The word “quilting” tends to bring up images of industrious grandmothers, so it’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind as a medium for a fine-art examination of childhood abuse. But for artist Lisa Foster, reproduction quilting fabrics have become central to her work examining that difficult subject.
I recently spoke with Foster as she hung her canvases for Fragments, Threads and Other Stories: Art Works by Anne Krauss, Susie Reiss and Lisa Foster at the Hosmer Gallery in Northampton’s Forbes Library. She told me that to her, quilting fabric was an extremely feminine, maybe even the most feminine, medium. At her blog, Foster says, “The fabrics soothe me and they soothe [the figures]. They cover their nakedness, heal some wounds, give them back some dignity. The fabrics are thicker skin.”
Though her art openly reflects her childhood abuse, she seems intent on creating work that is not dependent on knowing its context. She has succeeded. The human form may be a timeworn subject, but Foster’s canvases—which consist only of monochrome backgrounds and patchwork-filled figures—are captivating.
The flattening of the figures through their uniform textures brings out the relationships between figure and ground, and it is in the overlapping of figures and the creation of interesting negative-ground shapes that she finds particular fascination. The figures, all of them self-portraits, are confidently rendered in bold lines. Some of them are amputated, and it is in such choices that Foster’s subject matter comes into clearest focus.
The interplay of the figures creates plenty of visual interest, but it’s deepened when you find out more of Foster’s story. She was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the current name for what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Foster explains that she first developed an “alter,” or additional personality, at eight years old. The condition continued until she was a teenager. She says that, as a teenager, she would adopt another personality before returning home, and spoke to her friends about being accompanied by another girl. The convergences and multiplicities played out by the figures on her canvases become frozen echoes of that past, pieces of which she still cannot remember.
“My alters showed me most of these images before I knew what had happened to me,” Foster says in her blog. “I painted them out of necessity. I created the things I needed out of my head without realizing why they were there.”
The creators of therapeutic artwork are, understandably, not always focused on formal concerns. That doesn’t lessen the importance or value of therapeutic art, but it can lessen its ability to function outside of that context, in the sometimes unforgiving environs of the fine art world. It takes an exceptional artist to combine therapy and art to such sturdy effect. Foster understood that: “I knew decoding my art may diminish it to some, but I decided to risk that.”
She also says, “My self-portraits are my bridge back to life. I have learned to live on those canvases so I can live beyond them, too.”
In Foster’s case, understanding that personal struggle brings emotional resonance to the work; it does not, as she feared it might, diminish it—her canvases are beautifully crafted, no matter their origin.