In this time of paralyzing pandemic, unreal unemployment, furious racial unrest and bitter political division, we could all use some simple peace and beauty.

The eloquent, inspiring artist Cecile Houel provides it – displaying 20 deeply penetrating portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners throughout the Quad-Cities, in a cooperative exhibit starting Friday.

Convinced that art can contribute to world peace, the 56-year-old French woman started the “Nobel Peace Prize Collection: Peace Starts Within” in 2014, to celebrate all of the Nobel Peace laureates of the prestigious Nobel Foundation since 1901.

Dividing her time between Iowa and France, she paints very personalized, large portraits of the famous laureates to honor their will and dedication to make a better world with strength, courage, and creativity.

Each figure, internationally acclaimed, or subject to controversy, brought their light and contributed to humanity’s evolution. As part of this special exhibit commemorating women, Houel will exhibit six female Nobel Peace Prize winners at the Quad City Arts gallery at Quad City International Airport.

Another 10 paintings from “Nobel Peace Prize Collection: Peace Starts Within” will be on view at Bettendorf’s Beréskin Gallery from Aug. 28 to Oct. 28. The display, sponsored by WVIK, Quad-Cities NPR, also will feature preliminary drawings and studies, and art by Heidi Hernandez of Davenport.

The artist Cecile Houel with her portrait of Mother Teresa.

The public (with mandatory masks) is invited to the opening reception and opportunity to meet the artists on Sept. 4 from 5:30-7:30 p,m. The focus at Beréskin Gallery is not only the gender of the artists, but on the amazing accomplishments of people in the struggle for peace.

Born to a Catholic father and a Muslim mother, Houel said this week she witnessed discrimination while growing up in the Middle East – in Morocco, Tunisia and Iran (she’s half Tunisian), and lived in downtown Paris for 25 years. Since she was 8, Houel said she was called to be an artist. She originally was a musician, studying classical guitar at the National Conservatory of Paris.

Houel has painted for 36 years, always specializing in portraits.

“I like to paint landscapes and other things, but my biggest interest is in humanity, in people,” she said. “I have a deep compassion for diversity.”

In the late 1980s, she studied art history in Paris at the Ecole du Louvre. From 1990 to 1994, Houel did drawing studies of nude models at the Ateliers de la ville de Paris (ink, acrylic, charcoal, pencil) and from 2000 to 2002, made an intense practice of pastel technique with Alain Victor, a French master pastellist.

Houel is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, and member of La Société des Pastellistes de France, Portrait Society of America, and the Iowa Pastel Society.

A portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Houel.

Since she was 16 and first did a portrait of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., she’s planned to do portraits of all 107 individual Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. “I looked at the remarkable speeches that he made, they left a deep impression I will never forget,” Houel said of Dr. King, honored in 1964 with the Nobel.

Working from her studio in Fort Madison, Iowa – a two-minute walk from the Mississippi River — she typically completes 10 of the intensely personal 4-foot by 4-foot portraits each year. Included in the display at the Bereskin gallery will be portraits of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. (which is a smaller version), Elie Wiesel and Barack Obama, among others.

“I’ve been slowly building that collection – painting some iconic figures that were important, and made a change in our world,” Houel said. “I’m excited now to reach number 20 and I have about 100 studies now, so it makes a nice amount of paintings.”

“The idea is to celebrate peace through all these iconic figures who have made a difference in our world,” she said. “I would like to make a peace event, like we’re doing in the Quad-Cities. My goal is to do them all, and so it’s almost a lifetime project. I do 10 or 12 a year. I would like to do a big event at the end, with 130 portraits, somewhere. It’s a celebration of peace through the actions of these great people.”

According to her artist statement, Houel says: “By attaining an inner state of calmness and security, we start feeling that everything coexists in harmony by universal law. To reach it is our permanent challenge as we face our fears and conditioning through the many waves of our life’s path.

“Wars are the result of our useless insecurities and false beliefs that there is only one way, the ‘right’ way, and our rejection for all else… So tolerance, is to be learned and re-learned again and again. Otherwise, we become trapped in an eternal cycle of rejection, this mistake that led forever to the same results: chaos, hate, and suffering.”

She paints from photos of each subject.

The 14th Dalai Lama by Cecile Houel

Houel has done one of the first two Nobel Peace Prize winners – from 1901, the Frenchman Frederic Passy (1822 – 1912), an economist and pacifist who was a founding member of several peace societies and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Passy won it with Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910), who helped start the Red Cross.

The first U.S. winner was Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, for his successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese war and for his interest in arbitration, having provided the Hague arbitration court with its very first case. Passy and TR will be displayed at the River Center/Adler case.

As part of the airport exhibit, Houel will exhibit her portrait of one of the two 2018 winners, Nadia Murad, a human rights activist who won for working to end use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. She is the first Iraqi to earn the Nobel.

“It’s a wide range of figures, from the past to now,” Houel said.

She met Pat Bereskin last year through a mutual friend, a former student who’s become a professional artist, Rose Moore.

Houel has shown some of the portraits at her studio in Fort Madison and a few at the Burlington Art Center (she lives in Burlington, Iowa).

She met her now ex-husband, an artist from Burlington, who came to Giverny, France for a big pastel show, and they married in France. Houel moved to Iowa in 2008 and spends three months of the year in Paris, where her three kids and one grandchild live.

“Everyday life is not that different,” she said of the U.S. Houel’s portraits aim to go beyond physical likeness to capture the pure emotion of each person.

“From a subject comes the authentic desire to create a painting by always pushing technical limits in order to access a mystery, beyond physical representation. This is what drives me.”

“What does interest me beyond the image, I would call it an energy that animates this image,” Houel said. “This mystery, that I like to say ‘Who are we that we don’t see?’ There is the physical appearance, but there is also this extraordinary energy that makes all of us unique, but in another way, similar. So we’re not that different. If we see beyond our color, our gender, and all that, there is just this uniqueness in how we express ourselves and how we behave. I’m very interested in the depths beyond the image.”

“I’ve heard it many times from people watching my portraits – if you stand in front of it, you will feel instead of see,” she said. “If I can feel something, beyond just seeing, maybe I’ve reached that goal by painting it. The eyes are very important; I pay very close attention to how I paint the eyes, hoping I look through the eyes for the feel.”

Barack Obama by Cecile Houel

An intense portrait of President Barack Obama, who won the prize in 2009, painted in a side-view angle, will be at Bereskin.

“I thought this photo was giving the dignity,” Houel said. “I’m not getting into politics at all. They’re all controversial figures in a way, political figures. Some people will like them, don’t like them because of their political position. Beyond that, I think Obama represents dignity and through the photo I was feeling that – the nobility, somebody that carries himself. I did like that, and that’s why I chose that photo.”

Pat Bereskin, owner of Beréskin Art Gallery & Academy, sees the Houel exhibition as a perfect opportunity for families involved in online schooling to learn about these important figures in history. A downloadable “Passport for Peace” on the gallery website (bereskinartgallery.com) lists where each piece is displayed in the Quad-Cities and gives a biography of each laureate.

“Together we will have a body of work that tells the history and importance of working for peace through the lives and brushstrokes of Cecile Houel,” she said.

The Moline airport features six women laureates: Malala Yousafzai (2014), Nadia Murad (2018), Jane Addams (1931), Leymah Gbowee (2011), Shirin Ebadi (2003), and Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992).

Honoring women’s empowerment and achievement

Quad City Arts and the Bereskin Gallery are among several local institutions to celebrate women’s empowerment and work by female artists.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic centennial offers an unparalleled opportunity to commemorate a milestone of democracy and to celebrate the achievements of women — especially in the arts.

The Bereskin Gallery & Art Academy, Bettendorf.

Quad City Arts’ September and October exhibition at Quad City International Airport, Moline, titled “A Portrait of Remarkable Women,” will feature portraits painted by Heidi Hernandez of Davenport, and Houel, as well as sculptures by 11 women artists living within a 250-mile radius.

They are Kristin Garnant, Hilde DeBruyne, Lisa Mahar, Liz Wakita, Judy Bales, Joan Webster-Vore, Stephanie J. Baugh,  Elizabeth Rhoads Read, Lori Roderick, Karen Brinson and Justine Zimmer.

“A Portrait of Remarkable Women” offers a glimpse of both the extraordinary women artists in our community as well as the women commemorated by Hernandez and Houel.

“One hundred years ago, female artists struggled to be taken seriously in the profession, which meant being included in important exhibitions alongside men and selling their work at comparable prices,” said Dawn Wohlford-Metallo, visual arts director for Quad City Arts.

“Now female artists can be self-supporting, have work purchased for museum collections, can own an art gallery, be curators, esteemed educators, critics, writers, and speakers,” she said. “We now have numerous outstanding female artists here in our region to celebrate and share with the public. These artists can all stand on their own merit and many have had solo exhibitions, previously, but this anniversary provides us an opportunity to highlight talented women living here, now.”

A portrait by Heidi Hernandez of Davenport.

Hernandez chose to paint local and national female artists she admires.

“The collection of portraits I painted capture an exterior, a façade judged unfairly based on stereotypes and bias,” she said. “Hidden truths gleaned during interviews with the artists, are presented behind the portraits, peeking out underneath the edge of the painting, inviting the viewer to take a closer look.”

Through the process of painting and dialoguing with her subjects, Hernandez explored the term feminism and what it means to contemporary artists.

Additional paintings from the Nobel collection, along with preliminary drawings and studies, will be exhibited at Davenport’s German American Heritage Center and Museum, and the River Center / Adler Theatre display case (also from Aug. 28-Oct. 28). The Adler case also will feature eight portrait paintings from Houel’s student, Rose Moore (who has taught at Bereskin Gallery).

“They’re absolutely beautiful,” Pat Bereskin said. Both she and Quad City Arts emphasize the importance and value of seeing all the women’s artwork in person, as opposed to online.

The art is complemented by related long-term exhibits at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum and Putnam Museum & Science Center.

“Seen and Heard: The Art of Empowerment” at the Figge Art Museum (on the second floor through May 2021) features women artists who asserted their artistic empowerment despite social and cultural barriers. In addition to empowering themselves, several of the artists on view give voice and visibility to the marginalized through their work.

This exhibition, drawn from the Figge’s collection, features 13 women artists, including Marisol Escobar, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, and Alison Saar.

A number of the artists also created work concerning women’s experiences, establishing that it was a subject deserving visibility and recognition. Other artists created work that brought attention to societal injustices and traditionally marginalized groups, such as Carrie Mae Weems, who probes the racial, social, and cultural inequities in art history through her work.

The artists featured here have contributed to a more inclusive environment in the art world and beyond.

“Women’s Equality” by Marisol Escobar at the Figge Art Museum.

“We are proud to present these dynamic artworks from the museum collection, including several recent acquisitions,” Figge assistant curator Vanessa Sage said. “While issues of inequality and representation remain prevalent in the art world, the Figge is dedicated to better representing the world in which we live and the artists who are an essential part of it.”

The Putnam Museum has extended its exhibit on the women’s suffrage movement – “Liberated Voices / Changed Lives” – until Nov. 4 (the day after the presidential election).

The Putnam exhibit – whose major sponsor is Royal Neighbors of America — showcases how changing technology provided more time for women to work on the suffrage movement, which culminated in the signing of the 19th Amendment Aug. 26, 1920.

The Putnam features an original touch-screen exhibit on Quad-Cities men and women who worked for and against suffrage between 1900 and 1920.

Together, these six Q-C venues provide visual art and historic displays that reflect the importance, power and struggle of female artists, as well as all people who have worked tirelessly for the equality of women, world peace, and the advancement of humankind.

Dawn Wohlford-Metallo of Quad City Arts.

Sharing knowledge and coping during Covid

Houel teaches international workshops, including with American students who study in France. She’s taught in New York City and pastel societies in France.

“I absolutely love sharing my knowledge, my experience,” she said. “I love being in the company of other artists, whatever their level is. I love doing it. I love being with people passionate about the same medium.”

Houel hasn’t been able to teach much during Covid, which has been frustrating. The U.S. has seen more than 179,000 deaths due to Covid (or its complications), while France (which has one-fifth the population) has suffered over 30,500 deaths.

“It has drastically affected the workshops,” she said, noting she has done some with very few students, wearing masks.

Of Bereskin’s gallery, Houel said: “She is fantastic in how strict she is, about all the precautions she takes. I was impressed when I went two or three times there. We had some meetings, and she’s very strict on the distancing, masks, everything. Personally, I feel comfortable having this gathering. The gallery is big enough that we can’t be too close. I’m OK with it.”

“It’s hard to stop life, you know, and cultural life and all life, and businesses,” she said. “I think the consequences of shutting everything down are somehow worse than if we continue to live like this. Businesses are going to be bankrupt; people are going to be depressed. Confinement, solitude, brings depression and stress, and suicide. It’s really a fine line to decide what to do, because the consequences of confinement can be worse in the long-term than the virus itself. I personally don’t live in fear of the virus. I’m careful and respect what needs to be done, but don’t live in fear. Life has to continue.”

Venues and exhibits:

 

  • Quad City Arts Art @ the Airport, Moline, “ A Portrait of Remarkable Women,” Sept. 2-Oct. 31, com.
  • Beréskin Gallery & Art Academy, 2967 State Street, Bettendorf, “Nobel Peace Prize Collection: Peace Starts Within,” Aug. 28-Oct. 28, com.
  • German American Heritage Center, 712 W. 2nd, Davenport, “Nobel Peace Prize Collection,” Aug. 28-Oct. 28, gahc.org.
  • River Center/Adler Theatre display, 136 E. 3rd, Davenport, works by Cecile Houel and Rose Moore, Aug. 28-Oct. 28.
  • Figge Art Museum, 225 W. 2nd, Davenport, “Seen and Heard: The Art of Empowerment,” through May 2021, figgeartmuseum.org.
  • Putnam Museum & Science Center, 1717 W. 12th, Davenport, “Liberated Voices / Changed Lives,” through Nov. 4, 2020, Putnam.org.
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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.