She Thought the Artwork’s Time Had Passed. Then Roe v. Wade Was Overturned

Three decades after she created the piece as a Tufts student, artist Linda Klein found her commentary on safe abortions was relevant again

At first glance, the work of art doesn’t look like a work of art so much as something borrowed from Grandma’s hallway. A lamp casts a warm glow on a wooden end table covered with a crocheted doily. A delicate gilt-edged teacup sits at the corner of the table, ready for a guest. A pink rose accents the scene’s femininity.

Then you notice that the rose is artificial, with a stiff plastic stem. Next to it sits a piece of wire clothes hanger. Next to that, a hard rubber catheter. All are long, thin objects that could be inserted through the cervix—the kinds of makeshift tools that desperate women have used to perform abortions.

Linda Klein, AG92, put together the piece, titled Home Remedies, more than 30 years ago. Then an MFA student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she wanted the ironically homey piece to remind people of the trauma of illegal abortions. At that point, in 1991, the artwork was historical artifact: Klein believed that Roe v. Wade had settled the issue. “I thought that tragic time had ended,” she said.

Then, in June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. As an artist, Klein could have made a new piece to express her distress. But digging the original artwork out of her basement and putting it on display at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston, where she often shows her work, and now at Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass., was itself a statement on how the clock had been turned back on women’s rights.

“The worn and chipped or broken condition of the piece,” she wrote in her artist’s statement, “reflects the worn and aged nature of this issue.”

Klein, 80, remembers what it was like the last time abortions were illegal. In 1964, before she pursued art as a career, she was the nighttime charge nurse at an OB/GYN intensive care unit at Philadelphia General Hospital. Most of her patients were poor and Black, and many if not most were there because of abortions that had gone badly.

“They were all kinds of women,” she said. “Women who already had several children and already were struggling to keep them safe and fed. And there were young girls. We had a patient who was 13 or 14, and she died. So much of it was septicemia, which is an infection throughout the whole body and blood. There were antibiotics if they got to us fast, but women did die.”

She said the doctors at the hospital felt very strongly that abortion shouldn’t be illegal. “One of the OB/GYNs was a woman who was just horrified by what women were being put through,” she said.

Up until that time, Klein hadn’t really had an opinion on abortion. “I feel like I was asleep in many ways,” she said. “I think my awakening came slowly about these issues.”

And then she herself needed an abortion. She was better off than many women—if something went wrong with the procedure, she knew doctors she could turn to in an emergency. Still, she couldn’t have the procedure in a hospital, and she suspected the former nurse who performed it was struggling with drug addiction.   

“I was not that far pregnant, but it was pretty unnerving and scary,” she said. The experience convinced her that for most women, “it’s always the last choice.”

Soon after, Klein moved to Chicago, where she worked full time as a nurse at night so she could attend art school full time during the day. There she learned more about feminism, and she incorporated her activism in her art. But she didn’t finish her degree before she married and moved to Israel, where she had two daughters.

In 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, “I was so pleased,” Klein said. “I thought, Finally.”

When she returned to the United States, she divorced, remarried, and had her third daughter. She earned a master’s in art therapy from Lesley, where she later directed an expressive arts therapy summer program.

She was nearly 50 when one of her daughters started art school, inspiring her to enroll at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University to finish her own MFA degree, focusing on painting and art history. She went on to become a professor and dean of the fine arts department at Endicott College.

Over the years, Klein’s activism has drawn her to environmentalism; her current exhibit is dedicated to nature’s resilience. The colorful paintings are materially different from the installation Home Remedies, but her desire to make change in the world is a common thread.  

She still remembers gathering the items for the project decades ago. She was drawn to the damaged porcelain figurine at the base of the lamp, which once showed an 18th century woman playing a lute, but the arm had broken off. “It was symbolic of the continual effort to make women helpless,” she said.

The teacup came from her mother. “Tea and sympathy,” Klein explained, “but not sympathy for women who can’t make a choice.”

What does she hope people will take away from the artwork? “I wish young women would make themselves much more aware of the history of women trying to get here,” she said. “I think so much of it is taken for granted.”

Today, she worries that the back-alley abortions will return. “I keep hearing that’s not a fear for now because we’re much more organized, women have a much greater awareness,” she said. “But there are plenty of women who don’t have an awareness” of what is unsafe.

Recently, she has been filling out postcards, writing to voters in states where abortion amendments are on the ballot.  

“I lived through it,” she said. Thinking about her daughters and granddaughters, she added: “I don’t want them to have to be in this kind of a world that says you can't make a choice.”

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