When I enter the gallery at Historic Northampton, Jodi Colella is busy pinning a hat on a model. But this isn’t just any hat. It looks more like a big sunflower, with large “seeds” made of glass marbles, and has copious petals and tendrils of fabric that cascade down, obscuring the wearer’s face. Based on a pillbox hat shape, this headpiece is one of a suite that the Somerville sculptor created in response to the museum’s call for contemporary artists to engage with historic pieces in its collection.
For her exhibit, “Unidentified Woman,” on view at the museum through April 9, Colella also created a series of daguerreotypes (daguerreotype process, introduced in 1839, produced images on metal and was the first widely used photographic process) and old photographs altered with embroidery floss and other materials. The headpieces are a departure for Colella, who says that, though her work is based in traditional fiber and needle arts, she rarely makes wearable pieces such as hats.
Colella laughs good-naturedly and says, “I’m thinking of them as sculptures. I just want them to sit on a head.”
Colella’s two models, Natalia Perkins from Cleveland, Ohio, and Olivia Carbone from Los Angeles, Calif., are Smith College students enrolled in a class on costume design. They volunteered to wear headpieces during the exhibit’s opening reception held Friday, March 10. Speaking earlier that day, Colella said that she hoped viewers would at first be uncertain as to whether the models, dressed in simple burlap sacks, their faces largely obscured by the hats, were live women or mannequins. She hoped that this uncertainty might provide viewers with a direct experience of some of the issues she’d been thinking about while making the work: women’s visibility; their access to others and the world around them; and how women’s fashion reveals or disguises their identities.
Colella spent hours combing through the museum’s collections, both online and at the museum, before she began to work.
“And there was this one bonnet that just struck me,” she says. “It was a poke bonnet.”
Colella says the bonnet was designed with a long brim so that a woman’s face couldn’t be seen unless you came all the way around in front and “looked in the tunnel.” Some historians commented that not only did the poke bonnet limit how well a woman could be seen by others, it limited her own vision and her ability to interact with the world around her.
“It limited access (for women) because they couldn’t work if they had that limited vision, and they couldn’t move around very well,” Colella says. “So it was all meant to keep women in their place.”
Colella adds that women sometimes used the poke bonnet to present themselves in coquettish ways, flirting from within its hidden space.
“They found ways to use them in their favor, if that’s what they wanted,” she says.
But thinking about headwear that obscured women’s faces — such as the poke bonnet or the Muslim hijab — got her to thinking about “visibility, invisibility,” and the ways in which women are often objectified, overlooked or discounted.
The exhibit’s title came from the fact that, as she looked through the museum’s collection of daguerreotypes, Colella found that most of the images of men carried identifying information.
“You know who they were, where they lived, who their kids were. And then: ‘Unidentified woman,’” she says, shaking her head. “For a good forty percent of them. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is speaking to what I’m already thinking about.’”
Colella scoured flea markets and junk shops for daguerreotypes of women, altering them by drilling through the metal so that she could stitch, weave, or attach other materials to them. It interested her that nobody selling the daguerreotypes knew who the women were. And that, as was the practice during the mid-1800s when daguerreotype portraits were popular, the women might very well be wearing clothing the photographer provided.
“They were trying to present themselves in a certain way that might not really be who they are,” Colella said. She saw parallels with modern selfies, which also strive to present their subjects in desired ways to viewers.
The embroidery on many of these small daguerreotypes obscures the women’s faces. One larger daguerreotype shows three seated women who now look bound to their chairs by the white thread. The title of one altered photograph, “Jane When She Was a Good Girl,” makes a quiet but incisive commentary on the expectation that women be demure.
Colella’s hats — excuse me, sculptures — are anything but demure. Her “Bushel Basket” uses traditional straw hat materials and techniques learned in a millinery class but explodes its form into organic shapes that resemble large barnacles. “Helmet” is a crazily linked series of bright yarn-wrapped loops. And “Poke,” her direct comment to the old-fashioned bonnet in the museum’s collection, features a myriad of beads and embroidered patches — in a quick glance, I spotted Elmo and several Girl Scout badges — on the inside of the brim.
Another recently opened exhibit, “States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories,” is a traveling exhibit developed by students, faculty and community partners at twenty universities across the country, among them the UMass Amherst Public History Program. The museum worked in conjunction with Forbes Library to present the exhibit and programming that explores the history of incarceration in Northampton, including the “warehousing” of the mentally ill at the former Northampton State Hospital.
Now you have two reasons to go.
Jodi Colella’s exhibit, “Unidentified Woman,” is up through April 9 at Historic Northampton, 46 Bridge St., Northampton. Contact 413-584-6011 or email@example.com for more information. Learn more at www.historicnorthampton.org
See more of Colella’s work online at: http://bit.ly/2mZc9si