‘Women’s Works’ exhibit features Island women from long ago


How many ways are there to use the Martha’s Vineyard Museum collection? Chief curator Bonnie Stacy has put together a fascinating group of 17th through 19th century works made by women who were residents or who had substantial ties to the Island.
What constitutes women’s works? Stacy sees it in the broadest sense: “We are looking at pieces made by women that will let people think about the different ways women made, and continue to make, art.” She discovered when looking through the women’s works that the pieces sort themselves out into three different time periods, with the caveat that they aren’t mutually exclusive.
The first is work women made for themselves and their families from the late 1700s to the early to mid-1800s as part of the domestic economy of the household, but with a more artistic flair than was functionally necessary. Stacy explains that girls were taught embroidery because sewing was a necessary skill for them as wives and mothers. The samplers demonstrated the daughter’s skills and would be hung on the walls, proudly showing them off somewhat similarly to how a parent today might hang their child’s artwork.
Falling within this category as well, the museum has stunning examples of embroidered pieces, quilts, and rugs that women made for their homes. “One of the things that people don’t realize these days is how valuable textiles were,” Stacy said. “Two sets of women’s sheets were more valuable than one mahogany table. This was on an inventory I saw. If you think of the comparative values today, it’s not the value in money but the value in comparative things. And that’s something hard for people who get their sheets, and they’re maybe made in China or wherever, and it costs them $50 for a set. They don’t realize that these sheets went from plant to loom to thread, all here on Martha’s Vineyard. The value of the object was in the labor.”
It would be hard to miss the immense amount of labor that must have gone into the silk and velvet 1886 crazy quilt, which was created by Mrs. Nancy Smith, who was 79 at the time. It is filled with embroidered, patterned textiles, touches of appliqué, and hand-painted squares by Miss Lizzie Estey Fisher (daughter of Dr. Daniel Fisher). The cover most certainly would have been ornamental rather than for the bed. “Perhaps thrown over the high wooden top of a piano,” suggests Stacy.
The second period has works made for sale during the 1800s and 1900s. Stacy points out that these women would not have perceived themselves as artists, but rather would have self-identified as mother, homemaker, or business owner. One such woman was Laura Jernegan Spear, who ran a teahouse in Edgartown and sold souvenir books of pressed sea moss and exquisitely painted china picturing underwater sea life. “If you had asked her what she did, she would have said she operated a teahouse or was a widow, for instance,” Stacy says.
The final section is work by women during the 1900s who considered themselves professional artists. “Here, if you asked these women, What do you do, they would say, ‘I’m a photographer, I’m a painter, I teach art,’” Stacy says. The museum has one or two oral history recordings of some of these women, including Loïs Mailou Jones, a painter of international renown with strong ties to the Vineyard. Mailou Jones spent time with her family here during summers.

Stacy says that the idea of a professional woman artist was rare in the U.S. to begin with, and they would be one of the small population on the Island. The ability to make a living as an artist wouldn’t have happened all those years ago. “The men who were professional artists left,” Stacy said. “I also think that it just wasn’t something that Vineyard women did until there were more people to sell things to, and the world made itself ready for women professional artists, which did become more common in the 20th century.”
For the exhibition, Stacy started by looking through the entire collection, and began to set the parameters of her selection. In determining what to choose, she asked herself, “How does this fit, is it good enough?” There were also practical considerations, such as when running across quilts that were too large for the physical gallery space. But then, there were nuances too.
“There are some things that can be assumed to be made by women, but women’s textiles work was anonymous, so I didn’t include it because we don’t know who made it. For instance, there is just one basket in the show, because it’s the only one we know is made by a woman. Basketry tends to be anonymous.” Stacy also determined that to keep things manageable, she would keep it to deceased artists and those associated with the Vineyard in a significant way.
“One of the things we are hoping to get out of this exhibition is for people to say, I have a piece by this particular artist, and perhaps the museum would like to add it to their collection,” Stacy shared. “We don’t take everything, but clearly this is an area of the collection we would like to build.”

Women’s Works will be at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum from March 10 to June 7. Opening for members will be March 9, and for the general public on March 10.