‘All Dressed Up – Some Place To Go’
September 19, 2014 - Laura Beresford
The First Family at the American Museum
President Obama may not officially have visited Bath during his recent visit to Britain but, thanks to textile artist Ann Tevepaugh Mitchell, the First Family of the United States has none the less made an appearance at the American Museum.
For the remainder of the 2014 season, Mitchell’s soft-sculpted portraits of Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, will be on display in our American Heritage Galleries. When these exhibition areas opened in 2007 after extensive HLF-funded redevelopment, there was no indication that America was soon to elect its first African-American President. A significant chapter was therefore missing from the exhibition narrative in our American Heritage Galleries. Mitchell’s wonderful figures rectify this omission. Along with our popular 2014 Kaffe Fassett exhibition, they also help us celebrate decorative textile traditions.
The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States took place on January 20, 2009. In his victory speech on 4 November the preceding year, the President-elect echoed Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ and key speeches of Martin Luther King to show how America was a country capable of great change: ‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.’
This figure group… pays homage to the 44th President on his Inauguration Day in 2009. Using live media images of the Inauguration Day coverage (and, later, published photos) for inspiration, I constructed and dressed each figure improvisationally. I sought to capture the actual appearance of the family during the parade and swearing-in, and emphasized certain details of the day captured on camera. For example, the ‘thumbs-up’ sign Sasha exchanged with her father, and the camera held by Malia.
Each outer coat is removable. Barack’s topcoat is lined in a composite cloth of red, white and blue strips joined vertically. The lining, in turn, has been embroidered horizontally with the text of the Oath of Office spoken by the President on the steps of the US Capitol.
Each face was a fresh experiment in modelling with a needle and thread. For Barack, I modelled the face from one piece of knitted chenille. For Malia and Sasha, I cut the shapes of the facial planes out of felt, stitched them into rough faces, modelled them with stitches from the inside, covered them with sheer nylon, modelled them again from the outside and finally embellished them with embroidery and beadwork.
Treatment of the hair was similarly improvisational. Barack’s hair was appliquéd with simple bead embroidery: beads stitched in irregular ‘right angle weave’ pattern were sewn directly onto the chenille fabric of the head. Michelle’s hair was constructed using a base of boiled wool ‘fringe’ tubing, which I embellished with beads representing highlights and shadows. For Malia’s and Sasha’s hair, I built up the hair mass sewing single beads together in a random pattern of ‘peyote’ or ‘gourd’ stitch.
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