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Legendary Ladies: La Jolla Historical Society exhibit honors the town’s ‘Pioneer Women’

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An image of ‘Lady Ellen’ Browning Scripps by Cheryl Tall
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It’s hard to imagine a La Jolla without the contributions of its 20th century pioneer women.

No La Jolla Country Day School without Louise Blamer.

No Athenaeum Music & Arts Library without Florence Bransby Sawyer.

No lasting architecture without Lilian Rice or Florence Palmer.

No copious contributions without benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps.

No civic advancements for the working class people of color without Mabel Bell.

To celebrate these women, and a select handful of others, the next La Jolla Historical Society exhibit presents “Tangible Memories: Recollections of La Jolla Pioneer Women,” on view Feb. 9-May 19 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St.

Curated by Danielle Deery, the exhibit includes artistic responses to the lives and accomplishments of 10 pioneer women by 10 female artists.

The pioneers are: Louise Balmer, Mabel Bell, Florence Bransby Sawyer, Anna Held, Florence Palmer, Lilian Rice, Mary Richmond, Mary Ritter, Ellen Browning Scripps and Virginia Scripps.

The artists include: Tara Centybear, Taylor Chapin, Becky Guttin, Bhavna Mehta, Lee Puffer, Bridget Rountree, Anna Stump, Cheryl Tall, Kelly Telebrico and Rebecca Webb.

Each artist was paired with a pioneer, and tasked with creating one or more pieces inspired by her life.

“I thought it was such a wonderful concept,” said Heath Fox, La Jolla Historical Society executive director. “These were women who ran the cultural and civic life of the community. They were very well educated for the time, and they had been leaders.

“They ran businesses, were architects, and ran social enterprise organizations. They were an interesting and accomplished group of women.”

And the works are as diverse as the women themselves, fashioned from a variety of media.

“The artists got to be creative and innovative in responding to their historic figure’s life,” Fox explained.

“In a way, their creations are an interpretation through the layers of time that have passed since those pioneer women were here and so prominent in the community. We’re very happy we can present this.”

For example, inspired by architect Lilian Rice, artist Anna Stump partnered with a school to teach its students about architecture and had them create floor plans and designs, which will be shown in the exhibition.

Using her body as a canvas, artist Rebecca Webb staged a photograph of herself with a mandala symbol painted in henna on her back reflecting Florence Bransby Sawyer’s interests in Vedanta, one of the schools of Hindu Philosophy. (Sawyer donated the land upon which what was known as the Reading Room was built, that would become the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.)

Others created paintings and collages inspired by their figures.

And because the legendary Ellen Browning Scripps had her hands is so many civic organizations — from Scripps Institution of Oceanography to the La Jolla Woman’s Club — a reflection on her work could not be contained to one piece.

Artist Cheryl Tall made five maquettes (small model sculptures) representing a different facet of Scripps’ life, and, focusing on her connection to the ocean, created the “Lady Ellen” life-sized sculpture with tiles depicting marine life, such as shells and sea stars.

Accompanying each collection of works is a short biography about the pioneer and which element of her life the artist chose to focus upon.

“The work is really exciting ... how different each piece is in terms of the directions the artists went,” said curator Deery.

“The project is really about educating people about the vanguards of La Jolla and how these women of the past are connected, making history tangible and relevant. These prominent artists surprised me with how they took the history and made it into something new.”

More than two years in the making, the exhibit, Deery said, was actually inspired by the 2016 presidential election: “I thought there would be a woman in the White House. It got me thinking about the amazing, inspiring women right here in La Jolla and all they’ve contributed to women’s history.

“There are so many of them and they accomplished so much, not just for La Jolla, but for women and the broader community.”

Fox added: “It’s a very timely exhibition considering women are ascending, not just into professions, but into leadership positions in politics, business, academia, social enterprises like non-profits, and arts and cultural institutions.”

IF YOU GO: “Tangible Memories: Recollections of La Jolla Pioneer Women,” is on view noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 9 to May 19 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. Free admission. (858) 459-5335. lajollahistory.org