When Sarah Matthews came across textiles in the art collections in the Wriston Art Galleries, it sparked a curiosity that led to research for her senior capstone.
The senior art history major from Stoughton, Wisconsin, has now taken it another step, curating an art exhibition being shown at the Wriston Art Galleries now through May 12, shining a light on textiles made by women in Milwaukee during the Great Depression. The exhibition, Lost Identities and Loose Threads: The Milwaukee Handicraft Project, is on display in the Hoffmaster Gallery.
The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was a federal agency that provided Americans jobs during the Great Depression, usually through public works projects. The agency started the Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP) in 1935 to employ low-income Milwaukee-area women.
“It was slightly controversial for women to work during the Great Depression,” Matthews said. “A lot of people deemed government roles to be for a husband to fill.”
For government wages, Matthews said these women made objects such as tablecloths, curtains, scrapbooks, toys, dolls, and textiles.
The MHP is also notable for being one of the few desegregated WPA projects during the Great Depression. In total, the project employed more than 5,000 women of multiple races.
Whether in class, studying abroad, or curating objects in Wriston Art Galleries, you’ll deepen your critical, analytical thinking and refine your writing skills.
For all these positive aspects, however, Matthews said these women’s perspectives are almost impossible to find. There are no known official lists of workers, the project is obscure in scholarship, and scholars who cover it continue neglecting the workers’ perspectives.
“It was pretty common to refer to them in the masses,” Matthews said. “Because of that, there’s this hierarchy that’s been created in the archive right now where the only people who receive credit for the project are usually the director of the program or the head designers.”
Matthews also said while she agrees with other scholars praising the project’s desegregation, there’s no way of knowing how effective it truly was, and if women of color felt accepted and safe at work.
Matthews has been a Wriston Art Galleries intern for a couple of years. This gave her good connections with Beth Zinsli, assistant professor of art history and Wriston Art Galleries curator.
“Sarah’s meticulous research on the Milwaukee Handicraft Project textiles, centered on the women workers who produced them, offers a deeper and more thorough understanding of the WPA’s employment initiatives,” Zinsli said.
Sparking an interest
Matthews’ interest in the project began two summers ago as a Wriston Art Galleries intern. Tasked with creating a mini-exhibition on an item in the gallery’s collection, Matthews was drawn to the obscure textiles.
“The design of these textiles is actually fairly modern, which I think sometimes surprises people,” Matthews said.
Matthews used this topic for her art history capstone paper, but she decided she wanted to know more.
“I came back to this idea for the project but dug a little deeper in terms of, ‘What does the archive look like right now for this project?’ and ‘Why aren’t these women’s perspectives being showcased?’ and ‘Why aren’t these items being displayed more often?’”
Matthews knew she had to do some digging. She consulted Seeley G. Mudd research librarian Antoinette Powell, who helped her search old censuses.
“With Antoinette’s help and assistance, I was able to find 30 potential names of these women, which is a very small number compared to 5,000, but not having any individual identification on these women at the start of this project, that was a big deal for me.”
Matthews admitted she has no way of confirming if these 30 women were workers, but this further emphasizes her point.
“I would like people to know that there’s still very much that remains unknown about this project,” she said. “This serves as an example of how skewed archives can be, and how there are so many hierarchies in archiving.”
Passion on display
“I was a little surprised that I became an art history major…but after taking my first art history class, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Matthews said.
Matthews said the change from capstone paper to exhibition was all about making it more accessible.
“I didn’t want anyone to get overwhelmed thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about art history, I can’t look at this exhibition,’ because that’s not what an exhibition is for,” Matthews said.
Zinsli recognized Matthews’ interests in curation and hands-on experiences and was able to provide support.
“Her curatorial choices allow visitors to learn about the historical significance of the textiles and delight in the beauty of their patterns and motifs; it is a wonderful visual presentation of her capstone research,” Zinsli said.
From curated exhibitions to the Lawrence art collection, there is much to explore within Wriston's three exhibition spaces.
Matthews said developing the exhibition was a rigorous process involving research—both old and new—designing the exhibit layout, and creating mattes, labels, and displays.
“I think that transition from writing, researching, and reading about these objects to actually displaying them was super intriguing and powerful for me to go through,” she said.
Matthews believes the most important thing about being a curator is taking care of what matters and diversifying archives and museums.
“A lot of times, fiber arts and textiles aren’t displayed in museums as often as other artworks that are considered ‘fine art,’ like oil paintings or even drawings,” Matthews said. “There is this ‘crafts versus fine art’ debate in the museum world that I’m super interested in.”
Matthews said she hopes to work in the museum field following graduation. She’s also considering a graduate degree in art history or museum studies in the next few years.
“I’m really passionate about art, but I think I’m even more passionate about taking care of art,” Matthews said.
Read more about Lost Identities and Loose Threads and other Wriston exhibitions here.