Local art gallery WomanKraft a haven for underrepresented artists

WomanKraft has been more than an art gallery for nearly 50 years – it’s also a place of education and community. It resides inside a yellow Queen Anne house with purple trimmings in Downtown Tucson. 

The collective was born in a kitchen in the 1974 where eight women artisans got together in friendship and craft. The group grew and created the Community Artist Project in 1979. By December 1992, the nonprofit organization moved into the “castle,” where they host local artists’ works, workshops and rent out studios for artists who need the space.

Gayle Swanbeck, treasurer and founder of the School of the Arts, said WomanKraft is for the community and everyone who attends is welcomed into a diverse, accepting environment open to all – including men.

“Everyone can be here. We keep our classes affordable and we have diverse artists,” Swanbeck said. “I’m a lesbian myself.”

Nicole Young and her mother, Gerrie Young, joined the efforts to rehabilitate the house in the 1990s. Young said the house was going to be demolished due to how much it had deteriorated.

Every mural, every tiled mosaic was done by people such as the Young family.

“It was built by a dentist for his wife — like the Taj Mahal. But eventually, it became a boarding house and then a crack house,” Young said. “Because of all that, it was ridiculously affordable for what it is and we all worked together to make it what it is now.”

Every two months, new local artists are able to showcase their works in the gallery. Each show is themed, Young said.

“We have had all sorts of themes – sunrise, sunset; erotic, black and white – which is very popular,” Young said.

One doesn’t have to be a painter in order to have a piece exhibited at WomanKraft. Whether it’s carvings or pottery or up-cycled furniture, all expressions of art are welcome. Young said the call to artists posts are announced in their Facebook page as well as their newsletter, “The Castle Voice.” 

The next show begins the first weekend of September.

“We really want more young people to join us,” Young said. “So, any one from any age can respond to the call to artists. Also, all ages are welcome to our classes in the School of the Arts.”

Some of the lessons people can experience don’t only include painting lessons but also drumming and poetry-writing. Young teaches classes in which people can customize their own denim clothing articles by painting on them.

Terri McGuire, who is a board member training to take over Swanbeck’s mantle, said the involvement of young people will keep WomanKraft alive after the “older members are gone.”

“WomanKraft is an entity and it is very much alive. And we need more people to keep it alive. We rely so much on volunteers,” McGuire said. “I’ve been there since the late 90s. WomanKraft feeds my soul and my spirit. I can’t live without WomanKraft.”

McGuire’s story with WomanKraft is one of transformation. She said she first joined during an unhappy time in her life.

“I wasn’t happy in my skin or my relationships. My body was unacceptable to the significant men in my life. I’m a big girl. I’ve always been a big girl,” McGuire said.

Her neighbor and then friend invited her to tag along to an oil painting class at the School of the Arts.

“I was wearing a dress, pantyhose and heels at this oil painting class. I was married to an architect. We were poor as church mice but we had an image to uphold,” McGuire said. “I used to be so close-minded. We get to WomanKraft and it’s so bohemian, for lack of a better word.”

McGuire continued to attend workshops at WomanKraft after her friend moved away and everything was changing for her.

“One day, I see Gayle making these tiny statuettes. And one of them was of Venus of Willendorf, who was worshipped as a fertility goddess. And I looked at the statuette and I thought, ‘I’m built like a fertility goddess’,” McGuire said. “At the time, Gayle also told me I was an artist, which I refused to accept. But during my first show there, my piece sold even before the show began.”

“It was a macabre piece inspired by Dia de los Muertos and a medieval torture device called the rack. I realized I was a goddess and an artist,” she said. “That wouldn’t have happened without WomanKraft.”

McGuire teaches at the School of the Arts as well. And from her experience, it’s often that people experience the acceptance and energy of WomanKraft, leave and then return saying there is no other place like it.

Tucked into a side of the castle, there is the Sanctuary, a holistic beauty salon open to the public.

“People can get facials and these little potions for different things,” Young said. “I’ve even gotten my hair dyed here and it’s very reasonably priced.”

Young and McGuire said people may get involved in many different ways such as donations or by volunteering to docent at a show.

“Overall, people should just visit and experience it,” McGuire said.

WomanKraft, 388 S. Stone Ave., is open Thursday to Saturday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The gallery closes both January and August – the School of the Arts remains open. For more information and to keep up with events, people may call at 520-256-7455 or visit their website.