Sara Friedlander’s American Women: Birds of im/Migration

Categories: Blog

Artist Sara Friedlander shares the inspiration behind her exhibition American Women: Birds of im/Migration

It all started with Ethel…

In the mid 70s, early in my flea-marketing days, I found a wonderful black and white photograph of a young woman, with the words “Ethel on her way home from school” scribbled in pencil on the back. I loved the strength of her gaze and imagined she was the teacher in a one- room schoolhouse, trekking home through the snow-clad terrain of New England, after a very long day. I continued weaving a story of how, upon emerging from the woods, she was met by an itinerant camera buff, who earned his living walking from town to town with his large format camera and tripod slung over his shoulder. In my story, he stopped her and inquired if he might take her photograph. As cold and as tired as she was, she agreed. Now I had this photograph and would cherish it and keep it tucked away in a safe place.

I started painting on photographs in 1998. My first series was titled, Chinese Women: Bound and Determined, based on photographs I’d taken in China in 1983 of women, most of whom had bound feet. There were 25 images in the series, created over several years. In the midst of that project, I couldn’t resist making a copy of my photo of Ethel and incorporating it into a mixed media piece. It has hung in my studio on its own, across the room from the Chinese women, for all these years. Over time, I collected other images of American women. Perhaps I was seeking out companions for Ethel. But the more photos I collected, the more I realized that these photos were providing me a window into of our collective history. Yet even after gathering a tall stack of these photographs, I remained unsure of what to do with them artistically.

Towards the end of 2014, in reaction to the heated debate fomenting around immigration reform here in America, I began thinking about these photographs again. I’d hear American leaders referring to immigrants as dangerous, unwanted and unwelcome, and this troubled me. Wasn’t America a melting pot of immigrants? Didn’t most American families get their start as immigrants? Hadn’t millions migrated throughout this country seeking a new home? Hadn’t my grandparents all immigrated to this country? Hadn’t I come to California from New England in my twenties? How easily we seem to have forgotten our own im/migrant roots?  What if I could use these photos to tell visual stories, as a way of reminding us what the journey might have been like and how much hope and hardship these women had expended. How much did I know and appreciate about my own grandmothers‘ stories? Maybe by learning and then retelling our own family stories, we could begin to empathize with those seeking refuge and a future in this country today.

I was fortunate that when I began to explore my own familial past, my mother, who had recently migrated to California at 90, from Providence, RI was able and willing to fill me in on my grandparents’ immigration tales. I was by this time, the keeper of the family photographs and because my maternal grandmother, Masha, wasn’t camera shy, I had many images to study, starting with the photo of her at fifteen in her handmade “arrival” outfit, taken shortly after her grueling journey alone in steerage from Petrikov, Belarus.

In that photo, I could see the fierce determination in her eyes, which reminded me of Ethel. Having never met Masha, I could, through these images, sense her warm-heartedness, her adventurous spirit and her creative flare – the inspiration I needed to begin the project. By January 2015, I had developed a three-sided format on which to present these extended narratives. Once the title came to me, American Women: Birds of im/Migration, I took my cues from the photographs and started researching and then creating the work.


View Sara Friedlander’s Exhibition in Filoli’s Visitor Center through November 10, 2019.

Register for Sara’s lecture on Thursday, June 13, 2019.