Carole Kunstadt pays tribute to firebrands Margaret Fuller and Hannah More in her WAAM exhibition

Carole Kunstadt, Pressing On No. 21 antique sad iron, scorched cotton, linen thread and paper-pages by Hannah More 1791

An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World: By One of the Laity is not exactly an attention-grabber, but it nonetheless caught the eye of artist Carole Kunstadt, who purchased the 1791 book for $20 in a rare-book store in Connecticut. Curious about the identity of the anonymous London-based author, she did some searching on the internet and learned that it was Hannah More, who, besides being a writer and poet, was also an ardent abolitionist, philanthropist and promoter of women’s rights. More started 16 charitable schools in her hometown of Bristol – and was vilified for doing so. As a member of the Bluestocking Society, a group of men and women in London who got together to drink tea, philosophize and discuss literature and the arts, she hung out with some of the leading intellectuals of the day – people like Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole and Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was More’s story, as much as the smell and feel of the antiquated pages covered in small type, that inspired Kunstadt to deconstruct the pages of More’s book into dozens of small sculptures, which are currently on view at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum.

“Pressing On,” the name of the series – which is one of three bodies of work comprising the artist’s solo exhibition at WAAM titled “Carole Kunstadt: Pressing On” – consists of 90 antique irons, mostly clustered upright on a very long, narrow table. Their flat bottoms have been collaged with pages from More’s book, variously scorched, cut, woven and layered with textiles, thread, lace, fur, tacks and sandpaper. Some of the irons are affixed with whitish linen threads trailing onto the table like tresses of hair or splayed out like chaotic circuitry; one supports a trellis of woven linen threads. Others sprout thick muffs of fur, sport natty black-and-white paper sartorial stripes or are edged with sandpaper: a material whose rough texture defies the irons’ function as muscle-powered clothing-pressers.

Advertisement

Viewed collectively from a distance, the black, upright triangular shapes of the irons have a spectral quality, as if they were the shades of the unknown women – many of them doubtless domestic servants – who once labored over them. In contrast, the collaged flat surfaces, the underside of the iron functioning as the “canvas,” is literally the most visible and readable part of each piece, as if the conceptual were concrete; object and meaning are inverted, time turned inside-out as solid artifact is subjugated to the areas of text and sensuous assertions of the soft, fragile materials. History lies in the shadows as the materials sourced from that history are deconstructed and recomposed in a Modernist format. The upright position of the irons also suggests an optimism, a propulsion forward. As Mara Mills, deputy director of the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art, has written, “her juxtaposition of material…combines artifact, word and fabric. The hardness of iron, the graciousness of lace and the wisdom of words combines as a testament to women’s tenacious movement forward.”

The second series in the show is titled “Ovum” and is a tribute to Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century educator, social reformer, abolitionist, Transcendentalist and women’s rights advocate. Fragments of text from her book Woman in the 19th Century, and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties of Woman, published in Boston in 1855, are incorporated into four sculptures – three consisting of ostrich eggs, a popular collectible in the Victorian era. In one piece, the surface of a text-covered egg cradled in black fur bristles with steel tacks, suggesting the difficulties in Fuller’s life and career, while a second piece consists of a broken egg resting on twigs whose interior surface is lined with text: an image pointing to the gestation of Fuller’s ideas. In the third piece, Fuller’s text covers a vintage metal egg basket, filled with wooden antique “nesting eggs” (the pecked and distressed objects served as decoys to train hens to lay in designated places). A fourth piece features strips of printed text used as a nesting material within an actual bird’s nest, cradling a porcelain, sand-covered egg. Kunstadt’s use of the egg references a deeper reading of the word “ovum” and its connotations of fertility, signaling the birth of ideas and Fuller’s conceptual and societal breakthroughs.

The “Ovum” series also encompasses several wall pieces, in which Kunstadt wove cutout strips of 19th-century natural-history bookplates of eggs into a grid, which was then sewn with linen thread and excavated and layered to encompass a smaller diamond-shaped or rectangular grid. The pale, nuanced or dark, graphic forms of the cut-up eggs interspersed with the blank colored pages of the plates in the square or rectangular grid suggest the sectioned abstraction of quilts as well as the folds of origami; and the pearly tones of the paper, which varies in color from piece to piece, has a Minimalist restraint, marrying Modernist and Victorian sensibilities. The threads further imbue each piece with a delicate physicality, suggesting both strength, as a bonding agent, and vulnerability, as an element that could be pulled and broken. The show is rounded out by a series of abstract drawings, consisting of simple shapes vigorously drawn in graphite over atmospheric washes of gouache.

This Saturday, December 8, there will be an artist’s reception from 4 to 6 p.m., with a question-and-answer session with the artist at 3 p.m. Kunstadt has shown extensively in the Hudson Valley and beyond and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2017 Kuniyoshi Fund Award administered by WAAM and the Medal of Honor & the Anna Walinska Memorial Award 2017 from the National Association of Women Artists. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently spoke to Kunstadt at WAAM:

How did you end up pairing pages from this obscure book with antique irons?

I had the book for several years. It had a gestation period. In 2017 I inherited an old iron from my mom. There was something about having this old iron that made me think this could be a vehicle for the book. The fact that More was an abolitionist made me think of big plantations or well-to-do families who would have slaves and do all the ironing. Irons were ubiquitous. I put paper on the front of this iron, and pierced and knotted thread. I bought another iron at a multivendor antique place in Connecticut and worked with it and had a vision of doing 50, because I thought multiples would have more power than a single piece. I just kept buying them, one or two at a time. Friends gave me some, and also gave me lace and fur, which they wanted me to incorporate.

Carole Kundstadt, self-portrait, altered and recombined

How many did you transform into art objects?

Ninety-six, although there are 90 in the show, because I sold a few. The most I’ve ever shown together before was 31.  

You say in your artist’s statement that “More’s lifelong overriding cause was galvanizing women to act not as domestic ornaments, but as thinking, engaged and responsible beings.” There seems an inherent irony in commemorating her through a domestic artifact, though certainly these irons also signify a kind of toughness – a call to action, even. 

Knotting the linen threads was for me a way of marking time and securing memory. I started to scorch the threads and paper; irons and heat imply tension, that you have to be careful. What would it mean if you scorched your mistress’s dress? It refers to suffering. It’s the same with the tacks.

There’s variation in the irons. Do you have a favorite?

This French iron, which is Number Six in the series, was used for finishes. It’s not as hefty as the others. I added the raccoon fur from a collar I bought at Castaways, in Woodstock. The linen on this piece [points to another] was from a bread liner.

What fascinating facts did you learn about Hannah More? Why commemorate her book in your art?

She knew Samuel Johnson and wrote a play called Percy, performed by the most famous actor of the day, David Garrick. When he died, she gave up the theater and became best friends with his wife. I read a fascinating biography about her, called Fierce Convictions, that was published in 2016. She worked her entire life to abolish slavery, writing pamphlets and working hand-in-hand with a guy in Parliament named William Wilberforce; when he’d legislate a new law, she’d write a pamphlet. She wrote a poem called “Slavery” in 1788, which coincided with the first parliamentary debate on the slave trade.

She grew tired of social life in London and went back to her hometown of Bristol, where she dedicated herself to opening schools. She was engaged to a man for six years. After he neglected to set a date, she broke it off, but he provided her with an annuity of 200 pounds and supported her. She was one of five sisters, who were all teachers, and her father was a teacher and poor. She never married, and in Bristol everything has her name on it. Some schools in Maryland are named after her. She lived to be 88, dying in 1843.

Where did you grow up?

I’m from a town in Massachusetts, south of Boston. I went to art school in West Hartford, Connecticut, earning a BFA in two-dimensional art, and married early, at age 21. I moved to LA because that’s where my husband went to law school, and then, when he graduated, we moved to Germany, where he had a fellowship. I studied at an art academy in Munich, learned German, partly by reading a lot of art books in German, and did a lot of research on Klimt and Schiele. We traveled to France, Italy – wherever we could go with our VW bus. After a year-and-a-half we moved to New York City, where my husband specialized in intellectual property law. We lived in the City for 35 years and raised our two sons there before moving to the Hudson Valley five years ago.

What factors were crucial to your development as an artist?

While in Europe I became focused on tapestries. I was doing fabric constructions, layering fabrics to execute a design to elucidate what a tapestry is. When I came to New York, I contacted a Swedish weaver who had a loft in SoHo and asked to be an apprentice. A year later, she contacted me and I became her apprentice, eventually working my way up to be her assistant. I was with her a couple of years, then started my own tapestry shop with another weaver. We did commissions, including doing a tapestry from an original painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

When I got pregnant with my first son, it became physically difficult for me to weave; you had to stand at the looms for hours. My partner took over the business, and I didn’t weave for 25 years. I continued doing works on paper and figure drawing from the model. I got involved in collage work, using found objects and layering, which seemed to satisfy my desire for texture. In Germany, I collected sugar packets, ticket stubs and other items, which I’d throw into the pages of my sketchbook, and I started to use this in my work. I collected other ephemera, postage stamps, twigs and feathers. I started showing in the early-to-mid-1990s.

What led to your working specifically with books?

I was always drawn to texts and had done calligraphy as an art student. Probably around 2000, I bought a book and thought I’d use it in a collage. A little later, I started to sew into the pages, then started weaving, returning to that kind of manipulation and tactile, physical experience I’d had with weaving. The whole thing coalesced.

When you cut up a book, you’re also destroying the object. Is that ever a concern?

I’m not buying a book that costs thousands of dollars. I research what the book is, which usually indicates it’s not the last edition on Earth. Hannah More’s book was so obscure, but now it has a life totally different from anything she could have imagined, which brings it to more people than would otherwise hear of her.

“Pressing On” and “Ovum” obviously have strong feminist themes, honoring the words of feminist pioneers. Would you describe your overall body of work as feminist?

It hadn’t been consciously feminist until I started working with the book by Margaret Fuller. The more I got into this, the more satisfying it is. It’s very inspiring to see how dedicated these women were in their convictions. They had very strong voices, despite all the obstacles of their times.

Do you plan to keep expanding the “Pressing On” series?

I think I’m done with the irons. When I did Number 96, in November, it seemed complete, since the series was inspired by my mom’s object and she died when she was 96. I just got another batch of bookplates from England, so I’ll continue with the “Ovum” series. Actually, I call the wall pieces “Ovum/Breakthrough,” which refers to how we’ve had to break through so many obstacles and restrictions, and it’s still happening today.

Was leaving the City and moving to the Hudson Valley a difficult transition?

We moved to West Hurley in 2013 after my husband gave up his law firm office and staff and semi-retired. He equated being in the City with work, and he was done. We owned our apartment on the Upper West Side, and for me, moving here felt like falling off the edge of the Earth. In the City, I had a support system. I knew there were artists up here, but I had no idea of the density and opportunities. Coming here felt like a risk, but in reality I’m more active and productive here. It’s an incredibly sophisticated cultural community, and my creativity has been unleashed.

“Carole Kunstadt: Pressing On,” December 1-30, artist’s reception Saturday, December 8, 4-6 p.m., artist talk 3 p.m., Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-2940, info@woodstockart.org.

Post Your Thoughts