Stitching histories

Museum of Art & History presents large-scale drawings by local artist

Posted 10/17/22

Derek Firenze


No matter how intricately stitched, all threads must be cut to tie an end that holds the work together.

In “Juxtapositions,” an …

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Stitching histories

Museum of Art & History presents large-scale drawings by local artist


No matter how intricately stitched, all threads must be cut to tie an end that holds the work together.

In “Juxtapositions,” an exhibit of graphite drawings now being shown through Dec. 31 at the Jefferson County Museum of Art & History, viewers will find artwork that has been meticulously crafted with the needle-sharp point of a pencil tip across large-scale sheets of paper by Rachel Feferman.

Feferman was a Port Townsend resident who many may know from her time teaching art classes to seniors, children, and in private sessions. In 2010, she passed away from breast cancer.


She began a series of large graphite drawings in the early 1990s, eventually completing 42 pieces she named “Golden Hands.”  The museum exhibition features many of the works from “Golden Hands,” which was published as a book of the same name shortly before her death.

The selections for the current show were curated by local artist Stephen Yates, who first met Feferman in the 1980s.

“She was showing in Seattle at that time and I was keeping track of Seattle activity for art since I wanted to show there, too,” Yates recalled

He then saw the “Golden Hands” drawings at the Edward Cain Galleries in Port Townsend in 1998.

“They were very powerful but mysterious,” Yates recalled.

The drawings juxtapose beauty in everyday domesticity using Feferman’s grandmother’s apron as a central theme alongside death and the horrors of the Holocaust. The two are connected through Feferman’s Jewish heritage, and as counterpoints, allow us to see her darkness and lightness, her memories, a patterned home, and the cherished apron from her grandmother.

“In Poland, before the first World War, a Jewish girl trained to become a seamstress. She sewed an apron out of plain white cotton by hand. She carefully measured out the rows of pleats to decorate the bib and the hem of the skirt. Her tiny stitches were almost invisible. Because of her skill with a needle and thread, she was nicknamed Gilde Manz, or Golden Hands,” so begins the book Feferman wrote to accompany the drawings.

Feferman originally set herself the goal of recording her grandmother Helen’s life using the symbol of the apron instead of the form of the woman herself, but later broke her self-imposed rule when she drew a portrait of Helen. In that face she saw her family reflected, and herself.

The delicate needlework in the apron and the meticulous graphite of the drawings become a mirror for each other.

“My grandmother was very fastidious and detailed in the things she did,” said Julie Feferman-Perez, Feferman’s sister.

Similarly, from a young age, Feferman began a diligent study of artistic techniques.

“She started to get very serious about learning techniques and practicing and taking on new techniques even when she was a pretty young teenager,” Feferman-Perez said. “She was always fascinated with learning and trying a new technique. And she would just work something until she had achieved a mastery level in that discipline.”

This can be seen in the development of the Feferman’s drawings of her grandmother’s hands. Some of the early sketches are somewhat rougher around the edges, but the centerpiece, Drawing No. 39, which is also the cover of her book, shows a photo-realistic depth which proves her dedication to the subject.

“It’s a refinement of all the things she’d been working on all these years,” Yates said. “It just felt like it was a culmination of her artistic talents and ideas.”


Along with her study of artistic techniques, Feferman was an avid reader of religion, philosophy, and history. Though she grew up in an atheist household, she was deeply interested in understanding her spiritual roots.

“We came out of this left-leaning, progressive, non-religious Jewish tradition. Rachel became really interested in what we were leaving behind by not learning that stuff. She went on to read a lot of Jewish authors, storytellers, history — everything.”

That history is symbolized by her grandmother’s apron interacting with beautiful objects such as a violin, flowers, and challah bread, as well as the darker images of barbed wire and dead bodies which hold the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Feferman’s earlier work in gouache presents these horrors more directly, but in the “Golden Hands” series the bodies take on a more peaceful appearance and almost seem to dance through the images at times.

In her book, Feferman questions her pairing of the subjects.

“I couldn’t explain why I had combined images of my grandmother’s apron, her face, and eventually her death, with piles of anonymous dead bodies and barbed wire, imagery associated with the concentration camps. Though the drawings had always made perfect sense to me, I was never able to answer these questions to my satisfaction. The best reply is simply: The images belonged together because I kept putting them together, like stars in the same constellation,” she wrote.

Her sister posed it similarly: “How do we go on when we know the beauty and the depravity of the human condition?”

Like the bravest of us, Feferman faced the shadows while holding on to the gold.

“She was really contending with what is the worst that humanity does and she then was also in love with the world and in love with people, and flowers, and the ocean, and little babies, and dogs,” Feferman-Perez added.


The large scale of these drawings, so rarely seen in such a tedious medium, offers viewers a wide space to pause and explore these subjects, and the volume of work on display creates a conversation that no single piece could hold on its own.

“I think some of these, if you just saw them by themselves, would lead you to a different conclusion than seeing them together,” Feferman-Perez said.

Originally, Feferman had intended to do 100 drawings for the series, but as she watched her grandmother pass, and then was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began to rethink the project.

She survived through a first round of treatment, but later received a second diagnosis and it was then that she changed direction on the work and focused on putting the series together in a book with her writing.

Those interested in exploring Feferman’s work more deeply can join a panel discussion of the exhibit on Friday, Oct. 28 with Feferman-Perez, Yates, and Greg Robinson, who curated a larger exhibit of Feferman’s art at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.

To register for that event, go to