Seeking Out Imperfection with Ellen Lesperance

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In this bitterly divisive moment in American politics, political art can feel like an amplification of the polarized views and news media. It is not exactly a balm for our frazzled nerves. Yet, in her current solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Portland-based artist Ellen Lesperance has focused on aesthetics within political movements, touching not only on the history of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (GCWPC) but also its connection with the Pattern and Decoration movement, second-wave feminism, and traditional craft practices.

The GCWPC was a woman-only anti-nuke encampment established in 1981 next to the largest nuclear missile facility in Europe. The activists who lived there until 2000 believed creative expression could stand in opposition of Cold War hostility and created and adorned themselves with incredibly elaborate knitwear and embroidered pieces. Lesperance, who was once a knitwear designer, has been researching the GCWPC for 10 years and references the garments the women made and wore while protesting (none of which are known to have survived) in her gouache paintings which function like maps of flattened apparel, referencing an absent female body with overlapping shapes that recall torsos and pelvises. 

The work in Ellen Lesperance: Velvet Fist is currently waiting out quarantine just off the east wing lobby of the Baltimore Museum of Art. This pocket-sized show consists of an artist book of archival images and seven large scale gouache drawings inspired by sweaters worn by participants in the GCWPC. It also contains a photo slideshow of individuals wearing the battle-axe jumper Lesperance knit based on her drawing, which is part of her Instagram-based “Congratulations and Celebrations” project, for which the artist mails participants the jumper to wear while they commit and document an act of bravery. Over email, I spoke with Lesperance about the layers of meaning in this work and her ongoing efforts to educate viewers about the skill of these craftswomen.

Ellen Lesperance. “Congratulations and Celebrations Sweater,” 2015-ongoing. Courtesy of the Artist. © Ellen Lesperance

Suzy Kopf: Originally, when you started this series, your drawings were functional as patterns for sweaters. Is that potential functionality still important to you? Would you ever release a book of your pattern paintings or collaborate with a group of knitters to make more jumpers to circulate, like the “Congratulations & Celebrations” project?

Ellen Lesperance: When I first started converting activist knitwear into painted patterns a decade ago, I was knitting about a third of the patterns that I created. Conceptually, it is important to me that the paintings have that embedded functionality: that there is a way that they could be potentially generative. I used to display the sweater that the painting generated right next to it on a shelf, tightly folded, so that the sweater carried a sense of waiting potential as a viewed object. 

I still knit from the paintings—I usually have at least one sweater in an exhibition—and always have a knitting project underway, but there are a few reasons why I stopped knitting as much as I used to. First is just the labor of it; I don’t have any assistants, and a hand-knit sweater takes multiple months to make. The second is that, as I was finding collectors for the paintings and sweaters, I saw that the sweaters were not worn, which conflicted with my conception of them as these objects infused with potentiality. Instead, they were stored as art objects, and indeed in museum settings even kept in plexiglass boxes or things of the like. 

The “Congratulations & Celebrations” project was conceptualized as a way to put a remade activist sweater out into the world to function in the way that I had imagined it had, and could continue to function, as a sort of a prompt for continued active engagement. Finally, a third reason that I do not knit all of the patterns is because at this point, a lot of the paintings are more complex and larger scale than they once were in order to also include pant pieces and scarves and other accessories. Many of them now have so many overlapping pattern pieces, each with sometimes overlapping color patterning, that it would be quite a feat to make some of them out as instructions. But yes, the simpler ones could be followed by a knitter reading stitches and lines, they would just have to experiment with needle gauge and yarn type.

Installation view of Ellen Lesperance: Velvet Fist at The Baltimore Museum of Art. 2020. Photo by Mitro Hood.

There is an obvious amount of labor involved in the creation of the gouache drawings, which are impressive in both their scale and detail. What is your process like before you sit down to making the large final drawings? Do you do any preparatory sketches? Do you try out various color combinations? Have you ever made a “mistake” in the process of painting and how did you rectify it? 

I don’t do any preparatory sketches, which might seem strange, but I think because they are so labor intensive, if I had too much information going in about how one was going to look when it was done, I might not be so engaged in making it. Seeing what color mixes happen, seeing what patterns look like superimposed on top of other patterns is an important part of the process for me. I think this is also related to my brain as a knitter, strangely. I tried, for example, to learn weaving, and the main thing that turned me off to the process was all the setup required before I could get started working. As a knitter, I just start right in, I don’t even usually do the preparatory “swatch” that pattern-writers want you to do to make sure the size of the garment is right. I just want to get moving! With the paintings, I definitely think about the design of it a lot beforehand, like how the pattern pieces might be placed to overlap each other, if interesting secondary shapes could be made from overlaps, but a lot of the 2D design of the piece is actually pretty predetermined by the sweater source image. For example, a raglan sleeve is a different shape than a set-in sleeve, and the size of shapes is based on how large a sweater it appears to be and how fine or bulky the gauge of yarn is. 

In terms of mistakes, yes, I definitely make mistakes. If you look at the grid that I initially draw onto the paper, this is the clearest way to look for “mistakes.” I am not a robot and my hand is really imperfect. There are always places in my grids where things get wonky and lines are too close or too far away from each other, but I really like these moments. I think they underscore the fact that drawing is a handmade thing. 

This also relates back to knitting because instead of ripping apart a whole garment, a lot of hand-knitters learn to live with intermittent mistakes in knitting repeats, even putting in a deliberate human mistake to make a break from perfection (which is cursed in some knitting lore). If you look at the paintings up close, you can probably see instances where I made mistakes with the painting itself too—or maybe not, because they are actually really easy to fix. Gouache is so opaque that if I mix a hue that is as close to the paper’s color as possible, I can paint the mistaken squares the paper’s color, let it dry, and start over right on top.

More expensive than watercolor and generally more opaque, gouache became a popular medium for illustrators making initial drawings for the fashion and movie industries or fine artists making mock-ups for oil paintings. How did you settle on gouache as the medium to use to make these drawings? What does it mean for these works to be on paper? 

I think it is necessary for the paintings to be on paper and to conjure up the sorts of histories that you pick up on: the so-called “lesser” histories of functional painting practice used by illustrators and fashion designers, set and costume designers, knitting designers, Bauhaus weavers, and artists like Anni Albers and Sonia Delaunay. I reached toxicity level with oil painting early on—literally, with the solvents involved, having painted as a student in confined spaces, and then teaching in poorly-circulated oil painting classrooms and student studio spaces for many years—so I was never going to paint oil on canvas without a respirator on. 

But more importantly, I also wasn’t interested in painting oil-on-canvas representations of female subjects. I really wanted to try to somehow represent the figure outside of that history, which is patriarchal and which has prioritized Western lives, traditions, and narratives. I relied on gouache to learn Bauhaus-era color theory exercises, and have grown to love its pigment richness so much. Its opacity allows you to really revel in color and color mixing, and the “hand” of painting with it always reminds me of nail polish. Unlike most other paints, you can re-wet dried gouache too, so the little tubes may seem expensive, but you don’t waste it the way you can a lot of other paints.

I love gouache, especially Schmincke Horadam Artist Gouache and Holbein Gouache (not the Holbein Acryla Gouache type—which you can’t re-wet—just the regular). I like these two brands because they seem to be consistent with their use of quality pigments and their paint doesn’t have issues with transparency. You can mix gouache brands together, but some also have this weird sticky quality that I don’t like (one brand puts honey in their gouache), but both Schmincke Horadam and Holbein lay down a really nice smooth, matte surface. Another painting recommendation: I also love real porcelain mixing trays, the ones that have rows of deep, tiny little reservoirs where you can mix paint. Because they are porcelain and not plastic, you can just let the gouache paint dry in them and re-wet premixed colors later really easily, and then set the whole thing in a slop sink to soak in water for easy clean up.

Some but not all of the works’ titles seem to relate to the imagery within them. Where else do you select your titles from and what do you hope the viewer learns from them? 

The titles come from the source image when possible. For example, when a protester is holding a sign in the source image, or if she is quoted in a press clipping, then that becomes the title. This is the case for the piece in the show: “THE C.N.D. NATIONAL COUNCIL IS ALL WHITE AGAIN,” which comes from a protest placard. I try to use the titles to give a viewer more information, to serve as a window into a subject’s ideology or values, not just her likeness. Protest garments—items of clothing handmade and worn in the service of activism—typically communicate through the use of knit-in symbolism, color use, graphics, even knit text. So some of the titles can come directly from the garments themselves if there is knit text. I also look at protest songbooks for lyrics to use as titles. I have been actively visiting archives around England and Wales over the last decade to find images of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp knitwear. While on location, I have also copied down text from letters sent between campers that I find moving, or from their poetry or journal entries. I frequently source from these collections of camper writings for titles too.

This work has clear connections to craft though it has been predominantly shown in fine arts museums and at art fairs. What advice can you offer other artists who are interested in making work that utilizes craft notations and materials, but who are having trouble getting institutional support, recognition, or respect as fine artists? 

Yes, I think this is a really difficult road to navigate because for so long there has been this false dichotomy maintained between what is considered “high” and “low” art practice, which of course has traditional craft-based practice falling into the “low” category. This leads to exclusion, but it also leads to unfair pricing for, say, works on paper compared to paintings on canvas, or a hand-knit sweater compared to another type of sculpture. It can be really hard to make a living within these old-fashioned pricing systems. 

I think there might presently be a moment of attention on craft practice in fine art settings. Maybe it’s a current art fad, hopefully not, but there were exhibitions on the legacy of the Pattern & Decoration Movement in two major US institutions in the last twelve months [Less is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design at the ICA Boston in 2019, and With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985 at MOCA Los Angeles this year], and a lot more contemporary artists finding exposure and success that work in textiles that I can think of off the top of my head, like Erin Riley, Jordan Nassar, Charlotte Johannesson, Liz Collins, Jeffrey Gibson, Josh Faught, and Diedrick Brackens. My advice would be to learn your craft as best you can, no matter what the craft might be, but also to learn as much as you can about the history of that craft and its related traditions. Craft materials, like art materials, need to be utilized to generate new and personal meanings that have relevance, that also engage with the world of ideas.

Ellen Lesperance. Velvet Fist. 2014-2015. Courtesy of Adams and Ollman, Portland and Derek Eller Gallery, New York. © Ellen Lesperance

Often, artists make artist books as an effort to educate or give more information about a very specific topic to their audience. What are the primary elements about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp you would like the audience of the BMA to take away from looking through your book? 

The long-running, anti-nuke GCWPC  is significant for its radical and ongoing political presence in Britain, but also because of its many contributions by unrecognized women artists. This all-female group of activists, living in makeshift tents at the height of the Cold War, endured incredible hardships through which they came to see creative expression as an opposition to violence and war. Engaging in what we now recognize as Creative Direct Action, I believe that the garments they made and wore in the service of their ideological engagement constitute art praxis, albeit in mediums frequently disregarded: knitwear and embroidered textiles. Without a publication such as the one I made, the artwork of these heroic women could easily be lost to history, as the garments were utilitarian, not thought of as art, and not recorded and/or saved. The camps were also subject to frequent police evictions, during which time all of the campers’ possessions were rounded up and destroyed. In ten years of seeking out images of these sweaters in photographs and film stills, I have yet to find one intact protest sweater saved in an archive.

In the artist book, I have collected a lot of examples of protest knitwear from Greenham Common. I have over a hundred examples of their knit garments. I am really interested in creating patterns/paintings for as many of them as I possibly can, and I anticipate continuing to work from these sources, and others, in upcoming years.

How do you relate the protest history you’re investigating with the Baltimore uprising, which is certainly the first connection many visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art will make with protest?

The full title of the “Congratulations & Celebrations” project’s pattern painting is “Congratulations on Every Section of Fence Ever Pulled or Cut Down, on Every Minute in Police Custody, and on Every Day in Prison. Celebrations for Every Police Vehicle Marked, Challenged, Stopped! Congratulations and Celebrations!” and it was taken from a letter that I found in an archive in London, written by one ex-Greenham camper to an activist-in-residence at the camp on its ten-year anniversary. The note is incredibly celebratory of things that we sadly do not typically celebrate and it is a reminder that there is honor to be given to people who disrupt routine civic life in order to make injustice known. The women of the peace camp were frequently in physical conflict with the apparatchiks of the state [the police and the military]; they were thrown into prison, harassed, injured, fined, their belongings were taken from them, but they sought to endure in order to deliver the greater message that nuclear weapons are an indisputable threat to all of humanity. I think the root cause of both groups’ passionate anger is different, but the way they model civic responsibility is very related.

While the show is up at the BMA, Baltimore residents can request to rent the battle-axe sweater through the museum, but before it was in Baltimore, people could request it internationally using the DM feature on Instagram and you would mail it to them. Is this your first time using social media to facilitate public participation in your work? How has it been a help and/or a hindrance?

The project began five years ago, and since its conception, I have been mailing the single sweater around the world. Initially, I didn’t know if there would be interest in the “rental,” I just knew that the only way to reach a large public audience was to attempt to house the project on Instagram, and make it totally accessible and available to anyone who followed it. I didn’t want to be prescriptive; the prompt for the rental is to wear the sweater for a courageous act, and I wanted every person’s definition of “a courageous act” to be encouraged by the project. So I am excited that there is a huge range of actions supported by the project, from wearing the sweater to initiate a difficult conversation with someone, to having it on during a scary medical procedure, or a protest action, or a person’s first dose of gender-affirming hormones, to wearing it to confront a phobia. It is sort of a leap of faith to send out the garment to literally anyone in the world that DMs me for the loan, but that trust hasn’t been broken for five years now. The garment is always returned to me, and returned to me with an incredible story and a documenting image displaying courage and agency, and in that way the project also underscores an additional belief in basic human goodness in the world.


Ellen Lesperance: Velvet Fist is on view at the BMA through June 28, 2020. All images courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The museum plans to reopen on April 29, 2020, but this is subject to change given state and federal guidelines.

All photos courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Ellen Lesperance

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