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Ithaca College's Handwerker Gallery Exhibit Draws Deep Meaning from Old Tools

ITHACA, NY — “Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit,” an exhibition that demonstrates the profound meanings of tools from bygone times, will run from Jan. 24 to March 6 in Ithaca College’s Handwerker Gallery. The opening reception will take place in the gallery on Thursday, Jan. 27, from 5 to 7 p.m.

The Gallery will also hold a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 3. Speakers will include Jessica Dallow (the University of Alabama at Birmingham), Jeffreen Hayes (Ithaca College), and Rickie Solinger (Wakeup / Arts). An illustrated catalogue with an essay by Susan Strasser (University of Delaware) and an introduction by Solinger will accompany the show. All Handwerker Gallery events are free and open to the public.

Created by contemporary artists, each work in “Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit” has at its visible core a tool that was important for women’s domestic labor from the 18th century through World War II. Each tool becomes the fulcrum for a new work of art. Artists have placed objects such as a dressmaker’s figure, graters, pots, pans, baskets, hoes, dress patterns, rolling pins, buckets, darning eggs, rug-beaters and other tools at the center of their work. One piece will incorporate a 19th-century distaff, which was used to hold wool during spinning.

The approximately 35 pieces of art in this exhibit are on loan from artists that represent all geographic regions of the country. Betye Saar is lending one of her washboard pieces entitled “We Was Mostly ‘Bout Survival.” Saar’s works, which often start with the washboard and other domestic implements and tools, serve as vehicles or surfaces for representing and conjuring with the past — in this case, African American labor history. Saar is known for her multimedia collages, box assemblages, altars and installations consisting of found materials. In her work, she voices her political, racial, religious and gender concerns in an effort to “reach across the barriers of art and life, to bridge cultural diversities and forge new understandings.” Saar lives and works in Los Angeles.

Marie Watt, a Seneca artist from Portland, Oregon, works in pen and ink, printmaking, mixed media and installation art. Watt explores social and cultural histories found in everyday objects, such as reclaimed blankets. Three of Watt’s blanket-based works, including “Conversation: Plow” and “Blanket Column,” will be on exhibit.

Flo Oy Wong is contributing a piece constructed in part out of kitchen implements from her immigrant family’s Chinese restaurant, while Hudson Valley artist Judith Hoyt will lend two pieces, one of which is a figurative piece made from an old grater entitled “Grater Woman.” Among the other artists included in the show are Tom Cohen with “Battle Axe,” featuring the cartoon character Jiggs and the ubiquitous rolling pin; Tracy Krumm with “Yoke/Folded” and “Cavity/Strainer,” both crocheted metal pieces; Laura Splan showing “Doilies,” freestanding machine-embroidered lace mounted on cotton velvet; Dave Cole with an embellished found dressmaker’s figure entitled “Trophy Wife No. 3 of 8”; and Debra Priestley, whose “Matoon 8” uses painting, drawing and digital imagery of everyday objects to evoke personal memory and ancestral knowledge.

“Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit” is curated by Rickie Solinger, historian, curator and author. She is the award-winning author of books including “Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade” and “Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the U.S.” Solinger curates art exhibitions associated with the themes of her books, with the shows travelling to galleries around the country. Regarding “Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit,” Solinger states, “Part of the point of this exhibition is to explore the idea of ‘seeing as context.’ As I imagine the process here, I look at a tool that facilitated very hard and repetitive labor and that evokes women’s degradation as domestic drudges. I look again, through my early 21st-century eyes, at a moment when ‘old tools’ have become commodified and expensive, and I see costly beauty.”

The Handwerker Gallery is located in the Gannet Center at Ithaca College. Gallery hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and weekends, noon to 5 p.m. The Gallery is closed to the public on Tuesdays but can accommodate group or class visits by appointment.

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations should contact Erika Fowler-Decatur at (607) 274-3548. Please make requests for accommodations as far in advance as possible.

For more information, visit or call the Handwerker Gallery at (607) 274-3018. To schedule a group or class visit, contact Erika Fowler-Decatur at (607) 274-3548 or