The Spirit of the Defiant Woman



By Bette Levy


Editor’s Note: This post continues our series featuring KMAC Triennial artists. The KMAC Triennial, on view through December 1, 2019, brings together twenty artists who spent formative years in Kentucky.  Comprised of artworks that preserve certain traditions like weaving, crocheting, drawing, painting, and ceramics, the Triennial also includes the newer territories of conceptual photography, video, sound, installation and performance.


My art has many layers, almost like an onion. Each layer can be unpeeled to show new meaning and generate varying interpretations. The more I think of my work included in the KMAC Triennial, the more this becomes clear.


The uppermost layer is that of the obvious—the unlikely coupling of old tools with crochet, revealing the contrasts of traditional men’s work versus women’s work; outdoor versus indoor; active versus passive; standing versus sitting; gross motor versus fine motor movements and skills; hard metal versus soft fiber; etc. 


At the same time, there are potent similarities. Both forms of production require a serious work ethic, planning and goal setting, devotion of time, repetitive hand movements, and dependence on past knowledge and traditions.


By pairing tools with crocheted doilies, I honor these two modes of production. Although many hand- and tool-work skills have been largely replaced by technology, by using them in my art I speak to history as well as respect for family and gender. I am interested in maintaining craft skills in an increasingly technological and virtual world, and I want to re-assert an ongoing, ever-evolving relationship with the past.


So that’s the top layer. Beneath is a layer that examines how my work deals with gender issues.

 recent article in Ruckus, it is mentioned that my work captures the spirit of the “defiant woman, upending any predetermined expectations designated upon her because of her assigned gender, equating herself with—and indeed, surpassing—men in her field.” In my mother’s family, it was the women who were the dominant figures and the men who, because of physical or other issues, played a more passive role. When I look at this body of crocheted work, I see how the crochet greatly outsizes and challenges the accompanying tools.


In another layer, the handsaw and tools in this work are implements of cutting, hacking, and sawing—equipment for destruction. Less obvious, but so too are the crocheted pieces where the movement of making stitches involves stabbing and piercing. Additionally, the material used to harden the crochet becomes sharp and dangerous upon drying, revealing the hidden power of the female and the reality of gender fluidity.


In contrast to this, there’s a layer that deals with the role of the circle (the Japanese concept of Enso) that represents completion, perfection, balance, and infinity. Past work of mine—primarily my abstract embroidery based on the textures, shadows, and structures found in nature—never incorporated symmetry. Now I seem to be moving in this direction as I age.


I am increasingly aware of how complex and impossible it is to define one’s art, or anyone else’s for that matter. I am flooded with multiple implications and understandings every time I look at art. I hope you are, too.

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