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

Perspective by

September 16, 2022 at 4:45 p.m. EDT

(Sólveig Eva Magnúsdóttir/For The Washington Post)

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

While praising my artistry, my grandma dismissed her own creative accomplishments. When I protested, pointing out all her beautiful creations surrounding us — including the very chair she was sitting on, her expression of genuine surprise stuck with me.

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

It’s time to appreciate domestic artistry like sewing and baking

Upon reading the comic script to my mom, she made a deep, heartfelt sigh. Her father had always been the one recognized as an artist, while her mother was skilled in domestic artforms but unseen in comparison. Next thing I knew, we were rummaging through storage alongside my aunts and cousins, hunting for treasures from our foremothers.

Together we admired the many uncovered treasures, including embroidery, bone and wood carvings, porcelain painted cups, knitting, upholstery and tapestries by grandmas Hjördís, Unnur, Ingveldur, Ingibjörg, Margrét and Magga. Our conversation had given us an opportunity to respect these women and view their art with a new framework, and an opportunity for me to weave their art into this ten-panel story.

I’m so touched by all the stories that have been shared as a response to the comic. They’ve 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’d received, she laughed, asked me to repeat it in disbelief and said this whole venture was “so much fun.”

I hope we can raise the next generation of women to be confident and accepting of both their failures and imperfections. I hope they will be just as talented as our foremothers, but unafraid to celebrate their accomplishments. I hope during a cup of coffee, years from now, they will laugh and tell their granddaughters: “I’m so happy you inherited my artistry.”

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

Responses have been edited for length and clarity

My mom has created gorgeous scrapbooks and custom cards for as long as I can remember. Because I took painting and drawing classes as a kid, she told me that I’d inherited her uncle’s artistic skill — ignoring her own. But I was always surrounded by her cross-stitching, cardmarking and custom 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 seeing my grandma painting ceramic figurines for Nativity scenes, sewing clothes and making jewelry. My mom also tells me she used to dabble in photography and that she was very good at applying makeup, often using my aunt as a model. “Tata” is now 93 and no longer does those things, but not that long ago, she passed down another creative trait to me; knitting. She taught me to purl and knit, the two stitches you need to make almost anything. I became obsessed, continued learning and opened an online store that helped me make money through college. I even used those skills for soft sculptures for my conceptual art classes. I’m “the artist of the family,” and while for some it’s a mystery where I got that from to me it’s clearer every day.

— Katty Huertas, 29, D.C.

Costumes, cakes and prom gowns

If we could dream it, mom could make it: Birthday cakes custom-carved into bicycles, trains, animals. Costumes to turn me into a spread-winged vampire bat, a king cobra, Papa Smurf. Prom gowns finer than anything we could afford from a store. She scolded me for trying to trash my dusty, sun-bleached childhood artworks. She salvaged the dome of an Easter egg shell with my crayon portrait of Princess Jasmine. Meanwhile, she’s spent decades playing fairy godmother, producing ephemeral masterpieces knowing they’d be displayed only until midnight tolled or the candles were blown out.

— Karla Miller, 50, D.C.

Quilts, afghans, and embroidery

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 Christmas festive handmade decorations litter the halls. I show her my art sometimes — my drawings, my paintings, my sculpture. She doesn’t know where I get it from. She says she’s 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 look at the detailed embroidered map of my hometown adorning my wall, I know that isn’t the case.

— Apollyon Rott, 17, Lynchburg, Va.

My late mother-in-law was an amazing textile artist, though she downplayed it as “just a hobby.” I spent so much time stressing that the things she made were, in fact, art worthy of an exhibition. As the mum of two boys who were not interested in textiles, I don’t think anyone else had told her what a big deal her art was. She taught lots of people 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 made.

— Daisy Black, 37, Sheffield, England

Cakes, costumes, quilts and more

“You’re the artist in the family,” my mother says, “I don’t know where you get 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 marriage, 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, Halloween costumes sewn by hand and a box of Christmas ornaments for each grandchild. My grandmother’s poems, my sister embroidering her own wedding trousseau… but I’m the artist in the family. I wonder where I got it?

— Megan Kearney, 36, Toronto