Woman's Work is Never Done: Honoring the Labor of our Foremothers
The “Woman’s Work is Never Done” series of paintings is motivated by my long-time love of “nearby history” -- the stories of everyday people doing everyday things -- and my admiration of the sturdy women who came before me.
For many years, in fact, I made a career of spreading the word to teachers about the power of using local communities as laboratories for “hands-on history.” I created many tools to help students become historical detectives unearthing the stories of unsung heroes in their families and neighborhoods: “Reading a Photograph,” “Interviewing an Artifact,” “Family Folklife Interview,” and more.
When I browse our family albums, I skip quickly though the dressed-up holiday line-ups with carefully combed hairstyles, but stop to linger over the candid shots that capture a slice of everyday life.
Rarest among these photos are those that picture folks working. When I run into those shots, I zero in for a good, long look! I love these images, which transport me to another time to glimpse the lives of my ancestors, revealing moments they thought were important enough to record on precious film, and never miss the chance to ask older relatives what they remember about these chores to reconstruct the story behind the photos.
Among my favorite workaday photos are those showing women at work, driving tractors or oxen, feeding livestock, manning the telegraph, as well as more traditional household chores.
I decided to use one of these photos as the basis of a painting for my mother one Christmas: my Great Aunt “Teen” in overalls riding a tractor in the 1920s. After quickly abandoning a full-colorized treatment, I chose to work in subtly tinted grays in homage to the black-and-white photos that recorded these moments. I enlivened monochrome colored pencil painting by using the full range of Prismacolor's cool, warm, and French grays to warm up the foreground, push back the wall and background, and add a hint of local color to her skin and clothing.
The next year, my mother’s gift was a painting of my Great Aunt Hazel at her job as a telegrapher. As I worked, my admiration for these women I never met grew. How arrogant are we to proclaim the last 30 years as the era of the “Working Woman”! Women have always pitched in whenever there was work to be done!
The Woman's Work series
Three Elliott sisters: Aurelia, Hazel, Doris (click thumbnail for more)
A series was being born: My mom and I started digging through the family album for more of these gems. We found plenty, most bearing evidence of both sides of our family’s agricultural roots, enough to keep me busy for a while.
Friends who’ve seen the series being born are now digging through their albums, too, to supply me with inspiration long after our family albums have been thoroughly mined out. I hope to grow the series by casting the net wider, to tell the stories of all manner of women’s labor of the past: urban and rural, paid and unpaid, voluntary and mandatory, traditional and untraditional. It’s my way of saying “thank you” to the generations of women who went down the road before me.
TO ORDER: Email Sue Donley to discuss commissioning a work portrait of your ancestor! Checks accepted; credit cards processed through Paypal.