Ellen Lesperance’s paintings, ceramics, and fabric works pay homage to feminist activists engaged in historical direct-action campaigns. A fundamental part of her practice, Lesperance finds garments made and worn by women involved in protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations and translates them into patterned images at human scale. In a dense grid drawn with graphite on tea-stained paper, the artist fills in gouache colors, square by square, in order to reanimate protest knitwear. Citing inspiration from Bauhaus-era female weavers, the Pattern and Decoration movement, and feminist art of the 1970s and 1980s centered around the female body, Lesperance seeks to reframe image making outside of male-dominated Western painting traditions while honoring the creative labor of women standing up against social and political ills and environmental destruction.
The present work was inspired by outfits worn at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a continual nonviolent protest lasting from 1981 to 2000 that brought together over 30,000 women protesting nuclear armament outside the US Air Force’s nuclear weapons storage at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England. Greenham Common inspired similar women’s camps to be erected outside of military bases around the world. Beginning with found footage and photographs from the protests, Lesperance researched images of the garments made and worn by the female protesters and unpacked their symbolism. Amazonknights. Womonspirit. Womonpower. Glory. (2017) depicts a garment pattern adorned with the symbol of the labrys. This sacred double-headed axe symbol dates back to Ancient Greece, where depictions of mythological Amazons wielding labryses in battle have been found on Greek redware pottery from as early as the Bronze Age. The symbol was adopted in the 1970s by the lesbian community in order to represent strength, self-sufficiency, and feminine divinity, as well as the memory of pre-patriarchal matristic societies.
Ellen Lesperance (b. 1971, Minneapolis) has had solo exhibitions at major institutions, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (2020); Portland Art Museum, Oregon (2017); and Seattle Art Museum (2010). Her work has been featured in group shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2020); São Paulo Museum of Art (2019); Frye Museum, Seattle (2019); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2019); Brooklyn Museum (2018); New Museum, New York (2017); Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2015); Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio (2007); Portland Museum of Art (2003); Queens Museum, New York (2001); and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Oregon (2001), among others. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Art and Design, New York; Portland Art Museum; Frye Art Museum; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts; and the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco. Lesperance lives and works in Portland, Oregon.