I’m delighted to be a Visiting Artist with Northern Illinois University. I have a show up in their Backspace Gallery, which is right in the Art and Design Building, and I’ll be visiting a class as well.

There was a relatively short deadline for this show, and I was out of town for a week at a conference. How was I going to get this done?

The concept for the show was that it would be like my “not-a-quilts” that were in my solo show last May, but zoomed up, much larger.

Here are those original not-a-quilts, shown installed at the Compassion Factory:

Picture of artwork, "Is the Modern Housewife a Lady of Leasure" by Elaine Luther

“Is the Modern Housewife a Lady of Leasure” by Elaine Luther. Not-a-quilt textile art, 2012. Materials: fabric, interfacing, wood hoops, found quilt fragment, custom fabric designed by the artist.

Not-a-quilt, "51 Hours" by Elaine Luther

Not-a-quilt, “51 Hours” by Elaine Luther, photo by the artist.

So, how did it turn out? Here’s an image with most of the show depicted:

Elaine Luther Show at NIU Backspace Gallery

Elaine Luther’s Show at NIU Backspace Gallery, October – November 2022.

What’s it made of?

For this show, I started with the materials, as I usually do. I’m drawn to collecting abandoned handwork by women – embroidery, doilies, quilts, quilt blocks. The largest circle in the show is a 40″ circle cut from a “cutter quilt,” a quilt so worn and raggedy it was beyond its useful life. I overdyed it, cut it into a circle, stitched the edges and stiffened it.

This show includes some abandoned/found/purchased handwork used as is, and Solar Fast prints made of vintage handmade doilies. I’ve also taken some of my older collage paintings (from about 2010-2013, I think) and cut them into circles. There are objects in these installations as well – Petri dishes filled with various things, Tupperware lids, and one pie tin.

The show also includes cyanotype, kirigami shapes, a scrubs shirt, textile collage mounted on wire forms and lots of quilt bits. We’ll get into some close up shots below.

The Backspace Gallery is made up of two walls, each with two shorter side walls. The shorter wall is about 8 feet long, and the longer one is almost 12 feet long. Each of the four side walls is 44 inches.

What’s it mean?

That I was able to go back and re-use old collage paintings for this show tells me that I’ve been making work on these subjects – women’s labor and women’s rights – for a long time. This show is a blend of work by me, both old and new, as well as found handwork by unknown women, both modified and not very modified.

There are two walls in this show, and one wall is “Labor” and one wall is “Rights.” The original not-a-quilts, shown above, were both on the subject of women’s labor, and included custom fabric, printed with a 1929 government report titled, “Is the Modern Housewife a Lady of Leasure?” (spelling sic). Here’s the “Labor” wall:

"Labor" wall by Elaine Luther, as installed at NIU

“Labor” wall by Elaine Luther, as installed at NIU’s Backspace Gallery.

This wall also includes a round of that same fabric – I’ve gotten a lot of circles out of that two yard purchase. There’s also a quilt fragment, overdyed and mounted on a metal frame with small doily, an embroidered clock on canvas, a rust print on wood panel, a pie tin, a mixed media collage painting fragment, mounted on wood panel, a scrubs shirt and a printed doily.

The scrubs shirt is hand printed to say, “Care Work Makes All Work Possible.” The doily is printed with Solar Fast dye and says, “Shadow Work is Work that You Do that Someone Else Used to Get Paid for.” Though women do 75% of the world’s unpaid labor, we all perform shadow work.

What is shadow work? Filling out forms for the doctor’s office online instead of an admin assistant getting paid to do it; self check out at the grocery store; those darn machines that replaced parking meters (you walk further and take longer to pay, no one gets paid to go empty out the change).

The mixed media collage painting in the lower left includes a fragment from an Irish linen tea towel about the birth of a foal. The pie tin is an Ovenex and has a really cool repeating starburst pattern inside (didn’t think I was going to get to use it, but there was a blank space sow we added it in). The center element is a shape cut from wallpaper into kirigami and painted. Kirigami is the Japanese art of folding and cutting. No particular symbolism to this shape, I just happen to know how to do kirigami. This is a floral pattern, so maybe that means something. I covered the opening in the wallpaper shape with tulle, and layered a found quilt fragment over it.

The Rights Wall by Elaine Luther at NIU's Backspace Gallery

The “Rights” wall by Elaine Luther at NIU’s Backspace Gallery, October – November 2022.

This wall is about the fraying rights of women in America (and frankly, all over the world, but this is where I am). The fraying rights are referenced in both the actual, torn, frayed fabric and in the rust prints.

The center circle is a 40 inch piece cut from the cutter quilt – that quilt has multiple pieces in this show, both overdyed and not. On top of that is a doily printed using Solar Fast that says, “An American Woman Has Fewer Rights than a Corpse.” To the left are textile collages and a piece of wallpaper, cut into a kirigami shape and painted mustard yellow. The upper textile collage is a a found quilt fragment overlaid with red letters that spell out ERA NOW. I made this top in about 2019, I think it was, in a moment when it looked like the ERA was about to be ratified at the national level. Multiple states, including my own, finally ratified the ERA. I foolishly thought, well, I don’t have time to finish this quilt top, it’s going to pass before I can finish it. (Spoilers – it didn’t pass.)

For this show, I quilted it, stitched the edges and stiffened it. The lower textile collage is a sewn collage of found fabric shapes, rust print and paper.

The grouping above and to the left is made up of a cyanotype print on paper, custom fabric, and two mixed media collage paintings.

To the right of the center piece is a textile collage made of torn strips of fabric and found quilt blocks/stars. The fabric with text has the Pledge of Allegiance, and it’s attached in various directions. The orange and red fabrics are blood and fire, representing the protests in the streets that have been happening since the murder of George Floyd. The quilt stars are all in the colors of the American flag, and are also fraying. Oh, and there’s also skeleton fabric. These are all familiar fabrics, if you remember my earlier Blood and Fire quilt banners from 2020. This one is not sewn though, but is glued to canvas.

Above that and further to the right, there are two circles cut from the same sewn textile collage and each one is sewn to a wire frame. All the way to the left is a Solar Fast print of a doily in green. (The dye is actually teal, but something weird happened, perhaps due to the make up of the fabric. Not sure.)

Why circles? Why not-a-quilts?

I have a confession. I don’t like sewing binding. As a quilter, I’m very much an improv quilter, if I’m a quilter at all. I’m better at making quilt tops than getting a quilt all the way finished. (Sure, I know you can send your quilts out to be finished, but I don’t have the budget for that.) The form of the not-a-quilt came about in part so that I could avoid binding. Also, I want these objects to be read not as quilts, but as an object taken out of its usual context.

I often try to transform objects in my art making – by silver leafing a plastic saint, for example. That’s what’s happening here. I’ve rescued a cutter quilt from a rummage sale – had I not bought it, it would have been picked up with all the leftovers by a thrift store, which would have thrown it away or sent it to textile recycling.

Why circles? In 2015, I started working with embroidery hoops – you see the theme – I often work with domestic objects related to women’s creativity. I had a large series called Balance & Tension, in which hoops seemed poised to fall off of their bases, or miniature tea cups balanced on a globe made of hoops, suspended as a mobile. Oh here, I’ll show you:

Precarious Tea Party, Copyright Elaine Luther 2015, as installed at Woman Made Gallery, Chicago, IL

Back then, I asked myself, why the hoops? Why circles? I came up with unity and wholeness – that’s what circles are about.

For this work, making each artwork into a circle is also a unifying element that helps all the disparate parts work together.

But wait, there’s more!

There are four side walls at the Backspace Gallery, here are pictures of those.

Diamonds and Sand Wall by Elaine Luther at NIU's Backspace Gallery

Diamonds and Sand Wall by Elaine Luther at NIU’s Backspace Gallery. The tweet in the middle sized circle says, “As a society, we’ve chosen to view and value men’s time as if it’s diamonds and finite, and women’s time as if it’s infinite like sand.”

Side wall at NIU's Backspace Gallery, show by Elaine Luther

Side wall at NIU’s Backspace Gallery, show by Elaine Luther. Timecards plus three more circles.

“Labor” wall and one of its side walls at NIU’s Backspace Gallery.  By Elaine Luther.

Here’s the side wall with Tupperware lids and Petri dishes:

Tupperware lids and Petri dishes side wall at NIU's Backspace Gallery, show by Elaine Luther

Tupperware lids and Petri dishes side wall at NIU’s Backspace Gallery, show by Elaine Luther.

The last of the side walls has one of the original not-a-quilts, bringing us full circle.

One of the original not-a-quilts by Elaine Luther, as installed at NIU's Backspace Gallery

One of the original not-a-quilts by Elaine Luther, as installed at NIU’s Backspace Gallery.

All Artwork in this post is Copyright Elaine Luther 2022 All Rights Reserved.

(Except the embroidered clock, which is copyright the design company that sold the pattern.)


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