The Return of the Corn Mothers 2022 at History Colorado has been hailed photographic love letter to the women of the Southwest. A multi-generational and multi-cultural celebration of women whose lives and work embody the spirit of community, this award-winning traveling photographic extravaganza features photos and stories of 70 women. Photographer Todd Pierson has spent 15 years traversing the vast landscape of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming to preserve their legacy. In honor of the Month of Photography and Women’s History Month, Pierson will host two free guided talks about the exhibition on Sat. March 4th and Sat. March 18th.
Through the lens of his camera, Pierson said, “I have endeavored to celebrate the many contributions these women have made to society. The women in the exhibition embody the spirit of community giving. Each and every one of these women has had a huge impact in creating a kinder, better, more just world.” Pierson added, “I hope this exhibition will inspire us all.”
“What is most unique about this massive collection of portraits,” said Brenda Gurule, Chicano Humanities Arts Council executive director, “is that every photograph represents countless hours of research, interviews, location scouting and planning even before the portraits were taken. Each woman was interviewed extensively and asked to write about a woman that inspired her.” Pierson then matched each woman’s photo shoot to her story. “So, what you are experiencing is an intimate view into the lives of the women captured in environments that directly influenced them.”
Case in point is the mesmerizing portrait of La Sierra Land Rights activist Shirley Romero Otero, shot on location in the La Vega of San Luis Colorado. There is Carrie Howell, of the Denver American Indian Festival, dressed in full regalia amidst the background of downtown Denver, representing her tireless efforts to bring a sense of pride to tribal people living in urban centers. The portrait of Baja Batochir, founder of the Mongolian Culture and Heritage Center of Colorado, is a lush visual journey into the culture of her homeland. African American poet and play write Norma Johnson’s portrait embodies her passion as a healer and proponent of community healing.
The Return of the Corn Mothers 2022 at History Colorado which opened in Sept. of 2022 is showing through Oct. 1st, 2023. Serendipitously the exhibition coincides with the biennial celebration (every other March) Month of Photography Denver, presented by the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the understanding and appreciation of excellent photography through year-round exhibitions, education, and community outreach. In addition March is designated Women’s History Month by presidential proclamation. The month is set aside to honor women’s contributions in American history.
History of the Corn Mothers Exhibition
The indigenous peoples of southern Mexico began domesticating maize (corn) over 9,000 years ago. As cultivation of the once-wild grass spread throughout the “Americas” and globally, the significance of this life-giving food was immortalized in legend and story. Among the Southwest Pueblo peoples, the iconic Corn Mother deity became the embodiment of growth, life, creativity, community, and creation. The Return of the Corn Mothers project is an anthology and photographic/written history exhibition of multi-generational/multi-cultural women from the Southwest who exemplify the essence of Corn Mother. Photographer Todd Pierson, editor Ed Winograd, graphic designer Toinette Brown, and curator Renee Fajardo, in conjunction with MSU Denver Chicana/o Studies, the Colorado Folks Arts Council, and the Chicano Humanities Arts Council, have spent 15 years documenting the stories and photographs of these women, who were nominated by their communities for their selfless contributions and creative endeavors to better the lives of others.
“What is most unique about this massive collection of portraits, is that every photograph represents countless hours of research, interviews, location scouting and planning even before the portraits were taken.”
Brenda Gurule, Chicano Humanities Arts Council
This nationally recognized exhibit has traveled to numerous universities and museums in Arizona (ASU Museum of Anthropology and Pima Community College), Colorado (CU Boulder Museum of Nature and Science, CHAC Art Gallery, and others), and New Mexico (New Mexico Highlands University). It began in 2007 with a small grant from the Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute, featuring photos/stories of 17 women who helped form the foundation of their communities. The goal was to ensure that the history and stories of these women would not be forgotten.
By 2009 the exhibition expanded to 24 women after receiving a grant from Colorado Humanities for a symposium at MSU Denver. In 2012/13, another 9 women were added for an exhibition at the MSU Denver Center for the Visual Arts. In 2016, another 7 women from Colorado’s San Luis Valley were included in an exhibition at Adams State University in Alamosa. The Pueblo (Colorado) City Library District exhibition in 2019 saw the addition of another 8 women from Pueblo.
Return of the Corn Mothers 2022 marked a three-year effort to initiate and honor 22 new women. The exhibition now boasts photographic portraits of 70 women, and two printed anthologies (one for women inducted before 2022 and one for the 2022 inductees), which include the women’s photos, biographies, philosophies, and life sayings, as well as a story by each honoree about their own Corn Mother or Corn Mothers (women who influenced/mentored them).
The twenty-two new women who were new honorees at the History Colorado opening reception on Fri. Oct. 21, 2022 included: Ellen Alires- Trujillo ( founder of Colorado Legal Aid), Batkhishig Batochir( founder of Mongolian Culture& Heritage Center of Colorado), Shirley Romero Otero(Sangre de Cristo Land Grant activist), Norma Johnson( Social Justice Storyteller/Poet), Marge Taniwaki( Japanese Internment Camp Activist), Adriene Norris(Social Justice Muralist).
Other new inductees included: Authors; Juliana Aragon Fatula, Karen D. Gonzales, Jo Elizabeth Pinto, and Deborah Martinez Martinez, all known for their preservation of Chicana/o- Latinx culture- Educators; Genevieve Canales,Connie Margaret Coca, & Evangeline Sena- KUVO Public Radio Executive; Tina Cartagena- Anthropologist; Lucha Martinez- Indigenous Rights Activist; Laura Naranjo, Elena Holly Klaver & Erica Padilla-Organic Farmer; Sandra Ortega- Ballet Folkloric Director; Jeanette Trujillo and Grief Counselor; Jennifer McBride.
Posthumously honored was Alicia Cardenas, iconic tattoo/muralist, who was a staunch supporter of indigenous and LGBT rights. Cardenas was gunned down along with 4 others in a mass shooting on Dec. 27, 2021. Prior to her death, she had been selected as a 2022 Corn Mother. “She was very excited to be part of the Corn Mothers 2022,” said Brenda Gurule, Chicano Humanities Arts Council executive director, “Our entire community mourns Alicia. To honor her memory and celebrate her vibrant life, her story and painting are included in the exhibition, she is a Corn Mother. Her spirit lives on in our hearts.” Cardenas portrait for the exhibition was painted by her mentor, artist Emmanuel Martinez.
Sponsored by Colorado Folks Arts Council, Metropolitan State University of Denver ( MSU Denver), MSU Denver Department of Chicana/o Studies, CHAC Gallery with support from AARP, US Bank, and Denver City Council Jamie Torres.
For more information on the Corn Mothers project including featured stories and portraits, visit cornmothers.com.
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