MFA Exhibition Explores, Preserves Women’s History

Sarah Dittmann, Mrs. William Dittmann, 2021, quilted material, cyanotype, embroidery, screenprint, beads, 3 feet x 3 feet.

The University of Alabama department of art and art history is proud to present the Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibition of Sarah Dittmann, Stitched Together, March 6-27, 2021, at Aaron Sanders Head Studio, 1310 Main Street, Greensboro, Alabama. A reception for the artist will be held Saturday, March 6 from 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. The studio will be open for visitors every Saturday in March from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

View a selection of Sarah Dittmann’s work here.

Sarah Dittmann, a graduate student in printmaking, will exhibit a body of work that combines her family research and the traditional sewing arts of her female ancestors. The central piece of the show of nine quilts – a 10 x 10-foot diamond-shaped quilt – is made up of many cyanotype photos of Dittmann’s female ancestors, along with her own photo on fabric. The portraits together make up the shape of the Czech symbol for “ancestor.” The purpose of this work, she said, is “to have a personal conversation about the effect of the patriarchy on the family history.”

Some of that conversation has taken place between the artist and her living female relatives. The stories of women in her family have often been lost. Because Dittmann never knew her grandparents, she began her research, she writes, by “piecing together a picture in my mind of all the generations that came before me,” by doing online genealogy research and by going through “the physical letters and objects from these ancestors” to begin to form an idea in her mind of who these people, particularly women, were. Dittmann also interviewed her living female relatives who remembered her grandparents and older relatives. Family memorabilia, which she incorporated into her pieces, also played a part in opening up the past for Dittmann’s interview subjects. “In most of the interviews, we are either looking at family photos or some other form of family memorabilia, whether that be letters, recipes, or hand-me-downs. I have taken the things that have been remembered, whether good or bad, to try and round out the lives of the women with the information I already had through family document research. These interviews are crucial to creating the final concepts for my individual quilts because without them I have no personal memories to draw from of the people I am portraying.”

Lack of her own memories was not Dittmann’s only barrier – and not the only barrier created by the patriarchy for many family history researchers. Women in history have often been considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands. They might be known only by their married names, so tracing back maternal ancestors often depends on more than just official documentation. “I found that when you are trying to find information on the women in the family, it was much harder, if not impossible to do,” she explained. “Who [a woman was] before marriage was completely blotted out of existence from any kind of record, and replaced with the patriarchal married last name,” even to this day, Dittmann said. Among those “egregious erasures,” Dittmann discovered, was her great-great-grandmother Rose Theresa Petska Kokeš. “When she died of a lightning strike,” Dittmann said, “none of the newspapers even mentioned her by her name. She was stated as being Mrs. John Kokeš. This erasure is why I have decided to create a body of work that retells the lives of the women portrayed. This is my way of honoring them and understanding that the past makes up the present,” she explained, “and that to know yourself you have to know your past and where you come from.”

The Aaron Sanders Head Studio, located at 1310 Main Street, Greensboro, Alabama, is open every Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. All visitors to the studio gallery must wear masks.

For more information about the programs in the UA Department of Art and Art History, go to this page or contact the department at (205) 348-5967.