Poets of Franklin County: Laura Gail Grohe, The Linens Project
Trish Crapo photo
“Heroes Among Us,” a poem about child abuse embroidered on a white christening gown, is among the pieces by Greenfield poet Laura Gail Grohe that has had “a strong visceral response” from viewers.
Trish Crapo photo
Grohe, shown here embroidering, is drawn to collecting and repairing vintage linens, which she always saw as a somewhat frivolous obsession.
Late one afternoon, Laura Gail Grohe sat in the window light of a storefront in Greenfield, embroidering. To see a woman calmly embroidering in public is not an unusual sight perhaps, though embroidery seems more antiquated than knitting, which many people — mostly women — bring along to occupy their hands at lectures, meetings or even movies.
What was unusual about Grohe is that rather than decorating the lace-edged table runner she held in her hands with colorful flowers or birds (it already had those), she was using gray thread to stitch the words of her poem, “Ode to Cement” in the runner’s center.
“Ode to Cement” will become another piece in a growing body of work that Grohe has titled “The Linens Project.” On display now through June 7 at the Recovery Learning Community in Greenfield, “The Linens Project” includes poems embroidered onto vintage place mats, handkerchiefs, table runners, an apron and a baby’s christening gown. Grohe buys linens at thrift shops and tag sales, or orders them online. Sometimes the shipping costs more than the linens, Grohe says, lamenting how devalued they have become.
Grohe, who lives in Greenfield, has been writing poetry since she was a girl and, as an adult, has long been drawn to collecting and repairing vintage linens, which she always saw as a somewhat frivolous obsession. The idea for “The Linens Project” came to her one day as she was ironing a vintage cotton place mat she’d rescued from a church sale. She’d been about to berate herself for engaging in this obvious distraction from writing when she looked down and realized that the place mat was about the same size as a piece of paper.
Grohe had done complicated beadwork but never embroidery. As she began to teach herself the skill and realized how labor intensive it was, many friends, including Grohe’s husband, offered to help, bringing a collaborative feel to the project.
Heroes among us
One of the pieces that has had “a strong visceral response” from viewers is “Heroes Among Us,” a poem about child abuse embroidered on a white christening gown.
“A christening gown is so much love and promise,” Grohe said. “You never look at a brand-new baby and think they’re going to grow up to be a bad person, or be homeless.”
“Or abused,” I suggested.
Grohe paused. “Unfortunately, some of us do think that,” she said.
Grohe said that her friend Carrie Barracco, who works with children as a play therapist, embroidered the piece.
“She sees damaged children in her work and she sees them heal,” Grohe said.
The poem is written in two voices, that of the child being abused, for which Barracco chose red thread, and that of the person who grows up and consciously chooses not to abuse, for which she chose blue thread. Red carries the connotation of blood and hurt, Grohe explained; blue, the association of peace and healing. For the poem’s title, Barracco wove the two colors together.
“Working with embroidery and linens takes you to a place almost beyond language,” Grohe said. “Embroidering poetry sort of takes poetry to that place beyond language.”
Too many linens?
Asked if she’s starting to have too many linens, Grohe laughs.
“My husband thinks so!” she answers.
She shakes her head then repeats the question. “Do I have too many linens? Yes! Did I just pick up more from someone today? Yes!”
But having too many linens will most likely never be a problem for Grohe, who has begun to reach out to people she knows in Portland, Ore., and other places, seeking venues for a larger exhibit.
“I’ve always dreamed big,” Grohe said. “I intend for this show to be huge over the next 20 years. Maybe that’s arrogant, but it’s partly from the response I’ve gotten.”
Grohe sees her work as following in the footsteps of feminist work such as “The Dinner Party,” created by artist Judy Chicago in the late 1970s. Made up of 39 place settings at three tables laid with embroidered runners, “The Dinner Party” is an iconic installation intended to elevate domestic arts such as pottery, embroidery, even the act of setting a table, into fine art.
Grohe shares Chicago’s reverence for the everyday work of women. She likes the idea of her hand labor mingling with that of the woman who first cut and hemmed a table runner, or tatted it with lace.
She was thrilled when, at a feminist conference she attended in Boston at the end of March, people asked if they could have one of her fliers about “The Linens Project” to hang on their refrigerators.
“I don’t want the literary journals. I want the refrigerators,” Grohe said with a laugh.
See Laura Gail Grohe’s “The Linens Project” at The Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, 74 Federal St., Greenfield, now through June 7. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 1 to 4 p.m.; Friday, 2:30 to 5 p.m. For information: 413-772-0715 or www.westernmassrlc.org. To find out more about “The Linen Project,” visit: http://linensproject.wordpress.com
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.