With their precisely plotted birds'-eye and fair-isle designs, the paintings of Ellen Lesperance are clearly modeled on knitting patterns. But behind their intimations of warmth and coziness are stirring calls to action. The Minneapolis-born artist (who shows at Adams and Ollman in Portland, where she is now based, and Ambach & Rice in Los Angeles) finds her source material in the archives of Feminist activist groups and at contemporary protests (such as those affiliated with "Black Lives Matter" and the "Occupy" movement).
In an interview for Artspace's "Meet the Artist" series, Lesperance gave Karen Rosenberg some essential background on her life and work.
How did you first get involved with art?
My mom was in charge of crafts at this miserable Christian camp that I had to go as a child, and I think my creative impulses have some relationship to this: to ducking out of Bible school to go hang out in the craft closet. I don’t have memories of a time when I wasn’t involved in making something with my hands.
What other childhood experiences shaped you as an artist?
I come from a really big mixed-race family in the early 1970s in the Midwest—my mom had five kids, adopted three kids, lost two kids. My closest sister is black. People on the street and kids at school called us names, and my family got kicked out of restaurants. I got into verbal and physical fights as early as I can remember. I grew up with raw, tangible feelings regarding inequity and what it means to fight for justice.
What did you learn from art school?
As an undergraduate I was a pretty straightforward figurative painter in a very traditional program. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really got into the visual vocabulary of knitting: its not-square but grid-based formatting, the conventions of its pattern layouts, its language for writing a pattern—American Symbolcraft. I have been working with that vocabulary for twenty years, knowing, loving, that it has implicit limitations and that it's inherently Feminist: because women knit, because the history of handiwork is a woman’s history.
What were some important things that you learned outside of art school?
When I graduated from undergraduate art school in Seattle in 1995, I found a union job as a city bus driver for METRO transit. I was really good at my job, but I was also constantly harassed by my coworkers—I was working out of a base that had very few female drivers. I started knitting what I see now as power objects that I would wear under my uniform: things that would change the shape of my body.
Can you describe a pivotal moment in the development of your work?
In 2005, I met a woman in a small Feminist-separatist commune in the hills outside of Santa, Fe, New Mexico. She had been a long-term camper at an all-woman, anti-nuke protest site called Greenham Commons in England in the 1980s, and she told me a few stories. I learned that a remarkable component of the camp was its reliance on Creative Direct Action. The campers' tents were heavily decorated, the razor wire fencing surrounding the base was adorned, elaborate performances were staged, songs were written and sung. I found images of Greenham women wearing the most incredible handmade garments: sweaters with inscribed words, with Feminist emblems like labryses and fists.
Through studying these campers, I recognized that Creative Direct Action provides a powerful model for politically-inclined artists like myself—but unfortunately it is creative making that exists outside the purview of contemporary art.
What was the last indispensable show you saw and why?
When I was in Seattle over the holidays, I saw “Counter-Couture: Fashioning Identity in the American Counterculture” at the Bellevue Arts Museum. It presents a lot of the work from a book that I have been obsessed with for the last thirty years: Native Funk and Flash: An Emerging Folk Art (1974) by Alexandra Jacopetti, which showcased folk art by garment-makers in San Francisco at that time. The press for the show is gimmicky—like, look at these groovy artifacts of our youth—but the pieces themselves vibrate with revolutionary intentions.
For me, the show also expressed contemporary ideas. People can decide to make their clothes themselves, because they don’t want to wear garments manufactured in a factory with unfair labor conditions. People can still decide to wear something that sets them apart in public spaces—our daily, ideological battlegrounds. There is a lot of bravery in this setting yourself apart, in terms of gender nonconformity or in terms of simply “opposing the program.”
How do you find your subjects?
I think I’ve bought every book and self-published pamphlet of the Greenham Commons Women’s Peace Camp that’s ever been printed. I also go through video and film archives and look for campers wearing garments which I can pattern. Last year, with the help of an “Artist as Activist” travel grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, I went to a partial campers’ archive housed at the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.
Outside of the Greenham research, just following contemporary activism is very important for me. I have found subjects here in Portland at local Black Lives Matters and Occupy protests, and many on the internet as I read stories and watch videos that run concurrently with events.
What has been the most surprising response to your work?
The Brooklyn Museum has a piece of mine in their Elizabeth Sackler Collection that is a combination painting and sweater. The painting is framed and goes on the wall, and then the sweater is displayed on a shelf. The museum kept having to ask visitors to stop touching the sweater—one person had even picked it up and brought it to the museum’s Lost and Found. I loved that—it was such a clear indication that the sweater seems out of context in a museum show. To me, that proves its vitality.
What is art for? What does the best art do?
In an interview with Suzi Gablik in the book Conversations Before the End of Time (1997), the Performance Studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett defines the artist’s role as one of turning “value into form." I love this idea, that art is the development of a symbolic visual language through which to argue one’s particular ethic. And I think this is what makes creativity effective, that creative components can take on an argumentative role.
I personally agree with the Greenham Commons ethos as well, that creative making serves as a sort of opposition to violence: that it is an affirmation of life, of intention, of joy, of beauty.
What is the biggest challenge facing artists today?
Debt. I know too many young artists who finish undergraduate school with debts that exceed $100,000. They can’t afford a studio, let alone the opportunity to travel, to relocate, or to participate in the culture that they so value. I think debt closes the door on a lot of very dedicated, visionary young artists. And then some of these young artists with this debt still think that they should go to graduate school so that they can get a teaching job—as if that’s the endgame, or as if it’s 1990 and they weren’t just going to be used as adjuncts.
Who is your artistic hero?
Artists of the Feminist Art movement got me really excited to make things—I love Hannah Wilke, Sylvia Sleigh and Nancy Spero. I have also always been inspired by Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Shapiro of the Pattern and Decoration Movement, and by the women weavers of the Bauhaus.
I love the work of Christina Ramberg, Diane Simpson, and Dorothy Iannone. Ramberg is obsessed with clothing items that have traditionally contorted the female body, like bras and corsets, and her paintings are intense reckonings with the power of female sexuality. Simpson's way of flattening and manipulating garment shapes is endlessly interesting to me. And I love the sex-positivity of the female bodies in Iannone's work. Their sexualization is mythic—her women have round vulvas as big as testicles and they are manifesting her righteous, empowering texts.
What are you working on now?
I am completing work for a two-person show, with Helen Mirra, that opens in May at the Armory Center in Pasadena. I am also starting a new series of paintings that are modeled not from activist garments but from the garments of the female Amazon warriors on ancient Greek redware pottery. On these artifacts the Amazons are differentiated from Westerners by these garments, combination pant/tunics that are very heavily patterned. They are arguably some of the first depictions of “otherness,” and for sure of Eastern-ness in Western art. I think they are a fascinating subject right now, in the current political climate.
I also have a web-based project at congratulationsandcelebrations.org through which anybody can check out a battle-axe motif sweater, sourced from Greenham Commons, to wear while performing a (self-defined) act of courage. There have been almost 50 renters since the project started in September, and you can follow the documentation on Instagram @congratulationsandcelebrations. Or you can check out the sweater yourself—I send it round trip, free of charge!