Nebraska Now: Elizabeth Ingraham, Fiber

January 9 – April 11, 2010 —

Fabric “skins” fill the Museum of Nebraska Art’s Yanney Skylight Gallery and comprise Elizabeth Ingraham’s first solo exhibition at MONA. The “skins” are life-size female forms meticulously and laboriously crafted from various tactile and sometimes patterned fabrics. These forms contain traditional sewing items such as buttons, zippers, and linings but also include such non-traditional ones as magnets, lead sinkers, or…teeth. Although the works are fully dimensional, they are still nonetheless “skins” – hollow fabric shells that are physical representations of, as the artist says, “certain qualities of mind and heart.” The forms “embody mental states” and can be figuratively put on – and taken back off again.

Ingraham has hand-sewn each of these forms from a pattern she created from scratch in 1995, when the series first began. Thus far, she has produced approximately 20 skins – all varying in fabric, color, and adornment but the same size since each was created from the original pattern. The series started after the artist was inspired by an Adrienne Rich poem that focuses on a woman who needlepoints. As a poet/essayist herself, Ingraham then wrote about a woman who begins needlepointing “from the inside out.” As Ingraham says, “the needlepointing woman is really stitching herself, trying to find her form, making herself up as she goes along.” This is what Ingraham is doing with the skins. Instead of only writing about the needlepointing woman, she undertook to make a physical form, breaking convention of what was art/what was craft and “strung up a clothesline…felt the distance between my clavicle and pubic bone and…made a mark.” She then started to form darts for the rib cage and continued from part to part on her own body, measuring by using only her hands, marking, making darts, adding pieces for girth and found herself with a full female form that was almost exactly to her measurements. Her “tarletan model became the pattern for a woman – 44 pieces, 166 darts.” Any sewer would know this wouldn’t have been an easy task and why the artist refers to herself as a “topographical savant.” She had an innate knack for form, dimension, and duplication.

This exhibition consists of ten of the skin forms – each suspended from their own armature with heads slightly down. Each of the works has its own identity and name, and they are composed as various aspects and guises in which women enrobe themselves. In the gallery, Resilience, Nostalgia, Seduction, and Denial are alongside Accommodation, Convention, Guilt, Appetite, and Longing. In the hallway greeting visitors outside the gallery, Baggage hangs alone. Each work, although the same shape and size, is distinct. Convention is made out of a fussy, floral chintz with her legs sewn into a circular skirt; she appears to be a woman of the prairie, prim yet bound within her floral garden. Longing is red and beautiful and when her stomach is unzipped, 30 feet of white satin flows forth from her belly, cascading to the ground in a seemingly unending river of want. With their tactile surfaces, dimensionality, and human reference, they call out to viewers to touch and investigate – to experience the handiwork and then contemplate what they represent.

Elizabeth Ingraham is an Associate Professor of Art in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Prior to pursuing fine arts as a sculptor, Ingraham was an activist lawyer for Native groups in Alaska. There, she implemented the federal settlement of aboriginal land claims. A summer program in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design led her to the radical change from lawyer to sculptor. In 1992, Ingraham received a Master of Fine Art in Sculpture from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to that, she took printmaking, design, and sculpture courses between 1985 and 1989 at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Since her foray into the art world, she has had over 20 solo exhibitions, over 60 group exhibitions, and six performances and collaborations. Her work has been reviewed extensively in such periodicals as Fiber Arts, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun Times, and Artweek. She resides in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the “skin” series is an on-going project for the artist.