Debra Olin: Every Protection


If a pregnant woman is carrying high, she’s having a girl. Dangle a spoon over a pregnant stomach – if it turns counterclockwise, it’s a boy. Eating spicy food can trigger labor. For generations, humans have attempted to make sense of the mystery of motherhood and childbirth with a vivid mixture of science and superstition. Proven data has largely won out in developed societies today, but in the impoverished and isolated shtetls of late- 19th and early-20th century Eastern Europe, these folk beliefs were canon.

In large-format monoprint collages and a site-specific installation, artist Debra Olin explores this phenomenon for the Museum’s latest exhibition Every Protection. Olin draws on the 1912-14 ethnographic questionnaire produced by S. An-sky, which was designed to document ways of life and beliefs that were rapidly disappearing from the shtetls of the Russian Pale of Settlement (1792 -1917). There were 2087 questions included in the study, and Olin’s artwork is inspired by many of the 283 questions relating to pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood. Questions like “Is it considered a protection for a pregnant woman to wear an apron?” and “Is there a belief that one must not place a child in front of a mirror until he gets his first teeth?” illuminate the deep folk traditions of this community. Olin’s work creates a symbolic language to highlight superstitions, precautions, religious practices, and observations that can be translated, recognized and appreciated by people from every culture.

The exhibition’s large-scale collages are paired with a hanging installation made specifically for this show. Entitled “From the Oral Torah,” the piece is comprised of women’s robes hanging from the celestial ceiling of the women’s balcony – the only section of the historic sanctuary women were permitted to sit 100 years ago. With feet dangling and An-sky’s Yiddish questions draped over their shoulders, the garments span the divide between the everyday and the sacred. For what could be at once so commonplace and so miraculous as giving birth?

While the Museum is closed to visitors, this exhibition has been postponed. In the meantime, exhibition curator Nancy Johnson visited Debra Olin in her Massachusetts studio. See Debra’s behind-the-scenes tour here:

This project has been supported by a grant from the Artists’ Resource Trust, a fund of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.