Alibi V.29 No.31 • July 30-Aug 5, 2020 

Arts Interview

What We Wear When We Protest

Ellen Lesperance on sweaters

Ellen Lesperance at the Tamarind Institute
Ellen Lesperance at the Tamarind Institute
Clarke Condé

Ellen Lesperance is a painter interested in the sweaters worn by the protesting women during the 19 years of an all-women anti-nuclear protest outside the gates of the Royal Airforce base Greenham Common in England throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Filled with symbolism developed within its own unique culture and the influence of concurrent social movements, the images of these sweaters have been taken by Lesperance and used as a pattern to create paintings that are themselves patterns to create sweaters. The result is work that is singular in this time of heightened tensions worldwide. She is in Albuquerque at Tamarind Institute this July to create new work based on this formula as the 2020 Frederick Hammersley Artist in Residence. Weekly Alibi sat down with Lesperance to talk about protests, knitting and the strength of sweaters. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: How do you describe your work?

Ellen Lesperance: Paintings. Definitely paintings. Everything that I paint is filtered through this knitting vocabulary. So, I don't usually get to paint things like accessories or badges or buttons. Usually, everything gets literally filtered into a grid in the paintings. Then the paintings are patterns. Somebody that knows how to knit could probably follow them to recreate the garment.

Do you consider the paintings final?

I consider them generative, honestly. In the past I used to knit almost all of them so that they were shown, and sometimes they still are, as a painting with the garment. So, maybe not final. Maybe as something that could create something different. The different thing that's created could then be worn and activated.

Where does the protest element come in?

It's the source image that is the inspiration for the patterning. They are protest sweaters. So even if you don't recognize a lot of the symbolism in them as being ideological, I'm trying to explain that they are.

Is it primarily the symbology that interests you?

It's primarily the knitwear that interests me. My interest is in elevating the actual knit creative direct action, or at least to just make it known and seen. In all the research that I've done for that protest movement [the Greenham Common protests], I've yet to find a single piece of knitwear. I'm interested in just celebrating it and pointing at it as genius and pointing it out as art.

You've yet to find any of these actual sweaters?

[The protesters] were totally harassed by cops. They were perpetually evicted by cops. They [the cops] would take all their belongings, put them in a pile and set them on fire. So, all this shit is just gone. Doing research, it seems as though they [the sweaters] were shared. Maybe communal property or maybe just shared property, or maybe if somebody knew that somebody was going to an event that they were going to wear it. I'm really interested in the life of those objects and how they point to various histories that people don't know about.

All from this one certain protest movement?

I know there are some that are really specific to Greenham Common, then a lot of them are more kind of specific to late second-wave feminism.

Sweaters are soft. Protests are hard.

Sweaters are very strong though. I have sweaters that my grandmother knit for my father and they're fine. They also have lanolin in them and they repel rain. They're great for living outside. So, they are soft in the sense that they have a conjuring of maybe some sort of matriarchal teaching or something and they're literally soft, but they're hardy.

Tell me about the sweater you created for courageous acts, “Congratulations and Celebrations.”

Your question about whether I think of the paintings as final is important for that piece. I was watching people buy my work, specifically buying the work that's paired with a sweater. My intention was that this sweater would get used, but people would just put in art storage. I was trying to figure out a way to actually get a sweater to live. This sweater is loaned out and it's been loaned out for five years now. Anybody that wants to wear it to prompt an act of courage, completely self-defined, can do that.

Where is the sweater now?

It’s in Baltimore. I ask them [the courageous people who get the sweater] to give me an image, and then it gets posted on Instagram. But most of the time, people really want to give me their story of wearing it, too. So, all of that lives on Instagram.

What made you choose Instagram?

It is totally open access. Anybody can DM me. Anybody can follow me.

Obviously, we're in an era now of heightened protests coming from the left and the right. Thoughts on the current times of leaf blowers, yellow vests and guns?

The optics of the Portland protests right now are pretty fascinating. The black bloc people wear all black, they wear combat boots, they wear black masks. In Portland, a lot of people are just improvisational at this point, with not a lot of money and not a lot of things open. So, people are wearing bike helmets and people are using umbrellas. I think the umbrella might have some symbolic longevity.

Certainly in Hong Kong.

People are using pool noodles in Portland.

What do they use the pool noodles for?

I guess to hit things without it being an act of force.

What happens when protest wear ends up as couture next year?

That's not my favorite thing.

It's bound to happen.

I think that there's a difference, which is again maybe why I'm so drawn to these hand-knit objects. I think there's a difference between things that are mass-produced and predefined. There's just the weirdness that a person comes up with and they're doing it on their own. It's a mix of symbols and a mix of colors they use. It's not symmetrical, there's different things going on in the front and the back. It's more human. It's not connected to capital at all.

Was there a code between individual members of a protest movement to identify each other, or were the symbols used to speak to a larger audience?

There are symbols that are being repeatedly used that I don't think you would know, but somebody who was lesbian in 1983 would surely know. There's definitely communication and then there is a way to prompt coverage.

Find Ellen Lesperance on Instagram @congratulationsandcelebrations
and learn more about her work at Tamarind Institute at tamarind.unm.edu