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‘Keeping Busy’ exhibition deconstructs domestic stereotypes

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In the entrance of Northampton center stands a yellow federal style house, which is the main space for Historic Northampton to host numerous exhibitions and public programs for the Northampton community. On one of the coldest nights in February, people gathered to admire the “Crazy Quilts” of Henrietta Lambie and celebrate the five different threads of dialogue that began from Lambie’s quilt.

Lambie was a Northampton resident in the late 19th century. She created the mourning quilt – composed of 946 patches cut from personal sources such as her deceased daughters’ wardrobes and her husband’s silk ties – as a memorial for the two children she had lost.

According to Esther S. White, curator of the exhibition as well as artist and arts organizer based in Northampton, quilting was a widely practiced domestic activity that many Victorian women engaged in. The title of the show derives from the reality of how an unspoken regimentation was held upon women to “keep themselves busy” with endeavors that kept them inside.

Five contemporary women artists – Kat Howard, Anna Slezak, Angela Zammarelli, Lucy Trainor, and Annie Sollinger – chose to revisit the craft of quilting and respond to its history in various ways. However, they are not merely displaying the legacy of quilting or the influence that Henrietta Lambie had. These five women artists are deliberately participating in the craft that has been stereotypically considered “feminine” and was used to “keep women busy inside” during the Victorian era.

This intentional revisiting of such “feminine activity” does not reinforce the stereotype but rather deconstructs it. As women living in the 21st century, these artists did not have to try to “keep themselves busy” with domestic activities. Rather, they were already busy with their full-time and part-time jobs. Moreover, the works they produced were positioned differently from the quilts created by women in the Victorian period that were mostly utilitarian – they were now works of art, installed in an art exhibition.

Participating artist Annie Sollinger explained the disparities between Lambie’s life and her own. While Lambie was living in a period in which not only her reproductive rights but also her daily life was restricted, Sollinger lives in a society where she is in control of her career and her own reproductive rights.

While Lambie was forced to keep herself busy in a domestic setting by activities such as quilting, Sollinger, in contrast, had difficulties finding time to execute this time-consuming craft along with her full-time job. By navigating through such disparities, artists including Sollinger were honoring the women who came before them that cherished the tradition of this particular craft yet for completely different reasons, and furthermore, unveiled their own stories between the threads in such long process of quilting and mending.

Main themes that these artists discuss are stories of the silenced – courage, acknowledging loss, motherhood, homemaking, the process of waiting and the act of mending. Moreover, the five artists bring in more contemporary techniques such as digital collaging and image transferring as well as traditional techniques such as hand embroidery, darning, bookbinding, weaving and printmaking, thus bringing richness and fullness to the exhibition.

Historic Northampton will run “Keeping Busy” until March 6th. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Seung A Rebecca Han can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @seungarebbhan.

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