About this piece:
Unsexed & Unsphered: Volume 1 pairs an early autobiographical piece by nineteenth century author Caroline Kirkland about “western” life with a later essay she wrote about women’s rights. Besides literally binding together two works, I link them through common visual metaphors. Kirkland’s original illustrators used realism and caricature to emphasize beautiful women and comic scenes; in contrast, I use surreal birds to highlight the complexity of her writing. Kirkland’s 1839 semi-autobiographical, A New Home, describes the colonial woman as a “home bird drooping and disconsolate.” Her 1853 essay, “Literary Women,” a “natural history” of women authors, describes them as swallows, dodos and doves-harmless, extinct, and gentle. In both texts she uses bird imagery to convey how women are kept from education and assistance. Her serious and satirical metaphors show that women can be educated and opinionated without being unsexed and unsphered-the domestic nest need not be a cage.
There are six additional copper-engravings illustrating this book, each one showing a different literal bird for a bird metaphor, for example, a ringdove with ringleted hair for when Kirkland describes
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a voice like a ringdove’s” as having made “some of the strongest and bravest poetry that has appeared in our day.”
This book was printed in 2011, but is only now being bound. When I create the remaining books in this series I will use similar pairings of early autobiographies and later women’s-rights writings by three other nineteenth century women authors: Margaret Fuller, Eliza Farnham, and Frances Willard.
paper, thread, ink, watercolor
About the artist:
resides in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, United States
Rachel Melis is an Associate Professor of Art at the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her BA from Grinnell College. Her work focuses on the lives of Midwestern women past and present, particularly how women’s work causes and reacts to social, environmental, and biological transformations. Her prints, printed books, artists’ books, and installations have been shown in numerous national and international exhibitions. She has lived and taught all over the Midwest and now resides in Saint Cloud, Minnesota.