When my mother died, she left me very few material things. A woman who’s mantra was “out with the old and in with the new” erased my past and discarded the talismans of my childhood in her attempt to be “modern”.
Shortly after her death I purchased a vintage alligator hand bag, in a local antique shop. It was identical to the one my mother carried when I was a child. Then, too young to have my own, I marveled at the mysteries of this grown up accessory and the contents hidden inside. Outwardly it was a symbol of all that she was, fashionable and chic. Inside was her own secret life.
I began to search for items which formed that internal secret life, a gold toned compact, a Revlon lipstick, a jeweled encrusted pillbox filled with tiny white tablets, a silk handkerchief embroidered with my mother’s initial, and a letter she always carried and which, later in my life, I imagined was from a secret lover. Along the way I came to understand the importance a handbag plays in a woman’s life. This simple act of creating a shrine to my mother, turned into a two year journey of discovery.
Through history, literature and films I saw how the handbag was something more than a fashion statement. The leader of the British feminist movement, Germaine Greer, proclaimed a woman’s bag to be the symbolic vessel of woman’s servile role. Later, the phrase, hand bagging, a term for bullying and political coercion, was coined in honor of Margaret Thatcher. Carl Jung described the purse as “the archetypal symbol for the fertile womb, the shape, the darkness, the secrecy…. all that is hidden away”.
I shared my revelations with friends and we exchanged tales of the men in our lives who approach our hand bags with fear and vulnerability. We told pocket book stories of the silly, strange and personal items we hide from view. We made not so subtle references to the emotional baggage we carry along with a purse and lovingly re- called our all time favorite bag, beaming as we do when we think of our first love.
As a mixed media assemblage artist, I am always searching for ways of interpreting subjects through my medium. No longer a photographer or a painter, I chose to create portraits of women as seen through a hand bag. These images provides the viewer with an opportunity to learn about the sitter, not in the usual way of studying the face, the surroundings, the dress or undress, but through a representational or fantasized hand bag.