As we march into women’s history month, museums, libraries, and archives are telling the stories of women artists, politicians, and activists. The #5womenartists Twitter project shares the work of women artists from different media, locations, and times. I am highlighting six women writers and five women embroiderers whose works could be used to expand discussions of the parameters of academic history, the personal realities of artists’ lives, the establishment and maintenance of artistic success, and the creative process.
Leonora Carrington is a visual artist and a writer. Her surrealistic works explore the human psyche. Her life was incredibly eventful and impossible to concisely summarize. Down Below is her autobiographical story of her descent into mental illness and time in a psychiatric hospital. Though slim in pages, the book is huge in psychological perspective and thoughtfulness.
Excerpt from Down Below:
“… I made calculations and deduced that the father was the planet Cosmos, represented by the planet Saturn. The son was the Sun and I the Moon, an essential element of the Trinity, with a microscopic knowledge of the earth, its plants and creatures. I knew that Christ was dead and done for, and that I had to take His place, because the Trinity, minus a woman and microscopic knowledge, had become dry and incomplete.”
Though books about her visual art can be difficult to find and expensive, Carrington’s books remain in print. Down Below is available in paperback and ebook. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington are also available in paperback and ebook.
Gwendolyn Brooks explored black life in mid to late 20th century Chicago. “We Real Cool” is a standard inclusion in poetry or 20th century literary anthologies. Her poems were incisive portraits of children, adults, the famous, and the unknown. She deftly wrote about the social issues of her day and used the language and poem forms best suited to her subject. The spare language of “We Real Cool” contrasts with the lusher language for the classic epic poem “The Anniad.” Her 1950 Pulitzer Prize is only a surprise in the sense that she was actually awarded a prize that she so richly deserved in an era when her contemporaries like Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, or Richard Wright were unrecognized.
Excerpt from Maud Martha, Brooks’ only novel:
“What she had wanted was a solid. She had wanted shimmering form; warm, but hard as stone and as difficult to break. She had wanted to found – tradition. She had wanted to shape, for their use, for hers, for his, for little Paulette’s, as set of falterless customs. She had wanted stone: here she was, being wife to him, salving him, in every way considering and replenishing him – in short, here she was celebrating Christmas night by passing pretzels and beer.”
Dorothy B. Hughes is an underrated writer of dark or noir stories. Humphrey Bogart optioned her best known work, In a Lonely Place, for a film of the same name but different plot. Hughes descriptions of the mind of protagonist Dix Steele that supplies an immediate anxiety over the reader. When you realize what is happening after the first third of the book, you cannot put it down. A fun intellectual exercise is to swap Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler as the authors and consider how the tone would change. Hughes brings a voyeuristic, horrifying dread to the novel that a male writer could not.
Excerpt from In a Lonely Place:
“Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was the fog, creeping about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. … the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.”
Many of us have seen one of the movie versions of Frankenstein, but how many of us have read the novel? Admittedly, I last read Mary Shelley’s novel several decades ago. Penguin Classic has released a new edition of the novel with the original 1818 text. Charlotte Gordon, scholar of both Marys (Wollstonecraft-mere and Shelley-fille), wrote an engrossing new introduction that examines Shelley’s narrative innovations and considers the impact of Shelley’s pregnancies and children who died young on the text’s philosophical discussions. Consider: a woman who had actually created life and given birth then writes a book about a man attempting the same. Is she using the device of a male character to explore her own passions, ambivalences, and fears about childbirth? Is Victor’s rejection of his creation an early description of postpartum depression?
Excerpt from Frankenstein:
“Why do you call to my remembrance circumstances of which I shudder to reflect, that I have been the miserable origin and author? Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression.”
Bonnie Anderson’s and Judith P. Zinsser’s two volume A History of Their Own: Women in Europe provides essential historical context for Mary Shelley and Leonora Carrington. Curious about historical methods of birth control, the daily lives of women in different socioeconomic classes, and the fights for political and legal equality, Anderson and Zinsser have that information. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify a similar work for Women in Asia or Women in Africa or basically non-European Women. If you know of such works, please share.
Excerpt from A History of Their Own vol. 2:
“The domestic ideal was powerful enough to invade royal circles, and beginning in the late eighteenth century, some royal and privileged women championed domesticity, even for queens. The powerful and conspicuous eighteenth-century female rulers – Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria Theresa of Austria, her daughter Marie Antoinette of France – were disparaged and feared. … Catherine and other independent royal women came to stand for the ‘reprehensible past.’ “
I am an avid embroiderer. Embroidery has offered women a creative career – independent of their families – for hundreds of years. Women stitched monograms on clothes and linens brought to public laundries. Young girls used to stitch samplers to learn the alphabet and to demonstrate their domestic skills to future husbands. Women artists expand the boundaries of traditional embroidery techniques with modern materials and themes.
Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch, Marjorie Agosin’s Stitching Resistance (paperback and ebook), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun (paperback and ebook) explore how women have used embroidery and other fiber arts for self-expression, employment, and empowerment. Five women, in particular, exemplify the creative and business sides of embroidery.
May Morris, daughter of William Morris, is currently enjoying a renaissance as a result of a wonderful exhibition and book that explores her career. May was a designer and an embroiderer. She began her career running the embroidery department at her father’s company, as well as designing wall paper patterns. Over time, some of her designs, like Honeysuckle, were mistakenly attributed to her father. If you are knowledgeable in crewelwork and other embroidery techniques, you can identify May’s designs versus William’s designs. Prohibited from joining the Art Worker’s Guild due to her femaleness, May founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907. May also contributed the significant works and the papers of the Morris & Co. to libraries and museums – preserving the company’s legacy. Her foresight about the legacy has also ensured that future historians can uncover and research her contributions to Morris & Co. and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Candace Wheeler may be most familiar to readers as the director of design for the Woman’s Building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Her career began in 1877 after she saw an embroidery exhibition at 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The following year she founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York, which helped American women artists and artisans receive the education and training needed to become professional embroiderers and to sell their work. She was considered the authority on home decorating and authored several books on the subject. The Met offers a PDF version of its 2001 title: Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875-1900. Her Principles of Home Decoration contains practical, timeless information and is still available as a paperback.
Elsa Williams led a needlework revival in the mid-century United States and built an empire. Her out-of-print book, Heritage Embroidery, traces the history of embroidery in America and presents Williams’ theories and practices for an American embroidery aesthetic – advocating the use of the finest materials for the creation of heirlooms. She established an embroidery school in West Townsend, Massachusetts. Her company’s embroidery kits are still available; check to see if the design is Elsa’s or another designer’s work. After retiring, she bought herself a house in Pebble Beach. I was able to tour the house 10 years ago, and her daughter generously allowed us to photograph Elsa’s own embroidery, like this magnificent chair.
Erica Wilson, contemporary with Elsa Williams, began her career in the 1950s. Scottish and trained at the Royal School of Needlework, Wilson came to the United States in 1954 and established herself as an embroidery teacher, designer, and shop owner. Her 1962 book, Crewel Embroidery, sold over one million copies. Wilson adroitly moved among different needlework techniques, as well as knitting and crocheting. She designed practical needlework projects, i.e. book covers and vests, art pieces, clothes, fabric, quilts, and wallpaper. Her kits can be found in vintage shops and online resellers. She became known as the Julia Child of needlework after hosting her own show on PBS in the 1970s, which is available on YouTube:
Needlepainting and naturalistic representations of animals are currently popular. Helen M. Stevens was creating such art in the 1980s. She was the first textile artist to be elected to the Society of Women Artists. Her books are exquisite showcases of nature and landscape studies. Her embroideries have been included in exhibitions all over the world. Still designing and writing, she has embraced the Internet by publishing pattern e-books, auctioning her work for charities, running a Facebook group, and teaching new generations of embroiderers. Sadly, most of her books are already out of print.
What is the common thread among all these women artists? Dedication to art with an understanding of the pragmatic realities of life. More scholarly and popular attention will deepen our appreciation of their art and vision.