"Surface Design Magazine", Spring 2001, pp. 16-19.

The "Mementos" of Donna Sharrett by Lois Martin

Donna Sharrett's "mementos" are radiant wheels of needle-lace worked in synthetic blonde hair inset with dried rose petals. Like Victorian "memento mori", ornaments fashioned from the hair of the dearly departed, they are enshrined in boxes lined with black velvet. While a rose window in a Gothic cathedral glows against pure light and open sky, Sharrett's rosettes glow against the pure darkness of black velvet. Like pressed funeral wreaths, the faded color of the petals and the delicate skeletons of lace have a whispered wistfulness, tinged with a hint of the macabre, for the petals are pierced, with a sharp needle, and splayed, like a scientist's butterfly in a specimen box. Veins stand out in the skin-like petals. There is an uncanny quality to the idea of the natural flower come apart, and then rebuilt by artifice, like some ever so delicate Frankenstein, suture by minute suture -- and then encapsulated in a fine case as beautiful and odd as a Cornell box. (1)

Sharrett's techniques are the buttonhole stitch and the French knot, techniques learned from her mother and maternal grandmother. "The sign of a well-made garment," Sharrett's mother told her, "is hand made buttonholes." And Sharrett's wheels are built primarily of buttonhole stitches: thousands of them, connecting rose petals punctuated with French knots and seed beads.

There is an extravagance of stitches in these pieces, recording the repetitive outpouring of hundreds of identical gestures. Like raindrops making a deluge, like grains of sand in a dune, the countless stitches impart a great weight of effort to the lace. It is the kind of effect appreciated by ancient Peruvian textile artists (2); it also forms part of a universal needlework aesthetic, like the tiny stitches that animate the surface of a quilt, or the myriad ticks of cross-stitch embroidery. These suspend time for the viewer, for it is not possible to take in the artist's mark in one glance. The gaze must slow down in its perusal, gathering in both the particular and the overall effect. Like listening for one's own heartbeat, it takes effort and concentration.

These effects, and their interesting visual "drone" have been taken up with great success by a number of contemporary artists: Liza Lou's life-sized environments built of beads; or Ann Hamilton's installations of cloth and hair and toil -- are two examples. (3) But while Sharrett shares a similarly mad level of obsessive technique, her firm hand reveals orderly pattern, and her mirrored symmetries unfold precisely, like a vision in a kaleidoscope. The mesmerizing starbursts seem as prayerful as the geometries of Islamic design, the Celtic knots of medieval Irish psalters, or Mondrian's abstractions of trees. Like Gertrude Stein's stark modernist poem, "A rose is a rose is a rose", each memento traces a rhythmically repeating round.

In many human ceremonies, circular patterns demark sacred space: think of cathedral domes and kivas, ring dances, mandalas, and circumambulations (such as that at the culmination of the pilgrim's journey to Mecca). Likewise, delicate, finely-worked fabrics clothe the participants and spaces of ritual: think of the veils and laces and curtains for weddings and funerals, for example. The cloth stands as a membrane between two states of being, marking the cross-over -- the death of one stage, and the birth of the next -- from maid to wife in a wedding, from wife to widow in a husband's funeral. Flowers, too, sprout in these interstices, between worlds.

In countless folktales, roses bloom up out of the corpses or spilled blood of heroes and heroines. The "carnation" takes its name from the idea that it sprang up when Christ's blood fell. In Greek myth, Persephone was just reaching to pick a bouquet when Hades, the god of death, thundered up from the underworld to snatch her as his bride. And on household shrines, around the world, it is usually a small delicate cloth which transforms profane into sacred space, by turning a bureau or kitchen table into an altar, with its sacrificial flower arrangement. So, too, with the bouquets of mourning piled up for Princess Di, or at the numerous public shrines created to mark tragedies -- live offerings are left to wilt. The myth of Persephone and the rituals of flowered altars emphasize cycles of life -- the interconnecting rings of birth and death; these are the mythic circles to which Sharrett's work alludes.

Sharrett developed her work in a response to personal tragedy. Several years ago, while nursing her terminally ill mother, Sharrett returned to the needlework processes learned in her childhood. The way back to needlework was bound up in two painful arenas: the desire to find something in which her mother could be the teacher -- an attempt to maintain some aspect of the normal hierarchy within a mother/daughter relationship; and the desire to find a way to transcend time, to fill the bottomless days of worry and waiting.

Sharrett, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, abandoned her art after her mother's death. Months later, a letter from a nurse requesting to buy a drawing started during her mother's illness provided the impetus to bring Sharrett around to working again. Now, combining symbolic materials, needlework processes and the idea of memorial, she creates celebrations of remembrance.

In 1997, a 12-week session at the Bronx Museum of the Art's "Artist in the Marketplace" helped refine her direction. (4) Another formative experience was the opportunity to spend a month at the Millay Colony for the Arts in 1998. Subsequent grants include: a NYFA Artist's Fellowship and a Special Opportunity Stipend, both from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1999; and an Empire State Craft Alliance Grant in 2000.

Sharrett's work has been exhibited in numerous shows, including Gardens of Pleasure at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin (2000); Wildflowers at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, NY; and Pattern at James Graham & Sons in New York City (1999). She is represented by Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art in New York City, where she had a solo show, Rose Petals and Hair Lace Mementos, in May of 2000. In the fall of 2000, a solo exhibition, Mementos, was at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY.

Lois Martin is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

1. Joseph Cornell, American sculptor,1903 - 72.
2. Especially during the Paracas-Nasca period (ca. 0 - 500 A.D.), where miles of plain woven cloth were brightly patterned with dense embroidery all done with a single type of stitch (stem stitch), and whole menageries of figured fringes were formed with one technique (crossed looping). For beautiful color plates, see Rebecca Stone-Miller, To Weave for the Sun: Andean Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1992.
3. Liza Lou, American artist, 1969 - , and Ann Hamilton, American artist, 1956 - .
4. This 21-year-old program takes a selected group of artists step-by-step through a whole series of nuts-and-bolts sessions on the business of art. Sharrett credits this experience with giving her a firm grounding and even more with providing her with a vital community of peers.

Text: © 2001 Lois Martin
Artwork: © 2001 Donna Sharrett