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The Handmade Meaning exhibition closes this week! We’re giving it a special send-off with a free gallery tour this Sunday, February 6, at 12:30 pm. After the tour, the Wisconsin Historical Museum will host a free, public exhibition reception and presentation titled “History through Women’s Hands,” two conversations about women’s craft work in the early 20th century.

The presentation will focus on the story of the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association and the work of Mt. Horeb china painter Hazel Miller Hanneman. Presenters include Nicolas Reynolds, historian for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin; Nancy Marie Mithlo, UW–Madison Departments of Art History and American Indian Studies; Brian Bigler, president, Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society; and Lynette Korenic, art historian and director of the Kohler Art Library, UW–Madison. Both of these conversations will exemplify some of the important questions asked in the exhibition, including how craft was learned and shared, whether craft was a simple pastime or serious occupation, and the role of craft in shaping cultural identity.

Agenda for the afternoon’s events:

12:30-1:15–tour and talk in the James Watrous Gallery, Overture Center
1:15-1:30–move from gallery to Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square
1:30-2:00–introductions, refreshments at the Museum
2:00-2:30–Conversation 1-Lyn Korenic and Brian Bigler on china painting
2:30-3:00–Conversation 2-Nancy Mithlo and Nic Reynolds on lace making
3:00-3:30–presentation of Community Embroidery Project

The reception will include a display of the redwork quilt squares created for our Community Embroidery Project. If you volunteered to embroider a square, please bring it along to share!


On Sunday afternoon, January 22, three of the artists participating in Handmade Meaning gathered at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art for a panel discussion moderated by Beverly Gordon of the Design Studies department at UW-Madison. We had a great turnout in spite of the momentous Packers-Bears game going on at the same time!

Gordon asked each panelist to speak about how she views her own work in relation to turn-of-the-century women’s handwork.  Susan Johnson White described how her Idle Hands performance is physically tied to the handwork of previous generations of women through the incorporation of tools and a pattern book that belonged to her female ancestors. Anne Kingsbury discussed the meditative aspect of creating her highly detailed beadwork and the idea that Victorian women likely experienced a similar sense of connection and mindfulness in their craft work. Cortney Heimerl considered the high levels of skill and technique valued by Victorian makers in contrast to the current D.I.Y./indie craft movement, which emphasizes that anyone can try their hand at making things, no matter their skill level.

Check out photos of the event on the UW-Madison Material Culture program’s blog.

Artists and makers were on hand to demonstrate their crafts. Graduate student Malka Salomon embroiders a quilt square for the Community Embroidery Project.

Graduate student Becca Keyel demonstrates spinning on her "hitchhiker" spinning wheel.

Artist --and Wisconsin Academy Fellow--Anne Kingsbury demonstrating beadwork.

Artist Mary Dickey (r) demonstrated shellwork. At left is Ann Smart Martin of the Art Hisotry Department at UW-Madison, one of the show's co-curators.

James Watrous Gallery director Martha Glowacki with curator and filmmaker Faythe Levine, who was a consultant for the contemporary craft/DIY side of the show.

Artist Susan White performing her work "Idle Hands."

The gallery was packed for much of the evening.

More opening night photos are available on the Wisconsin Academy’s Facebook page.

A new article from Lindsay Christians for 77 Square provides a nice overview of Handmade Meaning. “Interior life in the public eye: ‘Handmade Meaning’ explores the domestic arts” highlights a number of works in the exhibit and features quotes from show organizers Martha Glowacki, Ann Smart Martin, and Emily Pfotenhauer.

Link: Article via 77 Square/The Capital Times.

Watrous Gallery staff and volunteers have been hard at work all week putting the final touches on the exhibit installation in preparation for Friday’s opening.

Martha Glowacki and Jody Clowes align a lace doily on loan from the Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society.

Madison artist Susan Johnson White carefully adjusts her work.

Community embroidery project kits ready for assembly.

The gallery's opening wall juxtaposes an assemblage by Sauk City artist Mary Dickey with a hair wreath on loan from the Mayville Historical Society.

Emily Pfotenhauer in the Wisconsin Academy Gallery, Overture Center. Photo by David Corso for Madison Magazine.

Katie Vaughn, associate editor for Madison Magazine, recently interviewed Handmade Meaning co-curator Emily Pfotenhauer about the exhibition and her work on the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database. The interview, which appears online and in the magazine’s printed December issue, includes a photo of Emily posed with a sampler and a log cabin quilt on loan from the Marathon County Historical Society in Wausau.

Is craft art? Where has the current DIY (do-it-yourself) movement come from and what keeps these individuals motivated? What are artists creating using craft processes? These are some of the larger questions addressed by the DIY Forum panel at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on September 30th. This forum was hosted in conjunction with a yarn bombing of the State and Johnson Street bus shelter sponsored by the Design Gallery at UW-Madison. The panel consisted of Beverly Gordon of the Design Studies department and fiber artists Jeffrey Bleem and Lisa Whiting with artist Jennifer Angus moderating. Each panelist gave a quick 10 minute lecture regarding either the history of the DIY movement or their respective art projects. This forum functioned as a space where the public could listen to professionals’ and insiders’ opinions on the subject of craft and the DIY movement.

Of all the issues brought up throughout the course of the forum, perhaps the most contentious one and the focus of the Handmade Meaning exhibition, was whether or not craft is a form of art. While the subject was only touched upon briefly by the fiber artists present, there did appear to be a very strong stance that while they were using craft processes, what they were creating was art. In particular, Lisa Whiting declared that the term craft is a verb, meaning that it is how an object was made and not what is made. While this is certainly a valid point, it does seem to be, in my opinion, reinforcing the notion that craft cannot be art. Rather than using the word craft as a noun, using it simply as a verb seems to make the object less worthy of discussion and reflection than if it was termed art. I do not mean to denounce her statement entirely, for the term ‘craft’ can certainly be used as a verb, but if we are to challenge the accepted notion that art is created only by those who are deemed artists according to a popular notion than this term has to be credited more validity, more credibility. Indeed, by denying the word a strong stance as a form of art accepted by all we are discrediting those who use such processes in making their art, their craft pieces. We must not be afraid to term these objects as craft objects and treat them just like we would art objects. Only when we use the terms ‘craft’ and ‘art’ interchangeably will craft loose it’s negative connotation and craft objects can rise to the level of ‘high art’.

Historically, the term craft has been used to discount or to devalue objects made by the lay individual using certain techniques, no matter how strikingly beautiful and ornate the object is and how skillfully it was executed. It is my hope that with this exhibition we can get beyond this word traditionally used for objects created by women or individuals not deemed “artists”, and that the community at large will come to understand and appreciate these works of art for their impact not only on the lives of those who created the objects, but how these objects have come to influence the work of artists today.

–Posted by Breanna Norton.

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

In the process of choosing contemporary works for the exhibit…

A work in progress--Cortney Heimerl's tribute to her grandfather in beadwork and embroidery. Heimerl works out of her Milwaukee home and blends her craft work with freelance writing and curating.

Heimerl celebrates her small-town Wisconsin roots in her string of embroidered "Native of Portage" flags.

Jody Clowes and Martha Glowacki of the Watrous Gallery examine Marna Goldstein Brauner's "Curiosities: You're Ruining My Epiphany." Brauner is a faculty member at the Peck School of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Madison artist Susan Johnson White incorporates hair she collects from friends and family members into her artwork. In this work in progress, she couches wisps of children's hair in an antique bib.


Cortney Heimerl’s blog

Marna Goldstein Brauner’s Wisconsin Academy exhibition, 2008

Samples of Brauner’s work from the Peck School of the Arts directory

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

Handmade Meaning

An exhibition investigating the connections between Victorian women's fancywork and contemporary Wisconsin craft. At the James Watrous Gallery, Madison, Wisconsin, December 17, 2010-February 6, 2011.