Weaving Memories of Mother, Talismanic and Tender


New York Times, October 12, 2000

SYRACUSE—Donna Sharrett knows that generations of Americans, generalists and specialists alike, have drawn a distinction between fine art and crafts. From baskets to handblown glass, craft objects have traditionally been regarded as more functional than artistic, even if part of that function is decorative.

For nearly a decade, Ms. Sharrett, who lives in Cornwall, NY, on the west bank of the Hudson, has straddled that sometimes arbitrary divide.

Trained as a painter, Ms. Sharrett, 41, used to produce abstract landscapes. But more recently she has created an unusual variety of needlework constructions that have caught the attention of collectors and curators.

After numerous group shows, and a solo show this year at the Cheryl Pelavin Gallery in Manhattan, those needlework constructions are now the focus of Mementos, an exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse that remains on view through Nov. 12.

Mementos, made of dried rose petals joined in elaborate patterns by lacelike sections of meticulously hand-stitched, artificial hair, resemble big doilies. They bring to mind objects from folk or religious rituals, although at first glance a viewer may not be able to determine their purpose.

"They're familiar, homey and labor-intensive," said Thomas Piché Jr., the senior curator at the Everson who organized the show. "They remind me of mandalas. In Donna's art there are irregularities that reveal the touch of the human hand."

In an interview in the small, tidy studio at her home, Ms. Sharrett said she created the Mementos in memory of her mother, who died of cancer a decade ago.

"I traveled to North Carolina to take care of her during the last months of her life," Ms. Sharrett recalled. "While I was there, partly to fill the time and partly to give her a last opportunity to mother me, even though I had become her caretaker, we pulled out her unfinished needlework projects and I set out to finish them."

Ms. Sharrett's mother taught her some complicated stitching techniques. "I came to enjoy the repetitive work; doing it literally lifted me to a higher, meditative place," Ms. Sharrett said. "It was therapeutic."

Her mother's death hit her hard, she said. When she returned home, Ms. Sharrett said, she threw away her paints, brushes and pictures-in- progress and found herself facing a creative void.

"A nurse who had looked in on me while I was taking care of my mother wrote and asked me to finish a drawing I had started during that period. I wrote and told her I wasn't an artist anymore," Ms. Sharrett said.

The nurse sent a follow-up letter with a check and instructed her not to send it back; she wanted to purchase the drawing. Ms. Sharrett completed the colored-pencil work ("I was drawing on old maps that my mother had collected") and found herself making art again. But it wasn't enough.

"All of a sudden, someone is gone," Ms. Sharrett explained. "You go back, and life continues. Something seemed wrong. I felt there should be a place-holder to remind us."

Plunging into historical research at the New York Public Library, she discovered Victorian-era memento mori, or reminders of death, including bracelets and lockets made with locks of hair from the deceased. She studied traditions like the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its candles and playful statuettes of skeletons in daily-life poses.

"Things just came together: my needlework, hair from the Victorian jewelry and flowers from different cultures that use flowers to honor the dead," Ms. Sharrett said. In the early works she dripped candle wax on delicate strands of hair lace that she made in the shapes of collars. She also made handkerchiefs of dried flower petals stitched onto paper or fabric and embroidered with abbreviations from the world of contemporary medicine.

One is marked "H.I.V." Others bear the initials C.D.C. and CPR, for the Centers for Disease Control and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. "Previously, it never dawned on me to use needlework in my art," she said.

Cheryl Pelavin, a printmaker who has operated a gallery in TriBeCa since 1981, mostly exhibited the work of painters before she recently began representing Ms. Sharrett. "Donna sent me slides out of the blue, and I was very impressed," Ms. Pelavin said, adding, "She has a strong structure."

"Her art is not about provocation for its own sake," she said. "Donna came to the conclusion that art has to have a meaning and a purpose."

Ms. Sharrett takes the titles for her Mementos from letters that her mother sent her over the years. One is called "Life Is Strange: The 31st Memento." Another, with a thicket of French knots at its core, is titled "She Got Very Homesick: The 30th Memento."

Coincidentally, the Everson has a long tradition of collecting and displaying craft arts, with a special focus on ceramics. Ms. Sharrett's show appears alongside the museum's "Ceramic National 2000," the 30th in a series.

A fortresslike poured-concrete building built in 1968, the Everson is the first museum that I. M. Pei designed. It recently announced plans to build a new wing that Mr. Pei, now 83, has also designed featuring a glass-covered atrium.

Ms. Sharrett's work has been recognized by critics and curators as a soulful art that humanizes its materials. "Their tactile quality is seductively beautiful," said Mr. Piché, the curator.

Just as important, said Ms. Sharrett, her needlework pieces "make people remember something, even if they don't know exactly what it is."

Text: © 2000 The New York Times Company
Artist Photo: © 2000 Richard L. Harbus
Artwork: © 2000 Donna Sharrett