Activist, No Longer “Act(ing) As If”

pussy-hat-hair-ball

what I made for the Women’s March on NY

A roaring tsunami of peacefully protesting pink pussy-hatted women (and men! and kids!) washed over the planet last Saturday. I was one drop in that ocean, finally finding my voice after forty-five years of legal adulthood, where I was (mostly) not rocking the boat / being seen but not heard / being a “good girl” instead of a “nasty woman.” I now intend on being an active, not passive, voice in what is a truly terrifying time in our nation’s history.

Here is one tributary of that pink wave, the one I was a part of in the Women’s March On NY.

extralarge

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I had already been commissioned in the past year to do some activist art for YogaCityNYC. The first was to address sexual harassment in the yoga world, a symbolic illustrative logo to accompany several articles and a community discussion.

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Then came an illustration for a Vagina Scrum)

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and finally, now that the election is over (and the P****Grabber-In-Chief is still whining and tweeting and in denial about his 3 million + loss in the popular vote), this:

yoga-activist-final-lo-rez

Every week, YogaCityNYC will suggest ways to not go quietly into that abyss,

with “Do This Now!

I was going through some of my art from the early 1970s, tucked in my attic, and discovered a student book published by Parson’s School of Design right at the time I was graduating. Just a few months ago it seemed as quaint as my Beatle scrapbooks. How far we had come! Now, it is au courant, all over again. Take a look.

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nixxon

barbed-wire

one-small-step

legal-abortion

racism

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That’s nearly one half of a century. We had come so far. We can’t give up that ground.

copyright sharon watts

Parsons School of Design credits:

1/Angelo Foccacio, 2/Bruce Handler, 3/unknown student poster, 4/Tory Ettlinger, 5/Sheryl Saks, 6/Alan Wood, 7/Melissa Schreiber

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Picking Up the Thread

sewing stuff

note the Smokey the Bear ruler I had to use, a freebie from the Lumber Museum

So.

I decided that these six mid-summer weeks at Neil’s barn would be the perfect chance to revisit an adolescent passion. I was going to sew. Again. And for the first time.

I’d made nearly all my clothing from seventh grade Home-Ec class through high school graduation, when it seemed crucial not to repeat an outfit within a two-week period. And in our household that meant not only did I need a part-time job, but also the ability to line a pattern to the fabric grain, insert sleeves, make gathers, and match plaid. Because I wore a lot of plaid.

There were caveats. I didn’t do notched lapels, button holes, or interfacing. Now I wrack my brain to determine the origins of those particular bugaboos. While a maxi-coat in maroon herringbone was fully-lined, its lapels were misaligned. I was no budding Schiaparelli, and besides, intentional asymmetry was not even on my radar.

My mother’s grumbling about lining up button holes festered in her eldest to a full-tilt phobia. To this day I have never even tried. I avoided blouses, and everything else could be fastened with a hook and eye, a snap, or even (when I was extremely lazy, or in a rush) a safety pin. Pinned on the inside, of course. At least I think so.

Interfacing just seemed so unnecessary. There was no need to give stiffness to the early 70s jerseys, double knits, and panne velvets. Even if called for, it entailed a tedious basting-in of something that never would even be seen, and prevented me from knocking out an outfit on a Sunday afternoon so that I could be a fashion knockout in the school halls on Monday morning. Besides, I was too busy experimenting with tie-dye, staining my mother’s Revere Ware with purple Rit.

None of this lack of attention to detail seemed to raise any red flags as I set my sights on a career in fashion design. It wasn’t until my first semester at Parsons School of Design that I got a slap upside the head what I had gotten myself into. This wasn’t just drawing from a fanciful imagination and then having my efforts somehow be magically transformed from sketchbook page to mannequin. A plastic implement called the French curve was the road sign that was harbinger to my design career’s derailment.  I flunked draping and took up the much smoother path of fashion illustration instead.

But flash forward to now. I am sitting with Neil’s very elegant octogenarian mother, Jo Ella, as her layered bracelets softly jingle to effortless stitches. She is coaxing the hand-made bias tape around the curves of a lingerie bag that she is helping me assemble. The design is her own mother’s, an envelope bag for ladies’ “unmentionables.” I marvel at the way her hands adeptly handle the fabric and manage the tiny invisible stitches. She and her mother were professional seamstresses from an era that took pride in meticulous detail, both in clothing and in home furnishings, whose voluminous drapery and corded cushions predated the mid-century modern look that permeates today. I am very lucky to have her as a tutor for many reasons, the least of which is that, ironically, the artist in me has never been able to decipher the 2-D diagrams in a how-to-sew book.

We visit Jo-Ann Fabric store where she loads up for her own projects. She has just treated herself to a state-of-the-art Janome machine for her birthday. I have toted to Neil’s my thirty-year-old Singer and my own stash of supplies to work from. A fabric hound, I’ve selected some favorites that I wanted to turn into napkins, pillows, tote bags, whatever I imagined would either spiff up my life or someone else’s. I had no inkling that Neil’s mother would take the reins so assuredly and lead me into such intricacies as lingerie bags, jewelry pouches, and eyeglass cases.

Jo Ella falls into memories and patter of designers past: Dior, Schiaparelli, and (our favorite), Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy. As a young married woman she would visit the windows of Garfinkel’s in Washington, D.C. and memorize the couture designs that were out of the reach of her husband’s salary. Then she would dash to G Street Fabric’s pattern department and piece together her own versions, take them home to her Free Westinghouse sewing machine, and turn out elegant handmade garments that had her own personal stamp as well as a whiff of Parisian couture. Heads would turn at cocktail parties, and do to this day. Jo Ella never fails to look as if she were having lunch at La Grenouille, instead of simply going to the post office in this small, remote town in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

I told her of a little fantasy I have, to design a skirt that is classic and flattering and dirndl.  One that I can wear as I age. That’s all it took. Jo Ella is on board and eager to help me deal with my former demons of draping.

Who knows, I may become a fashion designer yet. Or even better, have the grace and class of Jo Ella when I am eighty-six.

lingerie bag in faille

lingerie bag in faille

lingerie bag interior

insert lacy undies or love letters

A Blair Affair

1980 - Blair in leather copy

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the punk scene in New York City was settling into a creative humus for artists of every ilk. Even if you didn’t frequent the Mudd Club, its vibe permeated the air and you absorbed it by osmosis. The era’s music dictated the creative arts: Patti Smith was high priestess in her white tattered T-shirts and skinny black jeans. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, she snarled in a plaintive three-note mantra. The very notion of “fashion” was tossed in a shredder and literally pinned back together. I was taking an evening fashion drawing class at Parsons School of Design, taught by Steven Meisel, my contemporary, an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily (just before he went on to achieve superstardom as a photographer). In our very first class he cracked the whip and commanded: FUCK IT UP!  Which meant carving into the drawing pad with our pen as scalpel and excising whatever in our artist-psyches was pretty and polite and safe. Play up the dark, the extreme, the anti-fashion. That was all this “good girl” needed to hear.

Years later I am rediscovering my drawings from that class and remembering that time, along with my friends Michele and Robin. We agree on one thing: Blair was our favorite model. She was petite with short-cropped white-blonde hair and bee-stung red lips, and wore the best fashion retro-mix of anyone I’ve ever known. It was impossible to get a bad drawing of her, she was that good. We didn’t know at the time that she too was a talented artist. Thirty-three years later, Blair Thornley is a successful illustrator and animator whose art looks exactly how I would imagine it to. Wonderful, magical, uniquely Blair-like. Take a peek into her world HERE.

What I found in my attic:

Blair in overcoat 1

copyright sharon watts

Blair on Red - 72

copyright sharon watts

Blair - KPB style

copyright sharon watts

Blair in shorts - top

Blair in shorts - bottom copyright sharon watts

We drew on 18 X 24 pads, often still not getting the whole figure on. My drawings from this time don’t fit on the scanner, and despite Robin’s patient tutorial in splicing, I am still fumbling in Photoshop, lost in layers.

Blair on magenta

copyright sharon watts

Blair on blue

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Blair gesture 2&3

copyright sharon watts

Blair gesture 4

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Blair gesture 5

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blair contour

copyright sharon watts

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Michele Wesen Bryant and I have almost identical drawings, since we were in the same classroom. She has gone on to teach and write, still at the cutting edge as she inspires and guides her fashion design students.  Her archival masterwork of Women’s Wear Daily art is collected in WWD Illustrated: 1960s — 1990s

MBryantBlair

copyright Michele Wesen Bryant

CLICK HERE for a post from Michele’s blog MORE FASHION DRAWING, where she shares more art and Steven Meisel stories.

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Robin drew Blair in Richard Rosenfeld’s class at Parsons School of Design in the early 80s, just after Meisel got his first photography break. He never looked back. She and I hired models together in the 90s, but not Blair. By then she was on her own brightly-lit path. Robin is now a successful designer at Robin Read Art & Design.

robin_blair1

copyright robin read

robin_blair2

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robin_blair3

copyright robin read

The lean and mean street looks of the late 70s and early 80s billowed into the era of MTV, opening the doors for video to become the premier enabler of fashion extremism and celebrity-worship, with the Material Girl muscling her way onto the scene. Ironically, it was Meisel who took some of her earliest photos. Meanwhile, some of our classmates and models and other artist contemporaries were dying of AIDS.

CALLING ALL ANGELS.

all images copyrighted

Hopping The Pond @1984

This gallery contains 11 photos.

 In 1984, girls just wanted to have fun. And I just wanted to draw, dress up, and watch MTV. Lately I’ve been waxing nostalgic for an era that seems like just a few years ago, surely not the quarter century … Continue reading