I served as one of several curators for the exhibition Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, which closed this past weekend. This exhibit was an exciting opportunity to bring to new audiences some of the amazing fancywork treasures tucked away in collections around the state. It was also a fascinating chance to see these historic handicrafts in a new light by showing them alongside contemporary works of art in a highly modern, sleek space–the James Watrous Gallery in Madison’s Overture Center.
Like a 19th century friendship quilt, the exhibit was the work of many hands. It began with a seminar class led by Ann Smart Martin, my former advisor in the Department of Art History at UW-Madison, which she co-taught with me and Martha Glowacki, director of the James Watrous Gallery. The seminar students prepared a preliminary object list, researched the makers and drafted exhibit labels. Several continued working with me, Martha, and Ann to see the project through, particularly Andrea Miller, Andrea Truitt, Becca Keyel, Susan Bostian Young, and Breanna Norton. Other important contributors were curator and filmmaker Faythe Levine (of Handmade Nation fame), who recommended many of the contemporary artists included in the show; and scholar/curator Jody Clowes, who, in her role as Exhibitions Manager for the Watrous Gallery, coordinated the numerous loans and helped write and edit text panels and labels.
The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works included in the show were loaned by historical societies and museums across Wisconsin. Many of these objects have never been exhibited outside their local communities. The lenders included:
Brown County Historical Society, Green Bay
Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire
Dodge County Historical Society, Beaver Dam
Marathon County Historical Society, Wausau
Mayville Historical Society
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society
Oconto County Historical Society
Oneida Nation Museum
Rock County Historical Society, Janesville
Bonnie and James Ziolecki
All ten of the museums and historical societies on this list are participants in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database project, and nearly all of the historic works included in the show can also be found online in the database. When I first started the database project more than four years ago, my focus was on the major categories of decorative arts I’d studied in graduate school: furniture, pottery, and metalwork. But as I explored the collections of local historic sites and museums all over the state, I discovered a plethora of other fascinating handcrafted objects—hand-painted porcelain teacups, finely-crafted lace doilies, and intricate framed wreaths made from feathers, seeds, yarn, wax, and even human hair. Each of these delicate works had been handed down in a Wisconsin family for generations before the decision was made to donate the object to a local institution. Often, the women behind these works of art were identified only as “Mrs. John Smith” or perhaps “grandmother of the donor.” In many cases, this handiwork has become the only record that remained of these women’s lives.
The exhibit and related events are chronicled on the Handmade Meaning blog. The blog also documents the progress of the Community Embroidery Project, a participatory component of the exhibit that explicitly connects Victorian-era women’s fancywork with the current D.I.Y./indie craft movement by asking local crafters to put their own spin on a traditional craft–redwork embroidery. The article “Interior life in the public eye: ‘Handmade Meaning’ explores the domestic arts,” by Lindsay Christians of 77 Square, provided a nice overview of the show.
–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer