This guy is from Augustus Sherman’s collection of Ellis Island portraits. The photo is dated 1906. He’s listed simply as “Romanian shepherd.”
I looked up the May Day celebrations and rituals of Romania (nearly every country’s got some), and this apotropaic one charmed me:
“The entries to the animals’ shelters are adorned with green branches. All branches are left in place until the wheat harvest when they are used in the fire which will bake the first bread from the new wheat.”
To be clear, the fire is to bake the bread.
Definitely only the bread.
Definitely not the sad American co-ed’s bad boyfriend dressed in a bear suit.
As the end of the year (aka gift giving season) rolls up with the top down, I thought I’d show off one of my favorite custom embroidery jobs from the archives.
I recently finished this custom piece for a dear friend. He wanted to gift an artwork to a friend who loved wrestling and wrestling history. He picked an image from this series of photographs by Irving Penn from 1945 and told me to have at it.
The man in this photo is Maurice Tillet (1903-1954), the most notorious wrestler of the 1940s, better known by his ring name, ~THE FRENCH ANGEL~.
“He studied 14 languages, wrote poetry, and aspired to become an actor. However, his dreams were shattered when he developed acromegaly in his twenties. … This disorder is caused by an abnormal production of growth hormone usually related to a benign tumor of the pituitary gland… With his new body, Tillet, an educated man and a lover of the fine arts, felt like a monstrosity. Unable to face a life of constant gawking and humiliation, he decided to make drastic changes and use his condition to his benefit.”
At the end of his life, Maurice was a Chicago boy. He died here, too, of a heart attack that came on after he heard that his trainer died. <sobbbbbbing>
My color choices for his wings and the stars on his belt are a direct reference to the Chicago flag.
I almost put the fourth star on Maurice’s belt too, but I just had to do something about Dorian there…
The angle of her foot, the shape of that heel… oh la la, there’s just so much I love about that aspect of the original photograph. I put the last star beneath it to give Dorian her own special place in this piece.
On this day nearly 100 years ago (1927), Isadora Duncan died the strangest death. She was strangled in not-so-nice Nice (France).
By her scarf.
Duncan was a dancer, remarkable for her ability to use the body’s natural movements and desires as guides for her improvisational choreography. She is remembered for her movement-based rebuke of classical dance and its wealthy connotations at the time. Her dance was independent. Emotional. Beloved by sad corseted ladies and boho-minded men yearning to be free the world over.
Because of this dance style, scarves were kind of her thing.✌️ She usually danced barefoot, while wrapped in free-flowing gowns.
I know this sounds kind of “so what?” in the context of today, a time in which Bonnaroo exists and you can’t walk past a modern dance performance without being thrown a curtain from the rafters to climb into and be swaddled like a baby in the cradle of the womb your subconscious still craves.
At Duncan’s time, the drapery was rebellious — shocking even! Her movement style and sartorial choices were a stark contrast to the toe mashing and waist gashing of classical ballet, the bitchy bell of the dance ball for too long.
Here’s what was not her thing: Cars. 😠 I’m being glib, but this part is actually super sad. Duncan had three children (“all out of wedlock,” Wikipedia notes… hell yeah, Izzy). We’re already off the rails here, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia again:
“The first two [children], Deirdre Beatrice (born 1906), whose father was theatre designer Gordon Craig; and the second, Patrick Augustus (born 1910), by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer, drowned in the care of their nanny in 1913 when their car went into the River Seine.”
Daaaaamn…. 🙁 And then:
“In her autobiography, Duncan relates that [IN HER UNIMAGINABLE GRIEF] she begged a young Italian stranger [HELL YEAH, IZZY], the sculptor Romano Romanelli, to sleep with her because she was desperate for another child. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son on August 13, 1914, but he died shortly after birth. [WTF!]”
One can not blame Dear Isadora, then, for ignoring the warning of her fellow passenger on that fateful joyride in 1927 to watch her damn scarf.
Why not live free? Look fabulous? Die at 50 in a tragic and grotesquely bizarre way befitting a tragic and beautifully bizarre life? With a burdenous heart broken such as that… then what, pray tell my young man, is a broken neck?
The scarf caressed her as l’automobile revved faster on whatever rue de la franacaise. It slithered silky and sensual out the window, fluttered with the wind and shivered with thrilling joie de vivre. Then, spotting the car’s open-spoked wheels and, being one to fancy danger, the scarf flirted and tickled and teased and then licked the rear axle. The tire, all business of cut-throat rubber and metal grinding dirt, responded and swallowed the tongue of that scarf and consumed it in one harumphing gulp, pulling the legendary body of Isadora Duncan down with it for dessert.
A snap. A slice. An exit wound.
A goodbye, sweet world. A thanks for the dance. ✌️
I recently subscribed to The Met on YouTube and found a trove of treasures from this institutional mainstay. Since 2020, the museum has released three to four films from the moving-image archive to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Called “From The Vaults,” the series continues through March 2022.
Hey, when you turn 150 years old, it’s your party and you can make everyone celebrate for two years if you want to.
I’m slowly making my way through all the artifacts they’ve posted; most recently, a 1992 film about American painter Ralph Fasanella, who was known for his depictions of working-class city life and born in the Bronx on Labor Day 1914 to newly minted Italian immigrants.
Berenice Abbott: “A View of the 20th Century”
One of the most compelling docs I’ve watched in The Met’s series so far was another 1992 piece, this one about the photographer Berenice Abbott. I LOVE Berenice and am often drawn to her Works Progress Administration images when selecting images for my embroidery collection.
As one source in the film so succinctly put it, Berenice took, “Emotionally resonant pictures of ordinary things.” That’s as working class as it comes.
What I didn’t realize was how accomplished Berenice was in other intellectual and theoretical pursuits beyond artmaking. Here are some of my favorite quotes from this legendary artist.
“This clear-eyed, insightful documentary, directed by Martha Wheelock and Kay Weaver, offers a grand tour of Abbott’s extraordinary life, from her youth in Ohio and apprenticeship in Paris through her later groundbreaking scientific photography at MIT and final years in Maine.
Using the artist’s memories as a lens for apprehending nearly a century of American and European cultural history,this film pays homage to Abbott’s genius for invention, her free-spirited embrace of uncertainty and experience, and her unshakeable devotion the art of photography.”
Berenice Abbott photographing on South Street, New York, 1937. Photo by Consuelo Kanaga.
ON BEING AN ARTIST
“The only pleasure you can get from creating something is the pleasure you have in doing it. Not the final product even. The pleasure you have in doing it. And that cannot be taken away from you. And it cannot be crushed. But you had a certain kind of joy creating it. And that’s all you can expect.”
“There are many teachers who could ruin you. Before you know it you could be a pale copy of this teacher or that teacher. You have to evolve on your own.”
“I think you have to be intensely personal and be true to yourself. The subject matter that excites you is something you want to photograph. You have to convey to the person who looks at it what it was that excited you.”
“If you’re trying to express people, you have to be part of it because it’s an exchange. You’re a part of that time.”
“The art is selecting what is worthwhile to take the trouble about.”
“I think it stands to reason that if you recognize and appreciate your heritage, it helps you with your future.”
“Anything you photograph has to be exciting somehow visually. It has to be photographically important, visually important. Otherwise you write about it.”
“Photography is very much a prisoner of its time. You work within the framework of the technique at the time, and that’s the way you have to judge photography.”
“I think all photography is documentary or it isn’t even photography. Most photographs are documents by their very nature of the realistic image. When they try to make it a nonrealistic image, they’re imitating another medium. Selectivity is key.”
“Many interesting things aren’t photogenic at all.”
ON CITY APPEAL
“It isn’t just that you think the city is beautiful. It’s that the city is very interesting. Everything in it has been built by man. It expresses people more than people themselves.”
“The city is full of every period, every epoch. Everything there comes out of the human gut. Everything that’s built. Every sign that’s put up. The new, the old, the beautiful, the ugly. It’s the juxtaposition of all this that is an intensely, immensely human subject. You’re photographing people when you’re photographing a city. You don’t have to have a person in it.”
ON BEING A WOMAN
“He said, ‘Nice girls don’t go down on the Bowery.” And I said, ‘Well, I’m not a nice girl. I’m a photographer.‘”
“My assistant got the job. A young man whom I had trained. I think the last thing the world really wants are independent women. I don’t think they like independent women much. Just why I don’t know. But I don’t care.”
“Yes, I’ve always been a loner. I’m certain that some people marry and it doesn’t spoil their independence, even women in some cases. The vast majority seems to snare the woman and she can lose track of her directions and her desires and her interests. I’ve heard so many women say, ‘Oh I would like to have done this but after all my family came first. I had to look after my sons.’ So apparently that was more important to them. To me it would be like losing yourself. I think your work is the most important thing in your life. To spend more time with it.”
“I believe in nature and truth and common sense, pursuit of knowledge. Nothing is any good unless you sort of live up to it. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. That is very valid and can’t get you into any trouble. But you don’t need religion to have morals.”
“I always thought that there was nothing smarter than an old woman. You’ve lived so much, you’ve seen so much, in some sense you’ve been on the passive end of it, which means that you have observed plenty. But my impression was always that most ordinary women, if they’re old, have some remarkable quality that no other people have.”
“I had no idea I was getting older. I’ve never worried about getting older. I don’t see why people make so much of a thing about aging. It’s so natural to age. Everything is aging all the time. Everybody’s aging constantly. Why worry? It’s slow. You’re not aware of it.You just take it in your stride. But women are so harassed with the idea because of the social attitude, the unfairness of social attitudes between the aging of men and women is so ridiculous and so dreadful that women’s years seem to be only good as long as she can procreate, but a man can be very attractive at 80.”
I haven’t heard my grandma, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, say a coherent word for nearly three years. She said these last words while receiving communion at the assisted living facility. As everyone genuflected to launch into the lord’s prayer, my grandma did too, saying “Father, son…” and then petering out. I figured those were words she could formulate because she had gone to church and said them every weekend of her entire life until the day she moved in here. Those words were seared into the empty rivulets of her brain, so they didn’t seem a miracle to fish out.
I accepted the reality that I’d probably never hear her say another word again.
And then I did.
It happened on my recent visit, a drop-in at the assisted living facility that marked over a year and a half since I’d seen her (pandemic lockdown).
Once my plane landed, I got my rental car and started on the hour-long route north. I called the nursing home to make sure I could walk-in to see her or whether I needed to make an appointment. I didn’t. I asked then, to the surprise of both myself and a Wanda on the other end of the line, if I could bring flowers. Would that be OK?
I don’t know what came over me to ask such a thing. I don’t usually bring flowers when I visit. I don’t usually bring flowers for anything. Maybe I thought there needed to feel like there was more gravitas to this moment. I hadn’t seen her in so long. We’d survived a pandemic. Her husband died during that time. I knew she wouldn’t remember me, but flowers… well, anyone can remember those, right?
I thought about just hopping off the highway to a Kroger or a Whole Foods. They always have little flowers packaged up at the end of the aisles. Instead, I looked up the local Marion flower shop, saw they were open, and entered the address into my phone. It felt good to buy from a local family business after the pandemic. Plus, I knew they’d probably have roses. My grandma’s name is Rosemary. Even if she didn’t remember me, I wanted to show that I remembered her. I got half a dozen multicolored roses for Grandma in a glass vase and another half-dozen in a mournful maroon to take to my grandpa’s grave. He loved his Rose.
When I enter the long-term care wing and ask for Rosie, the nurses look at me grimly, wondering whether I’m prepared for just how far gone she is. I am. They wheel her into her room and shut the door. It’s the two of us.
After some fruitless and awkward talking to her while sitting across from her, I spend most of my time squatting next to her wheelchair, rubbing her back and nervously trying to use my other arm to keep her in her seat. The medication they gave her keeps her nodding in and out of sleep. She doesn’t register my presence when she has to look at me, but she seems to lean into my hugs.
So I position her so that when she wakes up from the brief naps, she’ll see only the flowers, now sitting on a table in her room.
And that’s when it happened. I was squatting by her side, arms around her, when she woke up and, clear as day, said, “Flowers for me.”
Three little words. One moment I’ll remember forever. 🌹
She passed away two weekends later. While writing her obituary, I turned to my notebook of stories written by her and my grandpa. There I found another gift. A recollection of her first memory: “I was about 2 ½ years old then. [Brother] Eugene and I were in the barnyard with Dad. We were standing near a wagon watching the men who were taking the horses. Well, about the time one of the horses was being led to the truck to be taken away. Dad put his hands under my arms and swooped me up into the wagon, as he did with Eugene. I remember the horses coming by the wagon bobbling their head like horses do when they walk. I was about eye-to-eye level with the horses. I think this is the earliest memory of my life.”
On our recent trip to New Mexico, I made it all the way to the clouds before realizing I’d forgotten my swimsuit. My old bikini remained rolled up somewhere, seducing moths with its neon thread trim and fading pheromones of summer’s past (chlorine, sunscreen, Red Hot French fries).
How does one end up suit-less on a pool-centric vacation? I blame COVID. It’s been a year and a half of never really leaving the apartment. I don’t know how to plan to be out in the world anymore. I’m still getting my sea legs back under me. Pool legs?
We landed in El Paso and saddled up our slick white Mustang to drive to Las Cruces. As I worked from my laptop at the Airbnb we’d rented for a few days, Justin drove with the top down to Target and tried to find a swimsuit in my size that was as close to cute as possible.
He came back with this neon orange bikini:
It’s too big in the bottom. The drawers are droopy. Any time I climb out of a pool, waterfalls pour from the sides. I look like a soggy toddler bopping around in a dragging, dirty diaper.
But who cares. It was a sweet pick. He even snuck a size swap so that the top and bottom are two different sizes. Medium on the top, large on the bottom for my back-country backside.
I guess that’s just what happens when we forget how to do things we used to remember. We improvise. We make do. We jump in feet first. I’m just happy to be here.