The Waters of March—Spring


The Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, which introduced women’s crafts into the realm of high art, was recently revisited in an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Curated by feminist scholar Elissa Auther, Surface/Depth: The Decorative after Miriam Schapiro included young artists working in this tradition and reignited my interest in "feminine" forms such as lace that I have engaged in my own work over the years. The pioneering and indomitable Miriam, who has since passed away at age 91, was a friend and colleague, but my earliest introduction to lace was through my maternal grandmother. Her Victorian home in rural Michigan featured antimacassars on comfortable overstuffed chairs; the name of the protective doilies enchanted me: I misheard it as a nonviolent manifesto—“anti-massacres." The death-defying term still seems to fit the purpose of lace as I employ it.

Decades ago in our New York apartment, the prevailing taste was Danish modern; lace was an antique decoration devalued as clutter. Later, while an artist-in-residence in southern France, I discovered the beauty of lace curtains as a delicate antidote to the ancient stone buildings and produced a series of lace and flower paintings inspired by that delightful contrast. Since then, on visits to the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley, I am always re-entranced by the fine tracery of threads and the way lace is often employed as a protective covering—as in the antimacassar. Such lace suggests to me a deep, caring investment in both its making and its use.

For this exhibition, I have created a series of “protective” images of a landscape we know is seriously under threat from human activity. Continuing my earlier use of illustrations appropriated from nineteenth-century books of exploration and colonialism, here perhaps I am playing with something of an ironic exorcism in an ecological sense. The lace motifs add to the already idealized and romantic views of the landscape a talismanic veil, a wishful shield. In the recurring triptych format, the mysterious idea of three keeps repeating; at this moment, I am not sure of its significance for me beyond obvious religious ones—perhaps also a family legacy, even as it is not intentional on my part. Religious rituals of renewal may also have informed my thinking, albeit vaguely, as I produced these lush watery and floral images for a springtime show. A joyous Brazilian song, "Aguas de Março," floated through my mind as I worked—hence the title of this exhibition.


In honor of Emma and Joyce, best friends.


Rita Robillard, 2019