"Labors of Love and Loss" exhibition explores race, gender, and class with mixed media


Lisa Olson's Split mixed-media art

Lisa Olson's Split (aquatint etching and found photograph).

The U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Department of Women’s Studies exhibition Labors of Love and Loss is a collection of mixed-media pieces exploring gender and race and "considers the intertwined lives of caregivers, their dependents and charges.” The exhibition presents the works of Marianetta Porter and Lisa Olson, featuring processes such as letterpress combined with found objects. Though Porter and Olson’s works differ in some respects, they create a cohesive, important dialogue about the history of women’s work and the intersections between race, gender, and class, expertly portrayed through text and object. 

What exactly is the exhibit, and what are the Labors of Love and Loss that the title refers?

The exhibition organizers tell us that “historically, in both southern African American life and in the tenuous strivings of the 19th century working underclass, the primary care and comfort of others fell to women.” Responsibilities of care are historically “entwined with sweetness and hope, heartache and loss.”

This exhibition asks, “How did [women] balance the tangle of necessity and demand against their own emotional involvements and aspirations?” Though this question will likely never be fully known, the meditations provided by Olson and Porter offer a profound look at problematic histories and ask us to question them through these works.

Lisa Olson is a mixed-media artist and alumna of the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design whose work takes on a variety of forms: books, prints, collage, drawing, and sculptural objects. Olson uses text and image in her work to create meaning and the exhibition text says she's interested in “the fragility of the individual within historically harsh or oppressive class-related social structures and the resulting tools and systems created as strategies to navigate through.”

Marianetta Porter is a professor of art and design at Stamps School of Art and Design. As the exhibition materials state, her work is “grounded in the study of African American history, culture, and representation, drawing on ethnography, religious traditions, folklore, visual culture, and language to investigate the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the vernacular art of the black church, the politics of visibility, and the poetics of color.” 

In two recent interviews I conducted with Olson and Porter, each answered three questions about their collaboration and the impact that had on “Labors of Love and Loss." Then, I asked each artist specific questions about her own body of work.

Marianetta Porter's Vessel #1 and Slaver #2 (Ironing board)

Marianetta Porter's Vessel #1 and Slaver #2 (ironing board).

Q: What was the initial impetus for this show? Did the collaborative effort impact the work?

Olson: Marianetta and I have exhibited together in the past -- when we’ve paired work, it has always seemed a natural fit. We are interested in similar themes and have a synonymous mixed media approach. Our collaboration is loose but very fruitful. When we have an opportunity to show together, we look for a common theme in the work we’ve been doing and build around it. We keep in close contact and share readings and ideas. For me, our discussions spark ideas and often help to solidify a thought. So yes, my work is definitely impacted by my relationship with Marianetta.

Porter: As artists, Lisa and I are both interested in lost or fragmented histories as a source and inspiration for our works. We are particularly interested in exploring these histories from women's vantage points and from our own perspectives as women artists. The Women’s Studies staff at Lane Hall has long maintained a continued commitment to showcasing the works of artists and designers whose themes are women-centered. When the opportunity to exhibit there came up, we didn’t hesitate to accept knowing that we share similar themes in our work.

Q: Many of the artworks are made from found objects. What is your process in finding and working with these objects that have such a rich and oftentimes heartbreaking history?

Olson: It seems that I have always been interested in objects as conduits to past times and places. I spent many hours looking for fossils in the playground gravel when I was a child. I was awestruck that these little bits of rock had come through millions of years and that I could now hold them in my hand. 

I use an object just as a painter would use an image – to communicate meaning, to set a feeling, to guide the viewer. The literal meaning of an object or image opens the door to an initial understanding and the metaphorical associations allow a viewer to build a personal interpretation of the work.   

Antique stores and thrift markets are good starting places to shop for materials and also fantastic places to study and learn and gather ideas. I never know what I’m looking for and usually collect things with no clear purpose in mind. But I also like to make my own “found objects” or modify some of the objects that I have collected.   
Porter: Often the objects carry a history of prior use. Sometimes they are found while rummaging through thrift shops, flea markets, or estate sales. Other times they are “happy accidents” --- interesting objects found on the street or salvaged from our own daily lives. For the most part, the objects themselves maintain their integrity with only minor alterations.

Q: What is the relationship between text and object in your work? How do you determine which objects stand alone and which incorporate text or other media? 

Olson: This is something I’ve thought a lot about in the 20 years that I’ve been using text. In our culture, when we encounter text and image (or object) together, the assumption is that the text is the primary source of information. For example, when we see an image in the newspaper we usually look at the picture first and then read the caption to find out what we are looking at.

There is an early work by Christian Boltanski that shows the power of text with image. It is a simple photograph of a young boy, apparently a typical family snapshot taken to preserve a happy moment. But Boltanski adds text -- he labels the image as the last picture taken of the boy. The switch in meaning is enormous.

At first I became interested in the different ways an artist can direct meaning with added text -- it can be used to contradict or subvert the visual component, it can be used to add to the object’s meaning, again either literally or through metaphor.

Currently I most often use text as the main informational component of a work. The imagery or objects function as supportive elements and allow opportunities to add a poetry or abstraction to the words.

[Determining which objects incorporate text or other media] is most always an intuitive decision. I do what feels right for the idea. Because I use text in so much of my work, the choice to create a piece with no text is a considered decision. So to me, the absence of text in a work that I make will create a quietness or void.

Porter: Sometimes the texts act as a narrative background for the objects, providing a context, framework, or point of reference for better understanding the object. At other times, texts serve as inspiration for making the work itself and may or may not be visible in the final works of art. The question is always… Can the object, standing alone, fully communicate the ideas we wish to convey?

Q: Do you have any upcoming shows or projects that PULP readers should look forward to?

Olson: I have a one-person show coming up in November at Bromfield Gallery in Boston. I think the work will take a different form than the work in Labors of Love and Loss. I’m thinking that I’d like to work more sculpturally and that text will be very limited if I use it at all. 

Porter: Not at the moment.


For the next part of the interviews, I formulated a few questions that more specifically addressed each of the artists’ works. First, I asked Lisa Olson about her work with The Children’s Home series. I wanted to ask a few more specific questions about her process and inspiration as it directly relates to her practice. 
Q: Your work in this exhibition includes found objects, letterpress, screen printing, and graphite. What is your process like when you start a piece?
A: When the poet Louise Gluck begins a poem, she has likened her creative process to a swimmer moving toward a lighthouse that can be seen in the distance - as the swimmer moves closer, the lighthouse recedes. I’m not usually that direct. I often swim toward an idea and when I get there, I can see that it is not where I thought I was going. I then move on to the next wrong idea and then the next until I find that one special wrong idea that will lead me to a solution. The process can be frustrating but over the years I’ve found it works. 
As an artist I have no attachment to any single process or medium.  I use what I need to achieve the result I want. The series of prints called Child Keeper #2 combines screen printing, letterpress and graphite. My intention was to reference institutional records by simulating note cards and then to add the letterpress text on top. I had learned from previous experience that if I use a lot of transparency in my ink and screen print with a stencil, the ink should collect and be thicker at the edges of the image. When dried, the thicker areas should appear a bit darker and suggest a slight shadow to help create the look of an actual piece of paper. But this time it didn’t quite work - the printed edge seemed too subtle to be noticed. So I added the thin pencil outlines to create that same suggested shadow. Materials and techniques are often just tools to be used when needed.

Q: The Children’s Home series includes text/letterpress. Where did you get the initial inspiration to work with text, and do you compose it yourself, or take it entirely from historical sources?
A: I learned how important text was for me while in graduate school -- I found myself taking weeks to find titles for finished works. It seemed that if I attached words to an artwork, those words automatically added meaning and needed to be carefully considered.

I do compose the text myself though I often take an idea or phrase from historical sources. The children portrayed in Child Keeper #2 are fictional. I created them after gleaning details from research on early 19th century orphanages. When creating the individual children, I wanted to represent the wide spectrum of situations that orphans and caregivers encountered at that time.   

As an example of how I sometimes work from found text, the title for “Sugar of Milk, Sugar of Lead” comes from consecutive entries in an old dictionary. In the same piece, the phrase  “Nature intends a child to live” is paraphrased from a promotional pamphlet published by Ivory Soap in 1903. Although I am comfortable with the use of found objects in my work, it seems necessary to me that the writing be my own. 

Q: The Children’s Home series has been in progress for quite some time, how has the series evolved over the years, and are you continuing to work on it?   What does the future hold for the series?
A: As I get older I find myself repeatedly circling around the same old themes. So yes, I’m pretty sure there will be more work in the series. 

The title The Children’s Home comes from an artist book that I planned to make about 15 years ago. At that time I wasn’t thinking about children in orphanages – the idea was based on my own memories of being very young and my grown-up fascination with how a child thinks and understands the world. I created imagery for the book but never could get the text or structure to fall in line. I still have an open interest in that project - every few years I take out the images and play with them and I do think that one day that book will get made.  
I began making work focused on the relationship between child and caregiver in early 20th century orphanages about 7 or 8 years ago and showed it in 2012 using the title The Children’s Home. Because I remember my grandmother calling the orphanage she had lived in “the home,” the title seemed a good fit and I borrowed it from my unmade book. As years have gone by, new work has been added and much of the old work has been reconsidered and remade in different forms. 


Similarly, I asked Marianetta Porter about the processes and inspiration for her artwork. Porter’s work delves into the relationship between objects and memory. Porter places them in a gallery setting and allowing the objects to speak, oftentimes, for themselves. I wanted to know a little bit more about the impact of these objects and how some of the series was initially conceived. 

Q: You mention that the objects in your work, and objects in general, can be read as “texts," and that they are “containers of memory.” The most striking pieces for me was the lock of hair presented alongside the text describing its provenance, and the undeniable connection of this lock of hair to a once-living person. Among the works on display using found objects, which for you are the most powerful?
A: At this moment, perhaps because it is a more recent piece, I am drawn to the piece titled “Woman”, a flattened, rusted funnel from which a red string hangs. In its simplicity, the pairing suggests woman as a vessel of reproduction, menstruation, a bloody tampon, an IUD device, etc. I also have a long-standing affection for the ironing board series.  

Q: Objects can recall social and cultural histories. The ironing boards address African-American histories, particularly through their titles and the context in which they were used. When I entered the gallery, I was immediately struck by the board with the large hooks, as well as the board with women's names on it. Did the ironing board series start with one object, and the collection grew from there? Have you altered them, or are they displayed as found?
A: The first ironing board I created was “Slaver 1”, the board etched with a slave ship diagram on its surface. The attached hooks make reference to “grappling hooks”, tools often used to dredge for submerged objects (in this case suggesting dredging for bodies cast overboard).  The piece titled “Aunt Hagar’s Child” displays the names of women that I culled from 19th-century runaway slave advertisements. The surface of the boards functions as “canvases” for me. For the most part, their original forms, patinas, etc., remain unaltered. The markings or burnings which I apply on the surfaces function as another layer of history, both literally and metaphorically. The ironing boards are part of an ongoing investigation and the collection continues to grow.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Labors of Love and Loss" runs through July 31 at Lane Hall 2239 and Lane Hall Gallery, 204 S. State St., Ann Arbor.