Salvaged: The Stitched Narratives of Jennifer Regan

  • Salvaged: The Stitched Narratives of Jennifer Regan

Event Category: Exhibits

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  • The stitched narratives of Jennifer Regan explore the tension between life’s dualities–triumph and tragedy, mourning and celebration, death and rebirth–as a reminder that all these experiences can exist simultaneously throughout the feminine experience. For much of her early life, Jennifer Regan lived what many would consider to be the “American Dream.” Born and raised in Orchard Park, she graduated from Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1956. Regan returned to Buffalo, getting her master’s degree from the University at Buffalo in English literature.  In 1959, she married Edward (Ned) V. Regan, who later served as Erie County Executive and New York State Comptroller.

    As a highly regarded political family, the Regans were well-known throughout Western New York. In the 1970s, during Ned Regan’s tenure as County Executive, the pair was dubbed “Buffalo’s Kennedys.” [1]  In the 1960s, Jennifer Regan became well established as a writer in the Buffalo community; she published poetry in numerous journals, and reviewed books for the Buffalo News. In the late 1980s she conducted research for a book she authored entitled AMERICAN QUILTS: A Sample of Quilts and Their Stories,” published in 1989. The same year, she edited a book of short stories with her dear friend Miriam Dow, entitled Invisible Enemies.  Regan also worked actively with the Junior Group at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Despite seemingly having it all—three healthy children and comfortable wealth—Jennifer Regan was troubled about her life. Her poetry reflects anger; as was frequently the case with women of her generation, her needs were secondary to her husband’s career, and her writing expressed the torment.

    When she divorced in 1988, Regan’s conception of herself in the world dramatically changed. She struggled with the loss of her married life and wide array of emotions, and turned to art to exhaust her anguish. Regan wrote poetry to narrate womanhood within the contexts of patriarchal power. The weight of her loss and its aftermath eventually became too much to transcribe. Regan soon revisited quiltmaking, but threaded in poetry and symbolism to create “stitched narratives”–these artworks were made to be displayed on walls rather than beds.

    Regan immersed herself into the creation of work to unpack the many emotions she was feeling and retain what remained of her life.  “I was writing a book on quilts when my life as I had known it vanished. The metaphor of the quilt–salvaging bits and pieces to make something new, slashing, stitching–descended–I lived in the metaphor, and interests, images, feelings that in my former life had social outlets poured into my work.” [2]

    Initially, her stitched narratives were a security blanket for her to grieve the loss of her old life, express longstanding anger and resentment toward her husband, as well as come to grips with her new identity as a single, middle-aged woman. The act of creating stitched narratives provided her with a sense of refuge and focus as she rebuilt her life. In her untitled essay about The Garden of Marriage, Regan writes, “the salvage art that is quilting–using every bit and scrap you can lay your hands on to make something of beauty, something to warm the body, or the soul–has salvaged a life, or a marriage, and turned it into something true and permanent to delight the eye, to assimilate into the new life lived after the loss.” [3]

    Regan’s stitched narratives expanded beyond her personal emotional explorations to incorporate a broad multitude of influences and purposes. Her artworks intertwine the Italian Renaissance, Freudian psychology, social issues, pop culture, religion and poetry to explore her changing role in society. Many stitched narratives reveal Regan’s sense of humor through their playful imagery and language. When her artworks dealt with socio-political subject matter, she sometimes called her them “subversive stitchery.” She created many pieces depicting Boston, Massachusetts, and often paid homage to post-impressionists like Matisse, Rousseau, and Seurat. Throughout the vast majority of her artwork, Regan’s feminist perspectives shine through, especially in regard to narratives that focused on Genesis and depictions of ancient Greek vessels. She explored different compositional structures in her work, such as a series of Roman-inspired shrines, or utilizing Renaissance styles to depict contemporary subject matter. A prominent recurring motif in many of her works address concepts of home, and the loss of home.

    In total, Regan created over one hundred stitched narratives between 1989 and 2006, though the vast majority were created between 1989 and 2000. One of Regan’s earliest and most profound inspirations was the former slave and quilt maker Harriet Powers (1837-1911). Regan first saw Powers’ quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the late 1980s while working on her book, AMERICAN QUILTS. “I felt I had found my artistic mother. The total freedom of her imaginings, her love of animals, myths, especially the Creation, inspired me.”[4] Regan’s Harriet Powers Quilt illustrates how deeply Regan revered this quilt maker who incorporated storytelling and representational imagery into her quilts over a century earlier.

    Although she was not particularly religious, Regan focused on certain Biblical stories in some of her work. She identified heavily with both Eve and “Mrs. Noah,” and used their stories to comment on some of the frustrations during her marriage and after.  A recurring theme is the story of Adam and Eve which serves as a representation of her idealistic life before loss. Regan strongly identified with Eve. Following divorce, Regan posed the question, “what happens to Eve after she bites the apple?” She conceptualized her response in her The Triumph of Eve series“Impulsively, thinking wishfully (my way of thinking, since until recently I didn’t know much about reality), I conceived this series, The Triumph of Eve, in which Eve would eventually prevail and return to the garden alone and be okay.” [5]

    As is common in contemporary art, Regan utilized appropriation which was inspired by the Renaissance and other European periods. The referenced works include: ancient Greek vessels, Roman shrines, biblical Renaissance works, and post-impressionist masters. Regan turned to Renaissance and ancient Greek art historical resources, and readily duplicated works while imbuing them with her own contemporary meaning. Long Live the King, the King is Dead! mimics Italian Renaissance composition with pop-culture subject matter: Elvis ascends to Heaven above Graceland, where he is met by his mother Gladys (framed as the Madonna) and surrounded not by Italian putti, but Elvis impersonators with wings.  As with during the Renaissance, duplication journeyed to mastery.

    Regan’s understanding of suffering created by oppression expanded in the early 1990s. In two of her earliest works, Journey to Haiti and The Homeless Woman’s Quilt, she explores the plight of disenfranchised communities: Haitians during the 1991 coup d’etat, and homeless women living in New York City. In the Homeless Woman’s Quilt, Regan personally identifies with homeless women’s marginalization and loss, though Regan’s life experiences were vastly different. In her writings, Regan acknowledges: “identifying myself with these homeless women was shameful, like identifying with the women of Hiroshima, but I couldn’t help it. Each poem of theirs, written in a workshop with a poet who came to the hotel in New York where the women were staying, could have been my poem.”  Regan’s own grief seeps into the depictions of the disenfranchised—infusing, and sometimes altering, their experiences with her personal feelings.

    While Regan’s stitched narratives originated to cope with personal loss, over time they evolved to mean much more. Art allowed her to finally stand, unapologetically, salvaging the beauty of life and embracing pain. For many years, she felt that her needs and feelings were frivolous; that to be feminine was inferior. She rebelled with art to reject that notion, break the rules and bring those whose struggles she felt mirrored her own to the forefront.

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