Feminist Fibers

Artist Jodi Colella connects forgotten women to contemporary society

Fiber artist Jodi Colella was perusing the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery's collection in her native Massachusetts in 2016 when she came across a selection of daguerreotypes, the first publicly available type of photograph introduced in 1839 by inventor Louis Daguerre. She quickly noticed that all of the men documented in the photographs had most details of their lives listed in the corresponding catalog—but the only information listed for 75 percent of the women was, simply, "Unidentified Woman."

Colella took it upon herself to track down more of these 19th-century portraits at flea markets and create a series of artworks that give these lost women new life and recognition. "These are women I don't know," she says. "No one knows them anymore, but I've found a way to meet them again."

Colella "meets" and introduces the women to viewers in her upcoming exhibit, Unidentified Women, opening at form & concept on Friday Jan. 26. The featured works are a selection of 16 2-by-3-inch 19th-century daguerreotype portraits of women Colella gathered and transformed through the application of fibrous designs made with wool, cotton, silk and thread that completely cover or partially hide the featured female.

In some pieces, the artist obstructs the women's faces with fiercely fluffy sculptures that make any opportunity of facial recognition impossible. In others, Colella only slightly covers the female figure with thin and delicate embroidery that creates a sense of intrigue that leads viewers to question who the woman is behind the threads. In both instances, patterns draw more attention to the historically invisible women by creating barriers of curiosity between the subjects and the observers.

Unidentified Women is an ongoing series first exhibited at the Historic Northampton Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts in 2017. Colella's previous feminist work includes Nature of the Beast, deconstructed and reassembled Victoria's Secret PINK dogs, and the collection of women's headwear she created for the Northampton Museum inspired by a poke bonnet in their collection (a woman's hat that typically has a large visor extending well beyond the woman's face so no peripheral sight lines are possible). Two of Colella's China Samplers, embroidery on 1960 Mao Propaganda magazine pages, were exhibited at form & concept in the Surface Design Association's International Juried Exhibition, Shifting Landscapes, in February 2017.

Colella's use of fiber stems from a lifelong practice. She first encountered the art form when she was just 5 years old, "but probably earlier," she says. She spent summers knitting with her family where there often weren't enough needles, instead using pencils and a Wonder Bread bag to hold her knitting materials. She later strayed from the medium to complete a certificate program in graphic design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, which led her to a 20-year career as a designer. In 2000, however, she shifted into fine art and returned to the familiarity of fiber. "I started making sculptures out of nowhere and they were really intriguing," she recalls. "I haven't stopped."

In Unidentified Women, Colella takes a medium that is typically associated with the feminine and uses the material to convey power, strength and resistance to transform the flat, two-dimensional photographs (whether due to the thin plates the portraits are printed on, or the females' forgotten and unresearched, or perhaps just unrecorded, identities) into three-dimensional images that move outward into the space between contemporary viewers and historic sitters. In this way, Colella uses fiber to give women, unrecognized by history and treated as two-dimensional figures, the opportunity to take up space as three-dimensional beings who deserve equal recognition to the males documented during the same time period.

Unidentified Women also features never-before-seen large-scale daguerreotypes (8" x 10") that take up more space and add to the ongoing collection of altered photographs.

While these photographs are historical in context, Colella's contemporary alterations to the holes in history connect the "19th-century selfies," as she describes, to present-day portraiture. The people in these daguerreotype portraits curated their outward personas. They went to a photographer's studio, carefully selected an outfit for the photograph, had their picture taken and changed back into their regular everyday clothes to go home. Similarly, many contemporary selfies are equally as carefully curated on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Like the first public photographs, the current digital presentations of two-dimensional images for an outer world can lose the three-dimensionality of inner realities.

Jodi Colella: Unidentified Women

Artist Talk & Preview:
2 pm Thursday Jan. 25. Free.

Opening Reception:
5 pm Friday Jan. 26. Free.

form & concept,
435 S Guadalupe St.,

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