Earlier this spring I accepted an invitation to participate in an art exhibit, Historic Interpretations: Contemporary Artists Interpret the Historic Collection, at the Peabody Historical Museum. Historic Interpretations challenged artists to choose an historical item from the museum and to reinterpret it in any art medium. Per the historical society:
“The Society is seeking to remove traditional forms of interpretive practice, leaving the object’s interpretation to the participating artist.”
The historical artifact I chose was a 19th century wallpaper fragment from the Bell Tavern in Danvers, MA.
After some research, I learned that in 1797 Hannah Webster Foster wrote a novel, The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton, which detailed a much publicized account of a socially elite Connecticut woman’s death in a tavern after giving birth to a stillborn, illegitimate child. Foster’s novel became a statement for women on the issues of individualism, social conformity, social class, and female friendship in the early American republic.
With this information, I was inspired to create The Belle of Bell Tavern.
Using this photo, I sculpted Eliza Wharton from polymer clay.
Here she is, head attached to the body, before going into the oven. (Doesn’t that sound a little sadistic?)
And then I realized I forgot to give her eyebrows!
Here is The Belle of Bell Tavern completely assembled. I really must order a larger photo cube. Belle is 16″ tall when assembled and these larger pieces don’t fit in a 20″ cube. Below are two shots of her; one in the photo cube and one against a black background.
Belle is attached to an antique wall shelf that I inverted for her skirt. Accompanying her is a handmade journal that opens, a pair of slippers, a suitcase, a gold key, and scrolls of love letters to an unknown beau.
The quote attached to her skirt reads: I’ll toll you in if you have need, feed you well, wish you speed. These words hung over the door in front of the Bell Tavern. From what I’ve learned about Eliza, she was a woman who found herself in a difficult situation, surrounded by friends who criticized her actions and warned her against further wrongdoing. Eliza desired independence and freedom. She wanted to avoid a loveless marriage, to choose a relationship on her own terms, and did not accept the idea of a woman being another person’s personal property.
This piece was great fun to create. Who would’ve thought a simple wallpaper sample could provide so much history.
The exhibit runs August 15-October 18. Opening weekend is August 15, 12:00-7:00 pm and August 16, 12:00-3:00 pm. The exhibit is displayed in two houses, the Osborne-Salata House and the Gideon Foster House. For more information, visit the Peabody Historical Society and Musuem.