Thin red lines of glue reunite fractured pieces of a white 19th-century ironstone bowl. With the repair, the bowl is restored to its classic shape, but its story is more complex. The hand of the original maker and the bowl’s 1800s utility is there. The lost moment of its misfortune is evoked — did it fall, did something fall on it? The vein-like red lines have repaired it and also elevated it.
This repaired ironstone basin, is among the pieces in “Mending Fences: New Works by Carol MacDonald” at Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh. MacDonald’s artwork includes monotype prints, objects, and site-specific installations, all rooted in artifacts and archives of Rokeby’s collections. The exhibition considers simple and profound acts of repair.
In Rokeby’s contemporary art gallery and outdoors, “Mending Fences” accompanies the museum’s superb long-term exhibition, “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.” “Free and Safe” chronicles the stories of Simon and Jesse, fugitives from slavery, who found shelter at Rokeby in the 1830s. Also, it introduces the Quaker abolitionist Robinson family who made Rokeby their home from 1793 to 1961.
In considering repair of physical objects — a lace collar, wooden spoon, pottery — MacDonald’s artwork opens the larger picture of repairing breaks in society.
“Repair is a process that we are constantly engaged with on so many levels in our daily life. It permeates many of the decisions we make, how we live our lives, our interpersonal relationships with people, society and ecology,” MacDonald says in her essay, “One Small Act: A Reflection on Mending Fences,” in the exhibition catalogue.
“As I have engaged in this work of repair, I have gone beyond the actual objects and textiles I worked with to a much deeper inquiry into racism and social justice,” she notes.
A printmaker, teacher and community arts organizer, MacDonald , who lives in Colchester, addresses themes of human and environmental development, evolution, relationships and healing in her artwork.
This new body of her work grew out of her involvement with “Contemporary Art at Rokeby Museum,” a partnership between the museum and Kasini House, a contemporary art-focused creative production company. The Rokeby initiative engages artists and the public with the museum and its collections, connecting history and contemporary art to foster civic engagement.
Through the initiative, MacDonald and others had access to Rokeby collections. Already with an interest in contemporary repair culture and respect for repairing rather than discarding, MacDonald was drawn to Robinson family archives about repairing and fixing, and to broken objects and worn garments.
“Fixing or repairing is inherent to abolitionism, farming and homesteading as well as addressing contemporary issues of repair in today’s society. The (Rokeby) farm and homestead relied heavily on not only the making of tools, fences, clothing and household goods, but also the ability to repair them when they were broken, torn or worn out,” MacDonald says.
In a series of monoprints, MacDonald used historic garments from Rokeby — a child’s dress, a bonnet, a patched blouse — all historic pieces, but ones that could be de-accessioned. Although aged, the pieces available for her work did not have specific known history and are more emblematic of their period. MacDonald supplemented the collection with other vintage pieces.
Inking the surface of the textiles, highlighting details on some, she used the garments themselves for her monoprints. Some of the prints show repairs done ages ago. On others, MacDonald sewed patched and mending directly on the prints.
With several ceramic and glass pieces, MacDonald was inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi. In kintsugi, which dates back to the 15th century, repair of broken ceramics is done with a lacquer containing powdered gold. The gold repair is visible, bringing a new aesthetic to the break.
Outdoor installations include “Woven Fence.” With red twine, MacDonald has woven together rails of a zigzagged expanse of split rail fence.