Thursday, August 23, 2007

Virginia Maksymowicz at Powell House

Virginia Maksymowicz
Rules of Civility

September 14-October 21, 2007
Opening reception: Sept. 14, 5-8pm
Powel House Museum
244 S. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA
Pay-what-you-wish admission
Thurs-Fri, 12-5pm,Sun 1-5pm

Rules of Civility is a mixed-media installation that draws its inspiration from two Eliza's: Elizabeth Willing Powel and Eliza Leslie. Besides sharing similar first names, the women were roughly contemporaries, their lives having overlapped by 43 years. They both lived in Philadelphia. And they were both, very much, ladies of their time.

Elizabeth Willing (1743-1830) was the wife of one of Philadelphia's mayors, Samuel Powel, and the house they shared on 3rd Street was often visited by George and Martha Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. She was a prolific letter-writer and many of her personal papers are archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and at the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in Virginia. Although credited with convincing Washington to serve a second term as president, much of her correspondence as seen by Maksymowicz deals with the day-to-day minutia of turn-of-the-century life. Her husband died of yellow fever in 1793, and Elizabeth spent her remaining 36 years as a widow.

Eliza Leslie (1787-1858) was born in Philadelphia and spent her childhood in London. Her father, Robert, was a clockmaker and a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin. The family returned to America when Eliza was twelve. Even at that early age, she loved to write but despaired at ever becoming a published author. When her father died in 1803, financial hardship caused her mother to take in boarders. Eliza went to cooking school, possibly to help with the family's new business. These studies led her to the publish a cookbook, followed by a series of children's books, magazine articles and etiquette guides. She eventually became somewhat of a celebrity and she received many distinguished visitors at her residence at the United States Hotel.

The Powel House installation consists of a series of open books, cast in white Hydrostone plaster, overlaid with quotations from Eliza Leslie's The Behaviour Book and Elizabeth Powel's own words. Images of Elizabeth, chosen from the numerous portraits painted of her during her lifetime, peer out from underneath the texts. The books, along with pairs of 18-century shoes, quill pens and inkwells also cast in Hydrostone are positioned within the various rooms of the historic house, along with items selected from the collection. Throughout the installation, a soft female voice can be heard detailing the etiquette of middle-class society. The title, Rules of Civility, is taken from Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior, a pamphlet of good manners written by George Washington himself.

Exhibition made possible with support from Franklin & Marshall College and the Vermont Studio Center.
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