Jann Haworth’s “Old Lady,” which graces a Grammy-winning Beatles’ album cover, sits propped in the center of the Emmanuel Art Gallery. Visitors to the first internationally-acclaimed artist exhibition since the University of Colorado Denver took over the gallery marvel at the diverse use of colors in creating the soft sculpture’s wrinkles.
A celebration of age and of a woman who stood out as a hero, the gentle, poignant piece grounds the surrounding wall art that bursts with bold colors, distinct textures, and six decades’ worth of cultural symbols, from comic strips to celebrity body parts. Yet, the revolutionary pop artist, one of few women working in the heart of the 1960s movement, is clear: Her art is not about beauty.
Finding the needle
“What fascinates me about the creative process is the intersection of disparate things, two different ideas coming together, and that analogy has kind of followed me through my career,” Haworth said at a reception for her exhibition, Never the Less, now open to the public through Nov. 11. “It wasn’t ever enough for me to just make an object that’s nice, that’s just something to put on the wall. I’ve always got to find that needle.”
Haworth’s prodding of social notions began as an art student in London in her early 20s, after leaving her Hollywood home for the Slade School of Fine Art. “The men were telling her: ‘We don’t need to see the portfolios of the women students. We only need to see their photos. They are here to keep the boys happy,’” Emmanuel Art Gallery Director and Curator Jeff Lambson told an audience of largely CU donors, administrators and art students. “And, she says, that set her off.”
After growing up in progressive California, surrounded by women celebrities and strong women role models, Haworth was stunned by the British gender discrimination, and, in spite, she took needle and cloth rather than mold and bronze to hand, pioneering “soft sculpture” and creating everything from her grandmother to her signature tea cups and donuts. Her art evolved, but her desire to provoke stood fast.
Activism through art
“Art is a vehicle for letting off steam, or finding form for something that I am challenging, or that I find funny,” Haworth said. “I also want my art to explore new causes,” said Haworth, whose traveling Work in Progress mural, which spans 40 feet and includes more than 100 stencils of women credited with inspiring change, hangs in the Tivoli Student Union as part of the exhibit. The collaborative project involved Haworth and artist Liberty Blake working with hundreds of community members in creating portraits of notable women.
“It has been utterly thrilling,” Haworth said. “It touches so many points that have deep meaning to me. When you can have a project that crosses all of those zones, it’s pretty amazing.” A number of the women who worked on the mural were stuck in abusive relationships, and some of them later told Haworth the experience helped them break the vicious cycle, she said.
Haworth’s spurring of societal discourse spans decades, Lambson said, noting that it was largely because of her that the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Beatles’ cover included women and minorities and excluded Hitler. Haworth and her then-husband, Peter Blake, co-created the album cover, winning a Grammy for their work.
Embracing a university role
Haworth, who has exhibited at museums around the world, including Tate and the Smithsonian, said that showing in Emmanuel felt very familiar, reminding her of gallery and art spaces in the UK where many of the pieces in the exhibit were made. “Only, it’s even better, as it is in the middle of a university campus teeming with energy and students,” she said. It is the first time her art has been exhibited in Colorado.
Particularly because there are many more artists than there are museums, university art galleries serve a significant role, Haworth said. Commending Lambson for his curatorial work, Haworth said students and Denver-area community members will now have outstanding art exhibits travel to their city campus, and artists will be able to interact with the next generation.
At the reception ceremony, CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell applauded the collaboration between the Emmanuel Art Gallery, the College of Arts & Media, and the city of Denver in making the re-opening of the campus facility, now solely under the wings of the university, possible.
“For some people, contemporary art can be off-putting,” said Lambson, who joined CU Denver about six months ago and promises an engaging exhibition program under his direction. “But Jann’s work ties in with pop art and to the Beatles, and many different people can access it. If you want to find the complexity, it’s there. It ties in with art history. It’s also very relevant, because it’s about feminism and the roles of women. But it’s also about donuts and fun, so it has all of these different layers to it.”
Humor, something Haworth said she thrives on, underscores much of her work. “I love it when I fall out of bed laughing and thinking: Oh my gosh, that’s such a good idea,” said Haworth, who made her own cloth “Platinum disc” when her ex-husband received one for their equal work on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover and she did not. “I like that level of art where you are subversive but with a good deal of humor behind it.”
Regent Jack Kroll, who attended the reception with his father, said while looking at one of Haworth’s “sets” ̶ with Old Lady No 2. sewing in a rocking chair, a “wood” case with tea cups behind her ̶ that it took a few seconds to realize the items were made of cloth. “It makes the ordinary extraordinary,” Kroll said of Haworth’s work, which he hopes will lure more students to the gallery. “Without artists like Jann, we would never be needled into questioning why things aren’t getting better all the time.”