Doilies may appear delicate and lacy, but Oakland, Calif.-based artist Lisa Solomon sees the patterned, ornamental mats as having a subversive side.
“I’ve utilized doilies in the past to represent things that are potentially very frightening, like environmental toxins and dangerous war chemicals,” she said. “I love the idea that something that is supposed to be so decorative and so pretty and so in a feminine, domestic sphere can have an edge or other context to it.”
Solomon, 40, arrived in Wichita last week to spend July creating a 1,000-piece installation of handmade doilies with French knots at the Ulrich Museum of Art as the museum’s first official artist-in-residence. The doilies were used in an installation that was on display in a San Francisco art gallery last year, but this incarnation will take on a different form and feel.
The Ulrich’s Underground Gallery will become her laboratory of sorts as she tinkers with ideas and collaborates with guests. The space will host an evolving piece of art, and visitors can watch the experience unfold.
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“It’s sort of like artist as zoo animal – come see an artist at work,” Solomon said.
The installation Solomon will be working on, “Sen 1000 Doilies,” draws on her cultural heritage and plays with the theme of duality. She is half Japanese and half Jewish; her mother was born in Japan, though Solomon herself was raised in America. She’s envisioning vertical arrangements that incorporate 100 different color schemes for the optics, though the concept behind the doilies is just as important.
“For me, it’s a direct tie to a crafty lineage,” she said. “My paternal grandmother was really into embroidery, crochet and knitting. I became really interested in it as a child. When I went to grad school, I read ‘The Subversive Stitch’ by Rozsika Parker. It talked about domesticity as a means of actually being subversive. A lot of times these women who were doing handy work that seemed quiet and subdued actually had an edge to what they were working on.”
In keeping with past concepts that have explored conflict issues, Solomon said she did a lot of research into Japanese war machines and the war effort during World War II for this project. She discovered that French knot belts were made for male soldiers to wear in battle as protection and luck.
“I thought they were just stunningly beautiful – art objects within themselves,” she said of the belts. “The ideal way to make them was to gather 1,000 women in a gymnasium and have each woman make one French knot. They would pass the belts around and make them. I just found that idea really lovely – this idea of conglomerate, crowd-sourced luck materialization.”
Crowd sourcing was central to acquiring the 1,000 doilies needed for this exhibit. Solomon put out a call asking for help, and more than 45 women from all over the world agreed to assist, some from as far away as Belgium, Australia, Canada and France. Materials and patterns were mailed to the women, and eventually they sent them back finished. Many posted photos of their works in progress.
“It really took the whole belt practice to another level,” Solomon said. “It was fascinating to me because people were excited to be part of this and they liked the connection to other people. They enjoyed working on something that was bigger than them … it really took this out of the domestic sphere and elevated it to an art project. I loved the idea of a piece coming together in little snippets of everyday life.”
Solomon hopes to harness that same spirit of connectedness during her time in Wichita. She plans to hold two workshops on how to draw doilies and make French knots. Participants can make their own creations that will be used as part of this evolving installation. Although she’s not entirely sure how this specific exhibit will end up, the spirit of the work and the contrasting nature of her medium and message are clear.
“Doilies are pretty, delicate, and feminine, but I’m talking about these masculine, macho things. It allows for multiple conversations, formal and conceptual.”