Gender, power and craft in Kirstin Lamb’s painted “embroideries”
As a dual psychology and studio art major, psychological concepts and theories I confront in my classes often mysteriously work their way into my everyday life, and can be applied to many encounters I have with both people and works of art. Providence-based artist Kirstin Lamb created beautifully-intricate pieces that she refers to as “embroidery paintings” and a group of them have been presented in the current PC—G exhibition, Classic Beauty: 21st Century Artists on Ancient [Greek] Form. Lamb participated at a Mini Symposium event held on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening, during which she spoke about the breadth of her practice and the various themes that both influence, and are present in her work. One reoccurring theme Lamb discussed – and that resonated with me most – dealt with women and gender roles. Specifically, Lamb spoke about how the craft of creating embroideries historically was a predominantly female duty where women were only allowed to make pieces within confined boundaries. She discussed how her work and its process shows admiration for the craft as well as inquiry toward the gendered tradition. For me, Kirstin Lamb’s work within the Classic Beauty series seems to address principles and concepts within the discipline of gender in psychology.
In psychology, Eagly’s social role theory of gender asserts that physical differences between men and women are causative factor in the development of gender roles. This theory suggests that individuals and society as a whole inadvertently pick up on physical differences between men and women, and base their behaviors and actions on associations with these physical variances. Similarly, gender culture is defined as society’s understanding of what is possible, proper, and perverse in gender-linked behavior. More generally speaking, although there are far more similarities than differences between gender in terms of cognitive ability like intelligence, ability to learn, and problem-solving, fixed gender-role stereotypes can perpetuate the idea that men and women have different capabilities that require them to take on distinct roles in society. Thus, for the historical craft of creating embroideries, it becomes understandable that women were pushed by society to be the central producers when applying ideas pertaining to the social role theory and gender culture. Although scientific evidence debunks the idea that men and women are naturally very different, gender-role stereotypes likely contributed to the clearly-defined roles and guidelines set for women in history.
Kirstin Lamb’s work in the Classic Beauty exhibition thus seems to address these concepts and question the gender-role stereotype. Her pieces in the series mimic the intricacy and labor-intensive nature of creating embroideries, but the very fact that she takes on the conceptions and ways of thinking about embroidery as a woman serves as a commentary on both the historical craft and the history of painting. Kirstin Lamb’s practice also addresses the history of gender roles through their content. The group of pieces are drawn from wallpaper designs from the French neo-Classical era, a period where the furnishing of one’s home could become an exercise in displaying its owner’s power and stature. By adopting these motifs and laying claim to them through her laborious painting techniques, Lamb positions her work amid a number of concerns; the gendered history of painting, restrictions on what content were socially-acceptable activities for women and more broadly, the contemporary ideas of gender roles that continue to endure.