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 THE LACE MAKER
By John H. MacGregor, Ph.D.


It is not unknown in the cultural history of mankind for works of art to be hailed as masterpieces in one century, be forgotten in another and, after the passage of time, be rediscovered and again celebrated, often for very different reasons. This also happens to artists who can know cycles of dazzling fame and total eclipse. An example is the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer of Delft (1632-75), whose painting "The Lace Maker" sank (along with the rest of his works) into relative obscurity, only to be unearthed in the nineteenth century, and hailed as one of the key masterpieces of the Louvre Museum in the twentieth. Could a similar situation arise in the all too brief history of Art Brut?

This essay presents a newly rediscovered Outsider masterpiece of the highest quality, a small piece of lace now housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. I say "rediscover" because this small lace piece enjoyed a moment of fame, and was then forgotten. This paper also attempts to return to the light of day a briefly celebrated and now forgotten artist/patient who we shall call "The Lace Maker." We also seek to recover a forgotten but important clinical contribution to the early history of psychoanalysis and psychotic art.

Despite the loss of almost all of the artistic productions of patients from early American psychiatric institutions, historically significant pieces do occasionally surface. In general these objects and images have been preserved, not as true works of art, but as evidence supportive of a clinical diagnosis or a psychiatric theory. All too often the identity of the artist has been concealed behind a pseudonym. In this case the invented name "Virginia Hall" was employed to protect the anonymity of a female patient at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington. Executed in the spring of 1917, the piece of lace created on a hospital ward is unique in that it was the first example of true Outsider Art in America to be studied in enormous detail, and from a psychoanalytic point of view. While not understood to be in the fullest sense a work of art, the piece of lace which this patient created was certainly seen as reflective of her deepest needs and desires.

In 1917 psychoanalysis was really just arriving in America. St. Elizabeths was one of its earliest strongholds. The Director of the Hospital during the early part of the twentieth century was Dr. William Alanson White (superintendent: 1903 -1937). Dr. White was one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis in America. He was also one of the first psychiatrists in America to systematically explore the use of psychoanalysis with psychotic patients. In 1913 he founded The Psychoanalytic Review, the first English language journal devoted to psychoanalysis. It was in this journal in 1918 that the lace piece was published.

But, not by Dr. White! It was a woman physician who took the art of a female patient seriously enough to investigate its meaning. The physician was Dr. Arrah B. Evarts, M.D. one of the first female psychiatrists on the staff at St. Elizabeths. Her study of the lace was entitled: "A Lace Creation Revealing an Incest Fantasy." (Amazingly, for 1918, two full pages were devoted to illustrating the lace, back and front.) Dr. Evarts' investigation was strongly influenced by psychoanalysis. This had both good and bad implications. Only the innovative atmosphere provided by psychoanalysis can account for her radical step in publishing an extended study of a work of art by a psychotic patient, which involved the uncensored depiction of the genitals of both sexes, and the open discussion of the incest fantasies of a woman. For the first time a physician paid serious attention to a patient's explanation of the meaning of her work. Her rich and detailed, if obscure, associations continue to intrigue us eighty years later. Abstracted from Dr. Evarts' analysis, it is these bits and pieces of verbal elaboration provided by the artist herself which can lead us into the web of lace, revealing the extraordinary depth of meaning embodied in this fragile structure.

Biography and Diagnosis:

The patient who I have come to call "The Lace Maker" was born in Virginia in 1863, the eighth child in a family of nine. Until recently, I hadn't succeeded in discovering who she was. Since this piece of lace is her sole claim to immortality it matters greatly that her real name be attached to it. Thanks to the detective work of William R. Creech, an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, we now know that her name was Adelaide V. Hall (Case number 19250). Sadly, her case file, and the photograph it probably contained, has been destroyed. Only the entry in the Hospital Admission Book survives. She is listed there as a dressmaker, single, and indigent.

Her mother, of whom she retained no memories, died of tuberculosis while Adelaide was still an infant. She could not remember there ever being a mother in the house, and could recall no one called Mrs. Hall. For some years an older sister took charge of the family, functioning as a substitute mother to the youngest siblings. Other sisters and brothers do not play a part in Adelaide's account of her early life, except for one brother who she said shared the bed with her father and herself.

It was Adelaide's father who was, and continued throughout her life to be, of central importance in her internal world. He was an alcoholic, mean and violent when drunk. One of her earliest memories concerns an incident when she wet the bed. Her father, "pulled her out of bed, removed her clothing, and beat her with a strap until the blood came." Adelaide continued to share his bed until the age of thirteen. Her eldest sister had meanwhile married and left to establish her own home. Adelaide, still a child, attempted to manage her father's household (or what was left of it), which was now located in a renovated barn. At the age of thirteen she was removed from her father's influence, and taken into her sister's home. She never saw her father again, though in later years she contributed to his support.

The Lace Maker is said to have been intelligent. She received a good "common-school education" and was then trained as a dress maker, a trade which she seems to have enjoyed and been unusually good at. She was now able to support herself and to live on her own. This independence may have been necessitated by the fact that Adelaide had fallen in love with her brother-in-law who she later insisted was, "the first man she had ever loved." She never married, but she became involved sexually with a series of men, functioning as mistress to three or four of them. One of her lovers infected her with syphilis. She was for a time addicted to morphine.

Adelaide Hall was thirty-eight at the time of her first stay at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. This is not the appropriate place for a detailed discussion of the psychological disturbance which led to her admission to this famous psychiatric institution on two occasions ñ in 1901 and again in 1910 -- after which she appears never to have left. The diagnosis on admission was "Melancholia ñ simple", the supposed cause "worry." Recent attempts by two of my psychiatric colleagues to evaluate the numerous symptoms described in the 1918 article have yielded a very tentative diagnosis of Bipolar Illness; specifically, a depressive psychosis with occasional hypomanic features (possibly complicated by symptoms of untreated syphilis). Deeply depressed and delusional, Adelaide described shadows of things flying past her. She "felt electricity" and thought "someone was doing tricks on her." Hallucinated, she complained of hearing the voice of her dead brother calling to her. At times she became profoundly withdrawn and totally uncommunicative; at other times she was wildly excited, violent, and destructive. She also had periods of more or less complete lucidity.

illustration by Donna Scorzelli Quist
illustration by Donna Scorzelli Quist

There is a tragic aspect to this case. Although the account of Adelaide's life makes it more than evident that she was sexually abused by her father (and perhaps by a brother as well), Dr. Evarts refused to acknowledge the fact of incest occurring. Instead she followed psychoanalytic dogma and dismissed Adelaide's experience as fantasy, "an incest fantasy." This despite the fact that Adelaide spoke of her father as "Mr. Hall," "Old Jim Hall, the man I used to live with who said he was my father," and "the first man I ever slept with." As an aspect of her mental confusion, all the men she had known tended to merge, resembling "Mr. Hall." They, and various other men around the hospital, "are all, always, and at all times, 'the old, old man down in Virginia.' "

She had no children. In the hospital she experienced fantasy pregnancies, making clothes for the baby she expected. At one point she made a doll and cared for it with intense pleasure. Then, in the spring of 1917, she began work on her autobiography in lace.

The Lace Web:

Let's follow Adelaide's story in the lace web. This is an enormously complex work, despite the fact that it is only the size of a pocket handkerchief. There are sixteen separate figures embedded in the lace matrix. There is nothing to suggest the piece has a top or bottom. Rather, it is as if the smaller figures and the larger couples have been caught, more or less randomly, in a web. Work began with the figures in the upper left quadrant, nine tiny beings scarcely an inch in height. They are all but lost in the wildly irregular lace. Yet, each was identified and explained by Adelaide. On some level they are the nine children in the Hall family, including Adelaide herself. They may also be her dream children. Some of her associations to these figures are derived from stories and nursery rhymes she would have known as a child.

Part of the wonder of this lace construction for us is the process of discovery involved in locating each figure. It is close to the exciting creative process Adelaide must have gone through as her fingers summoned them into being. No figure is fully formed. Several have arms and hands with long radiating fingers which stretch out to merge with the lace cells. Others have multiple legs. Even the sex is uncertain in some cases, with figures alternately interpreted as male and female. This image was identified as "Little Nannie Red Nose," and was said to illustrate a Mother Goose riddle: an obvious indication of hidden meaning.

"Little Nannie Red Nose,
The longer she stands
The shorter she grows."

One of the unusual features of Adelaide's male figures is a distinctive error in the form of the genitals. The testicles are placed above and to either side of the pendant penis. This arrangement is strikingly similar to the pattern she uses in shaping eyes and nose in the face. The riddle of the children's rhyme is solved by the equation red nose = penis. Later the figure, which wears a dress but possesses a penis, was identified as "Little Boy Blue." A tiny bit of needlework attached to the face was said by Adelaide to be a trumpet, or his horn.

The figures have more contemporary meanings as well. For example, Adelaide explained that the clear and emphatically male figure was Mr. Gibson one of her lovers (but that it also represented all the others). The needlework is microscopic; with the facial features distinct, the tiny genitals perfect and raised above the surface. The huge right hand, shaped like a clump of bananas, is significant, reflective of the traumatic sexual history of the little girl. Mr. Gibsons' radiating triangular headdress derives perhaps from Adelaide's hallucinatory experience rather than any perceptual oddities of his own.

Adelaide herself is present among the nine figures as, "The Woman Picking Up Apples." Her lap is full of apples, their forms echoing her prominent breasts. However, Dr. Evarts explained that, "Apples have a constant strong sexual significance to her, meaning the testicles." She refers to herself here as "The Woman," "This One Woman," "The Only Woman Who Ever Was," and, "The First Woman." Not surprisingly a very realistic snake travels across the lace, and over Mr. Gibson's arm, to whisper in Adelaide's ear.

Jack and Jill:

Sadly, we can't pause to consider the meanings associated with each figure or to explain how these beings fit into Adelaide's life. As the figures grow larger they now come in pairs. They embody surprisingly overt sexual symbolism, about which Adelaide spoke openly. Having gone up the hill Jack and Jill are involved in fetching water. The pail appears above Jack's head. The rim of a broken button provided the pulley, with the rope passing over it. Significantly, Jack and Jill both have a hand on the rope. The two figures are set in a bower of roses. Bees circulate among the flowers -- because they sting they possessed clear sexual meaning for Adelaide.

Technically the needle work is astonishing in its inventiveness. These figures are solid anatomical forms, executed in extraordinary three dimensional detail, and yet firmly embedded in the lace. The faces are tiny sculptural portraits. Jill is wearing a dress. Made of lace it is fully transparent revealing more than it conceals, including the perfectly rendered female genital. A real "femme fatale," Jill also sports an elaborate hat, high heeled shoes, and garters tied below the knee (An unusual outfit for fetching water). Jack the lad, more realistic, is naked except for matching garters. His hands too are huge, his genitals masterfully defined. On his thigh a bee has settled.

Mr. and Mrs. Hub Smith:

Clearly a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hub Smith stand arm in arm. We are provided with no explanation of who they are. Adelaide explained only that the bracelet on Mrs. Smith's left arm indicates that the bands have been read, and the couple have been joined in marriage. As a married woman Mrs. Smith modestly carries a fan arranged to cover her genital. The umbrella, above the couple, was said by Adelaide to be a sign that they are together under God's creation. Bees appear again, but this time her associations led in a different direction: "Oh Death, where is thy sting, Oh Grave, where is thy victory?"

The various techniques employed in the making of the larger figural groups seem to have evolved, with each pair somewhat differently constructed. Mr. and Mrs. Hub Smith are sculpturally far more solid than Jack and Jill. They are made from pieces of muslin, constructed like a rag doll stuffed with scraps, with the outer surface covered with parallel darning stitches.

 

Raw Vision Magazine #26SEE MORE TEXT AND IMAGES IN RAW VISION #26


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