Elaine Luther’s new art exhibit began with doll house bathtubs, the kind with tiny little claw feet. The Forest Park artist and jeweler began to collect them and cover them in silver plate after she saw a photo of a front-yard religious grotto in a folk art book.
“It was a shrine to the Virgin Mary with an actual bathtub, up-ended and partly buried in the ground as her niche,” she said.
The photo reminded her of roadside shrines she saw as a child in Germany, said Luther, who creates art assemblages from tiny found objects, which she often transforms by covering them with precious metals.
Seven of Luther’s assemblages are displayed for Women’s History Month at the Chicago Public Library Englewood branch.
Winston Churchill purportedly said, “History is written by the victors.” Much of women’s history throughout the ages has been tied up with housework, cooking and caring for children. Luther’s pieces poke fun at American women’s self-pity for having to do housework; at the same time they make noble the endless tasks of women.
The pieces follow a theme/pun: Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, one of the Catholic “names of Mary” and also the name of a parish in Chicago, Luther said. She created them over a period of years to represent the never-ending and unpaid work of mothers. She herself is a stay-at-home mother and home-schools her three children in Forest Park.
“There was this period of time when my husband had a three-hour commute — each way — for two years. More of the dishes and laundry fell to me than ever had before,” she said. At the time her youngest was 3 years old.
“I made Our Lady of Perpetual Dishes, which is my sincere plea for help, a true expression of how overwhelmed I felt by all the dishes.”
She enjoys having people smile at the statues as they pass them in the glass case near the library’s front door.
“Oh! It’s all the stuff moms do,” she overheard one patron saying.
Our Lady of Perpetual Housework shows a figure perched on an old fashioned shirt-sleeve ironing board.
“There’s a skeleton on the bottom level because it never stops till you die,” said Luther, who haunts garage sales and thrift shops seeking interesting tiny pieces that can go into her work. “Sometimes I hold onto something for years before I know where it goes,” she said.
Our Lady of Perpetual Homework is decorated with dozens of chewed stubby pencils and surrounded by tiny books. The saintly figure stands in front of a calculator and a tiny computer. Our Lady of Perpetual Laundry is perched on a detergent tub. There are also figures for driving, and cooking.
Luther said she kept making figures in the Our Lady series and finally realized she was on a roll. “I take a thing that’s already kind of out there, and make my own message with it. So it’s something you sort of recognize, but yet something unexpected,” she said.
“You do seven of them, then you look at them and say, ‘I guess that’s what I was doing.'”
Since some of her other work tackles serious themes such as death, she’s glad people smile and laugh at these pieces. Her youngest child, age 5, was intrigued by the tiny dollhouse brooms and mops and wanted to play with them before they were glued down.
“I had to get her some of her own,” Luther said.
She also taught her children to help with the perpetual dishes by rearranging her kitchen so the plates are in low cabinets.
“Now even the littlest kids can help me put the dishes away,” she said.
Luther has had to be flexible in her roles as mother and home-school curriculum expert. Trained as a jeweler, she often works with blowtorches and a 20-ton hydraulic press, which she keeps in a studio in her home. She sells her jewelry at the Illinois Artisan Shop at the Thompson Center and at the Women Made Gallery in Chicago and, of course, at her own Etsy shop (online). She also helps artists use blogs and other Internet tools to market their work. She’ll be speaking at the upcoming Self-Employment in the Arts Conference in Lisle and mentors college students who want to become professional artists.
Luther was raised Protestant, but her husband and children are Catholics. She said she is careful not to use genuine religious artifacts in her work, but playful parody, gothic-looking “saints” she buys at Pumpkin Moon in Oak Park and then covers with silver plate.
“Taking a common object, like the baby shower decoration plastic baby and casting it in silver transforms your experience of it,” Luther said.
“The overall message of these transformations is that women’s daily lives, domestic work, has value,” Luther said. “My life,” she added.