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Civil War Cartoon from Harper’s Weekly (Source: Annelise Tarnowski )
The Anderson Gallery currently hosts a collection of Harper’s Weekly political cartoons. A history class curated the collection, and to my understanding, this class was supposed to find common themes throughout the ages in American history, and tie them all back to the issues from the Civil War era and their respective cartoons.
The environment of the exhibit feels solemn at first; the Civil War isn’t a proud moment for America. Upon approaching the first illustrations, though, it’s obvious that the content of the exhibit will be heavy, but digestible.
The gallery begins on one wall and wraps around the outside with a timeline from start to finish of the Civil War. In the back you can find the most unique part of this collection: an art class was paired with the history class. The students in the art class each had to create their own representations of one of the themes represented in the smaller collections of Harper’s Weekly cartoons.
I spoke with artist Riley Brady about her piece titled “What They Say of Us.” The piece was inspired by a cartoon from one of the collections. It showed one army from the war as they were perceived from the outside, in contrast with how they felt on the inside. On the outside, they seemed calm and collected, but internally, they were a mess. Another piece in that same collection outlined slavery in the north, showing an unhappy white maid in a white family, as compared to slavery in the south, showing a jovial black slave in a white household. The third and final piece of the collection was yet again two representations of one issue. This time, the Holocaust.
When I first approached Brady’s piece, I felt calm. It looked familiar. She cross-stitched the words “What They Say of Us” in calligraphic letters on paper. Instinctively, I wasn’t hit with an understanding of some dichotomy that it may have represented. I felt a kind of familiarity with the stitch-work, though. It reminded me of something that may be hung on the wall or stitched into a pillow that says “Home Sweet Home” and other ordinary phrases. These are the kinds of items that might sit on a couch in a living room for so many years that they eventually go unnoticed.
Riley Brady’s “What They Say of Us” (Source: Annelise Tarnowski )
Brady’s interpretation helped me understand what I couldn’t see (a goal that art often strives to reach). She explained that the collection that inspired her work was all about the contrast between perception and reality. In speaking with the curating (history) class, she found that quite often, women were pigeonholed into being a woman who cooks, cleans, takes care of children, and sews. She reflected on her family, her grandmother, and her mother, realizing that these women didn’t fit into one collective role, and that women as a whole don’t either.
Brady’s piece reflects the way that women were remembered in history—as they say we are. When asked why she didn’t also stitch what women are, she explained that that is an unanswerable question at the moment—and potentially forever. Instead, she left the question open, and allows for women to define themselves. Individually.
Annelise is studying radio and television producing alongside sociology at Drake University. She enjoys a good documentary and a hot cup of tea. Often found attending concerts or shows, she also enjoys the outdoors and biking anywhere her hand-me-down Schwinn will take her. A Minnesota native, she currently lives in Des Moines. Find her at annelisetarnowski.com.