By the 1990s, Marilyn Pappas was making textiles depicting ancient Greco-Roman sculptures of goddess.
“I felt that even in their broken, battered state—they wouldn’t have a head, or one breast would be off or whatever—that they still, these sculptures that we look at were broken, but they were beautiful. And we learned to love them that way,” the Somerville artist said for a 2020 virtual exhibition at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “And for me, they were metaphors of women that as you age as I have, as things happen to you, you may be broken in different ways. Broken and hurt and changed. But you could still be strong. You might still be vulnerable, but you could still be strong.”
“Marilyn Pappas: A Retrospective” at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton from March 12 to Aug. 28, 2022, features 21 textile artworks, dating as far back as the 1960s, often embroidered in a manner she’s called “drawing with thread.”
“Her socially charged themes—feminism, political resistance, beauty and aging, love and loss—ring as true today as they did in the years in which they were created, over five decades ago in some cases,” Fuller Craft Museum Artistic Director and Chief Curator Beth McLaughlin says in a press release.
A native of Brockton, Pappas was born in 1931. She studied art at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Pennsylvania State University, then taught at Massachusetts College of Art and Design from 1974 to ’94, and chaired the school’s 3D Fine Arts Program for nine years. She is one of the cofounders of Somerville’s Brickbottom studios in 1989, where she still lives and works.
Pappas emerged as an artist in the early 1960s as part of the American studio craft movement. Her pieces from the 1960s and ‘70s are often patchworks. Some of them—collaged together from military uniforms and gear, with dangling ropes and strings—can call to mind wounded veterans returning from the Vietnam war.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, she made collages of paper or fabric evoking outfits and landscapes and maps. By the 1990s, she’d found her ancient classical goddesses.
“I usually choose a sculpture that interests me, often because I have actually seen it and somehow it strikes a chord,” Pappas told Judith Zausner of the blog Creativity Matters in 2013. “From photographs of the sculpture, I make full scale sketches that I often cut out and then I draw the outline on linen. Most of the rest of the drawing is done directly with thread, on the background linen.”
Some of Pappas’s textiles are embroidered with red and orange and tan threads that can evoke viscera—and violence. “History Lessons: Nike, Goddess of Victory,” which arrived during the United States’ simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, depicts a sculptural fragment of the winged goddess, missing an arm and head, in sheer garments, next to a shattered vase and under a banner reading “At What Cost Victory?”
“Larger than life, scarred and battered by the ravages of time,” Pappas has said, “there is a particular beauty, vulnerability, and dignity in these mythical personifications of idealism. By placing the draped images of the goddesses back into the softness of linen, the fabric depicted in the ancient marbIe sculptures, I try to reemphasize their femininity while retaining the individual character of each figure. Some are powerful, strong, larger than life; others seem vulnerable, yet dignified.”
Other pieces—like her 2009 pairing of a classical sculpture of Venus with Marilyn Monroe with her white cocktail dress blowing up, as in the famous scene from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch”—are, she says, “meditations on western concepts of beauty throughout time. … I am interested in the imperfection of beauty and the beauty of imperfection.” (Can’t help wondering if being named Marilyn has something to do with the subject of this particular piece as well.)
A 2018 embroidered textile of a headless and armless classical sculpture of a woman, displayed upright over a wood support, was titled “Nevertheless She Persisted I.” It’s named after Republican (then) Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s insult of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2017, when he stopped her from speaking during debate of Donald Trump’s nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General. It immediately became a feminist rallying cry. Pappas has said, “Although broken, faded and disintegrating, I see them in this era of “#metoo”, as metaphors for the strength and power of today’s women.”
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