A distaff is a tool used to hold unspun wool during spinning. Over time it became a reference for anything domestic, the mother's side of the family, then women in general. In Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit, now at the Bennington Museum, contemporary artists personalize the tools of daily chores and toil. If every picture tells a story, then the domestic tools that women have historically used also have a human attachment. Frying pans didn't cook a meal by themselves as the ghost-like faces in Alison Saar's cast bronze pans, titled Mirror/Mirror, suggest or even more directly in her mother Betye Saar's iron washboard, National Racism: We Was Mostly Bout' Survival, with a photograph of an enslaved laundress; it had a real soul attached.
In Tatana Kellner's Ironing installation, the science and history of ironing are imprinted/burned onto the back of white shirts, and a monitor plays a video of a self-propelled iron with the sound of steam escaping; it's monotonous, repetitive work by a tool with an intelligent, sweating, thinking person attached to it. Lisa Alvarado's Mexican Woman's Toolkit is a large floral tote bag hanging on wooden pegs, which visitors are invited to rummage through. The bag belongs to a Mexican domestic in WWII-era Chicago: her life is service to others, she has no privacy.
When I pass by an old farmhouse or abandoned factory I think of the people and lives that passed through it. That was my response to Marie Watt's Blanket Column. It is what must be a 12' stack of donated blankets, each with a hanging tag attached with notes of the known history of each blanket, bought at a flea market or recently given up by a growing child, very touching, very personal. I had to run my finger along the edge of one of the blankets.
There is humor here, too. Mildred Johnson took a 20th-century advice book for young girls, What Young Girls Ought to Know, and folded the pages, creating some clever book art. A second book, The Joy of Cooking, is shredded and gracefully hung from an old grater; it's one of the most striking pieces in the show. Then there's Dave Cole's Trophy Wife, reminiscent of a 50s captive housewife.
Artists have a long tradition of reconfiguring domestic objects, and of course this is a perfect exhibit for them. Tracy Krumm's Yoke/Folded and Cavity/Strainer have graceful dignity and cast dreamy shadows on the wall. Judith Hoyt's clever Bucket Woman and Grater Woman follow a more traditional folk way. Tiffany Besonen's Mini-Ambiotic consists of flowers crafted from sewing pattern paper, wax, and the artist's hair bursting forth on a vine of wire from a child-size ironing board, perhaps daring to dream a fantastic alternative as only a child can.
Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit, curated by Rickie Solinger, will be at the Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont, through June 1st. More on Flickr.