WILLIAMSTOWN - Like many people who grew up in the Berkshires, Ashley Smith remembers long-ago field trips to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and her first encounters with the museum’s world-famous collection.
Smith’s relationship to the Clark continued to grow as a student at Williams College (class of 1991), and more recently through visits from Stephentown, N.Y., where she lives.
Benefiting from the Clark’s ongoing spirit of community engagement, Smith is now the curator of "In/Visible: Women of Two Worlds," the second installment of "Clark Remix," an interactive project that invites visitors to design their own exhibits, drawing from the museum’s permanent collection.
Some of the paintings Smith chose for the exhibit, she said, "are ones I remember seeing all my life. I think I was in second or third grade when my elementary school first brought us up here on field trips. And so it’s really cool that I can find a way to put them all together to tell a story."
A software program called uCurate, designed specifically for the Clark, presents visitors with a virtual gallery in which they can arrange virtual works of art from the permanent collection. The program can be accessed through the Clark’s website or at computers in the museum.
"In/Visible" is the second in a planned three-part series that began last fall with "Giselle’s Remix," and will end in the Spring with "Everyday Nothing," the winning entry in the Clark’s online competition, "Race to the Remix," in which participants had two days to submit designs based on a theme.
Smith’s exhibit juxtaposes well-known images of women from different social classes and time periods, encouraging viewers to consider the different ways in which the artists chose to portray their subjects.
The starting point for the exhibit was the painting "Young Woman in a Pink Skirt" (c. 1845-50) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, which Smith had encountered during a visit to "Giselle’s Remix" last year.
In contrast to the Clark’s many portraits of happy, well-dressed women, Corot’s weary, disheveled subject "just kind of looks out of the frame and grabs you," Smith said.
"So it made me start to think about what’s the difference in the social status between these women, what’s the difference between people who are meant to be objects to be admired and viewed and people who are saying, ‘Please look at me, notice me, notice that I’m here.’"
"And I started to wonder, would these women even really notice her in their world, if they were existing side by side? So that’s kind of the idea that sparked things."
Each of the gallery’s four walls features a combination of paintings that has its own theme and that brings into focus the social standing and personal experiences of the subjects. On one wall, for example, several portraits of upper-class women are lined up on either side of "Young Woman in a Pink Skirt."
The women are all facing away from the central image, which "is not how an exhibit would often be arranged," Smith said. Instead, the subjects would most likely be facing toward the center of the group of paintings. "But I wanted to create a tension that all of these other women are looking away," she said. "They’re not even noticing; she’s isolated [there] in the middle, staring out."
On the opposite wall, artists comment on the lives and experiences of the working women who occupy their landscapes. In "Saco Bay" (1896) by Winslow Homer, a pink sun is setting over the ocean, while in the foreground two women walk over rocks toward the viewer, carrying lobster traps. The women are at the center of the composition, but obscured in shadow.
"The two fishermen are turned away from the gorgeous setting that they’re in because they have to get to work and they can’t take time to kind of just sit and enjoy their surroundings," Smith said. "So all of the beauty that’s around them - they’re not in a position to be able to enjoy it."
The exhibit’s 12 paintings, which include landscapes, portraits and interiors, all work together compositionally as well as thematically, and are aimed at engaging the viewer in a consideration of the roles of women at different levels of society.
What Smith hopes visitors will take away from her exhibit is a deeper appreciation not only for the subjects of art, but for what artists might be saying about them, and how they might be saying it.
While introducing the exhibit, Smith’s attention returned to "Young Woman in a Pink Dress," a painting that she does not remember encountering on her childhood field trips and that she didn’t consciously notice until recently. "If Corot hadn’t taken the time to paint her, who would know it?" she said. "She’d be lost to history."
The wealthier women would probably still be remembered, she said, since their families would likely have commissioned portraits from other artists. "But whoever she is, whatever her story is, what we know about her we know because the artist saw her and is inviting us to look at her too and to make sure that she doesn’t go unnoticed."
"In/Visible: Women of Two Worlds" will be on display at the Clark through March 10.