interpretation of the American flag that will be 18 feet tall by 26 feet wide by the time she is finished sewing the stripes, one state at a time. The flag includes one stripe of original art contributed by a female artist in each of the 36 states that initially ratified the Amendment. Artus had more than 340 women apply to be one of the 36 – they range in age from their 20s to 70s and include a very diverse group of women, she said.
In Oklahoma, Denise Duong is the featured artist for Artus’ project. Artus will sew that stripe on during a celebration at the Oklahoma History Center on Jan. 18.
Duong’s stripe depicts women in various stages of being bound with ribbons covering their eyes, hands and mouth.
“I was trying to portray through this effort of getting women’s rights, they were slowly able to get liberty and freedom,” Duong says.
Duong said she did more research for her contribution to this project than she had done in a long time, and was surprised by how many other women opposed these efforts during the time. But she loved the project, and said it helped pull her out of a hopeless feeling she had about contemporary politics.
“This was something I could do,” she says. “With your voice, you can make a difference.”
Planning for Artus’ project took two years. It began when a book she read about the movement captivated her; from there, she dug in with more research. Artus learned about prominent leaders of women such as Susan B. Anthony, and key players that aren’t as famous. Those include women such as Miriam Leslie, who was the largest financial donor to the fight, but as a vaudeville dancer was considered somewhat scandalous, and Ida B. Wells, a key African-American figure in the suffrage movement.
“That book was like a gateway drug to being a suffrage nerd,” Artus said as she realized she could lead a national art project from Oklahoma.
A large hand-drawn calendar hanging on the wall in her home art studio spans two poster-board-sized pages and is helping her keep track of where she has been and where she is going on her suffrage tour. She plans to end up in August in Nashville – Tennessee was the last state of the initial 36 that ratified the amendment – to compete Her Flag in time for the national celebration of the suffrage centennial. Artus also was planning to represent Oklahoma in the women’s suffrage float at the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California, on New Year’s Day. Filmmaker Bradley Beasley is working on a related documentary, Artus said.
As she travels to each state capitol in order of ratification, Artus packs her car with her sewing machine and table, pincushions designed by artists from each state, her sewing basket, signage, the flag and merchandise. She makes each stop a celebration of women’s suffrage with performance and visual artists accompanying her as she sews.
“I’m like a band on tour, really,” Artus says. “The scope of this thing is so large.”
Artus said she started using the American flag as inspiration in her art several years ago “as a vehicle for feminist exploration” and always includes a measuring tape in this work “because women are measured in a way that men aren’t.” She tells people who question her use of the symbol that she means no disrespect to the flag, but uses it to show that it is a universal symbol that belongs to every American.
One of her trips included a stop at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, where people can stand at the lectern where organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed conventiongoers.
“I just started crying. It was really incredible to be there,” Artus says. She said she hopes that the finished flag goes on tour as an art exhibit once her suffrage celebrations end. “It’s important to celebrate this anniversary,” she says. “There’s still work that needs to be done.”
For more information or to donate to the project, check out Artus’ website related to this project at herflag.com and follow her on social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) @herflag2020.