What look like sewing patterns—on brown paper, but hand-painted rather than mass-printed—are framed on the walls. On a wood table, there are three neatly folded sweaters, each different. In the back room is another table, completely alone, with another sweater, this one pink.
Cardigan Worn by One Woman of the Boeing Five, Tried for Entering the Boeing Nuclear Missile Plant on September 27th, 1983, Sentenced to Fifteen Days in the King County Jail for Defending Life on Earth.
1970, Joni Mitchell Sings "Sittin' in a Park in Paris, France, Reading the News and It's All Bad, They Won't Give Peace a Chance, That Was Just a Dream Some of Us Had" on the Johnny Cash Show and It's Called the Symphonic Masterpiece of the 20th Century.
Let Nawal el Saadawi's Name be Written Into the History of a Victorious, New Egypt: Women's Rights are Human Rights.
Those are three of the titles of the paintings and sweaters. Joni Mitchell wore the pink one. The cardigan worn in the courtroom by one of the Boeing Five is navy blue with orange detailing, with flowers on the two front plackets, which together form a shape like a chest plate of armor—but soft. The artist, Ellen Lesperance, had to design the flowers herself because she wasn't sure what they looked like on the actual sweater. She re-creates the designs from historical photographs and videos, which give only partial views. Some of the images are black and white, so she has to invent the color. She begins every work of art with a specific woman.
From afar, the painted patterns on the walls are reminiscent of birds and angels, the blooming sleeves shaped like coffins. Some patterns are bold and graphic, and others shadowy; some are multicolored, some monochrome. The sweater worn by a Seattle WTO protester is plain black, with a plain dark-purple scarf. Because the paintings are patterns—flat foretellings of objects that will wrap three-dimensional warm bodies—the colors and patterns have to overlap on the paper's surface. In something like cubism and architectural drawing crossed, each painting is a diagram with multiple perspectives at once, in order to provide instructions simultaneously for fronts, backs, shoulders, and any details, like the shawl neck worn by Nawal El Saadawi in a recent New York Times video, where the 79-year-old activist is marching with one man holding her up on each side, or the hood worn by Pippa Bacca, who was walking from Milan to Jerusalem in 2008 when she was raped and murdered outside Istanbul.
Lesperance grew up in a hippieish family in the University District in Seattle; she earned her BFA at the University of Washington in 1995, her MFA at Rutgers in 1999; and she lives in Portland. And she won last year's Betty Bowen Award for a distinguished Northwest artist from Seattle Art Museum. A handful of her paintings are gathered near the third-floor elevators at SAM. The larger show of her works is at the Ballard gallery Ambach & Rice, eight paintings and four sweaters under the title The Strong, Star-Bright Companions (taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Dirge": "But they are gone,—the holy ones,/Who trod with me this lonely vale,/The strong, star-bright companions/Are silent, low, and pale").
This is the final show at Ambach & Rice before the gallery moves to LA; its memorial tone is not lost. Lesperance's process is slow and continuous, like the droning sounds made by mourners or the relentless steps of protesters. To get the brown color of the paper, she brushes it with tea. She grids it in pencil, each tiny square representing a stitch she'll eventually knit. The paint is gouache, lighter than oil or acrylic but sturdy and bright.
Lesperance has been working on this series for two years; it was inspired by her visit to a feminist separatist commune outside of Santa Fe, which has only a few members, who live in base poverty. It's also inspired by Greenham Common, a peace camp set up and inhabited by women for 19 years outside an American military base that stored 96 nuclear warheads on a piece of public land in England. Their encampment at the periphery of the military installation, which transformed a green area into a paved compound for two dozen fueling stations and underground oil tributaries to support the nuclear storage facility, included constant protests until the facility was closed. One woman, Helen Thomas, was killed. The hundreds of women had to move every couple days because permanent shelter was against the law; their protests included identifying holes in the gates and "darning" them with vividly colored yarn that implied the deep breach of security represented by the nuclear material. (This camp inspired the more temporary installation of the Boeing Five in Kent in 1983.)
Lesperance writes her titles on the paintings, taking the overtly radical tone of a poem proclaimed in the town square. But the pencil letters are outlined, not filled in. There's a call to action in that lightness and blankness, a space held wide open for the future in these resurrections of the past. There's also continuous movement in the back-and-forth between mediums in these works—from remembering (photography/video) to patterning (painting) to knitting (sculpture) to wearing (performance).
This summer, Lesperance has two projects. They differ but work in concert. She'll organize a creative counterprotest against fundamentalist Christians trying to block the construction of a Planned Parenthood in the center of Portland, and she'll travel Pippa Bacca's intended route from Milan to Jerusalem—not hitchhiking this time, Bacca's idealistic gesture of trust having been so brutally dismantled. (Lesperance compares Bacca to Marina Abramovic, who once invited an audience to harm her naked body, and even gave them the tools to do it.) While en route, Lesperance will gather materials (bark, mushrooms, flowers) to use as yarn dyes for future paintings and sweaters in Bacca's honor.
Lesperance published an essay on newsprint for this show, describing the conditions of the encampment at Greenham Common and considering the way street/camp installations by activists are overlooked by the art world while at the same time the trend of "relational" art promotes a theater of social engagement in the galleries. The points she makes are vitally important—as diagrammatic as her patterns/paintings, and as need-based and nurturing as the sweaters she resurrects. Her visualizations are visions in both senses of the word: lovely and engrossing, and steadfastly pushing forward.