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Matrons & Mistresses: Inside Lizzie Cheatham McNairy’s Collection of Women Artists

Matrons & Mistresses: Inside Lizzie Cheatham McNairy’s Collection of Women Artists

A champion of women artists, the founder and editor of Matrons & Mistresses and member of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees, gives us a tour of her art collection inside her Raleigh home.

Lizzie Cheatham McNairy is the founder and author of Matrons & Mistresses, a digital publication which shines light on the incredible women who shape the arts. The Raleigh-based art collector speaks to the power of art and leads candid conversations with artists in their studios to help elevate the voices of women whose stories are untold, giving us an elegant look into their creative spaces, all of which she writes from her sacred sanctuary filled with art she amassed uniquely by women.

In addition to serving on the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees and Advancement and Acquisitions committees, McNairy also founded the NCMA’s Matrons of the Art initiative, a title which inspired the name for her digital community and the signature ‘M&M’ logo in the corner (‘matrons’ meaning female patrons, and ‘mistresses’ meaning creatives). We had the pleasure of speaking with the founder about her journey so far and the invaluable role women play in the arts.

Artworks: Stacy Lynn Waddell, ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ (gold plated); Julia Krahn, ‘Mutter’ (photo); Stacey L. Kirby, ‘Valid’ (bronze stamp). Courtesy of Olly Yung.

What is your background in the art world?

It is fascinating what shapes us as children and inspires our choices as adults.
I grew up roaming the halls of the Frick with my mother and getting lost in my grandmother’s art collection and jewelry box. In my living room now hangs one of the only two pieces my grandparents owned by a female artist. Across the country my mother, a wonderful Matron who helped me begin this work, enjoys the other.

I was also rather intrigued by my aunt who wrote poetry in a small cabin in the mountains, and I tried my hand at it for a bit during my awkward adolescence. My aunt was the one who inspired in me the love of “the art of writing,” and I am always thrilled when I receive a note from her regarding a M&M article she enjoyed.

My first career was in the jewelry industry working for Harry Winston. I was captivated by the artistry of the jewelry, and I loved being a part of my clients’ important moments even more. For the past 10 years, I have shifted my love of beauty, stories, and people to the visual arts. I think I will stay here for a couple decades more… I am quite at home amongst creatives and seekers of beauty.

Julia Krahn, ‘Mutter’ (2010).

You mentioned the Harry Winston job was in part gained by serendipitously being seated at the table next to Ronald Winston in Mumbai. Share this story with us! What is one piece of advice you would tell your younger self?

I had recently left my job (of basically getting coffee and staring at gorgeous jewels) with Martin Katz when I moved from LA to Newport Beach. A bit unsure of what to do next, I felt rather compelled to go to India to visit a friend whose family was in manufacturing. It was amazing to be with my friend, and India has such a special place in my heart, but I was discouraged on the day that it became clear that launching my own line did not make sense.

Once I got back to my room after making that hard decision, I threw up my hands and said, ‘Okay, universe, I really thought this was where I was supposed to be, but maybe I read it wrong. Now what?’ At that moment, I had this overwhelming desire to eat at the Taj Hotel. Thinking that it was just because I needed a bit of a pick-me-up and knowing that gorgeous hotels and yummy food always help, I grabbed my purse and headed out. When I got there, I was seated inside, but something told me to ask to be moved by the pool. I justified it by saying that of course I would want to sit outside, as it was a gorgeous day. But, when I sat down and overheard an American man and Indian woman speaking of jewelry, and I was certain that I had to introduce myself, I knew something bigger was at play. When it turned out that the American happened to be Ronald Winston (Harry Winston’s son who at one time served as CEO), I felt quite grateful that I had listened to that small voice inside that had been leading me. Three days later, Ronald and I had lunch at that same table, and when it was announced a few months later that Harry Winston would be opening a salon in Orange Country, he offered to make a call on my behalf.

My younger self learned to trust her intuition a bit more that day, and that has served us both quite well over the years.

Artworks: Lindsay Pichaske, ‘Doe’ (sculpture); Heather Gordon, ‘Sign Language’ (weblike black and white piece); Zoë Buckman, ‘I Have My Own’ (lingerie piece). Courtesy of Olly Yung.

“When I moved to North Carolina, I had no idea how many incredible artists I would meet. My collection really began to take form and a much greater meaning to me when I committed to focusing on female artists.”

How did you get involved with the North Carolina Museum?

When I first moved to Raleigh, I was a bit lost. I missed my work and my family very much, and I feared I wouldn’t find my place in this strange new world. I will forever be grateful to Larry Wheeler, the then director of the NCMA, for taking me under his wing.

Though I was young and still had so much to learn, Larry gave me the opportunity to sit on the board, answered all my questions at art fairs, and said yes when I brought my idea of starting Matrons of the Arts within the museum to highlight the invaluable role women play in the arts.

I was incredibly honored when I was asked to serve on the museum’s collections committee as well as the search committee for Larry’s replacement in preparation for his retirement. I have learned so much from Valerie Hillings since she came over from the Guggenheim and became the NCMA’s first female director.

It was so lovely to visit the museum yesterday after so many months away. I found myself spending extra time enjoying our new Simone Leigh piece titled Corrugated, visiting my old friend Daphne who was created by Harriet Hosmer (considered to be the first female American professional sculptor), and taking in Beth Lipman’s impressive Bride. Looks like I was in the mood for sculpture.

Artworks: Eleanor Amiradaki, ‘She Wore a Skin of Feathers’ (photo); Heather Gordon, ‘Pussy Talk’ (newspaper piece). Courtesy of Olly Yung.

What I did not expect was how much M&M would also become a place for me to bring my whole self. Through the lens of art and the stories of women, I have learned to see the world in a new way. It is here that I have become more comfortable owning and expressing my passions and my struggles.

What inspired the concept behind Matrons & Mistresses?

It was through Matrons of the Arts that I met the most amazing women: artists, collectors, professors…people who were passionate about art and its ability to touch peoples’ lives. I longed for someone to write about these talented women in a relatable way that was not intimidating.

Eventually, I got tired of waiting for someone more qualified than I to do so. At first it felt as if most people choose to write about art with an overly critical eye and technical tone. Bridgett Quinn is an exception I found early on, and I adore her writing. So is Katy Hessel who started The Great Women Artists… and y’all of course!

When Susan Harbage Page asked if ‘writing may be my art’ and it became more uncomfortable to deny that truth than to accept it, I founded Matrons & Mistresses.

My initial vision for M&M was to create a community for people to join me in learning about the incredible women who shape the arts. Women’s stories are too often untold or unheard. I created M&M as a platform to change that.
What I did not expect was how much M&M would also become a place for me to bring my whole self. Through the lens of art and the stories of women, I have learned to see the world in a new way. It is here that I have become more comfortable owning and expressing my passions and my struggles.
Mostly, starting M&M has taught me to trust my eye, make peace with my inner critic, and to have the courage to speak my truth and make my art. In doing so, I hope that others have been encouraged to do the same.

Artworks: Andrea Donnelly, ‘Four Exposures, for Anna (no. 2, Poppy)’ (flower textile); Susan Harbage Page, ‘Moon’ (circular work on paper); Natalie Frank, ‘Bluebird’ (gold frame).

Do you have any advice for new collectors?

Art will settle your spirit, challenge your thinking, and enrich your life immensely. Buy what you love, regardless of whether it is by a well-established artist or something you find in a small flea market on the side of the road.

Which interview are you most proud of so far?

I have had the honor of interviewing so many amazing artists… I am in awe of each and every one of their works and am so grateful that they chose to share their stories with M&M. To choose a favorite seems almost impossible. So, I will share instead our latest interviews with four amazing artists: Susan Chen, Bethany Czarnecki, Unskilled Worker, and Stacy Lynn Waddell. Also, as it was something we so enjoyed making and haven’t had the opportunity to do again with any other artist, I have included our video interview with Zoe Buckman.

Susan Chen, Lyly Louanghaksaphone. Courtesy of the artist.

Who are your current favorite female artists?

Oh, another hard question, as I have so many. To name a few that I haven’t already mentioned: Heather Gordon, Stacy L. Kirby, and Beverly McIver all blow me away with their talent and their passion for their art. And, I am desperate for a Hilary Pecis!

Describe your interior design aesthetic.

Homes are meant to be lived in and enjoyed. Fabrics should be soft and every room inviting…For the last few years, my dinning room has doubled as a Magna-Tiles fortress. I love how the colors my boys choose to build with often match perfectly the Shara Hughes piece hanging behind them. This morning I did have to suggest that they move their dinosaurs away from the two Cathy Lewis sculptures, since those T-Rexes really can be trouble.

Cathy Lewis, ‘Pow’ (sculpture).

As a collector for women in the arts, what compels you to purchase a piece?

I remember once an amazing collector that I adore told me that ‘I would never be able to build a powerful collection until I learned to not be emotional around my purchases.’ I thanked them for their advice and decided in that moment that if I had to, I would always choose what moved me over what made sense. To me, that is powerful.

Hilary Pecis, Spring Blooms (2020).

How have your acquisitions changed over time?

One of my greatest joys has been having the privilege to know the artists in my community, to support their art, and celebrate their worth. When I moved to North Carolina, I had no idea how many incredible artists I would meet. My collection really began to take form and a much greater meaning to me when I committed to focusing on female artists. I am proud that many of the pieces I have are by North Carolina-based artists.

What was your first acquisition?

I don’t remember a time that I haven’t purchased art. Whenever I would travel in high school and college, I would buy $20 pieces… I loved how the art would remind me of my adventures. Purchasing art is still one of my favorite things to do when I take a trip, though perhaps my budget has increased a bit 🙂

Lizzie Cheatham McNairy interviewing Zoe Buckman at her studio in Fort Gansevoort. Photo by: Olly Yung. © 2020 Matrons & Mistresses.

What was your most recent acquisition?

Before COVID, I would go to a 6:30 a.m. meditation meeting a couple times a week. On the day after Toni Morrison passed, a friend put together a list of some of her best quotes for us to reflect on. When my time came to read aloud, I looked down to find a quote from Beloved: “He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion—’ ‘I don’t,’ she said. ‘I have my own.’” I left that meeting and immediately texted Zoe Buckman. I knew I had to have a piece around this quote to embolden me on my journey of learning to trust my own opinions and abilities. Over a year later, I am still meditating on the quote and cultivating that skill.

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