Essay and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“If you are not willing to see more than is visible, you won’t see anything.”
– Ruth Bernhard (1905-2006)
Ruth Bernhard’s words tugged at my brain during my most recent encounter with one of Maryhill Museum’s Exquisite Gorge II artists. Bernhard was a pioneer among women photographers, best known for her abstract images of female nudes. The artist created a portfolio of work across her lifespan that politicized the private long before the public feminism of the 1970s. Mentored and adored by some of our photographic greats, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, the German photographer tried to make us see what is often not visible, pushing the viewer away from the typical objectification of nude models towards an empathy that allows some tenderness to emerge, but also visions of female desire.
Being willing to see more than what is “visible” is important for both, the viewer of a particular work of art and the one who creates it. This is especially true if the art is informed by anthropological and historical considerations, as is the work of Lynn Deal, who will provide a fabric sculpture for Maryhill Museum’s Exquisite Gorge II exhibition this summer.
Deal, born in England, was raised in New Mexico and spent much of her adult life in Oklahoma and some years in Texas. Her interest in fabric and design dates back to her childhood and eventually brought her to the Pacific Northwest, a fertile region for fiber artists, where she joined the Columbia FiberArts Guild. Deal’s background in all things fiber is rich: She earned a BA in Design and Human Ecology from the University of Oklahoma and received her MA there as well, then worked in various roles, director, curator, exhibit and education director, and site manager among them, for the Metcalfe Museum, the Tulsa Historical Society, and the Texas Historical Commission, among others.
Once she realized that clothing and costume design, the typical occupations for many interested in working with fabric, were not for her, Deal focused on researching and exhibiting domestic textiles at the intersection of private creation and society’s structural conditions. That exploration included studies of cross-fertilization between women crafters who belonged to different classes and races in the 19th and 20th century South of the U.S.
A specific area of interest was the quilting of a Louisiana plantation owner, Cammie Garrett Henry, who opened Melrose Plantation to visiting writers and artists, making it an important community during the Southern Renaissance—a period of intense artistic production between World War I and the end of World War II. Henry, a white woman, incorporated motifs and techniques from indigenous Hawaiian work into her quilting. The quilts of her Black domestic servant, Clementine Hunter, on the other hand, started to display motifs that described the architecture and daily views of the white plantation world around her. Hunter, mostly admired for her folk art paintings, became one of the best-known artists of Louisiana. Rather than staying away from what would today be termed “appropriation,” these women integrated various cross-cultural elements that enriched their work.
Deal’s artistic practice is clearly informed by both the historic techniques and configurations she immersed herself in, and the way a deeper view of the world could be communicated in crafted work. Her wall hangings and sculptures do require intense visual exploration, since an immense load of detail work sometime delays the appreciation of the larger picture. So much to look at, in terms of varied materials, methods of stitching, application, patterning, and color.
She loves it all: the spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering, dying, carding, and quilting. No technique is left behind, nor are types of materials: Wool, tulle, silk, cotton, beads and buttons, silkscreens panels, odds and ends abound. What emerges are stylized portraits of a world as perceived – “wool her paint, stitching her brush, fabrics her inspiration,” as she phrased it. Seemingly innocuous titles invite the viewer to go beyond the plethora of detail and explore possible meanings. Here is a perfect example: At the Party.
The quilted scroll shows the appliquéd figure of a young Black girl or woman, dressed up, hair beaded, behind a wrought-iron fence, covered with Mardi Gras beads and seemingly random cotton loops, once used to make potholders by domestic workers whose hands were not to be idle. The prominent fence, however happily colored and skillfully embroidered, excludes the figure, puts a barrier between viewer and subject, and can almost be perceived as a small cage. No amount of magnolia pinks and stereotypic New Orleans festive cheer with its abundance of beads can ultimately obscure the reference to slavery and racial segregation.
Looking beyond the easily visible, of course, is required.
Similar insights reveal themselves when you contemplate some of the other, unfortunately timely topics:
Or here, a recent sculpture by the artist, Keen Waters (2019), alluding to the fragility of the river ecosystems, the harm induced by dams to fish runs, pollution at the bottom.
For the Exquisite Gorge II project, a rich silken river, stitched with metallic thread reflecting light, will flow underneath a canopy of colorful gauze leading from sunrise to sunset, forming the letter M to honor Maryhill Museum. On the bottom, fabric-covered container lids will remind of the plastic pollution ubiquitous to our waterways.
I CONSIDER LYNN DEAL AN HEIR to an age-old practice of, however subtle, political expression through the crafts. Traditionally relegated to the female domain, a domestic chore or diversion, craft was always perceived to be a lesser cousin to the fine arts. True even if and when it enhanced the social status of the patriarchs displaying the incredible handiwork of their female household members, whether in French castles, American plantations, English country manors or churches, producing true works of art like the Bayeux tapestries. If you looked closely enough, however, it had a voice.
The combination of textile arts and politics is nothing new, then. In the last decades, it has become a defined movement known as Craftivism, popularized by Betsy Greer and groups like the Craftivist Collective, founded by Sarah Corbett. The goal is to use craft to change or improve on what is wrong with our world, a goal clearly contained in Lynn Deal’s artistic pursuits, to create with solidarity and respect, to provoke thought and help women to express themselves in ways that might include producing in private spaces, on a small scale, rather than commercial production.
Cooperative work is included – with many eyes and hands creating statements that can range from environmental concerns, to feminist issues, to anti-war unity. The medium of knitting or crocheting is entering the public space, with yarn-bombing or other kinds of textile decoration. So is quilting, and in some instances embroidery. (Ref.)
Craft has historically been a mode of direct action. Take one of the earliest examples, the 19th century Female Society of Birmingham, whose members sewed innocuous “work bags” (traditionally holding your embroidery needles and sewing) which they filled with antislavery literature and sold across Britain (over 2000 of them!). The materials were carefully chosen – East India silk, satin and/or cotton – materials that were thought not to be produced from slave labor. Each bag contained a card that stated the choice of materials and asked the new owner to boycott slave labor goods. With the proceeds the women supported the antislavery movement in the 1820-30s. (Ref.)
The late 19th century women’s suffrage movement used handcrafted banners and embroidered sashes, with the Arts and Crafts Movement interacting with the women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Europe in the campaign for the right to vote. The same could be found among the women of America’s National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1869. They began to fight for a universal-suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and used symbolic colors (yellow for light, white for purity and purple for loyalty) on their hand-crafted banners.
There are also many versions of quilts made to protest social issues, from Georgian slave Harriet Power‘s story quilts,
the work of slave descendants at the community of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, to the 1980 International Honor Quilt, instigated by Judy Chicago, that honored mythological and real women as well as women’s organizations in its 549 quilted triangular pieces.
There is also the incredible quilting work by Gina Adams, a descendant of both Indigenous (Ojibwe) and colonial Americans. She produced a series of quilts (2015) called The Broken Treaty, cutting out the letters of entire Broken treaties–these were pacts written by the United States and Canadian Government and signed by Native American tribes — from calico cotton, the fabric that made White Americans very wealthy. The letters are placed on weathered antique quilts that were made during the time the treaties were signed.
Embroidery takes on new forms in the hands (and from the creative brains) of contemporary craftivist artists. Australian artist Michelle Hamer, for example, provokes with image of billboards, stitched to great effect. I fear her 2013 work is taking on renewed relevance in our current Supreme Court debacle.
Craft, fiber, and methods of working fiber clearly have been transformed into a tool of communication with others outside the domestic sphere. Artists use their skills in manipulating fabric and wool to create not just something beautiful, or interesting, useful or simply endearing, but to make us think about what it takes to make our world a better place. In its public appearances, from pink hats worn at demonstrations to AIDS quilts laid out at the Mall, crafts have assumed an important role in American society.
I AM FOND OF BEADS. As a teenager one of my most cherished possessions was a multi-string bracelet of tiny glass beads, faded pinks and purples. It had been acquired from hippies who proudly proclaimed themselves grave robbers, stealing pieces of the ornamental flower wreaths fashioned from these beads from old French and Italian graveyards, long exposed to the weather and neglect. The frisson of such a violation added to the attraction for a 16-year old, no doubt.
Years later, while traveling through Northwest Africa in 1971, hunting at bazaars for antique Millefiori glass beads (not the fake ones for tourists) that had been part of commercial trade during colonial times became a game.
Nowadays, jewelry made by a talented friend using Venetian glass is a source of joy.
I have mostly associated embroidered beadwork with Indigenous art, a pillar of Native American tribal design, for example. European colonial settlers brought glass beads, replacing previous beads made of copper, shells or bone. This led to adaptive, often ingenious changes in working with the materials, as Alice Scherer of the Society of bead researches has noted:
“Faced with the challenge of integrating these new materials, women turned to familiar basketry techniques for ideas, adapting traditional basket-making methods to weave beads and native-made fibers into bags, caps, straps, and hair ornaments. Visual evidence for this can be seen in the motifs found on 19th-century woven bead work from the Pacific Northwest, which correlate directly to those used by women on their baskets and flat bags. This presentation will provide examples of loose-warp woven beadwork from three Native American tribes in the greater Pacific Northwest: the Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska, who focused more on embroidered beadwork than loose warp weaving; the Wasco of the Columbia River Valley, who wove beads until about 1915 at which point loose warp weaving techniques were gradually replaced by beading “on a frame;” and the Pit River Indians of Northern California, who created some of the most idiosyncratic objects, shaping their tubular bags in unusual ways.”
Bead embroidery can be found in Japanese history as well, and has played a significant role in African cultural history. Little did I know how much bead work was also represented in European work, even though I knew about the commercial bead manufacturing centers in Italy. Pretty mind-blowing, when you look at examples like these from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection:
Clearly Lynn Deal has a lot to work with, having found her own ways of integrating beads into her sculptures. They are elements of joy, of playful attention magnets, small messengers of harmony against backdrops of unease. Work that makes you try to find a balance, as it was intended to do.
Then again, Frankie, the pet rabbit, couldn’t care less – having free run of the studio makes for a happy life, no further improvements needed.
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project II, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
Section Two: Lewis and Clark College–Artist: Amanda Triplett
Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County and Arts in Education of the Gorge–Artist: Chloë Hight
Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
Section Five: The Dalles Arts Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library–Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library–Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art–Artist: Magda Nica
Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts–Artist: Ophir El-Boher
Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation–Artist: Bonnie Meltzer
Section Ten: ArtWalla–Artist: Kristy Kún
Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson (project artistic director) and Owen Premore
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on May 13, 2022.