For centuries, creative work that originated in the domestic sphere was considered more hobby than art. Dismissed as "women's work," endeavors such as embroidery, sewing and quilting were and sometimes still are less esteemed than traditionally highbrow fare, such as painting or sculpting.
An exhibit at Berea's Doris Ulmann Gallery, however, aims to overturn this perception by embracing an unabashedly female domestic art form — the apron.
Art professor Lisa Kriner and history professor Rebecca Bates spent the past three years sorting through and cataloging hundreds of aprons the college inherited from the estate of Helen Hawley.
The exhibit, Domestic, Decorative, and Daring: Aprons Collected by Helen Hawley, represents the fruits of their collaboration, and it offers, via an examination of textiles, insight into the shifting perception of women's domesticity during the past century and a half.
Hawley, not a professional collector but someone with an eye for domestic arts, began collecting aprons in 1942 and continued to do so throughout her long life.
In 2006, she wrote a letter to Berea College asking whether the art department would be interested in her collection. It was.
When Hawley died a year later at age 90, her family followed Hawley's wishes and shipped more than 800 aprons to the college. Hawley's original letter had alluded to the possibility of creating an "apron dictionary," but the aprons arrived with no identification and in no particular order.
Kriner and her students spent the next three years numbering, photographing and categorizing the collection, which represented a diverse array of periods, fabrics and functions.
"It was really important to Rebecca and I to convey to an audience that this is a huge number of aprons," Kriner says. "What we didn't do was to pull only a few aprons. Every single apron collection is in the gallery space."
A select sampling of aprons representing key periods, functions and forms are displayed on the gallery wall to illustrate the vast purposes aprons have served, and the remaining aprons are heaped in a huge pile in the center of the room to explore the value and purpose of collecting domestic artwork. (No touching is allowed.)
Bates brings a historical perspective to her curatorial role, while Kriner focuses on informing the show's artistic relevance.
Bates explains that aprons have been used for more than the utilitarian purpose of food preparation; they represent changing social and domestic roles.
"What examining aprons can do for us historically is to trace women's roles in a variety of ways and not simply the maintenance of the household," Bates says.
For instance, the collection includes mourning aprons worn by upper-class women in the late 19th century. Obviously, these black, fancier aprons were not used in the kitchen. They were worn in society to reflect a woman's status as a widow.
"In terms of textile art and fiber art," Kriner says, "there is a wealth of information in terms of fabrics, colors and fabric designs' change over time. It's fairly obvious which aprons come from the '50s, '60s, etc.
"Sometimes I think when I teach in fiber art, there is a connection to the distant past, what kind of textiles were made in Egypt or made in Victorian England, but the fabrics in this exhibition give an opportunity to think about the more recent past and textile trends."
The exhibit includes handmade and commercial works and reflects the country's shifting attitudes toward domesticity in the 20th century.
Kriner and Bates will give a talk on the exhibit at 2:45 p.m. March 25 in Room 210 of the Rogers and Traylor building. A reception will follow in the gallery.