A fiction that I can commit myself to
2012 Hallie Ford Fellow Ellen Lesperance in conversation with Cassandra Coblentz
Ellen Lesperance, a recipient of the prestigious Hallie Ford Fellowship in Visual Arts, is one of nine artists featured in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” at Museum of Contemporary Craft. The text below is an excerpt from a longer interview. You can read more about Lesperance, about the Hallie Ford Fellowship, and about the We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live exhibition, as well as listen to the full-length interview between Lesperance and curator Cassandra Coblentz, at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ: How do storytelling or narrative relate to your work?
ELLEN LESPERANCE: A large component of my work is the act of resuscitating narratives that may have been forgotten or overlooked: creating a type of memorial that resuscitates a forgotten story.
CC: Is this related to a personal or private narrative in relationship to a larger, grand narrative that we all participate in? Another way of asking this might be, How do your modes of storytelling relate to notions of the idiosyncratic versus the universal? And in turn, how do questions about the personal and political play out in your work?
EL: My mode of storytelling is very idiosyncratic. It relies on a mix of fact-based research and fiction making that I equate to a type of magical realism in which I get to imagine solutions and doctor scenarios. And I mean doctor in a palliative way. A concrete example of this might occur when I see a partial knit sweater worn by a protester, or a full image of a garment but it’s an image in black and white. I need to invent solutions to memorialize that moment that steps outside of fact-based recording. But those are the straightforward, formal examples. I am more interested in how, in the lexicon of my mind, I can use fiction making as a method for sorting through the most difficult of subjects. My shroud paintings, made to honor young women who have died during protest, for example, were designed simply to lay a protective, hopefully beautiful, cover over a body in a most tragic moment, to step into that moment in a fictional way, and address it with care. All of that is fiction, but it is a fiction that I can commit myself to, wherein the world there is often less that I can do.
CC: Questions about the tensions between reality and fiction are a key theme in this exhibition. How do you challenge your viewers’ perceptions of what is real or true and what is not in your work? And why is that important for you?
EL: I think the combination of historical accuracy and completely homespun solutions makes it hard to know where that boundary is in my work. If you look at the titles, which are usually drawn on the paintings, there is frequently a date-based accuracy: a title will literally start out as “December 12, 1983… ” I know when an event transpired because I have a real newspaper clipping. I combine that piece of accuracy with a broader assumption: in this image of a woman standing and reading aloud, I bet that’s a newspaper she’s reading from. Then I invent 50 percent of the details of the sweater she’s wearing, but the patterning for it will be accurate enough to follow line by line as a visual chart. It all lives together, like in a 2012 piece called “December 12, 1983, Standing Beside the Communal Campfire, She Read Aloud From the Front Page News: Women at War! 25,000 in Greenham Base Demo.”
CC: In writing about the project I used the phrase “skepticism tinged with optimism”—does this strike a chord with you? Or perhaps it is the other way around for you—“optimism tinged with skepticism.” Do you consider your work to be skeptical or optimistic? Or both?
EL: I consider my work to be optimistic, although it is rallied from a very dark place. I could stay in a very dark place within these very dark, frequently brutal narratives, and that was what I was used to doing and it left me feeling quite helpless. The work, however, helps me invent a poetic that helps me cope. It helps that I can bring my best intention to something, that I can spread, for example, the name of the tree-sit activist Beth “Horehound” O’Brien to people who see a painting I did in memory of her at the Seattle Art Museum (2010). It helps me to talk about rape and femicide within a visual culture that frequently has panels on postfeminism. It helped me to go follow the path that Pippa Bacca took in 2008 and find the wonder and beauty in that journey instead of focusing on her terrible demise.
CC: Talk a bit about your relationship to making and to the material craftsmanship of your work. Does craftsmanship relate conceptually to some of the ideas we have been discussing?
EL: The work these days is typically made within a knitting visual vernacular, either through patterning or literal garment making. Knit sweaters are typically weather protection and, when handmade, are thought to embody a sort of care—I suppose—if your mother knits you a garment, for example. Those thoughts underscore a type of palliative energy that I like my work to have. I am more interested, however, in the way that the work hones in on certain craft-based histories that are gendered female—and I’m thinking specifically of the Bauhaus women weavers and their frequently grid-based, gouache studies or a painter like the wonderful Joyce Kozloff. I also love, love, love all the women who talk to me at shows because they knit or crochet or know American symbolcraft, and are granted this immediate access. I didn’t paint for many years after graduate school—seriously, like a decade—because I didn’t know how to include myself, my point of view, and my politics in a meaningful way into many historic painting conversations. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I am interested in how access is granted to an audience and how it can even be denied.
ELLEN LESPERANCE (b. 1971, Minneapolis, MN) is a painter, knitter, and archivist who honors noted women activists by replicating their sweaters— an intimate translation from found image, to pattern, to knitwear. Lesperance received an MFA degree from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in 1999 and is Assistant Professor of visual studies and research and writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art. She has been featured in solo and group exhibitions nationally, and her work can be found in a number of public and private collections including Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of Art and Design, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Lesperance has been awarded a number of grants and fellowships including a residency at the MacDowell Colony in 2010.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ is an independent curator whose practice is distinguished by innovative approaches to engaging audiences and working with artists to produce new work. Most recently, Coblentz was the Associate Curator at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), where she organized a number of exhibitions including solo retrospectives of Julianne Swartz, Kirsten Everberg, Pae White, and Lyle Ashton Harris. At SMoCA, she initiated the Architecture+ Art program that explores the boundaries between architecture and art through the production of large-scale, site-specific commissions. Additional professional experience includes appointments with the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the DIA Center for the Arts, New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Coblentz received her BA in Art History and English from Cornell University and her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.