Interview with Alexandra Leigh Pearson
(left to right) Shirley 1930-40, Florence 1940-50, Helen 1950-60, 2013
Alexandra Leigh Pearson is an artist currently living and working in Memphis. She is a recent MFA graduate in ceramics and museum studies at the University of Memphis. Alexandra specializes in altered wheel thrown ceramic corsets.
To see her MFA thesis work, visit Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art. It is on display through June 28th, Monday-Friday, 9am-4 pm. The group show, entitled Hole, isn't one to be missed: there is also work by M. Foster, Jessica Lund and Christine Ruby.
(left to right) Georgiana 1790-1800, Elizabeth 1800-1830, Victoria 1830-1860,
Alice 1860-1880, Violet 1880-1890, 2013
Can you tell us a little bit about your current MFA thesis exhibition? What inspires your work?
Corsetry, like fashion in general, has evolved throughout the centuries. As styles changed, needs changed, and as the world changed, corsetry followed. My thesis body of work traces these changes from the corsets in the late 18th century that flattened stomachs, to the hourglass and restrictive whalebone and waists of the mid 19th century, to the straight, long and lean shapewear of the early 20th century, and finally to the decorative and non-functional corsets people wear today. Through this evolution, we can see that corsets were once used to shape the body into a more pleasing figure but have since become a fashion statement - sometimes used for seduction - rather than a functional undergarment. The display is reminiscent of an exhibit of costumes in a museum with texts used to educate the audience about each work.
(foreground to background) Louise 1920-30, Shirley, 1930-40, Florence 1940-50, 2013
Corsets. Made out of clay rather than fabric. Why?
I am a ceramic artist first and foremost. I love the feel of the clay in my hands, and I have always been intrigued by the physical and chemical processes that change soft dirt and minerals into something hard and colorful. Traditionally, we distinguish the different parts of a pot with anatomical terms: foot, lip, shoulder, etc. I feel that by making bodice forms of clay, I have found a new way to discuss the parts of traditional pottery as well as reference to figural ceramics (without actually making a human figure!). Much of my research informed my decisions on whether to add fabric to a particular object - each addition of lace or ribbon references what was popular at the time period of that corset.
The stands are an important part of the work. Can you tell us about them?
I never wanted these objects to be on white box pedestals. That type of display never made sense for my aesthetic or medium. Quite a few of the corsets don't have a flat bottom, so I had to make something that would hold them up. The dress stand was the obvious solution. It is aesthetically pleasing for the work and a common way to display clothing in a museum setting. Seamstresses also use them to hold garments in progress. I designed each stand to go with the particular corset it holds - from the material to the shape of the feet to the surface. In my opinion the stands make the work extraordinary.
(foreground to background) Madonna 1980-90, Barbarella 1960-80, Helen 1950-60, Florence 1940-50, 2013
The titles are great. Are they based on women's names popular in specific eras or are they inspired by women you know?
For the most part, the names were chosen from the US Census Bureau's list of most popular names of that particular decade(s). A few of them, however, were named more specifically. Florence was named after my grandmother, who was in the Women's Army Corps, Barbarella after the movie character, and Madonna - well, that one is obvious! Some of my earlier corsets were named after specific characters of people as well, but for the timeline, I thought it best to stick to names that would have been popular for that era.
I suspect that the concept of the corset (since it has been used to shape the female figure into a more pleasing shape, often for men) has raised questions about whether or not you consider this feminist art. Does this play into your work at all?
I don't consider this feminist art, but rather feminine art. I am not trying to comment on gender issues. What I am trying to showcase is how the ideal feminine figure changed throughout the last few centuries. This was partly due to men's desires, but a lot of other factors played a part: technology, propaganda, societal problems such as war, etc. The timeline aspect of the exhibit should emphasize these changes. Yes, even today it is ingrained in most women to put their assets on display to please men, but we are also pleasing ourselves and boosting our self confidence. At least I am. I love lacy things!
(left to right) Alice 1860-1880, Violet 1880-1890, Satine 1890-1900, 2013
Will you continue making corsets? What's next?
I would like to continue making these, but I have to change something about them to keep my interest. My first thought was to rearrange the timeline into pairs or groups and make conversations. What would Krystal say to Alice? What would Elizabeth think about Madonna's bra? I like to be funny whenever I get the chance. Another idea for a new series would be bodies based on important historical women or characters from popular stories. In my museum studies coursework I learned much about exhibits, interpretation and informal museum learning. I wanted to bring that to my thesis exhibition by displaying them as a museum exhibit and educating my audience about each object. At the moment I am applying for positions in museums or university galleries throughout the country where I can use all of my skills and my education. Check out www.alexandraleighpearson.com for updates!