Long ago relegated to the domestic sphere, embroidery is often seen as a decidedly feminine form of labor. Which is why, taking a renewed interest in practices such as textile work and ceramics, feminist art sought to question society’s often demeaning classifications of such mediums as ”women’s work.“ Salt Lake City artist Erin Coleman has been experimenting with embroidery, as well as mixed media and printmaking for much of her career. A Midwest transplant, she has amassed a reputation as one of the state’s most distinctive printmakers, evidenced in her current exhibit at The Gallery at Library Square. In the Distance from Here to my Heart encompasses nearly three years of work, ranging in style, subject and process, all of it exploring the powerful experience of womanhood.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors first encounter a small grouping of eight monoprints on cotton muslin with embroidered quotes from the 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the fictional story details the isolation of its female protagonist, whose postpartum depression becomes the catalyst for her retreat to an abandoned mansion. The perils of isolation inspire a series of hallucinations in which the protagonist sees figures in her room’s intricate yellow wallpaper. In two rows of eight, Coleman’s prints lie flat upon their surface. Each print is housed on a wrinkled piece of unpolished cotton. The rectangular pieces with frayed edges take on a decidedly intimate quality, as though they were once used as women’s handkerchiefs. The thickly stamped body of each print serves as a backdrop for embroidered passages, sewn delicately onto the surface. Dominated by a complementary yellow and green palette, the prints are hauntingly evocative of the wallpaper that causes Perkins Gilman’s character much peril.
Since the story’s 1892 release, Perkins Gilman has been lauded as a feminist icon, detailing the horrible injustices of gender discrimination within the medical and social mores of her era. Coleman has read the story several times and has returned to it often. “This story has always intrigued me as an early feminist narrative but it became meaningful to me as I was going through a big life-transition, she says.”
Indeed, these prints are beautiful contradictions: juxtaposing printmaking’s coarse mark-making with the delicate and laborious embroidery. The detailed attention necessary for embroidery evokes the near-obsessive quest of Gilman’s protagonist to pore over the wallpaper and discover a woman lurking beneath the wall. Coleman’s fascination with textiles coupled with Perkins Gilman’s powerful feminist commentary demonstrates the perils of domesticity as a form of incarceration.
“Many of the embroidered quotes are about her illness, crying all of the time, being treated like a child, trying to free this woman [herself] from the wallpaper. She becomes frenzied. She is fighting for her own validation, for her own health, for her life,” Coleman says.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Coleman devises groupings organized by color and series. On an exterior wall, a series of six monoprints incorporate ink and foil on cotton muslin. The largest of the collection is “Between,” a rich abstraction that experiments with color, texture and space. Like many of Coleman’s works, “Between” reminds one of the enigmatic sand paintings made famous by the Surrealists. These works exude an almost psychic force through the use of “automatism,” whereby the artist attempts to use unconscious forces to guide the artistic process. Coleman’s art is simultaneously delicate and bold, toying at any given moment between gentle innocence on the one hand, and a complicated turbulence on the other.
In the Distance from Here to my Heart is a plush visual experience. The collection manages to be both technically and emotionally rich, exuding themes of love, loss and hope. Remarkably, save for a few figural depictions, such intense emotional connotations are conveyed through texture, stains, stamps and embroidery. In a most subversive way, the show tackles the uniquely powerful experience of womanhood.
Coleman considers herself a feminist artist, whose artistic practice owes much to the female innovators who came before her. For her, embroidery transcends aesthetics to become a powerful statement in its own right. “Stitching on unconventional or humble surfaces, incorporating embroidered text, raveling and unraveling thread, making knots–all of these methods are so potent,” she says. “They are tiny subversive acts; they are personal and political acts that tell a story. At the heart of Feminism is the recognition that we validate each other as human beings when we allow a person’s voice to be heard and seen.
“What could be more evident of the element of the hand — that intimate creation — than an artwork that has been stitched, touched by hands over and over, pierced by delicate needles and fed tiny strands of thread? The strongest part of a thread is the knot, and through the slimmest, tiniest of means, we can create a structure by those knots and it is even more meaningful to me to take the unraveled thread from a piece of fabric and stitch those threads back into the structure. As a political metaphor, we can take those threads on margins and bring them back into the center.”