Portland artist tackles fashion and politics

Consider this next level knitwear. Portland artist Ellen Lesperance recreates historic sweaters sourced from archival images and film footage of women involved in protests, sit-ins, demonstrations and civil disobedience into beautiful painted patterns on paper. By translating and transforming the knitwear into something abstract and universal, the works speak to the personal aspect of participation and protest. They also serve as a colliding point of fashion and politics. She has exhibited her work all over the US, including the Seattle Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Dahl Arts Center. Who knew that it would be Ellen’s one-time job as an editor at Vogue Knitting magazine that would inform her career as an artist? We had to find out more.

HOW DID YOU BECOME AN ARTIST? A pretty traditional route: I got an undergraduate degree in painting, I got a master’s degree in visual art. But I’ve really been a “maker” as far back as I can remember, although that “making” frequently related more to sewing and knitting and patterning-making than traditional “high art” practices. I think it was at graduate school at Rutgers University when I finally came to understand that many women artists of the Feminist Art Movement were trying to conflate that concept – the concept of there being “high” and “low” art practices, and that craft techniques belonged in that “low” category – and these women artists were doing this decades ago. This recognition really freed me up to make the work that I wanted to make, work that has ended up as a real hybrid of craft and painting practices.

YOUR WORK IS SO UNIQUE. HOW DID YOU START PAINTING THIS WAY? I was a pretty traditional painter in school, oil on canvas, you know, but then ended up in New York City working for Vogue Knitting magazine in the late 1990s. I was a copy editor there, primarily, but I also sample-knitted, and ended up proofing both the magazine’s copy and its sweater patterns. Needless to say, I fell in love with the garment patterns – both the American Symbolcraft language that a person follows as a set of written instructions, but also the gridded pattern repeats, and the shapes that the pattern pieces formed – all of it! My painting technique really borrows from this knitting vernacular. My formal innovation is really just laying the pattern pieces on top of each other and trying to achieve transparency at those overlaps. To do this, I’ve studied Josef Albers color theory, and we’re back at that conflation of “high” and “low.”

TELL US ABOUT THE IDEA OF KNITTED MESSAGES. So, the project really took off when I started studying an anti-nuke protest camp that formed in England in the 1980s and 1990s called the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. In researching the camp, I started confronting more and more garments that the women activists wore that were hand-knit and designed to reflect the woman’s protest ideology. The campers lived outdoors, many for years at a time, so there was time to make these garments and certainly necessity. I’ve found sweaters from Greenham Common that incorporated the feminist fist icon, the female sign, peace signs, labrys symbols, rainbows, sunrises, phoenixes, hearts, knit-in words, etc. These sweaters were exciting and very inspirational to me as moments of “Creative Direct Action”, very similar to other activist tactics that utilize creative making to argue points that combat war, violence and hate (like banner drops, signage, street theater, etc). Since researching Greenham Commons, I’ve started looking for instances of these “knitted messages” in a variety of protest actions, and when I find them, these are collected and ultimately hopefully turned into a painting.


(left) Ellen Lesperance, Land of Feminye II, 2014, gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, 40 x 29 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman.

(right) Ellen Lesperance, February 7, 1983, 2014, gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, 40 x 29 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman.

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