Elissa Steeves

“Bag Lady”


November  9 until February 24 2024. On display in conjunction with  the TAVA Quilt Exhibit.


Elissa Steeves is famous for her garden in Blacksburg.  She is less well known as an artist, but her upcoming exhibit entitled “Bag Lady”  at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History (MMAH) may help change that.

The garden is notable not just for its profusion of interesting plants but also for the sculptures placed, not scattered, about and the many seating areas offering strategic views.  The chairs and tables are mostly painted in clear and vibrant colors.  These colors appear again in the handbags Steeves has made for 41 years.  Some of the bags feature flowers, as seems fitting, but others may have a chili pepper or a watermelon.  Some handbags feature more geometric patterns reminiscent of Native American art.

It all started when Steeves stopped smoking and had to keep her hands busy.  After the house was deluged with coasters and pillows, she turned to handbags, which she used and carried to work.  Taking a month to make, the handbags feature needlepoint, intricate beading, and other interesting materials like metallic threads.  The latter began to appear in her husband Harry’s fishing flies, and that launched a new career for him and became the subject of two books.

The early handbags were embellished upon a painted canvas pattern, but then Steeves started to design her own patterns.  She never took up sewing, preferring instead to have someone else put the handbags together to her specifications.  She uses a lot of durable Ultrasuede, and the bags are lined with fabric.  A lot of engineering is involved in making a handbag hang properly.  It needs to look good either partially filled or stuffed, but never sparsely filled.

Elissa has little sympathy for women who carry miniscule bags.  They are always borrowing a Band-Aid or Kleenex or Advil.  She says men have pockets for their handkerchiefs and pocketknives.  Women have handbags for their necessities, and hers are sized accordingly.  Roanoke’s own Judith Lieber, whose evening bags are displayed at the Taubman, inhabits another niche.

Elissa Steeves’ handbags are not for sale.  She may give one to her daughter or granddaughter—maybe, someday, but the handbags will be on display at the MMAH, 4 East Main Street.