Carole Shepheard in Full Flight


Useful and aesthetic sensibility coincide, (in quilts), work and art come together, individual and group collaborate. It is precisely the specific history of women and their artwork that is effaced when art historical discourse categorizes this kind of art practice as decorative, dexterous, industrious, geometric and 'the expression of the feminine spirit in art.
However, the use of these terms which maintains the hierarchy and establishes distinctions between art and craft represents an underlying value system. Any association with the practices of needlework and domestic art can be dangerous for an artist, especially where that artist is a woman.

Old Mistresses - Women, Art and Ideology
First studying at Elam 196467 (Honours in Stage Design), then 'gestating' for almost ten years, Shepheard is one of many women artists whose art-flight only really took off after an unsatisfactory marital situation had been confronted, children began school, and the inevitable conflicts of (wife) mother, lover, woman, artist, became resolved, and, for her, happily integrated. These briefly-charted biographical notes are essential for understanding the characteristics and impetus behind Shepheard's work. For as a self-defined feminist artist she is now totally engaged in a conscious artistic exploration and expression of her experience as a woman and feminist in our society, where, to quote again from Parker and Pollock's seminal work, in their chapter headed 'Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts', 'The sex of the artist does matter. It conditions the way art is seen and discussed. This is indisputable.'

Shepheard is one of a growing network of feminist artists here and elsewhere who are not only articulating the different position and place within history and culture (from men) that women occupy, but are attempting at times to tackle this in a politically challenging sense. Understanding this intention is crucial. There are, for me, varying levels of engagement (intentionally) in this concern in her recent art. Some pieces speak more challengingly to a politically feminist aesthetic sensibility than others: although all her works successfully challenge the pejorative connotations applied to traditional arts (cf. the text at the beginning of this article).

CAROLE SHEPHEARD Jeanette (detail) 
photographic montage

Moving back consciously into the role of 'artist' as opposed to 'craftswoman' of her 'gestation' period (when she stitched and crocheted, batiked and patchworked, dyed and wove, for home, children, a small boutique), Shepheard in her works of 1976 did drawings, collages and etchings, using the latter medium as a kind of ritual discipline to ease re-entry into the 'fine' arts. She unconsciously selected imagery, techniques and an approach to working which have characterized much work by emergent feminist artists in the 'seventies. Working at home, children about, she worked first on the kitchen table, then graduated to a small bedroom studio. Here she concentrated on small-scale often modular pieces, frequently using the view through a window motif (from a deliciously decorative interior), and constructed these interiors of the self in relation to the world outside the window, in brilliantly sophisticated, highly decorative patterns. These works were neither in scale nor content in any way related to the then (in New Zealand) rather more fashionable 'tough' Minimalist imagery or the 'cool' New Image category that might possibly have earned her more 'serious' critical attention: they were done in a purposefully 'finickity' (Shepheard) intensity and caring concern for detail that was largely rooted in women's traditional arts. Foregrounding many of these windows are the vulval images of lilies, plants, shells, spread fans, richly patterned quilts ... sources for the fragments making up these assemblages drawn from Shepheard's extensive collections of boxed oddments/treasures (women's thrift: the patches for quilts and rags for rugs syndrome), pieces of paper ranging from popular calendars to bits of reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts.1 The approach to assembling them was based on a rigorous process of sifting, selecting, matching / contrasting which has direct links with the patchwork quilt aesthetic. In some later works, e.g. Fan/Grid/Quilt, Tulip/Grid/Quilt, Mountain/Grid/Quilt, Shepheard has clearly stated her debt to these processes and patterns of women's traditional arts in her naming.

In her 1981 exhibition at the Portfolio Gallery, Shepheard further extended and explored these processes. She showed for example, an exquisite miniature silken quilt, Identification Grid No. 4, etched and embroidered. This show, 'Natural Identity' and the slightly earlier 'Surfacing' at Denis Cohn's are, for me, on one level about a significant change in Shepheard's orientation. From the implied dichotomy of self versus outside world suggested in the earlier window imagery, she has moved towards a new, liberating integration of self and environment, surfacing in 'Surfacing'2 and realised in 'Natural Identity' and 'Identity Fragments': these works are windows of the self, exposed (literally, through transparent perspex window boxes). The imagery addresses itself directly out towards us, the viewers. Identity Grid No. 2, e.g., with its cast paper self-portrait mask exhibits a perfect unity of self-image, medium and surrounding natural objects. The works incorporate an impressively wide variety of techniques: softly coloured handmade papers, plaiting, painting, fine stitchery,3 etching, eyeletting, batiking, quilting, dyeing, tying, binding, weaving, photography ... plus a range of carefully collected found objects: feathers, stones, shells ... cobwebs ... Particularly interesting aspects of this variety are: firstly, her attempt to extend traditional boundaries of printmaking (each print/assemblage was available in a limited edition of ten); secondly, the functioning of the whole show of sixteen pieces as a unit. Not in itself an unusual concept, of course, but Shepheard's particular slant on this theme involved again an extension of the intricacies of the quilt aesthetic. Not only did individual pieces of work share a theme, echo and re-echo, develop and transform a concern, but the placing of segments of pieces repeated this pattern with endless visual surprises. Woven basketwork might appear in one work as a photograph of a wicker chair, elsewhere as an actually woven square in flax, elsewhere as a centrally placed kind of fan or target, elsewhere as a close-up photograph of a small area of ethnic basketwork. And the basic structuring of this technique, warp and weft, can be seen in Shepheard's ubiquitous use of the drawn grid, the form which often lies at one extreme of that dynamic between order/control and energyorganic growth, a formal characteristic of so much of her work.

CAROLE SHEPHEARD Identification Grid Number 2
mixed media on paper, 609 x 457 mm.

Regarding the debts to her art in a more general sense, Shepheard gives credit where it is due, to other artists like printmaker Bonny Quirk; Connie Fleres, American collage artist and papermaker; feminist artists Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago. The force of Chicago's vision, the important collaborative Dinner Party and current Birth Project have had an undeniably strong impact on many women artists. Shepheard, however, while fully cognisant of all the significant implications of these works, remains dubious on Chicago's actual approach to and handling of the collaborative system, and so far in her response to these projects in the Full Circle Project has provided a rather more flexible framework for individuals to operate within. Symbolism is an important area for Shepheard as it has been in much feminist art. In fact there has been a conscious attempt on the part of a number of such artists to develop a theory of this new symbolism.4 Its importance for Shepheard had been suggested in her earlier 'window' works and is more consciously explored in her more recent works. As one example, what I call 'vulval' imagery,5 more commonly known as 'central core' or 'vaginal' imagery, was especially important in much women's art of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies and it continues to make its presence felt, sometimes as a too clichéd device (as any device can be, e.g. the rectangle in much abstract and especially Minimalist art; Coke can in Pop art; the skull in New Image and New Expressionist art), sometimes as a genuinely creatively explored format/symbol. For women, this iconography has not only obvious physical connotations, but it can also, I feel, be interpreted in the broader sense of psychic centering: the very essence of the Women's Movement. A merging of these meanings can be taken from Shepheard's frequent, various and sensitive use of this device. An earlyish example appears in Identification-Self-Image 1, where a transitional period in her art is apparent. Here the image is not given prominence: it is placed beneath a larger area of peach and pale skin-coloured papers and a grid compartmenting tiny shells. It is placed however, in the centre, with, flanking it, an etched realistic self-portrait and a white feather. Interestingly this self-portrait looks out at us via the double glazing of the artist's glasses and the perspex cover to the box, and in its realism creates, for me, an uneasy juxtaposition with the more two-dimensional and symbolic approach of the rest of the image. As if both posed and confronted by Shepheard, this problem is partially resolved by her delicate yet deliberate crossing out of the etched image and the obvious significance accorded the photographed, central, symbolic image of the golden leaf, ritually displayed in the open palm of her hand. (cf. O'Keefe's burning, amber. ... vulval ... leaves, in Large dark red Leaves on White.) Other, later works by Shepheard focus more consciously and easily on this motif: Target, Reflection Part II, for example, with its opposite emphasis in terms of layout, or, more complexly, Life Force I, with its main image of a delicately soft suede bag displaying a sewn spiral and fanning out a hand printed silken scarf. All Shepheard's work radiates from a very personal basis, as has much recent women's art and literature. This bias does not however limit its intelligibility (if intelligently handled) to viewers; for done in a consciously feminist sense this focus inevitably throws light on the broader canvas of women's experience and place in (patriarchal) society at large.6 In some of Shepheard's works, viewers engaged only in their subtle aestheticism can overlook these concerns: they are not perhaps that overt. But in so doing, a dimension of the artist's work is lost. In some of her works ' as I intimated at the outset, political concerns are more apparent. Interestingly, they characterise works where I feel content is more clearly perceived and rigorously examined. Memories, Fragments of Time, e.g., and the concept of the 'Natural Identity' show as a whole do this. Some works which the artist describes as more 'difficult' for her, the personal works about other people, e.g. John and Jeanette, do it. In these works she tackles with respect and sensitivity her response to other people. John, 1981, (like Memories, shown in the Outreach 'Images of Men' exhibition) is a large modular piece made of 5 x 5 individually boxed images, where various aspects of this person are described: the wry ceramic badges stamped 'No 1 Shit', through 'No 1 Lover' etc; sensuous photographed images of parts of his body; John in various roles including that of father and musician. An expansive multifaceted approach to the idea of the portrait and clearly an intentionally feminist approach to the concept of the erotic male nude. This, like Jeanette, is a set of images arranged in grid format, a difference being that Jeanette's images are not separately boxed but united within one frame and serial in format. These soft, dark photographs record Shepheard's subject over a period of one month. Each photograph suggests the essence of each day in this matrix of time, based on the written diary Jeanette, a close friend, made available to the artist. It is a moving set of 'images and text, both highly personal and also communicating effectively on a more general level, especially to an audience of women.7 Regarding the compartmental and serial formats of these and many others of Sheapheard's works, this approach again has been and still is in the process of being explored imaginatively by women artists. On women's particular concern with this mode of expression, Alexis Hunter, herself an important exponent of it, has stated '. . . all women go through a regular cycle of change impossible to ignore, underlying the very fact of existence. It is interesting to note the use of long narrative sequences or the leaning towards performance art by feminist artists, as if to express personal reality we have to incorporate the notion of cyclical time, as if women need to express their life as a sequence of instances rather than as moments caught in a single image'.8

A further interesting aspect, related to this, is what I perceive to be a markedly immediate, direct response from women (not all men are excluded here!) to Shepheard's art. A kind of extension of this, it also occurs to me, is that the self-affirming, celebratory nature of this response is in turn perceived by Shepheard, transformed and activated by her, in her expansive arid inclusive drive to incorporate other women, artists and non-artists, in the Full Circle collaborative scheme mentioned earlier.

CAROLE SHEPHEARD Identity Fragments - Tipi and Target 1981
mixed media on paper, 658 x 494 mm.

Here a huge, enveloping, conical tent environment is being worked on by several women in various areas (although mainly in Auckland), and will involve a wide range of skills and techniques, and a flexibly wide range of commitment in terms of time, ideas etc. In this instance, Shepheard sees herself in the role of facilitator. Other collaborative projects she has taken part in have extended her own ability to shift from role to role, her own flexibility: she has for example been a participant in the Lifescape environment facilitated by Juliet Batten earlier this year. In a sense she is linking the patterns and networks of her own life as she arranged the quilt-like complexity of the 'Natural Identity' exhibition: is this to be interpreted as one rather holistic answer to the very serious questions posed by certain aspects of current art practice, where, to use a clichéd but nonetheless apt phrase, artists are so often 'alienated' or at least isolated from society? Shepheard advocates and appears to be at least partially successfully addressing herself and others to community and integration. Not that this results in a total preoccupation with (women's) community arts, or a kind of separatism: Shepheard's stance is clearly and pragmatically stated in an article she wrote this year 'About being a woman artist'. While separatism and collaborative art-making form a vital thread to her work, so equally does her independent art-making. On the occasionally knotty question regarding separatist shows versus dealer gallery shows, Shepheard states 'Although I feel there is a need for exclusive shows that explore women's issues, politics, imagery, etc., it is also equally important to show in mainstream galleries so that views can be challenged and the content of women's work acknowledged' A final observation - one related to the above issue and a potential difficulty in the perception of Shepheard's work (also that of some other feminist artists) - is this: by understanding its feminist intentions and implications, her work while speaking clearly from this 'category' of current post-modernist practice, must also be seen to speak with equal seriousness as (but in a different voice from) other modes of contemporary artistic expression. In other words it should not be slotted aside as an interesting 'attractive' diversion from the mainstream.

1. Eg., Once more I face the flowers; Stillness inner view; Fading clouds go home to the mountain.
2 Besides the meanings suggested in my text. 'Surfacing' al so has a connection with feminist writer Margaret Attwood's novel Surfacing, read by Shepheard prior to her exhibition and about very similar concerns of a merging of individual identity with the natural environment.
3. Male artists also use stitchery - but usually with a difference. Don Driver (eg.)., employs this technique in his work, but with different intentions: he is not involved in exploring and extending the medium, as Shepheard does, neither is he involved in a re-evaluation of its status in a political sense.
4. Besides the more widely known art-practice and theoretical writings of Judy Chicago, and Lucy Lippard's From the Centre, see Moira Roth's article 'Visions and Revisions', Artforum, vol. XIX, no. 3, Nov. 1980.
5. For me, 'vulval' is a more appropriate counterpart to 'phallic' than 'vaginal'. Like 'phallic', it can operate on a more particular and also on a more symbolic level. It also sounds apt. This particular example of difficulty in selection of the most appropriate linguistic term where one has not existed before, is indicative of the wider problem of the sexist nature of areas of our language, especially when used to articulate areas of experience previously unexpressed.
6. c.f. One of the Women's Movement's basic tenets: 'the personal is political', or an observation by a writer like Simone de Beauvoir, regarding the second part of her autobiography, The Prime of Life: 'It is impossible for (a writer) to shed light on his [sic] own life without at some point illuminating the lives of others'.
7. 'But art should speak to everyone', might be a criticism here. I would however counter that with two arguments: firstly, art has always communicated to a wide range of audience sizes, from a 'mass' audience to minute elite; secondly it can be demonstrated that much art of the past, in our culture, has been addressed, both consciously and unconsciously to a male audience.
8. Alexis Hunter, expatriate New Zealand artist, in 'Feminist Perceptions', Artscribe, Oct 1980, no. 25, 25-29; Lucy Lippard, in her essay introducing the catalogue Alexis Hunter, Photographic Narrative Sequences, suggests 'The use of multiple images might also be seen as a resistance to objectification of self or the reification of single images, an insistence on continuity as well as fact, life as well as accomplishment; it isn't over yet; it still goes on.'

Originally published in Art New Zealand 26 Autumn 1983