"Solemnly swearing, to swear as an oath to you
who have somehow gotten to be a pale old woman;
swearing, as if an oath could be wrapped around
like a new coat;
For your 28 dollars a week and the bastard boss
you never let yourself hate;
and the work, all the work you did at home
where you never got paid;
For your mouth that got thinner and thinner
until it disappeared as if you had choked on it,
watching the hard liquor break your fine husband down
into a dead joke.
For the strange mole, like a third eye
right in the middle of your forehead;
for your religion which insisted that people
are beautiful golden birds and must be preserved;
for your persistent nerve
and plain white talk--
the common woman is as common
as good bread
as common as when you couldnt go on
For all the world we didnt know we held in common
the common is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong--I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head
I swear it to you on my common
from “The Common Woman Poems”, in "love belongs to those who do the feeling"
Red Hen Press, 2008)
This poem was part of the curriculum for "Women in My Family", a PSU class I taught Friday and Saturday.
When I was a child in the famous 50's, we learned little in school about women's lives. The history books mentioned Pocahontas, Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Sacajawea, and, maybe Mme. Curie. Women were mostly invisible and took no part in history or even in daily life. What they did was not important unless they gave birth to a famous man or led white male settlers to further colonize Native lands. Even then, the women involved got barely a mention.
I was lucky in that I had access to Eugene, Oregon's excellent public library and was able to check out a series of books about famous women. Through these books I was able to grasp that women could make a contribution to society and could be interesting to learn about.
Still, the main message from school and the culture of the time was that women were of secondary importance and spent their days as beasts of burden or as wealthy airheads wearing fancy dresses and doing embroidery.
The second wave of feminism, that of my generation, began to discover and compile "herstory". Feminist scholars discovered women of high achievements in art, science, mathematics, athletics, and humanism whose lives and works had been obscured or ignored by male-dominated historians. What is even more interesting to me is that for the first time the lives of the "common woman" began to be studied and were found to be fascinating and inspiring.
I developed this past weekend's one credit Women's Studies class to encourage students to ponder the stories of women in their families, past and present, and to create visual art projects to honor these women and illustrate their stories. We discussed how important it is for women to feel they have a history and are not mere adjuncts or "extras." We looked at the strengths and inspiration offered by our ancestors, the obstacles they overcame, how they were shaped by their time and culture, and how our lives are shaped by those who went before.
This class was one of the most enthusiastic ones I have taught! I want to share the work they did and also the sense of community we established over the course of the short class. Some of the students had done collage and/or painting before, while for others this was a new experiment.
This student creates a collage for several women in her family. She hadn't liked the first stage of her collage and decided to rip off some of the paper. She then kept going and made some delicious layers that included her earlier "mistakes".
The final effect was richer for the earlier struggle.
This really isn't the floor of a sweatshop. This is our class hard at play. We were lucky to eventually get into a room with lots of tables to work on. We covered the area with art and craft supplies--a glorious mess!
This collage is a 2-and 3-D tribute to the student's mother, daughter, and grand-daughter. The theme of resemblance and continuity is evoked by the organic greens and siennas and by the circular pattern of the photos.
This student was about to trim the edges of her collage honoring her sisters, when I took the picture. I thought it looked cool the way it was, but it looked great after the trim also.
The tissue paper colors she chose were those of the dresses worn by her and her sisters in the color version of one of the photos.
The same student made this assemblage for her grandmother. Several of us were almost weeping from the evocative power of the piece and how it made us think of our own grandmothers. All the items in this assemblage belonged to the grandmother: books, gloves, a perfume bottle, spices, thread, a tatted handkerchief made for the student, and (not shown) a piece of the grandmother's quilting topped the assemblage. The white jar contains a braid of the grandmother's hair, cut off when she was 33. This assemblage was not permanent, given the nature of the contents, but it certainly affected us while it lasted!
This student made a delicious collage for her Calabrian grandmother. The joys of Southern Italy permeate this piece: food, family, saints, and gorgeous colors. The student also started a piece for her German grandmother. This one will be quite different when finished. I wish I had a photo of it as the background was rich with layers of color mixed with pearlescent acrylic glaze.
I was pleasantly surprised how many students chose to create a piece honoring their mothers, often their daughters as well. We talked about the complexities of mothers and daughters and how often those of us who become mothers or are close to others' children, gain new insight into the layers of our mothers' lives.
This lively collage includes, dried flowers, scrabble tiles, tissues, images of trees and flowers and a layered background of various glazes.
This student's work (above right in progress) honors the assertiveness and flamboyance of her mother's Mexican heritage. Her piece has strong colors and textures. The student eventually used the red string to suspend pictures of her mother's youth from the collage support, giving the piece life and movement.
Left, another student carefully affixes lace to a vibrant tribute to her grandmother.
This piece honors a grandmother who survived a difficult life, including a painful marriage, through her unwavering spiritual faith.
The collage honors the handiwork her grandmother created and the love the student and her grandmother shared.
The same student chose to honor her daughter. She noted that her daughter has choices that no woman in the family has had and that she does all she can to instill self-respect and confidence in her daughter.
From the look of this piece, I'd say the student is doing well at this!
A warm and colorful tribute to a grandmother who loved birds and nature. The student included the piece of old-fashioned writing to represent her grandmother's penmanship which was always difficult for the student to decipher. The student said she is grateful for the many letters she exchanged with her warm-hearted, generous grandmother.
This group was amazing. One student brought coffee for all, another cupcakes, and two more brought donuts! I talked these two into letting me take their picture by our food display.
Thanks to all who fed our bodies while we fed our creativity!
This pair of collages was done by a student to honor two grandmothers. She said both are wonderful mentors to her. She was able to show the differences in style and personality of the two women she portrayed. One collage is bold and full of primary colors, while the other is more muted and soft. What a great example of how people's personalities can be shown so clearly in a visual way!
This is a first-ever collage by one of the students. She did a great job of combining colors that look great together and of adding the 3-D flower on the left. The cup of tea refers to the mother's Arabian cultural legacy which includes the consumption of many cups of tea a day! The affection this student feels for her mother and the security the mother has provided come forth vividly.
This tribute to a grandmother is perfectly set off by the addition of the green stamps in the middle. Does anyone else remember S & H Green Stamps? I sure do--one of my favorite jobs as a child was sticking the stamps into their booklets, knowing interesting gifts were ahead when the booklets were "redeemed." In this collage the student used the stamps to symbolize the care and non-wasteful attributes of her grandmother and of society in general 50 years ago.
This dreamy mixed media collage includes scrabble tiles, netting, painted doilies, and transferred photographs. Here, the work is in progress as the student tries out various effects.
This collage shows the age progression of the student's grandmother from a fifties woman dancing in her kitchen to an older woman surrounded by family. In all the pictures the grandmother is seen to be a vital and enthusiastic person. The student used a lace border which was "aged" with a sienna glaze. The background is tissue paper which was wrinkled and then glazed with acrylic medium. The effect of the texture speaks to the richness of the grandmother's spirit.
I hope I have not missed representing any of the students' work. I wanted to show how many different concepts, colors, media, and design can arise from the same assignment. My thanks to all the students for a wonderful experience of teaching!