'Her Hands' holds forth contributions to labor, culture WOMAN'S WORK

March 05, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

The journey through "Her Hands," an art exhibition about "woman's work," covers lush and surprising terrain: There are tributes to grandmothers and infants, records of broken hearts and spiritual awakenings, celebrations of the female creative force and the power of female anger.

On display in the library at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the show was conceived for Women's History Month to explore the notion of women's labor as a vital aspect of American culture. Open to anyone interested in developing the theme, the show carried only one stipulation: Each submission must fit inside a 12-by-12-by-4-inch clear box.

The result is a series of testimonials to the diversity of women's lives. None is more compelling than the piece by photographer and college professor Cary Beth Cryor which honors her 99-year-old grandmother Carrie Bryant Tillman, a woman who spent most of her life working as a laundress.

The heart of this work is a 5-year diary open to a page of entries from the years Mrs. Tillman worked as a domestic for the Fenwick family in Glyndon. Ms. Cryor has also included a a photograph of her grandmother as a stylish young woman, an old Social Security card and personal notes and household lists she made on scraps of paper. A serving fork and spoon represent Mrs. Tillman's service to her own family.

"Women today owe a lot of their independence and professional successes to women who had to work in the fields and work as domestics and struggle to go to school at night," Ms. Cryor says. "I like to remember the trailblazers and respect their efforts. My grandmother was a domestic in the strongest sense of the word."

Other entries in "Her Hands" demonstrate the ways in which women are transforming their vocations. Baltimore poet Moira Egan, for instance, has constructed a three-dimensional elegy with dried roses and a poem to her late father, poet Michael Egan. Titled "Back in the Garden," the work concerns her own recovery from mourning as well as her duty as a poet to evoke the memory of the dead.

"Elegies are a really important genre within poetry because you give voice to a person who no longer has a voice on earth," she says. "Most of the elegies I've read are written by men about men. I think it will be exciting in the next 100 years to see the kind of elegies women produce because women are the ones more integrally involved in the processes of birth and child-rearing, and, in a way, in caring for the dead."

The idea for this exhibition, which was put together by an interdisciplinary team of students, faculty and staff, came from UMBC senior Shadi Towfighi. Inspired by "Mining the Museum" -- the 1992 installation at the Maryland Historical Society which examined various cultural representations of African-Americans and Native Americans -- Ms. Towfighi wanted to give voice to the experiences of a broad range of working women.

"I wanted a show which would pay tribute to the thoughts of ordinary women," she says. "Rather than having feminists speaking for others, I wanted women speaking for themselves, expressing their own ideas, saying what they wanted to say about their lives, talking about what they see in the world."

UMBC senior Soo Chung, a Korean-born American, submitted a work that expresses the complex lives of citizens who straddle two cultures. Inside her box is her baby picture, taken before she left Korea, and a twisted page of Korean newspaper. On the outside of the box, Ms. Chung has written the Pledge of Allegiance.

She says this entry is about her work as an artist. However it also tells of growing up with parents who read newspapers she still cannot decipher. And it speaks to the experience of Asian-Americans who continue to be perceived as immigrants because of their appearance.

"I think of myself more as American than Korean, but people come up to me all the time and start speaking Korean," Ms. Chung says. "My work is about the co-existence of the two cultures in myself. It is about what conflicts there are between them -- and about what takes precedence."

All the work is treated equally. Uniform packaging lends the same authority to the expressions of professional homemakers and professional artists. It also makes viewers consider each piece more carefully.

"This show uses powerful symbols of everyday life in new ways, sometimes in ways we've never thought about in those terms," says library gallery director Tom Beck. "What comes forth from all of this is a tremendous celebration of women's work."

Nan Salvatore recognizes Margaret Knight, the Massachusetts woman who invented the square-bottomed paper bag in 1871. Patricia O'Maille imagines her own creative life: A tiny artist dreaming beneath an art-bearing tree. Katarina Wong's cluster of mended hearts, made from Chinese ceremonial paper coated with beeswax, speaks about women's skill at emotional surgery.

And there is the humor and poignancy of women who work diligently to make peace with their ever-changing visions of themselves.

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