Intricate, symmetrical gridwork patterns; precise dots of paint in a penciled grid. Hand-knit sweaters folded neatly on shelves, wooden tables, or in glass topped cabinets. Ellen Lesperance has in recent years made a practice of recognizing, through humble means, the lives of strong, activist feminists who have been wronged, imprisoned, or even killed as they stand up for what they believe. Her works on paper are actually detailed knitting patterns that, if followed, would result in the sweater worn by its subject. The works will often feature a title that is explicit about its referent. Her 2011 exhibition at Ambach & Rice titled The Strong Star-Bright Companions featured works including Variegated Sweater Worn by Ina May Gaskin as she Practiced Spiritual Midwifery on the Farm in Summertown, Tennessee: “I Felt Telepathic With all Mothers Before Me and Knew That We Were One Thing. We are the Perfect Flower of Eons of Experiment.” and Let Nawal el Saadawi’s Name be Written Into the History of a Victorious, New Egypt: Women’s Rights are Human Rights.
She has referred to her work as “resuscitating narratives that may have been forgotten or overlooked: creating a type of memorial that resuscitates a forgotten story.”
This work began in 2005 when Lesperance was working on a collaborative performance/photo project that led her to a defunct radical feminist commune outside of Santa Fe. There she met a woman named Nic who had been a camper at a long-term, English, anti-nuke Peace Camp called Greenham Commons in the 1980s. Lesperance began deep research about the camp, looking at it as a model for female camaraderie. “I started ordering every ‘zine and small press publication I could find about the place, and just started seeing all of these incredible sweaters. Sweaters with ideological symbolism. I have been knitting for a very long time and pattern writing (I worked for Vogue Knitting in NYC in the late 1990’s), and I had never seen anything like them. They seemed totally need-related, improvisational, and honest and I just fell in love, I guess.”
Lesperance was raised in Seattle in a huge, mixed-race family with an intensely feminist mother. In terms of what shaped her feminism, she says that based on her upbringing, “There has never been a chance for me to think about personhood in a nonpolitical way.” She moved East when she was 25 to New York and moved back a dozen years later. Shortly thereafter, she won the prestigious Betty Bowen Award from the Seattle Art Museum which led to her work being represented by Ambach & Rice. The gallery was then located in Seattle, but has since moved to Los Angeles.
Lesperance is a professor at PNCA where she teaches Thesis Research & Writing, mentoring many strong young women artists. Lesperance says, “I had a relationship with a female art professor mentor in my early twenties that was completely transformational for me. I like to be available if I feel like I can be of purpose that way. I have had a lot of life experiences, and I have a lot of opinions! There is a message to be fearless, I think, that you just cannot tell young women enough.”
Ambach & Rice dedicated its booth at New York’s Frieze Art Fair in 2012 to her installation Dear Pippa Bacca. She was awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony in 2010. And she has been awarded one of a handful of Hallie Ford Fellowships, generous awards from The Ford Family Foundation, that have led to her inclusion in a traveling museum exhibition of the Fellows. Her work is in collections including that of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Art and Design, New York, NY; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA.
Lesperance has a busy year ahead. Her show as part of the Portland Biennial has just closed at Upfor Gallery. We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the exhibition of work by recipients of the Hallie Ford Fellowship in the Visual Art that originated in Portland at the Museum of Contemporary Craft just opened at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. She has a residency at Djerassi in May and June. She will have work in a group show at Ambach & Rice in summer, a solo exhibition at Adams & Ollman in Portland in August, and will be part of a group show at the Drawing Center in NYC in September. To top it off, she just received word she will be doing a residency at the Sankriti Foundation on the outskirts of New Delhi in December 2014.