Art that honors women’s strength

“Of Rope and Chain Her Bones Are Made” celebrates the handiwork that underlies the often invisible work associated with womanhood.

Lavialle Campbell has been an artist for as long as she can remember. In kindergarten, she would be well behaved so she could go outside and paint the school’s brick walls with water. At age 7, she was collecting seed beads for small projects. Art got her through childhood illnesses, and, in adulthood, two bouts with cancer. 

“It saved my life,” she says, “because I always had art to fall back on, so whenever something happened, I wouldn’t get depressed. I would have something to work on.”

Quilting is a mainstay of her art. Quilts that honor the Black experience. Quilts that reflect her experience with illness. Quilts that depict abuses endured by women. “I use quilting because it’s about women,” she says. “You think of women when you think of quilting.”

The pandemic – and her retirement from a career as a legal secretary – brought her something she’d never had before: time. The result was an explosion of creativity and six exhibitions – one of which I visited in November at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in Southern California.

“Of Rope and Chain Her Bones Are Made” is a collection of works by nine women, celebrating the handiwork that underlies the often invisible work associated with womanhood. The exhibit highlights the dichotomy of strength and femininity and is full of whimsy: ropes dangling from a wall that turn out to be cast bronze; playful hanging sculptures made from salvaged plastics; ceramic beads shaped like little pieces of bone, strung together to make a curtain. And a number of fiber artworks – woven, dyed, quilted, and appliqued.

It is craft, elevated to art. “All expression is valuable,” says Ms. Campbell, whose pieces include an improvised black-and-white quilt and a number of ceramic sculptures that repeat globular shapes – one of which is covered in black-eyed peas.

Black-eyed peas appear in all of her exhibitions, a triumphant nod to the sting of racism she felt in graduate school. Ms. Campbell had created an altar as a final art project, honoring her grandmother and great-grandmother, who were enslaved. The teacher got angry about the tribute, which included foods specific to Black culture, and humiliated Ms. Campbell in front of the class. The peas, she says, are a scar from those days – and a satisfying reminder of her success.

Invariably, that success uplifts women. “I want to represent women who are always in the picture but never get credit for it,” she says.

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