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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Clothespin World

My cousin taught me the fine art of clothespin doll-making when I was six and she was seven. She was visiting us in Chicago (we were city-mouse, country-mouse cousins - I lived in an apartment, she lived on a farm), and brought along a little bag of eight plain wooden clothespins and some scraps of cloth. "We can make dolls out of these," she announced, and I watched intently as she showed me how. As I remember it, we spent all of one day holed up in the back room of the apartment, craft supplies spread all over the olive green wall-to-wall carpet, each making a family of primitive clothespin figures. I think I still have them somewhere, those original prototypes.

Thus followed years of prolific clothespin doll production. My cousin and I replicated the cast of "Little House on the Prairie," developing innovations in yarn "styling" to create different hair effects. She devised ringlets for Nellie Olsen, for example, by holding onto one strand of a piece of yarn and scrunching the rest into a fat worm. Hold an iron just over the yarn on the steam setting, allow to dry, and the finished product, once that central strand is pulled out, results in curls worthy of Cindy Brady. Individual strands pressed flat created a sewing-room version of today's shiny-straight flat-iron look.

I passed on the secrets of the craft to my best friend from school, too, and soon we had a mini-mountain of figures inspired by Mary Norton's "Borrowers" series. The clothespin medium was perfect for that story, which follows the adventures of a race a tiny people who live under the floors and behind the walls. Our story lines quickly branched out from the original books, sort of a childhood version of fan fiction, I suppose, but without all the improbable hook-ups. (We saved that for Barbies.)

A few years ago I was telling a friend about these girlhood games, and she seemed so charmed by the idea I decided to make a doll for her birthday. I liked the finished result so much I took a picture of it, posed in front of a little cardboard market stand from a French children's game. I liked that result even better.

Since then I've been sporadically making more dolls and taking pictures of them in little scenes. I'm startled by how much fun it is, and I do it a little furtively, because, let's face it, I am basically playing dolls. I mean, am I Grown-Up Doll Lady? But the process and the final results are so satisfying, like filming your own little still-life movie, with yourself as the writer, director, location scout, and costumer.

My friend Jess was musing recently about the particular appeal of this kind of photographed 3-D world, and I couldn't agree with her more. The process of putting together these worlds is pure joy. I, too, loved the Rankin-Bass holiday movies, more than any of the other holiday specials, and while I somehow missed out on the naughty world of "The Lonely Doll," I did have a favorite, more upbeat book called "Alfred Goes House Hunting," by Bill Binzen, in which a tiny teddy bear explores the very real outdoors, looking for a summer abode. That one's now out of print, but you can view the first book in the series, "Alfred the Little Bear," on Binzen's web site. This is a scene from that book.

I know I want to do something with this peculiar pursuit, but what it will be is yet to be seen. I've gotten some strident advice that I should make a children's book, or market a series of clothespin dolls, or come up with a kicky name for them ... but none of those approaches feels quite right. In the meantime I'll be making new outfits for my cast of characters and photographing them in the herb garden, and wait to see where they lead me.

Update: Thought I'd link to a few more clothespin pictures on Flickr; these are from a birthday picture book I made for my friend Christina, in which a magic birthday present (a handbag) whisks her and her cat Fritz off on an international adventure.

If you need tips on making your own clothespin dolls, I have a tutorial up here. They are lots of fun: I highly recommend it!

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Afternoon at the Gardner

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of my favorite places in Boston. From the outside it doesn't look very promising - a blocky building of tan brick - and so it's especially dazzling once you step inside and discover you've entered a Venetian palazzo, complete with its own glass-roofed courtyard.

I had always been under the impression that the building started out as Mrs. Gardner's private home, and I enjoyed imagining her getting up in the night for a glass of milk, creeping in a white nightgown through four stories of gloomy, tapestry-hung galleries. It made more sense once I did my research and learned that she had the structure built with the intention of opening a museum, and only ever inhabited private rooms on the fourth floor. (I still like to picture her using the opulent, archaic museum rooms for her private amusement though, after hours, like an overgrown Claudia Kincaid from the beloved "Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." She reminds me a bit of Mrs. Frankweiler, too, come to think of it.)

My mother liked to tell me that she first took me to the Gardner when I was a baby and we were visiting friends in Boston. She said she lugged me all around the museum without a carrier, and by the end of the day her arms were killing her. Something must have sunk into my infant brain that day, because I've always been drawn back there over the years. It's not so much about the art, though there are a few paintings I do love, but the extravagent atmosphere of the place itself. It's like a day-trip to Europe and the past for a $10 ticket, plus T fare.

El Jaleo, 1882, John Singer Sargent

I visited to the Gardner many times when I was in college, particularly after I returned from a JYA stay in England and was feeling deprived of the Old World splendors I'd taken for granted the previous year. But I hadn't been back since then, so we headed over there one rainy Sunday a few weeks ago to see if it still held its old magic.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894, Anders Zorn

Doesn't she look like she's having a great time in this portrait? The story goes that she had just stepped onto the balcony to watch a display of fireworks, then turned back to her friends and said, "Come out - all of you - this is too beautiful to miss!"

Over the main door of the museum is a seal that bears the phrase, "C'est mon plaisir" (It's my pleasure). What a gracious way to welcome the public into your own personal treasure trove. In the public restrooms, various tiles are emblazoned with some of her favorite mottos. "Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it." According to the museum's web site, she is also quoted as saying, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."

Anyone with the first name "Isabella" is admitted free to the museum, "forever." Sorry, Isabelles and Isabels, "other variations and spellings do not apply."

The Concert, Vermeer
The museum was famously robbed in 1980. Two thieves dressed as Boston police officers stole 13 pieces of art, including paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, and none of these works was ever recovered. (If you happen to stumble across any of them "in good condition," there's a $5 million reward waiting for you.) There are still blank spaces on the walls where they used to be, each with a little note explaining what was stolen.

You can't help but wonder where they might be. Hanging in the private study of an unscrupulous billionaire? Collecting dust in a barn somewhere? Also, why those particular 13 pieces? The Vermeer, the Rembrandts - I can see why they would be at the top of the list. But why not the other Rembrandts at the museum? Did the thieves run out of time? Why the French flag finial shaped like an eagle? Was it just easy to grab? Was it by someone's specific request? If so, Degas collectors might want to watch their backs; five of the thirteen stolen pieces were signed with his name.

It was really dark in the museum the day we were there. All the windows were covered with pale linen shades, presumably to protect the art from light damage, but with the gloomy rain outside there was barely enough light to see. Museumgoers were huddled close to each picture or tapestry or vase, eyes squinted as they tried to make out the details. Several rooms were under renovation, with big sheets of black plastic covering their doors. One end of the Tapestry Room, a long, wide hall used for concerts, was roped off and piled with chairs, chests, and silver candlesticks, like some kind of grand dutchess's yard sale. "Antique thrones, cheap!"

Omnibus, 1892, Anders Zorn
We stopped in one last gallery, the dimmest of all, on our way to pick up our coats and umbrellas, and I saw a painting I hadn't noticed on previous visits that I think was my favorite of the day. It echoed the mood of the blustery weather outdoors and the gray light within, and made me feel that as different as the clothes were all those years ago, the people in the painting weren't that different from us, riding the bus to get somewhere, sitting next to strangers and staring into space.

And then we went out into the rain, but instead of getting on a bus ourselves, we walked all the way home, through the Fens and across the river, back through Central Square and into the modern world again.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Design Your Life

Does anyone else think the democratization of design has gotten a little out of hand? Or maybe I mean the ubiquitization of design. I'm all for Target and its "design for all" mantra if it means I can get cute home goods instead of the plastic, "country casual" look from my youth, always featuring the color-choice troika of dusty rose, dusty blue, and off-white. But more and more there seems to be a lot of pressure for every aspect of one's life to be ... designed.

I first noticed an ad for the new magazine Blueprint from the folks at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia with a sense of foreboding. I should have been excited: they essentially had me in the crosshairs of their market segmentation. But the photograph of a geeky-chic model couple perched on their sleek, modern sofa screamed "focus group." It was trying much too hard. She with her bangs, indie ringer tee, and tapestry ballet flats. He with an ironic smirk, a collared shirt, and jeans, as though to say, "I am not so pretentious that I will overdress at my casual computer-industry workplace, but I am ambitious, so the quality of my casual clothes is really good." And a big framed photo of the couple's quirky pet dachshund hanging over the sofa.

I might be secretly curious about what the magazine had to offer, but I wouldn't be caught dead reading it in public.

I went back and forth for a minute when I saw it for sale at Walgreens. Then I decided I really wanted to see what Martha's staff thinks of my edgy-with-disposable-income generation, and how exactly the magazine would position itself.

Here's what Blueprint appears to think of us:

1) We have bad manners. How many "Do"s and "Don't"s does an aging hipster need? However many, it's more don'ts than dos, it seems. When you're at a party, don't cut down the hostess. Don't start thank you notes with the words "thank you." There's even an entire feature called "Behave Yourself" (don't double-dip, don't litter ...). I'm not sure whether it's meant to instruct its gentle readership or make us feel smug that we, too, recognize each heinous faux pas. Either way, it's clear that Blueprint thinks someone's in need of some etiquette training.

2) We're not interested in DIY. Wait, really? I thought this was the one admirable distinguishing characteristic of Gen Y. (Or am I Gen X? Gen XY? Somebody somehow missed my exact age group. We may have disposable income, but apparently not enough.) There's a big feature on making your own charm bracelets and necklaces ... without any info on actually making the jewelry. No diagrams of needle-nose pliers, jump rings, or clasp options. (This so completely goes against the grain of the Martha ethic, I almost wonder if that lady who walked out of the prison is an imposter.) The make-a-purse feature consists of instructions on tying a few knots in a scarf to make a sort of hobo sack. A clever idea, but one for hurried, impatient types, not someone who might be interested in investing time in a craft project.

3) We don't cook. The "entertaining" feature tells you how to buy pre-made stuff and arrange it on a table so it looks like party food.

4) We're cultural and intellectual dimwits. Blueprint suggests a list of seven hip albums to choose from when I arrange my next cocktail party, ranging from Beck to Serge Gainsbourg. It informs me that, just in case I was wondering, the expression "mano a mano" does not mean "man to man." Announcing "I'm all about ..." whatever it is you're all about is deemed "tired," but adding "-tastic" to the end of a word ("This brie is cheese-tastic!") is "inspired." Not only do I feel patronized, I feel patronized by a publication that thinks "tired" is a fresh and original heading for an In/Out list.

I would like this magazine more if it started with an assumed base-level of intelligence and personal taste on the part of its readers. Obviously someone who buys this magazine at least cares about aesthetic matters, even if they feel the need for some guidance. Perhaps the magazine truly is targeting absolute beginners, those who want to live in a West Elm catalog but don't know where to start, but even if that's the case, I can't imagine anyone would find the publication's condescending tone appealing.

Even worse than the assumption of cluelessness is the apparent assumption of laziness. The selection of features suggests that while we may care about looking like we have our lives together - care desperately, it seems - we'll be damned if we have to work for it. The overall aim of this magazine seems to be to tell its audience not how to "design" a life, but how to purchase one.

And conveniently enough, a modest but notable number of the suggested products in Blueprint's pages are made by one branch or another of Martha Stewart Living.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rainy Ladybug Days

It's been raining here again quite a bit, which means I've been re-watching the BBC's 1995 Pride & Prejudice mini-series (the one I like to think of as the "definitive" version, and five meandering hours of it, so you can really savor it). And watching those Bennett sisters whiling away the long hours in drawing rooms with their needlework got me in the mood to do some embroidery. The credits open with a beautiful embroidering sequence, too (I know, high action in Austen's work), so that surely helped plant the idea.

One of my cousins is having a baby girl soon, so I decided to decorate a little cotton jersey hat for her. At first all I could think of was ducks and bunnies, and I wasn't feeling too inspired, but then a ladybug crawled across the windowsill. I always like a ladybug motif.

I did them freehand, with a few false starts, and interspersed each bug with a flower or a butterfly. I put in the pale blue stitch trails to add a sense of movement and try to tie the different elements together (all the flowers and butterflies used some of the pale blue, too).

I started out with simple daisy-type flowers (blue ones, though), but by the end I got daring with this stalk of bluebells. One of my life's ambitions is to see a bluebell wood (wooded area carpeted with bluebells) in bloom. Another thing I learned about from watching too many period British dramas.