A Focus on Women in Visual Art Inspires, Earns Grant for USF Instructor

Every year the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy (WLP) award six awards for excellence in faculty research to USF System faculty to support the research and creative efforts of those who "focus on women and issues affecting women."

Liz Kicak, Director of the Humanities Institute and Instructor of English, received one of these coveted awards for her proposed project of Ekphrastic poetry of female artists.

Ekphrastic poetry descended from the Ancient Greek tradition of describing visual art as a rhetorical exercise. Modern poets use painting, sculpture, photography, and even performance art to inspire the creation of new original poems. After documenting the severe underrepresentation of female artists in museums and galleries, Kicak wanted to use nothing but female artists for her new collection of poems.

The WLP grant allowed her to travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in D.C.—the only museum in the United States solely dedicated to promoting the work of female artists. After working in both the permanent collection and the museum’s research library, Kicak began composing new poems.


"I went with a list of women I knew I wanted to study, but discovered so many additional artists during my research. I love the tradition of using visual art to inspire linguistic art; it’s a natural intersection," Kicak says.

From 16th Century Flemish painter, Clara Peeters, to contemporary artists like Janaina Tschäpe and Amy Sherald (the painter commissioned for Michelle Obama’s 2018 portrait for the National Portrait Gallery), the NMWA holds an impressive collection of work by female artists from around the world.

"If I had to choose an artist who inspired the most poetry, it would have to be Maria Sibylla Merian," Kicak says. “She was born in 1647 and had an early affinity for fine art and naturalism, particularly insects. As women were routinely excluded from studying either, she turned to family and friends for her education. She rejected the traditional method of studying insects and insisted that they must be observed as living specimens in their natural environment.”

In 1699 Merian sold most of her belongings and took a transatlantic voyage to Dutch Surinam (now Suriname) where she worked for many years. Her intricate and vibrant drawings are some of the earliest seen in Europe and she is credited with making major contributions both to the fields of art and entomology.

"For a woman to be so passionate about her field and to take such risks in 1699—that is worthy of being recorded in poetry," Kicak says. "The NMWA had three of her original illustrations on display and the precision and intensity of color are unlike anything I had ever seen in naturalist illustrations."

To date, Kicak has eleven new poems ready for submission to journals and another ten in progress. “The grant from WLP provided me with the ability to travel, research, and create in a way I could have never done on my own. I’m excited to get these new poems out into the world and invite others to experience the joy of this artwork for themselves.”

Published on: 4/5/2019