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The Strong, Star-Bright Companions

Artist Ellen Lesperance weaves new meaning into knitwear with an exhibit honoring women activists

by Adrienne So in Culture on 25 April 2011

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Fair Isle fans have long fetishized the winter staple, but Ellen Lesperance's upcoming exhibit at Seattle's Ambach & Rice Gallery explores the sweater as more than a cozy way to keep warm. Named "The Strong, Star-Bright Companions," after an elegiac poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the show features Lesperance's gouache paintings of sweaters worn by female activists, as well as three actual sweaters knitted by the artist herself—all rendered with precise attention to detail.

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Lesperance painstakingly replicates the pattern and gauge of yarn in large paintings, piecing the whole pattern together from photographs into flattened-out diagrams. Much of her source material came from archival photos of the Greenham Commons Women's Peace Camp. For nineteen years, from 1981 to 2000, women camped out to protest the storage of nuclear missiles in Berkshire, England. While they waited, they knitted—incorporating their ideologies, in the form of fish and axes, into intricately innovative patterns. "I've been knitting for over 20 years. I used to work at Vogue Knitting in New York, and I'd never seen patterns like these," Lesperance said from her home in Portland, OR.

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The exhibit also features the artist's tightly-gridded visions of sweaters worn by contemporary women, like Nawal el Saadawi, the famed Egyptian feminist activist. And Lesperance commemorates the darker side of activism in the form of triangle-shaped patterns that serve as death shrouds for activists who died in the line of duty, including Helen Thomas, who was driven over at Greenham Commons Women's Peace Camp, and Italian activist Pippa Bacca, who was raped and killed on a symbolic peace protest while hitchhiking to Jerusalem. "They were definitely maligned for being stupid young girls," said Lesperance. "There's definitely an interest in elevating them."

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By memorializing and replicating these sweaters, Lesperance also lends a deeper resonance to the simple, utilitarian act of knitting a sweater. As Rosa Parks might have suggested, in the face of greater forces there's something very powerful about the act of sitting down, taking your time and creating a useful object of beauty. "Sweaters can be worn," said Lesperance. "You can stretch out the experience of being with the work. You could wear the sweaters for years, if you wanted to."

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"The Strong, Star-Bright Companions" is on view through 15 May 2011 at Ambach & Rice.

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