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Women and Migration

Deborah Willis
Ellyn Toscano
Kalia Brooks Nelson

Part two. Mobility and migration

7. Strange Set of Circumstances: White Artistic Migration and Crazy Quilt

Karen Finley

Texte intégral

1The two parts of my essay are excerpts from larger works.

2In part one I will address my participation in white artistic migration.

Fig. 7.1. Gary Ray Bugarcic, ‘The Limo at Key Food on Avenue A with Karen Finley’, 1985. Original 3D lenticular print. Courtesy of the artist. © Gary Ray Bugarcic.

3I came across this photo recently and I was taken by my confident presentation, my presence as an occupier holding the location. Here I am in the East Village in the mid-eighties, around the corner from my apartment on Avenue A between 3rd and 4th. My arms embrace the world eastward and beyond, towards the church and heavens. As I stand on Avenue A facing west, with little or no traffic (one solitary limo a metaphor of what is to come) and the food prices as halo, Key Food signals that I am nourished as a solitary man walks south. The Catholic church towers above, with alphabet city in the unseen distance. The viewer is in a relationship with me as my arms and gaze attempt to break the fourth wall. In other words, I am eager to occupy. I am here. I make my claim.

4In this brief essay I will address white boomer migration into the East Village and Lower East Side and my active and willing participation. I have come to understand that in my migration with countless other boomers, I vigorously and aggressively came to establish and overthrow cultural platforms that already existed. The unsuspected grandeur of this ambition was still an act of assault by gentrification that my generation accomplished by moving in with thousands (millions nationwide) of other boomers in low rent tenement areas to push, target and create our own entrepreneurial experimental (art) marketplace by displacing the local businesses with little regret. We rationalized that we were doing the neighborhood or society in general a favor. That our migration was a great accomplishment in the area of artistic citizenship.

5This Cultural Action Movement gained momentum and prosperity with coined experimental artworks that established a supply and then a demand. The East Village art scene created a necessary product: a branding of youth culture that was innovative, bold, and in-your-face. The East Village, with its numerous, small-spaced galleries housing experimental exhibitions, thrust its products and its market share into the speculative art market. The cheaper East Village cultural goods appealed to collectors who wanted to get in low and hopefully sell high later.

6There was another advantage of proximity. The Lower East Side and the East Village were relatively close to the then exclusive Soho gallery scene. Soho burgeoned in the sixties with the collapse of manufacturing and the New York crash of the early seventies where artists took over empty warehouses for studios and galleries. With this recent history as model, artists and realtors knew the power of transforming neighborhoods and displacing businesses to raise real-estate value.

7It isn’t that each and every artist was paid in currency, although some were, but nonetheless this process instituted capital, based on a trade system dominated by white people that privileged a white cultural expression.

8The art and real estate markets profited from the unpaid labor of many. Not every artist who contributed to the overall overhaul of the East Village benefited or was paid in currency for their services. But nonetheless the neighborhood, made up of tenement dwellings and the older original residents, became participants whether they liked it or not. Sight-seeing buses and tours gawking at the artists in the rundown neighborhood were sold as chic. And it was known that for an emerging artist to become economically successful, they had to navigate a cultural industry mostly controlled by the white-dominated collectors, museums, media and realtors.

9Most of the white migrants came from elsewhere to take over, and whether we intended to do so as musicians, dancers, poets, painters or gallerists, we were still complicit with real estate developers. We were the hand that scratched the back. Even if there was a sincere feeling that we were returning to the gateway of Ellis Island and the tenements of our ancestors, such as my own great-grandparents who were married blocks away, we also intended to seize, to come into the inhabitable to make habitable and to create fortune and affluence by exploiting the residents. We possessed a kind of white-settler mentality, an unexamined arrogance and aggressiveness that underlay my entitled sense of talent, my ambitious assurance and my victimized feminist drive. I deserved artistic achievement and it couldn’t come soon enough. There was a falsity to our claim that our unique cultural sensitivity in the arts exonerated us while offering innovation and advancement to society as a whole. The art establishments recognized and encouraged the economic potential of artistic production brought about by such migration, while we demanded a cultural shift even though we still sought support from government sources. Some artists, but not all, were being paid for their art production, and we had a sense of entitlement and expectation of sustenance, as though, due to our specialness, we deserved public support, promotion and acceptance through squatting; philanthropy; and city, state, and federal funding. Artists, galleries, and cultural institutions work together to frame a marketing language for the arts. This language signified a sellable methodology, whether New Wave, Next Wave or No Wave: but it was still a formula based on denigrating and minimizing already existing cultural platforms by using an assumed exclusive educational authority.

10I benefited, obtaining jobs and an apartment with the help of my whiteness. I entered the neighborhood encouraged and marked as deserving by the individual National Endowment of the Arts grant that nestled in my pocket — a grant that I was only able to receive thanks to my access to the educational elite afforded by my Master of Fine Arts.

11The East Village was scarred by drugs and the lines for scoring did not end at the door of a club or one of the new fancy restaurants. But I would recognize many white artists among those waiting for their fix on my street. Property was abandoned, fires set, values were lowered by creating a zone of vacant and forsaken dwellings. The neighborhood was under siege with ID checks and police crackdowns whose apparent purpose was to create a safer city, but in reality, to lay the foundations for real estate development. This was a tactic that had been seen before during periods of white artistic migration. The authorities cited a desire to reduce crime and poverty as a justified reason to remove the local population, resulting in the cruel destruction of neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal. This tactic would later be seen in Brooklyn and other areas of the city that became the focus of white gentrification.

12My career did not ‘take off’ but rather was held up and supported by a thriving, already existing neighborhood. It built upon a cultural heritage shaped by other artists, who were less recognized because they were artists of color. Downtown New York was an international cultural melting pot, yet white people’s idea of multiculturalism was most evident in our taste for different cuisines. The image of me in front of the neighborhood food store therefore has other meanings. We also encountered the thrilling diversity of the city streets on the dance floor, but the white migration encouraged by real estate development gradually minimized and erased this diversity, replacing it with a growing artistic milieu comprised of the chic and the trendy. And the art slowly faded away. Soho is now mostly a high-end shopping mall. The East Village no longer houses many art galleries, clubs or venues. Most galleries moved uptown to Chelsea, and those that remain on the Lower East Side struggle to pay the rising rents. The New Museum now resides on the site of the old single-occupancy residences of the Bowery.

13During the culture wars I spoke out against injustice. As a woman, I took control of the male gaze and combatted the passivity of the performing female body.

14There is a certain sense of power and entitlement that came with my dream. And in hindsight I need to own up to it. I felt that as a woman artist not only did I want to have the same access and privilege that my male colleagues had, but I rightfully deserved it. But let’s get real: the majority of artists who were recognized and received subsidies were white, educated and privileged. I was one of them. There was little questioning on my part of the displacement we caused and the cost of our gentrifying the neighborhood that had belonged mostly to families of color, who still lived in tenement conditions characterized by absent slum lords and neglect. Our consciences were quiet about our participation in the conditions that led to higher rents and to galleries taking over abandoned spaces and bodegas. A marketplace need was created, and we all contributed to the capitalism boom. The ‘discovery’ of the Lower East Side by white boomers resonates as an aspect of a selective, speculative, cultural and colonial system that works in coordination with the encroaching NYU campus, Chase bank, or KMART.

15The language that legitimized the destruction of Downtown neighborhoods was ever present: uninhabitable, in a crisis, a war on drugs, unlivable, impoverished, neglected, abandoned, a war zone, filthy, illegal, dangerous. It justified, even warranted the evictions, the occupation, the relocation, the demolition and the clean-up.

16As an artist who developed her career in the eighties to become an icon of the culture wars of the nineties, my work alongside three other white gay and lesbian artists was censored. Our NEA grants were denied in 1990 and soon we filed a lawsuit, NEA vs Finley, in which I was the named plaintiff. We went to the Supreme Court to challenge the awarding of federal support based on decency. We lost in 1998 and I was devastated as the options ahead for my career path changed. Yet, my white migration provided me the benefit of a future, and the opportunity that my voice and creative expression would be supported and would continue to be recognized. My creative expression had enough merit, prominence and influence to be considered threatening enough that the state should try to censor me. And so, the invisibility of censorship afforded me a different kind of visibility. I was not forgotten, ignored or set aside. It took me a long time to understand that as an educated white woman artist I was never really censored, or really suffered as other artists of color and those with less educational opportunities did. Yes, there was a chilling effect, but there were many artists and groups of artists of color who were never even given the opportunity to be listened to or seen, or to be censored. My so-called censorship was ultimately a ticket into the art market elite and brought me to NYU, where I work today.

17As an educator, and as an artist interested in artistic research, I am concerned about who is remembered and recognized in art history. The Downtown Art world, in my experience, is mostly documented and archived as a white-in-isolation demographic, drawing the growth of the Downtown Art scene on the cultural map as something that was always and exclusively white. As if the arrival of this talent just happened.

18Many generations of artists of color and forgotten immigrant craftsmen, who formed neighborhoods rich in cultural tradition, contributed to the foundation of so-called Downtown Art — whether in the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, The Bowery, Below Canal, China Town, Little Italy, or Henry Street Settlement. Downtown includes the First People’s trail of the Lenape, now better known as Broadway. Italian-crafted mosaics, marbles and painting. Yiddish theater. Chinese calligraphy. Puerto-Rican poetry. Cultural movements such as graffiti, not branded by white artists in a gallery setting. James Baldwin in Greenwich Village. Romare Bearden in his studio on Canal. I can give you countless examples of artists that are not included as Downtown artists. There is little acknowledgement in Downtown archives of the rich cultural heritage that the white boomers built on, yet were forcing out with these acts of annexation, historical re-envisioning and erasure. This erasure must be reversed. And it must be reversed now. As educators we must insist on telling these truths, not only in our pedagogy but also in the institutional record. Believing in historic architecture preservation is necessary, but preservation and protection for people, neighborhoods and cultural heritage is required as well.

Part Two. Crazy Quilt

19Gloria Vanderbilt is an artist, designer and fashion designer who became infamous after losing her fortune, building it up again by being the first to market designer jeans with her trademark swan. In the following excerpt of a poetic text from a larger project I begin with the image of Gloria Vanderbilt, the heiress whose wealthy life was riddled with tragic events. When she was two years old her father died of cirrhosis of the liver, instigating the Trial of the Century — a long legal battle to establish Vanderbilt’s custody and guardianship, in which the fitness of her mother and the control of her inheritance were up for debate. Since the trial occurred at the height of the depression, Gloria became internationally known as poor little rich girl. She felt emotionally abandoned except by her governess, Dodo (fittingly given the name of an extinct creature) and had a harrowing upbringing despite her wealth. The world watched as she married four times, becoming a mother to two sons by composer/conductor Leopold Stowkowski and two more by writer Wyatt Cooper. One of her sons is TV journalist Anderson Cooper, and another, Carter, committed suicide in front of her by jumping out the window of her apartment.

  • 1 Laird Borrelli-Persson, ‘Valentino’s Patchwork Frocks Recall Gloria Vanderbilt’s Quilted Bedroom’,(...)

20In this image1 of a crazy quilted room we see the figure swathed in a quilt-patterned robe surrounded by the repetition of quilt craziness, arrangements of shapes and leftover scraps in an artful relationship composition. Both inspired and intrigued by the design décor of overmatching, where the same pattern or color of the walls matches the drapes, bedspread, upholstery, etcetera, this image offers a psychological interior landscape. In the midcentury it was popular for the woman of the house and, at times, her children to be photographed while wearing clothing that matched each other and the décor. This suggests a body without boundaries, a loss or merging of self into the room. A crazy room of one’s own. Crazy love — as if to migrate one’s skin into the environment or to be knowingly camouflaged. What becomes even ‘crazier’ is seeing an heiress wearing the dress of the impoverished, the quilt of farmers, African-American women in Gee’s Bend, the Amish. Appropriating the craft of women who both saved and fostered community with the art of quilting feels disingenuous in terms of labor and transforms the quilt as a fetish to put on, rather than something experienced or earned or made. For it is clear Gloria Vanderbilt did not make her quilt; it is displayed, a costume, a stage setting of hoarded blankets. The pleasure and craft of quilting is one of economy, recycling and warmth.

21In recent years the terms shabby chic or looking vintage have become popularized: describing the hobby of finding the authentic look of distress that is nonetheless fitted to modern standards. The quilted room becomes more of a museum, a collection to compensate for loss, never having enough, and acquiring. These critiques should be considered, but nevertheless the strange set of quilted circumstances insist on the role gender plays in merging and losing self in order to exist. One becomes all and loses one’s own identity to have an identity. Yet being consumed or suffocating within the quilt’s extremes frees the craziness to take over. For the woman is trained to merge — to go beyond boundaries regardless of money and class. We know this instinctively; we don’t learn about the possibility from this scene but see it verified. There is nowhere to go but sit and enjoy the view.

22I have written the following poem that illustrates the meaning of the crazy quilt for Gloria Vanderbilt, while also considering the Villa La Pietra and the former lady of the manor, Hortense Acton, and the possible relationships between costume, fashion, accessory and migration that Deborah Willis has photographed.

  • 2 ‘Crazy Quilt’ is published by permission of Karen Finley. © Karen Finley. All rights reserved.

Crazy Quilt2

It is out of nowhere
exacerbated leftovers
These fragmented selves
Cut up
Torn shorn and worn
Besieged against the elements
A crazy quilt born
A defense mechanism
An environment of scraps
Of forlorn orphan rags
Of leftovers and scrappy
Of homeless and wasted
Little orphan child
Here I am dilapidated
Longing for my nursemaid — anyone to hold me
Remember the long night aloneness
A forgottenness, a mother’s neglect

Careful quilt enclose me
A sewer of strings and ties
Of fancy babushkas
Calicos calliopes and calling cat flannel
Lingering in saucers of space and flight
In an undisclosed thread
Find me the peonies or roses from Kate’s dress

Crazy quilt I stand before you
I am your leftover forgotten design
Design is merely the outside trying to get in
Enter my cave my sandman
Oh, open sesame
A patchwork of plaids and butterfly cry
I am your coping mechanism
A place of velveteen maroon
A joy in disassociation
A mild form of severe detachment disorder
And let me lose myself in the pattern of
An altered universe
And imagined design
Woven in between the fabric
Of silks tapestries and flour sacks
Burlaps for apples and dungarees
A farmer’s wife quilting bee I wish

With my crazy I’ m free
I achieve the trapeze act of depersonalization
Watching myself watch and be watched
I am the hands of time
I watch little children like myself
As if they were not me — (As it was not me)
As if she was not me
I hover above my body
I will be in the sky as you forget me
I protected her from herself
I protected her in my crazy quilt
Covered up in darling
A maze in perception
The anxiety only accepted within its collection
Perfumed bottles emptied
Temporal lobe examined
My alienation wealth
Brought about my
Exploitation of riches
Where I became a commodity fetish child
Eventually reification explained
An object for your gossip

Both innocent and grotesque
The wealth’s power macabre
Where inheritance is poverty by proximity and birth order
As consumption is between
Object and subject
A means to an end

I am your thing
I am your fortune, your way out, your bills paid
I am your unfortunate, your lost way, your debt, your bankruptcy
I am your success and the reason why you never made it
I am your lost brother, your derelict self, your handy man gone
wild —
I am your greedy boss your hungry self, your lonely child in the
corner —
I am the shit you hold on to
I am the savings in your pig
I am the cruel world of the haves and the have nots
An empire of too many rooms and not enough space
A world of god’s favorites
Let me tell you of my secret world
A painted lady red wall saloon with a swan on my ass

Hello comfy quilt where the sleep is here at will
Let me show you jouissance in all her intensity
The queerness in all of her splendor
I birthed you Anderson Cooper
Speaker of flight to trauma and crisis
Of Haiti and Sandy and Sandy Hook and Charleston
Of cyclones, shootings and disasters
In poverty, churches, schools and theaters, on trains in weather and violent storms, on vacations — we are never far away.
My silvery foxy boy
From my loins to his lips to your eyes
The illustrated guide to trauma freeway

If you have children someday
Pretend you don’t exist
I will be there
Hurt people hurt

What can I make for you
Besides money
What do I mean for you
Besides money
What do I do for you
Besides money?
Cash n carry

There is no sleep for me.
All the things that made mother crazy
Now make me crazy
Wait for me foolish, silly, senseless, irrational, wild, cracked, outlandish, ridiculous, bizarre, eccentric, off, daft, zany bed
My shelter
My concealment
My refuge
Here I come to sleep.
Embrace me in your chaotic warmth
Sleep well
Mommy needs to rest


1 Laird Borrelli-Persson, ‘Valentino’s Patchwork Frocks Recall Gloria Vanderbilt’s Quilted Bedroom’, Vogue, 10 March 2015,

2 ‘Crazy Quilt’ is published by permission of Karen Finley. © Karen Finley. All rights reserved.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 7.1. Gary Ray Bugarcic, ‘The Limo at Key Food on Avenue A with Karen Finley’, 1985. Original 3D lenticular print. Courtesy of the artist. © Gary Ray Bugarcic.
Fichier image/jpeg, 379k


Works in a variety of mediums such as installation, video, performance, public and visual art, music, and literature. She has performed and exhibited internationally. She is the author of eight books, including her latest, the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Shock Treatment (2015). Her work includes ‘Mandala: Reimagined Columbus Circle’, an interactive walk that examines the symbols and history of Columbus Circle; ‘Artist Anonymous’, a self-help meeting for those addicted to art; ‘Written in Sand’, a performance of her writings on AIDS; ‘Open Heart’, a Holocaust memorial at Camp Gusen, Austria; ‘Unicorn, Gratitude Mystery’, a solo performance that explores the psychological portrayals of power that drives American election politics; and ‘Sext Me if You Can’, where Finley creates commissioned portraits inspired by ‘sexts’ received from the public. Grabbing Pussy was published in 2018. A recipient of many awards and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is an arts professor in Art and Public Policy at New York University.


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