Wisconsin People & Ideas Fall 2010 Cover The latest issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas, the quarterly magazine of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, provides a preview of the Handmade Meaning exhibition and an in-depth examination of some of the concepts considered in the show.

I open the article with a quote that captures an idealized version of middle-class women’s role at the turn of the 20th century:

The good farmer’s daughter is beautiful and accomplished. Her education has been attended to. She can crochet and make tatting. You never see her idle. All the chairs in her father’s house are decorated with tidies from her fair hands. She can make worsted flowers . . . and knit open work stockings and had a hundred other accomplishments that I do not call to mind.

Mrs. J. A. Clark, “The Good Farmer and the Poor Farmer–A Contrast,” Wisconsin Farmers’ Institutes: A Hand-Book of Agriculture, 1890

But this image of women as homemakers and helpmeets who used their handicraft skills to create a tasteful, tranquil domestic environment is only a small part of the story. For many women in the Victorian era, fancywork was an important opportunity for creative expression, community building, and self-reliance.

The magazine’s generously illustrated “Galleria” format allowed me to set up some thought-provoking juxtapositions between period examples of fancywork and works by contemporary artists who use craft techniques to explore some of the same issues of identity, community, and creativity. Mary Dickey’s delicate shellwork assemblage Box for my Ashes is paired with a ca. 1880s wreath made up of seeds, nuts and leaves; an embroidered quilt made by German women in Milwaukee ca. 1900 is illustrated alongside Chris Walla’s Hanky Project, a group of cotton bandannas embroidered with silhouettes of male pin-up figures.

Serendipitously, the cover article for this issue also centers on women’s craft work. Local author and blogger Emily Mills’ article “Art of the Craft” is a profile of Waterford basketmaker Pam Talsky’s explorations of tribal basketmaking traditions.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

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