top of page

Elizabeth Potenza

The Dress; Her Remnants Defy the Erasure of Time
2015, Cast Iron

An Interview with Artist Elizabeth Potenza
by Curator Kate McNamara
I first encountered Elizabeth Potenza and her work in an exhibition in Providence in 2018 or 2019 when I brought a curatorial class that I was teaching at the time to visit. Potenza had a range of work that stretched and shifted notions of the handmade in sturdy poetic sculptures, which collectively told stories that were both familiar and estranged. I remember my students’ excitement and desire to connect through physical engagement and a flurry of questions, which Potenza generously answered and expanded on. It has been a pleasure to revisit Potenza and speak with her about Her Remnants Defy the Erasure of Time, on the occasion of the sculpture’s installation at the Wedding Cake House, through the following conversation.  - Kate McNamara
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
KM: I love the direct connection that Her Remnants Defy the Erasure of Time has with the Wedding Cake House's previous tenants - a sister-run dressmaking atelier. I know that there was an archive of clothing found intact in the house, a lovely tie-in to the title of your work. Were you thinking of the Tirocchi sisters as you were conceiving of the sculpture? 
EP: The sculpture was made when I was living in Western New York State. It was part of a body of work in which I was exploring how evidence of identity can be preserved within the mundane objects we leave behind. So no, I wasn't aware of the Tirocchi sisters when the sculpture was made, but when I heard the history of the Wedding Cake House it was clear to me that this is where the sculpture belongs. 
KM: The sculpture is ghostly, yet feels like a familiar embodiment through pose, posture, and dress. Even without a head or hands, I can imagine the seated person. I am reminded of the artist Karon Davis' human-size plaster figures, which are both inhabited and vacant at the same time and draw on issues around history and race through familiar compositions and installations. The ecofeminist artist Faith Wilding's 1972 performance, Waiting, also comes to mind, in which the artist is seated on a chair reciting a monologue of her experience of being a woman at the time - waiting for life to begin, as she supports everyone else around her. How did you make decisions around the posing and orientation of the sculpture? Were there underlying concepts that led to the physical manifestation of this work? 

EP: The seated form of a woman on a night shift is indicative of a domestic space. When I originally showed this sculpture, she was seated on a hand-braided rug made from clothing remnants. In that setting the rug lent another clue linking her to the hand-work I was admiring in the dress itself. Whereas the braided rug couldn’t be presented with her in this outdoor setting, the physicality of the dress alone, its bodily form and embellishments are evidence of an often overlooked or under appreciated craftsperson- the centuries worth of women whose hand-work is anonymous and undervalued.  I felt that by solidifying the dress, altering its material, and halting the decay of time it could hold space for the presence of innumerable women who could have occupied its form.
Photo by Avery Shaw 2023
KM: To this point regarding invisible or overlooked “women’s work,” there is preserved visible labor that reaches beyond the physicality of the sculpture noted in the details of the dress. The lace collar folds around the neckline and moves down the chest; the sleeves ripple, and the hem puckers from the clear stitching. It is a familiar garment yet made timeless in this preserved embodiment. I wonder if you can talk about the process of selecting the dress. Was it something that you personally owned? Was it something you envisioned from the start of the project?

EP: I found this night shift in one of the numerous antique/junk shops that populated where I was living in rural western NY. These types of shops have always been places of research for me - they can give a unique window into how people lived and what was deemed important enough to care for and preserve. The objects I was resonating with could be categorized as obsolete domestic handcraft, the embroidered tea towel, the crocheted doily, handmade clothes & linens. I am humbled by the efforts invested into what might be called mundane objects; the hours upon hours spent personalizing and embellishing belongings that often were not seen or used outside of a domestic space. These handmade or hand-altered objects still contained the presence of their maker. The Dress was one of these 
objects, I appreciate the effort and skill that went into sewing it and I began to imagine its creator’s lived experiences. I wanted to celebrate the unknowable Her and create a monument open to visitation from the countless others who deserve recognition. 

KM: Relationships to craft in an expanded field are apparent throughout your work and practice. In your artist statement, you speak about the handmade as something that occupies a part of the maker long after the maker is gone. Are these visible and tactile histories important informants as you approach material and subject matter? How do you consider the notion of craft and the "handmade" as it relates to the understanding of your work?
EP: I am a glassmaker who moonlighted as an iron caster to make this work. As a glassmaker I am troublingly aware that so many of the objects I have made will vastly outlive me, occupying space on this overcrowded planet long after I've gone. The Dress was made at a time when I was questioning the markers of identity we leave behind and how long memories of us will be attached to the physical remnants of our lives. As someone who works with materials that decay on a timescale that is vast in comparison with a human life, I am aware of myself as a future anonymous maker; the labor of my hands will be left in my wake. Being selective about the objects I choose to make and doing my best to imbue them with my own practiced skill and craft lends me a certain sense of peace. In the case of The Dress I hope it shines some sort of light on the forgotten, honoring creators whose skilled hands I admire, but whose specific identity has been lost to time. 
KM: I really like this idea of Her Remnants Defy the Erasure of Time as bridging histories and memories, both yours and others, as well as lives left out of a dominant historical canon. Knowing that this work started at a different time and space and now resides in a new specific site and context, are there ways in which your perspective of the work has changed or shifted? Ways that you understand or see it differently?    
EP: The dress finding its home at the Wedding Cake House makes me reflect on the labor of the occupants. The story of the Tirocchi sisters is amazing, but I find myself being more curious about the women who worked for them. What did their lives look like when they went home at night? Their practiced skill can be seen in the garments they helped to produce but we can only know very little of who they were. I don’t only see the two sisters in the dress, I also see the women who labored here and whose skill was on display even if their identities were not.
Photo by Avery Shaw 2023
Elizabeth Potenza explores the power of objects as custodians of memory and emotion. Through an interdisciplinary mix of art, industry, science, and craft traditions she uses various material processes to create demarcations of a time, place or life. After earning a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in 2004, Elizabeth spent two years apprenticing with master
glassblowers Jan Erik Ritzman and Sven Åke Carlsson, in
Transjö, Sweden where she learned the traditional approach of Swedish glassblowing. In 2015, she received her MFA, from Alfred University. Currently she works at RISD as the Senior Academic Technologist for the Glass Department and is beginning her journey learning the craft of neon tube bending in her spare
The making of the dress

Kate McNamara is a curator, educator and author based in Providence, RI. She currently holds the position of Executive and Creative Director of My HomeCourt, a nonprofit arts organization working with contemporary artists to revitalize city parks. McNamara is also Interim Director at Providence College Galleries; an administrator at Interlace Grant Fund; and a Visiting Critic at Rhode Island School of Design and Sotheby’s Institute of Art.  McNamara recently founded and operates ODD-KIN, a project space in East Providence.
bottom of page