Personal Effects

Emily Pfotenhauer documents pieces of the state's past

Emily Pfotenhauer has always been interested in the past, but not just in the characters and events that dominate history books. Rather, she turns her attention to the items people make—ceramics, textiles, furniture and handicrafts.

“The fact that they play a role in people’s everyday lives—they’re not a painting hanging on a wall—makes them more personal,” she says.

After earning her master’s degree in UW–Madison’s material culture program, Pfotenhauer began coordinating the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She’s also an outreach specialist for Wisconsin Heritage Online. In both roles she digitizes historic items from around the state and posts them online. “That’s the best way to share the findings,” she says.

She’s drawing upon items from the Victorian era—lace doilies, quilts, hand-painted china, even wreaths made from human hair—for a new exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery. The pieces will be juxtaposed with handicrafts made by contemporary artists.

Pfotenhauer and her collaborators, gallery director Martha Glowacki and UW’s Ann Smart Martin, appreciate how the show highlights the decorative arts as well as their often-unacknowledged makers.

“A lot of it is women who are otherwise pretty anonymous,” she says.

Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture opens December 17.

Katie Vaughn is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

Read more arts profiles here.



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