Not Saints, but Artists: Acknowledging History's Negative Spaces
History is most often written by those with access to power. Though all women throughout history have faced oppression, many women were further marginalized by their race, class, sexuality, etc. Most of the women featured in this exhibit were in close proximity to wealth, whiteness, or another form of privilege. The unequal distribution of privileges—in the form of educational opportunities, access to spaces, career options, etc.—consequently led to the canonization of white, wealthy women in history and the relative erasure of Black, working class, or otherwise marginalized women. While this does not diminish the accomplishments of the women featured, we must acknowledge those women whose life’s work is not represented here today and whose images are not in our collections. To do so, we partnered with local artist Irene Mudd, who worked with historic images to create portraits of some of these unrecorded women.
Irene Mudd is a visual artist based in Louisville, Kentucky. Utilizing many different types of media, her work explores themes of women’s untold stories and how folklore and mythology interplay with this undocumented history. She originally created her knitted portraits for a Bachelor of Fine Arts show at the University of Louisville and continues to show her work across the city.
The conceptual basis for Mudd’s knitted portraits is rooted in Alice Walker’s 1972 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in which Walker writes:
“[These Black women were] exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them […]. They dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand. […]
For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release.”
Mudd describes the concept of her initial project as follows:
“In her essay, Alice Walker discusses the vastly untapped potential of generations of Black American women. I connected her message to my grandmother, who studied to be a biologist but set aside the pursuit to become a housewife before dying at 53 years old. In this series, each portrait is hand knitted, paying homage to women throughout history whose primary means of creating were restricted to ‘feminine’ crafts. I want this series to act as a kind of memorial for the innumerable, often anonymous women whose gifts were lost on a society that did not value them.”