Two artists who have been making work in Madison for decades have been named this year’s Forward Art Prize winners, taking home an unrestricted $10,000 each.

Mary Bero, a maker of “tapestry paintings” in Schenk-Atwood, and Babette Wainwright, a ceramicist on the north side, are the fifth pair of winners of the prize, announced Thursday at a reception at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Bero submitted work for the prize several times previously, and had begun to think her time to win had passed.

“I thought it was an age factor,” said Bero, who is 74 and has been working as an artist in Madison since 1976. “I was thrilled when I got the call. … It’s recognition, right? You work in a vacuum and spend so many hours by yourself. There are so many other things that are more appreciated. Artists need to be recognized.”

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Artist Mary Bero points to the years she wrote on the back of an art piece in her studio on the east side of Madison.

‘A stunning array’

Two local artists, Brenda Baker and Bird Ross, launched the Women Artists Forward Fund in 2017 to honor women-identifying artists working in Dane County who “show exceptional creativity in their work and compelling prospects for the future.”

They gave out the first prize in 2019. This year was the largest pool of applicants yet, with 82 artists vying for the prize.

“There’s a lot more mature work,” Ross said. “People apply again and again, and the work gets better and better.”

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An art piece made with paper and thread is pictured at the studio of local artist Mary Bero.

The variety is expanding too, she said. This year’s pool included digital art, fiber art and paper weaving. There is always painting and works in clay, and “just a wide variety of really committed work made by a lot of women in Dane County,” she said.

“People who are getting the awards are being seen,” Ross said. “They’re getting more shows, institutions are learning about them. I think that has made the community of artists in Dane County that we’ve been working with feel there’s more connection between them, individually.”

A changing jury judges Forward Art Prize entries each year. The current crop were sorted by Simona Chazen (a philanthropist who funded the prize for many years, and a returning juror), as well as 2021 winner Alice Traore, Nancy Mladenoff, Kelli Kadokawa and Melanie Herzog.

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Clay sculptures by Babette Wainwright line shelves in her home art studio in Madison.

“This year, I didn’t really know the work of a lot of the finalists,” Baker said. “We’re getting a lot of new people.”

Baker called the show at ALL “a stunning array, and survey of, women visual artists’ work in the county right now.” A five-year anniversary show is in the works at the James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center next spring.

The artists who will receive the $1,000 grants from Dane County work in a variety of media, making vivid nature-inspired watercolors and abstract oil pastels, dark and whimsical illustrations and more. Honorees this year include Helen Kelebesadel, T.L. Luke, Rebecca Kautz, Jessica Gutierrez and Issis Macias.

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Babette Wainwright paints a clay sculpture in her home art studio in Madison.

Empowering women artists

When she heard about an art prize dedicated to women, Babette Wainwright said she was “jumping up and down.”

“It made me so excited,” she said. “It was a big deal. Maybe I’m biased, but we’re in the back row. I see some women artists who are doing fantastic work and they’re not even noticed. I compare to men who are doing what I would call lazy work, who get noticed and get the funds. So yeah that was big for me.”

Wainwright is from Haiti and her figurative sculpture work reflects that heritage, inspired by the female form and Haitian Vodou spirituality. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000 and was featured in a Wisconsin Triennial (2010) at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Now 70 years old, she’s been making art in Madison since 1984.

“I’m a bit isolated,” Wainwright said. “I’m sort of stuck being Haitian, and my work represents that, and it doesn’t get much attention. People of color don’t seem to respond well to it, but I’ve been well-received by the rest of the community, I must say. I’ve had lovely experiences with galleries and shows.”

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Babette Wainwright is pictured in her home art studio in Madison. 

While Wainwright has shown sculpture and paintings in galleries from Chicago to Atlanta, a few relationships have been special for her.

“At the Jura Silverman Gallery (in Spring Green), that woman, she understood my work,” Wainwright said. “She got it. I would walk (in) with work, not having thought of title or price, and she would look at it and say ‘This one this is this, this one is this, this one will cost this.’

“Jura, she knew. She understood. She was empowering women artists.”

Mary Bero came to Madison with the hope of attending graduate school in art. When “two men who hadn’t picked up tools and made art in years” denied her application, she decided that rather than jump through more hoops, she’d invest in herself.

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Artwork by Mary Bero hangs in her studio on the east side of Madison. 

“I decided to start making things,” Bero said. “I met a really nice man in the textile department that I would go see with what I was working on, and he encouraged me. That was as much as I needed.”

Bero is married to an artist, the painter Dennis Nechvatal, and has a studio in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood since the 1990s. They sometimes collaborate on projects, though that can lead to arguments (“I’ll say, ‘What do you know?’ and he takes it personally … sometimes it’s best to work on your own.”)

One of the galleries that represents Bero, Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee, put up a show of hers last December. A curator there noted that she “breaks all the traditional rules of fiber art” by weaving “tapestry paintings,” hand-stitching cotton or silk thread or floss to a cloth backing and building color and texture toward “striking images and patterns.” To these, she might acrylic paint, cloth or paper, “creating primitive explosions of vibrant color and emotion.”

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Artist Mary Bero is pictured in her Schenk-Atwood studio. 

Bero intends to make new work for the Watrous show next spring. She’ll use the $10,000 prize simply to keep working and living.

“There used to be a bigger crowd of people that supported artists, that would go to galleries in Chicago — it was part of the routine,” Bero said. “Art was part of their existence, and I don’t see that anymore. So this just helps me carry on what I do.”

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Clay sculptures by Babette Wainwright line shelves in her home art studio. 

Baker and Ross are still raising money for the Women Artists Forward Fund, which isn’t quite to its goal of $540,000. Dane Arts had committed $5,000 for finalists for five years — Baker and Ross hope the county will re-up its support.

They’re also working with Arts + Literature Laboratory on taking on some administrative tasks related to the fund.

“We have money that was given to us that’s not in the endowment that we can use for prize money,” Ross said. “But we hope money continues to come in, because we want to continue to support as many artists as we can.

“We hope people would consider legacy giving, to show that this is not going away,” she added. “It’s vital to the arts community, and it’s necessary and important for women artists in particular.”