Traditional Arts Lost and Found

“She Made It!” Exhibition at History Park

One of San Jose’s most precious possessions is History Park—located in Kelley Park—under the direction of the good group of people at History San José (HSJ). It’s a great place to take your family for a weekend visit. I learn so much every time I go there, which isn’t nearly often enough. We can never know enough about our past and History San Jose is doing an excellent job of bringing that point home with small but very interesting exhibitions. A new exhibit, “She Made It! — The Tradition of Women’s Arts and Crafts in Santa Clara Valley,” that opens on October 24 in the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House, is a good example of what I am talking about.

Growing up in the 1950s, I used to watch one of my Southern grandmothers (Arkansas) sit around with her sisters and friends and make quilts. My other grandmother (Texas) made clothes for herself, my mother and her nine brothers and sisters on and old Singer sewing machine powered by a foot pedal. It was a completely normal daily practice for women of their generation who lived through the ravages of the Depression. These ordinary women created wonderful homemade products that were better than anything you could buy at Sears and for a lot less money. Many of these items are still beloved possessions of members of our family, including the old Singer machine that my sister still uses.

“She Made It!” is a fascinating celebration of these all-but-disappeared traditions as practiced in our valley since the mid-nineteenth century, along with a couple of very surprising contemporary fabric art pieces based on these practices. The exhibition was put together by Sarah Puckitt, HSJ’s curator of art and photography, and practically all of it comes from their own collection of pieces donated by local citizens over the years.

The oldest pieces are a “sampler” from 1816, by Mary Tyrell, and a group of Tamian Ohlone Native American baskets that are just beautiful. Many of the other older pieces are quilts made specifically to raise funds for local charities and handmade family keepsakes. Some of the most curious objects are pictures and medallions incorporating woven human hair from loved ones that were often made as memorial pieces. Moving on into the last century, there is a display of wedding dresses from three generations of one family dating from 1895, 1925 (interesting “flapper” style) and 1980.

I loved the display of tools for making the various creations. One item, a “sewing bird,” a molded stylized object for holding needles and pins, was once given by a man to his lady friend to signal serious intentions of marriage. There is also a display of period sewing boxes and bags, and mail order catalogs and forms that were used to get fabric and tools.

I was interested in textile pieces and a book, “How to Paint on Textiles,” written by Marion Van Zandt. She is not a known relative and little is known about her except that she lived in San Francisco and Los Gatos and is thought to have been an SJSU teacher, which brings me to one of the most interesting displays. Home economics used to be taught in most high schools and colleges in the US, and SJSU had a Home Economics Department up until 1987. There is a display of items from dress design classes in the old department topped off by intricate miniature models of dresses in the process of design.

The biggest surprise for me came upon entering the final room that displayed recent works by two contemporary women artists that utilize the old traditions in creating new forms of artistic expression. Not only are these two artists keeping traditional practices alive, they are ensuring their continuation into the future. The first work, “Zewa Sisters,” is a loom-woven, silk-screened and embroidered piece of silk, corn husk and metallic thread by Consuelo Jimenez Underwood , whose Mexican heritage combines old European Spanish and Hiochul tribe native cultures. Consuelo is head of the textiles program at SJSU and she kindly explained her piece and working methods to me.  Her graceful, subtle earth-toned wall hanging displays a vertical series of screened images drawn from both of her ancestral backgrounds.

The final work in the exhibition, “After the Gold Rush,” by Los Altos artist Linda Gass, is made from Silk crepe de chine, machine quilted with monofilament and rayon threads, and hand painted. It’s a very powerful ending to the show and the image of her work stays with you long after you leave Pasetta House. I had a chance to talk to Linda for a while which helped me understand where she was coming from as an artist and how she fits into the tradition that the exhibition is concerned with. Linda is very active in water resources issues and her political activism provides background material for much of her work, including “After the Gold Rush.” Resembling a color aerial photograph of the Central Valley, the work is an arresting geometric representation of humankind’s mark on the landscape of California.  Also, interestingly, Linda is a mathematician and computer scientist, something that obviously informs her work. She proves that the traditions of women’s arts and crafts celebrated by the exhibition are alive and well and even have a new technology angle that could only come from Silicon Valley.

Bravo! History San José.

SHE MADE IT! THE TRADITION OF WOMEN’S ARTS AND CRAFTS IN SANTA CLARA VALLEY runs Oct. 24–March 1 in the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House, History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Noon–5pm through October 31, 11am–4pm after November 1. Admission is free. (408.287.2290)

7 Comments

  1. Jack –

    Thank you for continuing to recognize San Jose’s best “hidden treasure” in History Park.  It’s an absolute outrage that History Park is not a highlight attraction in this city.  Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised because more often than not, we deny our history in this town.

    And I suppose it’s partly my own fault, too.  Every time I visit History Park I vow to become a member of History San Jose but the financial tough times just don’t allow it.  One day I’ll follow through on that vow.

  2. History San Jose’s Plein Air painting show, which was open all summer and closed in September, rivalled the great California Plein Air collection at Oakland and Irvine museums (famous for California landscapes). The History Park/Japanese Friendship Garden/Happy Hollow (under renovation)/Muni Stadium/Sharks Ice/Spartan Stadium/Blethen Field nexus is a great agglomeration of activities and destinations all within walking distance of each other. Funny how we can’t get *that* area named something, when it actually *does* have a theme running through it. I guess it’s outta the Redev Zone so nobody pays attention. :-(

  3. Interesting. Sounds like something I should take my mother to. Now I’m sorry I missed the Plein Air exhibit—I was meaning to go but I forgot about it. I need to pay more attention to what goes on at History SJ.

    2. Good point, how about asking people here to propose a name for that area? I don’t have any immediate ideas, but I’ll think about it.

  4. The sewing bird, given by a suiter for his entended is just the type of history that one loves to discover while investing in an afternoon in museum wandering.  By chance, I was able to view the Plein Air exhibit, which was enough to make me join your fascinating museum – actually, the History Park’s collection of houses could be the subject for another letter! A new friend in Louisiana was recently proposed to by an Americanized Italian with a vintage gold and silver spoon rather than the traditional ring- a promise to hold all that life may bring!  I can’t wait to visit History San Jose again!

  5. Are you looking for a copy of the book “How to paint on textiles” by Marion Van Zangt?  I have a copy in superb shape.

    -kim