The Women Behind “Women Among Us”

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A group of people posing for the camera

Put five guys together and you’ll probably end up with a pile of empty beer cans.  But put five women together and you get an art exhibit.  At least that’s what materialized when Eleanor Dietrich, Linda Hall, Becki Rutta, Mary Jane Ryals and Lynne Knight got together. 

A way to explore the life experiences of older women…

Two older women sitting on outdoors.
Eleanor Dietrich (L) and Linda Hall (R)

It started with conversations between Dietrich and Hall.  Ms. Dietrich had been ruminating about her current stage of retirement.  She decided she wanted to find a way to explore the life experiences of older women, to see where she was headed.  Now, when Eleanor decides she wants to do something, it usually gets done.  She’s the person who convinced the Florida Department of Transportation to quit cutting down wildflowers on so many of the state’s roadsides…and now we have a blossoming state wildflower program.  The next time you’re driving along and see bright yellow Coreopsis wildflowers blanketing the roadside, think of Eleanor Dietrich

Linda Hall is a working artist and sculptor who has found recognition for her work with papier-mâché and fabrics.  When asked about the seed of their collaboration, Halls says, “…at one point I remember her (Eleanor) saying that she wanted to spend time with women who were about eighty, to maybe inform her about how to understand the upcoming phase of her life.  And we returned to that several times, that idea…”. 

The photographer…

A person smiling for the camera
Photographer Becki Rutta

So, after some backyard wine conversations, the two women struck upon the idea of photographic portraits of older local women, 65 years and up, whose lives reflected their strength of character, and determination to better their community.  Then the concept was expanded to write the stories of the women exhibited. With the basic concept decided, a photographer and writer had to be brought into the fold.  Linda was familiar with the portrait work of Becki Rutta, introduced her to Eleanor, and asked her if she would like to join their project.  Rutta, a portrait photographer who was teaching commercial photography at Lively Technical College at the time, jumped right in.  “…being a portrait photographer…I see photography as a collaboration and then, when these women came into the picture it felt like a very natural thing just to start this collaboration with them.”, recalls Rutta.              

The writer…

A woman sitting in front of a window
Writer/poet Mary Jane Ryals

At this point, the story takes on an international flair.  While teaching art at the FSU Study Abroad Program in Florence, Italy, Linda approached colleague and friend Mary Jane Ryals about the writing.  Mary Jane is a novelist, poet, and happens to be the Big Bend Poet Laureate.  Mary Jane loved the idea.  Upon their return to Tallahassee, Hall and Ryals reconnected with Dietrich and Rutta and got to work contacting the women they had chosen to be recognized for their good works.  They would set up studio sessions of two women at a time.  They would drive to pick them up and deliver them to Rutta’s studio, where Becki would photograph one, while Mary Jane interviewed the other about their life experience.  Then the two subjects would rotate.  They had been going through this process for several weeks.

The graphic designer…

A woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Graphic designer Carol Lynne Knight

Carol Lynne Knight was one of the final women the group had decided to spotlight.  When it became her turn to get the star treatment, after being photographed and interviewed, she suggested the project was missing something…a book.  She thought all their efforts deserved more than just a one-time gallery showing.  Knight is a writer and poet like Mary Jane, and an artist like Linda Hall, but more importantly for this collaboration, she is a graphic designer with decades of experience producing books and publications.  So, she volunteered to do the book. Now the group was complete. 

The exhibit…

A collage of photographs of women

The exhibit will be 17 single portraits of the 17 individual women, with a haiku written for each, to capture the essence of each portrait in a poem.  Additionally, there will be a book with a different portrait image of each of the group of seventeen, their accompanying haiku, plus a profile about each woman written from their interviews.  The exhibit photos will be large prints on metal.  Becki Rutta did the photography and Mary Jane Ryals wrote the haikus and subject profiles.  Lynne Knight produced all the print and promotional material, and helped Mary Jane edit her writings.  All five women curated the project. The exhibit, Women Among Us: Portraits of Strength will run October 14th through 30th, at LeMoyne Arts.  As the exhibit showing draws near, Lynn Knight reflects on her involvement in the Women Among Us project, “I don’t think I knew how much fun it would be and how wonderful the women I’m working with are.”          

https://www.tallahasseearts.org/event/women-among-us-portraits-of-strength/