Channy Lyons

Framing a Forgotten History
by Andrea Roth

The tradition of art patronage dates back to the Renaissance Era when the Medici princes presided over the creation of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and da Vinci. Modernday patrons include 20th century collectors like Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein. Because of her dedication to showcasing the arts, local author and art historian Channy Lyons could join their ranks.

Lyons is currently researching a book and preparing an exhibit entirely of female artists—about 300 so far—who lived and worked in Illinois between 1840 and 1940. The exhibit is scheduled to be displayed after the book’s publication in the fall of 2008, and a website with a database of her research is expected to be up sometime this summer. “Last summer I began gathering information and images. There are more than 300 women artists in the database. I’d like to write about each of them, describe her artistic path and define the circumstances in which she lived and worked and share her images,” Lyons said. “The database of information and images (can be) easily accessed at schools, libraries, homes, as well as a web-based art exhibit that can be displayed on a screen at art and historical centers and libraries throughout the state and be accompanied by original artwork from the local area.”

Through her research, Lyons became especially intrigued at how these women managed their art and built creative lives of their own. The resilient nature they showed in protecting their work had an impact on Lyons. “I think history can shape the way we think about the world today and show us possibilities for the future,” she said. “If you don’t think the past has anything to teach the present, then just take a look at the Illinois women artists’ images and learn about their successes. It’s downright enjoyable.” Visit the webpage at

Area women manage their art resiliently in central Illinois as well. For a June exhibit Lyons curated at the Peoria Art Guild, “Peoria Women Collect Works by Women Artists,” 75 area women contributed 92 pieces of their own artwork to share and display. The exhibit was sponsored by the Women’s Fund, The Peoria Woman magazine and donors Norma and George Kottemann. “This exhibit was literally plucked off people’s walls,” Lyons said. “The purpose of the exhibit was to show a selection of cherished woman-made artworks that wouldn’t be displayed otherwise and to learn how the pieces enrich the lives of their owners. We are very pleased that so many women in the area share a mutual passion for collecting art. Through their collections, we see the breadth of what interests women today.”

Among the works displayed were a caste-paper relief by Louise Nevelson; paintings by Janet Fish and Winifred Godfrey; a Hollis Sigler print; a Cristina Grassi pastel and one by Ann Coulter; paintings created by a collector’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother; a sculpture by Lee Benz; a photograph by a collector’s daughter; and a ceramic piece by Sandra McKenzie Schmidt; as well as jewelry, fiber pieces and drawings. The overall kaleidoscope of themes presented by area women speaks to their various passions. From landscape scenes and animal sculptures to paintings dealing with racial issues and the rise of feminism, each woman detailed what her artwork meant to her.

George Ann Danehower was always drawn to art that challenges the viewer. She submitted an etching by W.A.S. Hatch of a one-legged woman standing under a clothesline with various items attached to it. “When I purchased this piece in the ‘70s, I never asked the artist what her intent was,” Danehower said. “For me, it represented the complex roles of women who want to (or have to) work outside the home and who also have a family.” Lyons herself displayed three doll drawings by her grandmother Verda MacNamee which show, she said, “what fun she had making art.”

Both Lyons’ mother and grandmother were artists and served as creative role models for her. The first book that she published was actually a compilation of sketches her grandmother made while on a trip to Europe in 1951. Lyons has written five books, six scripts and countless local and regional newspaper and magazine feature stories, as well as art reviews. After her first book, Verda: An Artist Sketches Europe, 1951, was published, she started Wilde Press, a book design and production firm with special interests in art, nature, community and personal history. Her second book, Verda and Me, also centered on her grandmother and began as a series of articles about the creative activities the two shared. “I’ve always lived with art, made art and spent time in art museums and galleries. That’s how my mother grew up and that’s how she brought me up. My grandmother was a painter, my mother a sculptor. We made things, and when my grandmother visited us, we made more things. Sound sketches, paintings, puppets, dolls, hand castes, marbled papers, journaling books, costumes, Picasso-like painted cookies. My friends joined us, sometimes my parents’ friends joined in too,” Lyons said. “I thought everybody grew up surrounded by art.”

As an adult, Lyons turned her efforts toward other creative outlets instead of making and displaying art herself. “You’d think that I’d be an artist too. Instead, I am an observer, an appreciator and an advocate of well-made art and good artists,” Lyons said. “Chicago Tribune art critic Katherine Kuh once said that ‘the study of art is suspended between knowledge and intuition.’ I work to get better at both.” But she says she hopes to use what her mother and grandmother taught her about creating art and try her hand at it again. “I’d like to make narrative paintings—story-telling is what I like to do, whether in writing or making art.”

The New York native grew up in the historic community of Tarrytown, along the Hudson River, and later moved to Chicago. In college, her interest in politics led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the University of Illinois.

“I majored in political science because I wanted to be in the Foreign Service,” Lyons said. “Instead, I learned to write computer programs at the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency in Chicago. Good thing—it is creative work, too, and it served me well for decades.” Lyons worked as a computer programmer and spent many years in the technology field before throwing herself into writing in 1996—the same year she began pursuing her master’s degree at Bradley. She went on to earn an MBA in English from Bradley University.

In 2005, she organized an exhibit of 50 women artists who worked in Peoria before 1970, and followed up with a small book about the artists in the exhibit, and others whose works could not be displayed. Customary to Lyon’s thorough literary nature, she also included descriptions of the arts organizations these Peoria women joined and led.

Historically, female artists of centuries past have been largely left unknown or simply faded into the shadows of their male counterparts. Because many women artists changed their names after marriage or gained surnames, this identity issue, coupled with many unsigned artwork pieces, has led to the anonymity of what researchers believe to be a large number of undocumented female artists. Today, Lyons is grateful to have the opportunity to research and write about women artists, collectors and the arts organizations which surrounded them.

“Women artists are survivors. Sure, they faced challenges, but the point is they found ways around the problems and created inspired artwork in a variety of media,” Lyons said. “We don’t know much about most of them because they weren’t included in art history books. So I thought I could help rediscover lesser-known artists and provide an appreciation of their work and experiences.” a&s

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