IGNITE and engage during AHA! New Bedford

By Steven Froias

#NBcreative Writer-at-large

The theme of March’s AHA! New Bedford is Women’s Work, especially appropriate as March is also Women’s History Month. 

One event happening on AHA! Thursday, March 9 stands out for me – The opening of the 5th annual IGNITE: Youth Showcase of Art inspired by the Historic Women of the Southcoast at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

It’s a brilliant idea to take a concept like Women’s History and turn into something tactile kids can literally get their hands on. And, it highlights an equally brilliant effort by the Whaling Museum, its wonderful project, Lighting the Way: Historic Women of SouthCoast

The IGNITE art show, inspired by the Lighting the Way project, is set to showcase the creative talent of 31 young artists from grades 4 through 12. This year, the focus is on women of color featured on the Lighting the Way website.

That website is a cornucopia of information about the amazing women who have enriched our city and region. I’m a big reader of obituaries, especially as practiced by The New York Times. This isn’t a morbid fascination. Obits in The Times are well-written biographical sketches that bestow upon the deceased a measure of appreciation and respect. Especially now that the paper of record is reaching back and writing obituaries for those who were often overlooked in the past, including many women and/or persons of color.

Here in New Bedford, the Whaling Museum is ensuring women are never overlooked. The Lighting the Way project is a great initiative that aims to uncover the remarkable stories of women from the SouthCoast region who made a significant impact on their community and beyond. It’s a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about inspiring women and their stories, or simply for a better understanding of our shared history. 

One such inspiring woman is Sue Wong Van Wiggeren, whose family settled in New Bedford when she was young. Her father, Charlie Wong, was the only Chinese World War I veteran in the New Bedford American Legion, and he operated a hand laundry business before buying a Chinese restaurant in 1926 called Charlie Wong’s. Sue went on to manage Cathay Temple for family, which was a successful and much-loved restaurant in Mattapoisett, for an astounding 49 years. Ten works in IGNITE are inspired by Sue Wong. 

Another remarkable woman from the SouthCoast region I learned about is Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, who was an artist, writer, and educator. Her biggest achievement was a book titled Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, which was published in 1902. (FYI – Emily’s paintings are on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum as part of the Re/Framing the View: Nineteenth-century American Landscapes exhibition.)

‘Color Problems’ was written primarily for non-artists, such as dressmakers, florists and decorators, occupations that were often held by women during the Victorian era. 

“Women,” Emily quipped, “notice color more than do men.” 

Or perhaps, the remarkable women of Lighting the Way teach us all how to live in full color. See the entire AHA! New Bedford Women’s Work events for Thursday, March 9 here.

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