Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Artist of the Week: Maria Jose Duran Steinman

Chimera, 2009, mixed media, dimensions variable

Maria Jose Duran Steinman is a Chilean artist I met while we were mastering the fine arts at SVA. I still remember meeting her that first day of Orientation. She introduced herself as “Cote” to the nervous lot, her bright blue eyes wide and excited, with a long brown braid that hung down her back, stopping just above her waist. While we were in school together, Cote would build these lovely, dreamy little spaces in her studio. Pastel colored trash bags for the walls, twinkle lights strung all around, reams and reams of colored paper for the roof, all covered in loose, rambling drawings, with soft pillows and bubble-wrapped cushions to keep you comfy while you sat criss-cross-applesauce on the ground inside. They were like the forts you used to build when you were a kid, only waaay better—and! they would stay up for a few weeks at least, waaay longer than mom ever would have allowed.

These cozy caves created an immediate sense of intimacy once you crawled inside. It was warm and dim and it made you feel like this was a place where you could share secrets. This sense of wonder is something I have always admired about her work. Cote also has a real sensitivity to her materials; all of her sculptures and installations are very tactile. Her most recent series of soft sculptures that she calls "Arrows and Canes" were made from pieces of clothing and thread, all tightly wound like ropes, roots, or broken limbs that she would lean or tack on a wall for that one point of support, letting gravity do the rest. They were wonderfully organic, and yet, so controlled.

Arrow I, 2010, blanket and yarn, 17"x 15"x 5" 

Brides, 2010, fabric, wool, copper wire, 58"x 5"x 3" ; 44"x 4"x 2"

Hanged I, 2010, plastic, wool, copper wire, dimensions variable

Hanged III, 2010, clothes, yarn, 23"x 10"x 9"

Hanged III Detail

Even when she is knitting beautiful scarves for her friends, her fingers are always making, making, never at rest.

Now she’s making drawings that are almost childlike in their execution, as if she has grabbed the marker with her whole fist and dragged it over the paper. They seem as if she started with a line and let it take her where it wanted to go. And yet the drawings are very purposeful, very direct. While they aren’t exactly representational, I keep trying to decipher them. Is that a brain? A bone? Those are definitely fingers! Right? They are sometimes grotesque, and always playful. There has always been something very visceral about her work that I have connected with, and I am really enjoying this new turn of events. You go, girl!

Awkward, 2011, card stock, color marker, 8 1/2"x 11"

Lemons, 2011, card stock, color marker, 8 1/2"x 11"

Cote has her first solo exhibition opening September 2nd on Governor's Island. If you're in the NY area, take the ferry over and check it out! (Her installation, which is titled "Under the Table", will be in Building D, second floor, room 6. It will be open every weekend from 11am-6pm until September 25th.)

More images and some of her very cool videos can be found on her website:

- Cathleen 

[All photos courtesy of the artist’s website.]

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Get to Know: Ann Lowe!

My amazing friend and graduate school peer Margaret Powell is in the midst of writing her master's thesis and she has a very cool and original topic.

Margaret was an intern at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in the Spring of 2011 and while prepping their current Wedding Belles exhibit, Margaret and a co-worker noticed that some of Margorie Merriweather Post's dresses seemed to be designed by designer Ann Lowe.

Before I butcher everything you need to know about Ann Lowe, I'll cut to a Q&A I had with Margaret to fill us in better about who Ann Lowe was.

Ann Lowe with model in a Lowe design, Ebony Magazine, December 1966.

Who is Ann Lowe?
Ann Lowe was an African-American dressmaker from Alabama. She worked between 1914 and 1972. While she is best known for creating Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953, Lowe made thousands of dresses for ‘high society’ customers listed in the social register.

Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress.
What makes her significant?
Lowe’s body of work is incredible. The core of her work was sold to debutantes and brides who socialized in the same circle. This meant that each dress needed to be unique. In a newspaper interview from 1976 she said, “You know, I never made two dresses alike except for bridesmaids. I filed the sketch away with swatches of the material and it was never used again.”
She is also significant because of the way she has managed to fade right out of history. This is a woman who had a gown salon inside of Saks Fifth Avenue for several years beginning in 1960, along with several showrooms in Manhattan. She was the first black woman to do this, Saks even advertised for the dress salon with her likeness (which was a big accomplishment for a black woman in 1960) and 50 years later nobody knows about her. Did this happen because she was a woman? Did this happen because she was a Black woman? Did this happen because she didn’t advertise and she was terrible with the business end of her work? Ten of her gowns are in the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute. Ten! People should know about her.
What type of people were her designs for?
Her couture clients were all from the Social Register: daughters of important American businessmen, daughters from political families, etc. Between the 1930s and 1960s she would design for wholesale at other design houses. These designs were simplified, to allow for reproduction on a wholesale scale. In her last shop on Madison Avenue named Ann Lowe’s Originals, you could come in as a regular retail customer and purchase a dress.
Anyone famous or memorable?
Olivia de Havilland wore one of her designs (created for another designer’s house) to the Academy Awards when she won an oscar in 1947. Jackie Kennedy’s debut and wedding gown were both by Lowe. Jackie’s mother Janet Auchincloss hired Lowe for a number of gowns for herself and Jackie’s sister and stepsister. For the most part however, Lowe clients were not celebrities.
What’s her signature style?
She learned to make really ‘big’ ballgowns when she was a child in Alabama. Her mother was a seamstress for the first Lady of Alabama around 1911, so she worked on very stunning dresses for the women in that area. Through my research though, I am finding that she was very open to adapting her work to the customer’s personal style. Her debutante dresses are just amazing to look at.
How have you been going about your research?
For bibliographical information, I started by reading a few books on African-American fashion designers. These were not very satisfying.They had a few pages about Lowe with very basic (and often incorrect) information and notes listing their main sources (two magazine articles from the 1960s.) I tracked down the articles and then began to look for any mention of Lowe in newspaper archives and those kinds of sources. This led me to my own primary source discoveries in the U.S. Census.
A dressmaker's work is all about the dresses though, so I started a hunt to find previous clients. These were women listed in those magazine articles and old society columns as clients of Lowe. A little online detective work helped me to find current addresses for some of these women. I've heard back from two women so far: one of Lowe's clients from the 1960s, and it has been amazing to get a first hand account of what it was like to order a wedding dress from Ann Lowe! And the other is a relative of the family Lowe lived with in Florida when she first arrived. She is being incredibly generous about access of objects for research purposes, and she’s filled with amazing family stories about the woman she knew as Annie Coan (Lowe).
The internet has been essential to my research, but good old fashioned letter writing has been extremely important. I was very shy at first about writing to these women. Getting a letter that basically says ‘I saw your name in a magazine from 50 years ago. Did this woman make your wedding dress? Will you tell me about it?’ must be very strange!! But I’ve heard back from several so far, and everyone has been so friendly and interested in my work! Getting back such friendly responses has been a great confidence boost!
Has it been challenging?
Definitely! Trying to follow the life of a Black woman who began her career in the segregated South around 1914 has been a huge challenge. You have to take yourself out of your 21st century mind and remember that the world was very different back then. Lowe was a dressmaker in Tampa for 10 years before she moved to NY in 1928. In interviews, she called her business a dress shop. A 21st century woman would try to find a business license and evidence of a storefront in order to confirm this dress shop, but it is important to remember the time period. A Black woman in Florida during the 1920s who worked only for white clients would not be able to have a physical shop for the clients to visit. Affluent white women were not going to leave their neighborhood to shop in the Black side of town, and property owners would never rent a shop to a black woman in the white part of town. The homes in the black sections of Tampa at this time had outdoor bathrooms and were without electricity. Lowe must have sewed at home, but visited clients at their own houses to conduct her fittings. Can you imagine this woman getting on the back of a segregated streetcar while lugging around an unfinished ball gown?
There are holes in Lowe’s biography that I REALLY want to try to find, and there isn’t anyway to know when you are running off on a tangent and need to pull yourself back in, or if you really are about to uncover some important or helpful clue. I’ve found amazing leads a moment before I was about to quit for the evening. You just have to keep wading through and looking.
> What’s your favorite thing you’ve learned so far about Ann Lowe after beginning your research on her?
Her work in Florida during the 1920s intrigues me. Very little (almost nothing!) has been written about it, and my biggest goal with my thesis research is to record this part of her story. Talking to relatives of her Tampa clients has been fascinating. One woman’s great grandmother and grandmother told stories about “Annie” all the time while she was growing up, and she even told me a story about meeting her in the 1960s. Ann Lowe must have been such a memorable and incredible woman to leave such a memory on this family she met in 1917! I've read a bunch of oral history transcripts from black women from her part of Tampa who lived there in the 1920s and it was quite depressing to hear about the social and economic conditions at the time. And then I read a newspaper article from a Tampa paper in 1976 where Lowe, who had lived in New York for almost 50 years at this point and was being interviewed from her hospital bed, blind and suffering from a heart condition. She described her time in Tampa as, “the happiest years in my life and I will always feel that Tampa is my real home. People were so kind and so good to me there.” As a Black woman, that just floored me. How could the happiest time in your life have happened in an area where you had to sit in the back of a streetcar and the African-American people in the Tampa City Directory from this period had asterisks next to their names and business to indicate their race? One of her most lucrative jobs was to create costumes and evening gowns for an annual festival that she would never attend because it was only for White residents of Tampa. But she talks about her time in Florida with such warmth! I want to try to find out what made her 10 years in Florida so special to her.
> What do you want readers to remember about Ann Lowe?
I want people to know that she existed. That there was a woman who was born in rural Alabama in the late 1890s who would grow up to make thousands of couture dresses for some of the most affluent families in the United States. When I was first introduced to her story, I didn’t know very much about her at all. I remembered hearing that a Black woman made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, and just figured that she was an Auchincloss family maid who sewed dresses on the side. That is the image that I want to correct.

Thanks for the info Margaret!
I think what's most amazing about Margaret's research is that not much has been known about Lowe so Margaret is doing some of the first research about the designer. Margaret is an ultra talented writer (she once wrote a research paper about feed sack dresses and I was so hooked I was ready to order some old feed sacks off ebay and start sewing!) and is a dedicated scholar. I am so looking forward to reading her final paper. I'll keep you posted on her progress.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Coral and Tusk

Spotted at the Renegade Craft Fair this past June: beautiful embroidery by Coral and Tusk. I had actually picked up their very cool business card the year before and framed the thing I liked it so much. 

Thankfully they were fair-ing well again this year and are now back on my radar. I couldn’t decide what to get this time around (ok, I had already splurged at several other booths that morning), but I snagged her card again and vowed to online order another day!

Along with tons of pretty pillows, she’s got some lovely feather pins:

Awesome framed artwork (Essentials for a Snake Charmer):

Sharp looking threads! Maybe Grace and I should get matching Ts:

And really cute sky-writer stationary:

- Cathleen 

Friday, August 26, 2011

The NESTING Series: Part One

This is the first segment in what will be a regular miniseries on NESTS. I started writing a post covering all of the most interesting branches of this fascinating subject, and it quickly began morphing into a dissertation of epic proportions. I instead decided to break things up into several shorter bite-sized posts that will be presented every three weeks until my nesting knowledge is thoroughly exhausted. Right now I think I’ve got about 7 posts in me. Maybe 8. So get ready. 

Admittedly, I am obsessed with birds. I just counted and we have no less than 34 bird decorations perched on surfaces throughout the house. That number is rather shocking, actually. Especially considering I did a major thinning out of my collection after Micky and I first moved in together and he turned to me and said, “Wow. There really are a lot of birds in here.”

So now that you know I’m a bona fide bird lady, you can probably imagine my excitement over a review I read recently in the New York Times for a book called Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build by Peter Goodfellow.

According to my online research (I've already put this bad boy on my Christmas list), the book provides 300 detailed step-by-step illustrations of the nest-building process for over 100 species, breaking down the different kinds of nests by type: scrape, hole, platform, aquatic, mud, mound, cup or dome, and hanging nests. I was interested to learn that scrape nests, probably the variety that takes the least amount of effort to make, are not much more than a dimple in the ground, without any soft lining, and no real concern with protection from predators. Then, of course, there are the iconic cup-shaped nests that we all know and love:  

I’ve always been fascinated by birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird for the way they use gathered cobwebs as the glue that holds the tufts of dandelion and thistle down together in their nests: 

This haughty little fellow was photographed by the Delaware Nature Society

An insider's view found on Le Petit Cadeau

So not only are these lovely flights of fancy decked out in beautiful feathers with their own distinctive markings (there’s something startlingly beautiful about a pigeon when you see that flash of iridescent feathers as they swivel their necks, am I right, folks?), but amazingly each species is also an ingenious designer and constructor of a perfect, unique home to keep their burgeoning young safe and warm.

Next up in the NESTING series: BEEEEES!

- Cathleen  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tiny Love

One of my greatest achievements was building this dollhouse. Excuse the crude photoit's old and I've since given it away. I was inspired to build the dollhouse because at the time I was working at the now closed Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum in DC.
Here's my baby:

Cathleen just sent me this link to an article a woman wrote in the NY Times about her special love with her dollhouse. It's a cute article worth the read and the author includes lots of links to miniature suppliers.

To keep you inspired, here are some more images of other dollhouses I've come across:

This is Faith Bradford's dollhouse which is exhibited at the National Museum of American History. It's a blast to spend time visually going through all of the rooms.

Here's a slice of a dollhouse available through antique dealer Frederick P. Victoria & Son, Inc.

 A neoclassical-style dollhouse available through antiques dealer Hollywood at Home.

Another view.

Openready for you to decorate! 

A cool modern twist on the classic dollhousethe Bennett House available here. Price is listed as TBDthat can't mean affordable!

Actually a bird housethree stories high. I don't know where this is from. I found it on my computer and probably came across it years ago. Anyway you could display this in your house as a faux dollhouse. 

And finally a dollhouse cabinet for your own little doll baby. Available here.

I'll keep searching for cool dollhouses and will post them as I find them.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Artist of the Week: Jennifer Rubell

A felled apple tree for dessert. 

Jennifer Rubell creates smorgasbords in the name of art. For a Brooklyn Museum gala in 2010, Rubell presented a participatory exhibition called “Icons” where she laid out a pile of golden potato chips and unmarked paint tubes filled with various dips on two wooden pedestals. Nearby heat guns melted cheese heads that hung from the ceiling and dripped over stacks of crackers arranged on a platform below.

[First four photos by John Berens and Kevin Tachman from artist's website.]

For one of the annual breakfasts held at her parents’ home during Art Basel in Miami, she presented droves of hungry art-eaters with a perfect brunch trifecta: 2,000 hard-boiled eggs, pieces of bacon, and croissants. There was even a nearby table literally jam-packed with various jelly jars (ha!), each with a spoon inside, ready to spread ‘em.

One of the most sophisticated little ladies I’ve ever seen, croissant aloft, teaspoon poised.
[Photo from artist's website.]

A truly perfect food. Photo found on 

Her food installations are an inventive way of satisfying the most basic need of the masses on a grand scale. These banquets have a humor, and yet there’s also something very sensual about them. Having never attended one of her grand dinner parties myself, I can only imagine the sights, the smells, the taste. 

Jennifer is slated to participate in this year’s Performa 11, a biennial of performance art that will take place in New York this November. I’ve already marked my calendar, so hopefully
 I’ll get the chance to experience one of these feasts in the flesh. I love all-you-can-eat buffets.

- Cathleen 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tiny Folds

Origami is one of those things that always amazes melike who sat down the first time and was like, if I make this fold here, then ten folds later it will turn into this amazing sculpture? Well if you're also amazed by origami, be prepared to times that amazement by ten.

On Flickr, artist Anja Markiewicz has made tiny origami figuressmaller then the tip of your finger.

Here are some of my favorites:

Check out more of her stuff here.

On another note, I always make sure my graduating eighth grade art students know how to make an origami crane. I think it's one of those things everyone wishes they knew how to do, so I try to empower my students early.

- Grace

Monday, August 22, 2011

Let’s Get Down to Brass Tacks

Brass Cracker Necklace, $24, via basilthecat on Etsy
When I was little, I used to get asked if I was a Georgia Peach or a Georgia Cracker. Having no idea what they were getting at, I just thought about those delicious salty, crispy, sometime cheese-dusted snacks and proudly declared my allegiance. This awesome Cracker Necklace would let me say it with brass. 

Clicking through my Favorites file on Etsy, I noticed that I have quite the affection for brass pendants on long chains. Here are a few of the best: 

That's one tough nut, $32, by contrary on Etsy

Tell a friend. Tell a neighbor. Telescope, $24, by GardenOfSypria on Etsy

For my sister from another mister, $20, via basilthecat on Etsy

A necklace for your top three, $44, by Verabelle on Etsy

- Cathleen
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