An ode to domestic art, from ball gowns to birthday cakes

(Sólveig Eva Magnúsdóttir/For the Washington Post)

Last month, I wrote a comic about the invisible artistry of women inspired by a conversation I had with my grandmother.

While praising my artistic talent, my grandmother dismissed her own creative accomplishments. When I protested, pointing to all of her beautiful creations around us – including the very chair she was sitting on, her expression of genuine surprise stuck with me.

At the time, we laughed together, but his inability to see his own artistry haunted me and eventually led to the creation of my comic strip. I wanted to know: How could this prolific 83-year-old never consider her designs in terms of artistry? How many other female artists were hiding in plain sight?

It’s time to enjoy home art like sewing and baking

As she read the script for the comic to my mother, she let out a deep sincere sigh. His father had always been the one recognized as an artist, while his mother was skilled in domestic art forms but invisible in comparison. The next thing I knew was that we were rummaging through the storage alongside my aunts and cousins, looking for the treasures of our ancestors.

Together we admired the many treasures discovered, including embroidery, bone and wood carvings, porcelain painted cups, knitwear, upholstery and tapestries from grandmothers Hjördís, Unnur, Ingveldur, Ingibjörg , Margret and Magga. Our conversation had given us the opportunity to respect these women and see their art in a new setting, and the opportunity for me to incorporate their art into this ten-panel story.

I’m so touched by all the stories that have been shared in response to the comic. They brought tears to my eyes and warmed my heart more than I can express. When I called to tell my grandma about all the feedback she had received, she laughed, asked me to repeat it in disbelief, and said the whole thing was “so much fun.”

I hope we can raise the next generation of women to be confident and accept both their failures and their imperfections. I hope they will be as talented as our ancestors, but not afraid to celebrate their accomplishments. I hope over a cup of coffee years from now they’ll be laughing and saying to their granddaughters, “I’m so glad you inherited my artistry.”

To honor their work, we asked a few to tell us about the talented artists in their family.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity

My mom has been creating beautiful scrapbooks and personalized cards for as long as I can remember. Because I took painting and drawing lessons when I was a child, she told me that I had inherited her uncle’s artistic skills, ignoring hers. But I was always surrounded by her cross stitches, card marks and personalized stationery. It always made me sad that she didn’t see the immense value in her art.

Makenna Sidle, 28, Pasadena, Calif.

Growing up, I remember watching my grandmother paint ceramic figurines for Nativity scenes, sew clothes, and make jewelry. My mother also told me that she was into photography and was very good at applying makeup, often using my aunt as a model. “Tata” is now 93 and doesn’t do these things anymore, but not too long ago she passed on another creative trait to me; knitting. She taught me how to purl and knit, the two stitches you need to do almost anything. I became obsessed, kept learning, and opened an online store that helped me earn money while in college. I even used these skills for soft sculpts for my concept art classes. I am “the artist of the family”, and even if for some it is a mystery where I got that, it is clearer every day.

—Katty Huertas, 29, DC

Costumes, cakes and ball gowns

If we could dream it, Mom could do it: custom-sculpted birthday cakes in bikes, trains, animals. Costumes to transform me into a vampire bat with outstretched wings, a king cobra, Papa Smurf. Sheer prom dresses than anything we could afford in a store. She scolded me for trying to trash my dusty, sun-bleached childhood artwork. She salvaged the dome from an Easter eggshell with my pencil portrait of Princess Jasmine. During this time, she spent decades playing fairy godmother, producing ephemeral masterpieces knowing they would only be displayed until midnight struck or the candles were snuffed out.

— Karla Miller, 50, DC

Quilts, afghans and embroideries

I love going to my great-aunt’s house, which is more like a museum. The entire house is filled with beautiful, intricate quilts, afghans, and embroidery, and every handmade Christmas party decoration litters the hallways. I sometimes show him my art — my drawings, my paintings, my sculpture. She doesn’t know where I got her from. She says she has never done anything artistic in her life. But as I sit here, wrapped in a one-of-a-kind quilt she made for my birthday, and stare at the detailed embroidered map of my hometown that adorns my wall, I know this isn’t the case.

Apollyon Rott, 17, Lynchburg, Virginia.

My late mother-in-law was an amazing textile artist, although she downplayed it as “just a hobby”. I spent so much time pointing out that the things she was doing were, in fact, exhibit-worthy art. As a mother of two boys who had no interest in textiles, I don’t think anyone else had told her how important her art was. She taught many people how to sew and helped me decorate my wedding dress with quotes from my favorite books. Today, our house is full of the beautiful things she has done.

— Daisy Black, 37, Sheffield, England

Cakes, costumes, quilts and more

“You’re the artist of the family,” my mother said, “I don’t know where you got it.” I look at the matriarchy behind her; my grandmother, her five daughters, my countless cousins, my own sister. I see a quilt for every birth and wedding, a cake baked by my aunt for every wedding. The crib my cousin made for my daughter topped with a blanket crocheted by her sister, hand-sewn Halloween costumes and a box of Christmas balls for each grandchild. My grandmother’s poems, my sister embroidering her own wedding trousseau… but I’m the family artist. I wonder where I got it?

—Megan Kearney, 36, Toronto


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