“Reflections — Heather Marie Scholl” at Virago Gallery in West Seattle addresses a group that is under increased scrutiny — White women. Scholl’s fiber art works are in line with conversations happening within social justice, anti-racism and feminist circles — specifically, how White women uphold White supremacy.
Calls for White women to address their complicity escalated with the election of 45 in the fall of 2016. Among White college-educated women, then-candidate Donald Trump received 44 percent of their vote. He fared even better among White women who weren’t college educated with 61 percent of their vote. Simply put, if large swaths of White women hadn’t voted for him, the White House might look and act a bit different today. Since the election, White women have also made headlines for calling the police on people of color, notably when a woman called the police on a young, Black girl who was selling bottled water to raise money to go to Disneyland.
Scholl’s “Whitework” series is in stark contrast to the dark walls of Virago Gallery. “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness” is an intricate and layered embroidered work that hangs on the wall as if it’s a curtain covering a window. Within the vast amount of stitching, a police officer stands among headstones. The name Emmett Till is written on one of them. Till is arguably one of the most well-known victims of lynching in 1955 in Mississippi at the age of 14. His crime? Supposedly whistling at a White woman at a grocery store. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, revealing his beaten and bloated body to the world.
The delicate piece reflects the touchy nature of the conversations Scholl’s work can provoke. Gallery owner Tracy Cilona, a White woman, is invested in bringing this dialogue to the forefront.
“All the pieces I think need time and thought,” said Cilona. “I want people to take away not only the metaphor in the hard work that it takes to make these things but also in the tough conversation on the pieces.”
“Throne of Equality” is a white chair adorned with small sculptures. Cherubs at the top are preventing several other figures who are climbing upward to join them. One is gravely injured as evidenced by the sole appearance of color — red — on their chest.
“I think one of the side effects of sexism is that we’ve really obscured the ways White women have had an active role in White supremacy. And we often kind of let ourselves off the hook because of that because we’re oppressed by gender,” said Scholl. “I think the more we can illuminate the way that we have had power in White supremacy, the more we can untangle that and stop doing those things for real.”
Scholl grew up in Portland and is based in Brooklyn, New York. Her father is from the Northwest and is a Quaker. Her mother is from a southern conservative family in Arkansas. Scholl was introduced to feminism through Black feminists such as Bell Hooks. Her high school thesis project was on art and activism. She gained more insight at The Evergreen State College where she received a bachelor’s in race, gender and sexuality. She studied fashion and knitwear at the Academy of Art where she earned a master of fine arts. Scholl said she was always trying to understand the world, especially through understanding race and oppression and her place within it.
“We have a tendency to intellectualize racism and distance ourselves from it as White people in the Northwest. I always felt caught in that hypocrisy,” said Scholl. “Ultimately getting outside of the Northwest and being in more diverse cities and engaging in diverse communities and activism outside of that, I started understanding that the real work was looking at myself.”
Scholl began with personal accountability, which includes understanding microaggressions and making amends before someone else calls her out on it. Her art is a personal expression of her own journey and acknowledges how she’s fallen into the trap of White supremacy.
Scholl is also coming to Seattle as a co-organizer of a “Confront White Womanhood” workshop on July 21 at Theater Puget Sound. The workshop is designed to “interrogate the ways White supremacy manifests within feminist spaces.” Two years ago Scholl and Sophie Ellman-Golan, deputy director of communications for the women’s march, began holding the workshops. Rhiannon Childs is also an organizer.
“I’m trying to create an environment in which people can more personally and emotionally experience the realities of White supremacy and their role in it,” said Scholl. “By making it more intimate and emotional, that adds to that experience.”
In addition to addressing White womanhood in “Reflections,” Scholl also has a series of embroidered pieces that are personal to the artist. “She Was Watched, But She Was Nothing,” “The Moon Revealed Her” and “They Never Stay Buried” are among the titles. Each is as emotionally impactful as those in the Whitework series.
For Scholl, her artwork is about more than just connection. She also wants to compel the audience to make a change in their lives.
WHAT: “Reflections - Heather Marie Scholl”
WHEN: Runs until Aug. 6
WHERE: Virago Gallery, 4537 California Ave SW, Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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