“Aprons don’t hold us back, they take us back,” says EllynAnne Geisel. “As women, we wouldn’t be who we are without them, and we celebrate them by bringing them back in the sweetest way possible.”
Geisel brings aprons and their stories back in the traveling exhibit, “Apron Chronicles: A Patchwork of American Recollections,” which runs through April 5 at the West Baton Rouge Museum, marking its first stop in Louisiana. The stories are the first gathered by Geisel when embarking on her “Apron Memories” project in 2004.
“I had to stop at 46, because that’s where the money ran out,” says Geisel with a laugh, speaking from her Colorado home.
But the stories never ran out. Geisel continues collecting them, sharing many in the blog on her website, apronmemories.com.
In one story, a woman told of her grandmother’s apron.
“She said she wore the apron now, and each time she tugs the strings, she can feel her grandmother hugging her,” says Geisel, her voice cracking. “She brings her grandmother back each time she puts on the apron.”
Grandmothers are probably the dominate characters in the exhibit; moms coming in at a close second. But aprons aren’t just a “woman thing.”
Men are here, too, even a couple of cowboys, for aprons have a way of reaching past the kitchen and into the heart.
The apron has fallen out of favor through generational attitudes a time or two, but even those times are significant.
“When it was hated, everyone hated it,” Geisel says. “So, that’s the story of a generation.”
But even as women found their way out of the kitchen and into the workplace, they discovered the apron isn’t a symbol of oppression but of strong foundations connected by a clothesline of memories.
Curator Angelique Bergeron has strung a clothesline along the West Baton Rouge Gallery’s back wall, filling it with aprons from Geisel’s collection. Though the aprons aren’t those worn by people in the exhibit’sportraits shot by Kristina Loggia, they complement each other.
Geisel, who had been a full-time homemaker, decided to write about aprons after her youngest child went off to college. “I wanted to broaden my story search,” she says. “So, I filled a laundry basket with aprons that went with me everywhere I’d go. I’d put them in a little peach basket when I traveled by airplane, and it attracted so many people. Everyone knew what was in this basket, and everyone had a story that usually began with, ‘This apron reminds me of…’ or ‘My — blank — used to wear an apron like that.’”
Geisel also discovered that the storyteller would relax when coming into contact with the apron, allowing the stories to flow.
“Once those commonalities were spoken, they started telling me things that were flabbergasting,” she says. “I always felt that everyone is interesting, but we’ve just had the patience knocked out of us. These days, people are too busy tweeting to listen.”
But she listened to stories that included a 111-year-old mother and her only child, a Holocaust survivor, a biology professor from Mali, Africa, and a preteen and her grandmother.
“I never include in the stories where any of these people are living now,” Geisel says. “I do include the places they talk about in their memories, but I don’t want people to look at these stories with a preconceived notion like, ‘Oh, well, they live in this area of the country, that’s why this is important to them.’ It’s not like that. People everywhere have these kinds of stories.”
Bergeron has enhanced the exhibit with aprons loaned by the LSU Textile and Costume Museum.
West Baton Rouge Historical Association President Evva Wilson compiled an exhibit of historic photographs from the association’s collection showing a century of parish apron wearers, including homemakers, sugar mill workers, blacksmiths and laborers.
“She (Wilson) started the state 4-H ‘Sew With Cotton’ competition,” Bergerson says, “and she had a great time going through the aprons in this exhibit with me.”
Meanwhile, Geisel’s stories have been featured in national magazines and on NPR. She also blogs about the project for the Huffington Post and is working a new website.
“There was nothing I could find that tied women together from one generation to another like the apron,” she says. “The apron holds the spirit of the woman who wore it.”