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Labour of Love: Textile Art and Matriarchal Histories

by Brianne Chapelle 

This interview was conducted the day of the vernissage, just hours before Erika’s performance would begin. The last question was asked after the vernissage to gauge what concerns of Erika’s in doing a work like this became a reality, and what the experience of performing in this way was like.

In case you missed it or want to refresh your memory, here’s Erika’s artist statement: ”In this work I seek to explore the emotive process of witnessing and performing femininity through fiber arts. I will attempt to re-create an embroidered piece my grandmother made that hangs in her bedroom in Philadelphia. This is about processing nostalgia, overlooked artistic labor of the domestic interior (specifically craft, feminine forms of decoration), and ultimately asserting fiber craft into the realm of the gallery space. A lot of feminist artists engage with fiber art as a means of reclaiming the devaluation of traditionally feminine craft, and I seek to confront gallery visitors with the process of this labor. I want to bring female discipline, discomfort, emotional labor, and expressive boundaries to light.


 Embroidery for decoration is a meticulous, repetitive, and highly calculated process of creation. The work I will attempt to reproduce reads “To Love and to Be Loved is the Greatest Joy on Earth”. My grandmother made it with the intention of giving it to her relative who was getting married, but she ultimately decided to keep it because she liked it so much. I think this is a sweet act of unintended self-love and something that was really profound for me in my youth.”

Brianne Chapelle: So, the first question’s just a generic kind of background question, because I know you obviously, but for the readers, if you want to tell them where you’re from, what you study, your interests, anything that you’re comfortable sharing…

Erika Kindsfather: Absolutely…I’m from right outside of Philadelphia and I’m an honours art history student with a minor in German language. I work mostly with fibre arts because my mother and grandmother and both of my great grandmothers worked with textiles in some manner. My one grandmother worked in a sweatshop in Philadelphia in the [19]40s, I think it was. My other grandmother worked out of the house that my mom grew up in and she was a tailor. I still have the bust of her wealthy client with her name written on it and it’s really old. I think that’s from the early/mid nineteen-hundreds to 1920s. So, I was taught really young and it had always been an interest of mine. Also the whole matriarchal composition of my family has been something that’s influenced me over the years. Even when I was really young, I remember thinking and seeing how much my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother (when she was still alive) could create and how they were so sufficient on their own, and could create clothing. So, I was very influenced by that. I guess my interests other than fibre arts are campy horror movies, and sci-fi, and animals.

Erika’s great-grandmother and grandfather, Angelina and John Persico, on their wedding day

Erika’s grandparents, Ritamarie and Anthony Capuano, on their wedding day in 1954.

Erika’s embroidered piece directly following the performance.

An ornament made by Angelina Persico.

A needlepoint by Ritamarie Capuano.

BC: (Laughs) Cool. Since I thought [your piece] was interesting because of the media involved, and since this is a performance, and the performance is, then, inherently related to fibre and textile art, I was wondering what the significance of those media were?


Erika Kindsfather, 2016, performance- unbleached cotton, embroidery floss, needles, chair.

Erika Kindsfather, 2016, performance- unbleached cotton, embroidery floss, needles, chair.

Erika Kindsfather, 2016, performance- unbleached cotton, embroidery floss, needles, chair.

Erika Kindsfather, 2016, performance- unbleached cotton, embroidery floss, needles, chair.

EK: Right. So the way that I was raised and all of the textile arts and that culture that I was exposed to, I felt that I had a perspective that not many people do. In my bedroom, I have this piece of lace that my great grandmother made and she made it with this really really thin crochet hook that I saw. It must have taken forever and I can actually visualize the time and effort that these crafts take, and how they are gendered feminine, And even the process of being in textile arts and engaging with them is feminine, and it is just work that is traditionally gendered. I really want to use [the performance] to show what labor has gone unnoticed and is devalued. So present in the whole concept of the performance, is to show textile work for what it really is rather than as what it is typically perceived as. So that’s why I wanted to use my own body. My grandmother developed arthritis because of it and I know my mom has carpal tunnel because of fiber arts and the toll it takes on the body. Sitting there and doing this work is seen as mindless and this kind of meditative, but in reality, I feel like it’s very physical and laborious and overlooked in that aspect.

BC: (nods) Definitely; that’s true. Do you think that the performance then is partially helpful in illuminating the gendered aspect of the work? I don’t know, I just feel performance can be a great tool to show different aspects of things like gender.

EK: Yeah, exactly! I also wanted to put myself into the bodies that were lost, like in the process of marginalizing women, talking about traditionally feminine works as not valuable or as mindless. I was thinking about how if it’s not a piece initialed and kept by a family, the identity of the person making it is lost, but also the body of the person making it is lost and the labor that they performed is lost. It is just pervasive in the histories of women in the workforce, so I wanted to illuminate that and I think performance is the best way to do that.

BC: Yeah that’s so true in the sense that you don’t see anything like what you’re describing preserved in a museum, you see a lot of clothes, maybe, but not as many domestic or more decorative items in terms of textile. At least not very often things made by someone’s grandmother.,

EK: Yeah and in the case of modern art, it’s talked about a lot in terms of the action of it and [with language that describes] the male virility of attacking a canvas with paint. So that medium is active, and craft and textile isn’t. The result is seen as static, while [a painting] is seen as active, which is seen a lot with painting and other media that are [historically] gendered male. I kind of want to show the action and the intensity of fibre arts.

BC: There are so many creative aspects of this textile or fibre art canon which is usually called “work” instead of “art,” and I think that’s interesting.

EK: Yeah, like how many people consider their grand-mothers as artists? I consider my grandmother and great grandmother as artists even though they were considered laborers [in their time].

BC: In one of my classes we’ve talked about how dressmakers were really thoughtful about how to construct garments so as to produce the least amounts of waste during war times and during economic depressions. It’s just interesting how there is clearly as much creative thought behind it, but that it’s just not talked about that way.

BC: What are some concerns you have about tonight’s performance?

EK: Mostly my concerns center around how people would react bringing a feminized art form into the gallery space, and also how I would feel performing the labour as a spectacle.

BC: Which of these concerns became reality, and what happened that you hadn’t anticipated? How was the experience overall?

EK: I didn’t anticipate how many people would feel comfortable transgressing the boundary between a performer and the viewer- I was approached often and felt obligated to address people, explaining myself and my work during the performance. I was hyper-aware of the emotional labour I was performing as a feminine woman working in a gendered medium in the gallery space, and it was rather draining. I found myself becoming irritated that I couldn’t focus on my work. I had attended galleries where men were painting as a performance piece, and people did not approach them, and I thought the nature of performance in my case would be distancing as well. I left the performance exhausted and frustrated, as I found myself performing ‘women’s work’ twofold in physical and emotional labour. 

Important Note: To highlight the laborious effort that was and still is Labour of Love, it should be noted that the work is still in progress and as of publishing this piece, is unfinished with an accumulated 10 hours of work and still around 4 hours to go. 

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