Rachel Melis, “Unsexed & Unsphered: Volume 1″
Artist: Rachel Melis (Saint Joseph, MN)
Title: Unsexed & Unsphered: Volume 1 (2011)
Medium/technique(s): Photopolymer plates and hand-tinted copper engravings on gampi, chine colle on Rives BFK
Edition size: 25
Number of pages: 45
Dimensions, open: 7 x 11 x .25″
Dimensions, closed: 7 x 5.5 x .25″
As a descendant of Midwestern homesteaders—nineteenth-century pioneers and 1970s back-to-the-landers—I create art about why people, particularly women, settle where they do, what they carry with them, and how they make sense of, transform, and are transformed by their new homes. Lately I have been inspired by nineteenth-century women authors who sought to expand the domestic sphere in response to the new limits of domesticity they witnessed on the frontier.
Unsexed & Unsphered is a series of engravings and excerpted texts that illustrates similarities among four such authors: Caroline Kirkland, Margaret Fuller, Eliza Farnham, and Frances Willard. All four women penned autobiographies and social critiques “back east” after having gained a fledgling awareness of human and ecological diversity living “out west.” Scholars such as Susan L. Roberson and Caroline Gebhard describe these women as having used their experiences with open and constricted forms of frontier domesticity to widen “social and psychological spaces.” Gebhard specifies that Caroline Kirkland found the act of writing about the frontier to be a “new home” in which she could imagine “not only material, but also social progress” for women and their communities.*
My series pairs Kirkland, Fuller, Farnham, and Willard’s autobiographical writings with their social critiques to show this relationship between narratives about frontier life and essays about women’s rights. . . . Besides literally binding together two works by each author, I link them through common visual metaphors. The texts’ original illustrators used realism and caricature to emphasize beautiful women and comic scenes; in contrast, I use surrealism to highlight the complexity and humor of each author’s approach to women’s rights.
For this first volume, I depict Caroline Kirkland’s recurring comparison of women to birds. Her 1839 narrative, A New Home, describes the unprepared pioneer 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. In “Literary Women,” however, her bird imagery expresses hope—as when she says that “Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a voice like a ringdove’s” has made “some of the strongest and bravest poetry that has appeared in our day.” Kirkland’s 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. Thus, where the nineteenth-century illustrators of Kirkland’s books put birds in the background of pastoral scenes or left them out in favor of pretty female characters, I, like Kirkland, am creating bird-women, eggs, ovals, and circles to illuminate the consequences of a constricted domestic sphere while pointing to a possible solution—a broader domestic ecosystem.
* Susan L. Roberson, ed., Women, America and Movement: Narratives of Relocation (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998) 174, 214.