Weaving Personal Stories

While the crowds were at the crowd-pleasing Madeline exhibit, I lingered in the New York Historical Society’s thoughtful and thought-provoking show of Civil War textiles.

Click in and then zoom in for the patriotic theme

Click in and then zoom in for the patriotic theme

In a time when a show of patriotism in a dress fabric or handkerchief could be dangerous to flaunt in the street, politics play throughout the era revealing a complexity that defies any North-good/South-bad dichotomy.

Commemorative handkerchief of people and battles

Commemorative handkerchief of people and battles

And exhibits like this help me look behind the war news to how people lived everyday.

Eastman Johnson Knitting for the Soldiers 1861

Eastman Johnson
Knitting for the Soldiers




Women knitted stockings in every spare moment.  Your son or brother or husband was marching through a pair a week.  And the war went on for so long, with endless marching.  Hand knits were valued over cheaply made mill products.


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But soldiers seemed to hate havelocks, even when handmade by women at home.  This cap inspired by soldiers in India, protects your beloved’s neck from being sunburned.  The men didn’t care, using them instead as bandages or rags.


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But all the men, enlisted and officers alike, carried a Housewife, like a little sewing kit, and here is the camp bed made by General Thomas Hubbard.  Everyone had to be crafty and resourceful for meager comforts.

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Back home, if bereaved, you could order your mourning attire and black bunting for your windows, doors, and mirrors from a sample book, complete with a range of shades of black.  The book on display from Jordan Marsh in Boston made the reality and prevalence of death as powerful as any battlefield photograph.

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2014-07-30 12.49.13Women in the South made quilts for the war effort, as a correlate for the Sanitary Commission in the North.  Fantastic artistry with fabric was sold to fund the building of a gunboat or other war needs.  Politics was ever present.  The Arkansas maker of this quilt put nine stars on her flag because hers was the ninth state to secede.

The quilts were often buried to protect them from Union soldiers, who also took them home as souvenirs.  One Georgian woman watched her quilts be torn apart for use as saddle blankets for Union horses.  A need and sign of disrespect at the same time.

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The explosively rising cost of cotton was a boon for Northern mills, which could temper prices through manufacturing efficiencies.  Here’s a Northern quilt made from the scraps of mill-made uniforms.




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Many hands worked on this story quilt from 1875, advocating for Women’s Rights- the cause that took a back seat to abolition.  Post war, women didn’t want to retreat into the background, another war casualty.

In 1881, some clever recycler used souvenir ribbons from the war to make her quilt.

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One object was actually terrifying in person.  The KKK formed in1866 after the war, to reassert white supremacy in the South.  Quashed by Federal forces by 1873, it reemerged with force in 1915, in reaction to immigration.  The hood on display, with its tiny tear and stain (which I couldn’t bear to be near, much less photograph), demonstrates that women were admitted to the KKK.  It was cherished enough to be preserved by its owner, a woman from Vermont.

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I put this story together for you, a select few of many from the show.  It’s so much more.  There’s beauty large and grand, hand-held and quotidian.  A slice of war life through textiles that makes it all seem so timeless, timely, and present.

Flea Market Memories

I don’t know how many years it’s been since I’ve been to a flea market.  So I surprised myself by wanting to check out the neighboring town’s event at the North Haven Fairgrounds.

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There were the typical booths of junk nobody wants and the typical booths of quirky stuff that nobody wants and the typical booths of collectible stuff that very few people want.  My mother was one of those people, trolling for her “bag lady art,” sculptural assemblages of found objects.

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There were the bored booth attendants and overly friendly booth attendants and desperate booth attendants and the rare busy booth attendants.


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I slowed briefly to look at this cookie jar.  Then I decided it fell on the wrong side of the cute-kitsch to awfully cute continuum.

I paused at the honey booth, with North Haven honey bees right there and working.  I sampled the organic body butters that smelled less like cucumber and mint than lanolin.  This flea market was just a little bit sad.


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Until I hit the Jackpot!  There were Kristine and Gail at the “Live and Let’s Dye” booth, with big smiles and hot purple rubber gloves.  Here were spirits after my own.  So I did it.  I stopped and made a tie dyed tank top, just like my mother and I did when I was a child, in the backyard with big vats of single dye colors.

Kristine informed me that dyes have changed, and although we were carefully gloved, these dyes, well, I don’t know, are somehow new and improved.

First, I decided on a design–spiral in the corner (versus in the center).  Gail dunked my2014-07-26 10.50.15 t-shirt into a vat of water with soda ash, which makes the color adhere.  Then she began twirling the shirt with the spiral in the left corner, as I specified.

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Doesn’t this look like the perfect cinnamon bun?2014-07-26 10.50.29



Gail then used rubber bands to secure the “bun.” Wherever there’s a band will be white on the shirt.

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I picked my dye colors, using the their wonderful handmade dye chart, and I was off and designing.

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Flip it over and repeat.


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Then the rubber-banded, newly-dyed shirt went into a ziploc bag.  Now I had to wait six hours for magic to happen.






Two hand washes (one with rubber bands, the other without) and one machine wash later, here’s my North Haven Fairgrounds Flea Market Memorial Tank Top.

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This is just how memories are made.

Wedded to Art

Carolyn Choate was married to attorney and ambassador Joe Choate, but she wore a wedding band engraved “Wedded to Art.”  Right on, sister!

But her art forays seemed to be subsumed, like so many other women artists, by the rigors of her daily life.  Now, let us not be confused.  Although she and her husband started out fairly modestly, with his lion-like courtroom successes, they soon amassed enough money to buy this cottage in the Berkshires.  Naumkeag is the Native American word for the town where Salem, MA is now, the home territory for Choates, before making it large in Manhattan.

See the turret?  That makes for some weird and funny spaces inside this mish-mosh-styledimages house (Norman and Colonial Revival and New England Shingle), albeit one designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1886.  I particularly like the round closet fitted inside the turret.

You can probably just make out the round corner, by its lonesome, in the corner of this parlor.  Weird and funny.  No sense of Carolyn in this masculine world, except for a charcoal drawing hung near her studio and a botanical watercolor upstairs.  Both quite facile and lovely.

While summering at Naumkeag, Carolyn hired a tutor for her children for eight hours of art instruction daily.  Really.  She didn’t want them to get lazy.  Admittedly, a music lesson and some swimming might have gotten thrown in there, too.

Meanwhile, was Carolyn making art, too?  Somehow, the house guide, who slipped me beyond roped-off areas and up back stairs to the servant’s quarters and into Carolyn’s studio, doubted it.

After all, Carolyn used their fortune for other kinds of good.  She started Barnard, since girls were excluded from college education, and then Teacher’s College.  She was one of the founders of the Met Museum in the 1870s, giving a priceless Impressionist collection to the new institution.  She amassed books to form New York Public Library.  She was pretty busy making a great city out of ramshackle, post-Civil War New York.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 8.17.26 PMAnd Carolyn didn’t stop there.  Maybe she wasn’t making art, but she was instrumental in its promotion.  She worked with her friend John Singer Sargent to put on art fairs.  Sargent made charcoal drawings of Joe Choate and their daughter Mabel in 1911.

As remarkable as she was, try looking Carolyn up, and you won’t find much, except a mention on Joe’s Wikipedia page.  The fate of so many outstanding women.  Of course, not Emily Dickinson, who in her quiet way was also wedded to her art.

Emily at about 16, daguerreotype

Emily at about 16, daguerreotype

But did you realize she only published a few poems during her lifetime, mostly in the local paper and most of those as Anonymous?  Only after her death were her poems assembled and published, and not until those first editors took the capital letters out of the middle of her phrases and corrected her spelling.  They picked words they liked when Dickinson had still been unsure which to use.  I think today, we would consider such editing disrespectful.

Entrance to the front of the Emily Dickinson MuseumOne of the juicy stories told on the tour at her house, where she lived most of her life and wrote virtually all of her poems, concerns that first set of publications.  Her brother Ned lived in the house right next door, a wedding present from their father intended to keep his son close.  Edward and Susan seemed happy enough, although he apparently loved her, while she “loved him well enough to marry him.”  Get the picture?

Susan was one of Emily’s friends from the Amherst Academy, a prep school for Amherst College, both of which were started by Dickinson’s grandfather.  Like the Choates, the Dickinsons put their money into broader education, including for girls.  And it was that money that afforded Dickinson the ability to live the life she did–never marrying, becoming increasingly reclusive, and living in comfort.

Dickinson sent Susan many of her poems, which Susan kept, and only later did the poet start to make copies of poems that might have been written on the back of a chocolate wrapper or any scrap of paper, compiling them into her own little fascicles, or booklets.  Living basically as a recluse in the Amherst house, not even venturing next door to visit family, she penned some 2000 poems.

Dickinson children Emily on left, Ned, Lavinia on right Otis Bullard, c1840

Dickinson children
Emily on left, Ned, Lavinia on right
Otis Bullard, c1840

After Dickinson’s death, Susan attempted to get the poems published.  After two years, when she didn’t have success, Emily’s sister Lavinia (also unmarried, who stayed in the same family house with Emily and at one point, 11 cats–no I’m not kidding). gave the poems to Mabel Loomis Todd.  Todd was well connected and had started the Amherst Historical Society and Amherst Women’s Club.  She, along with Dickinson’s long-time friend, and sometime critic, Thomas Higginson were the editors who amended the poems and got them published, four years after the Dickinson’s death in 1886.  The poetry was an instant success, and Dickinson became posthumously famous.

Behind this official story, is a bit of drama.  That first publication did not include the poems Emily wrote to Susan, who kept them locked away until her own death.  Then Susan’s daughter Martha, a writer of potboilers, took over care and publishing of Emily’s works.  So why did Susan hoard away these poems, when the rest were published?

Turns out, Mabel Loomis Todd was having a long-term affair with Susan’s husband, Emily’s and Lavinia’s brother, Edward.  Oh my.  So the family split.  Lavinia had taken the poems to Todd and sided with her brother, wishing for his happiness.  Susan’s and Ned’s children sided with their mother.  Sigh.  Family dynamics are never dull, are they?

As with so much, Emily remains a mystery on the subject.

Amherst mural with Emily Dickinson framed by trees

Amherst mural with Emily Dickinson framed by trees

Regardless, like Carolyn Choate with her paintings, Emily Dickinson created for her own pleasure.  They were contemporaries, one living in more freewheeling New York, the other in more staid New England.  But both had a loud voice, and both would make long-lasting creations–Choate’s very public works, Emily’s very private ruminations brought out into the sunlight.

We are the beneficiaries.


In Emily’s words,

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away


I would only add the ‘frigate of art’ and nod at both these women, so wedded to their art which bring us so much pleasure today.

Courtney at Emily Dickinson's grave Buried with her family, as she lived her life Remembered by many, including us, leaving stones, pennies, shells, pencils, notes, and even a book

Courtney at Emily Dickinson’s grave
Buried with her family, as she lived her life
Remembered by many, including us, leaving stones, pennies, shells, pencils, notes, and even a book


Garry Winogrand is getting the full treatment at the Met, with an exhibition of previously unprinted images.  Regardless of the controversy about that (what was the artist’s intention?), his work has all the freshness, immediacy, sadness, and irreverence it ever had.

El Morocco, 1955


What a way to see New York in the 50s through the 70s.  How did he get those shots?  Did he zoom from a distance?  He has a right-fhereness sensibility.  He puts us on the scene.



Central Park Zoo, 1967

What do you make of this image?  Of course, this is one of his more provocative works.  I’m immediately reminded of Karen Joy Fowler’s remarkable sibling novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  But that’s not how most have seen it.  The wall text argues that because the man was a famous animal handler, this is more an image of love than miscegenation.

Los Angeles, 1969

I find this image more disturbing.  Winogrand refuses to discuss the content of his images, saying this one is about light.  Boy, is it!  Look at how the light tells this particular story.  How do you interpret the boy’s thoughts and experience?

State Fair of Texas, Dallas, 1964

State Fair of Texas, Dallas, 1964



Of course, Winogrand is wry and funny, too.  I liked the implied commentary in this image of my Dallas hometown.  I couldn’t agree more, on every level.

Las Vegas, 1957





Some images are just beautiful…




New York, 1960





…many are wistful



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…and empty







…and mesmerizing.

1964 World’s Fair


The way the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney mesmerized me was a surprise.  They’ve given the whole building over to him, the swan song show for their Upper East Side location.  Well, I gave it 15 minutes, which is all the fame I think he deserves.

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What fascinated me was the number of children, little children, there.  You don’t see children at most exhibits, none at the Winogrand show.  An unknowing visitor could think you were at a children’s museum.

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Here, the children responded with unrestrained glee at the Koons oversized toys and balloons, while the uber-sophisticates were trying to make his readymades into high art.  I put my Winogrand lens on and started taking images of the people.

Balloon Venus

Balloon Venus



Koons gets the last laugh.  His balloon antiquities, like this riff on the Venus of Willendorf, and over-sized pop icons sell for millions, even if the only people who seem to really enjoy them are the very young.





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The best moment?  “Let’s go look at the train, Grandma!”  That’s how I think Koons will live into posterity!



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Such a serious young man.





The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) Biennial–yes, they are doing one, too–comes out of the same sensibility as Koons.  Appropriation, twists on the readymades.  But even in this jumble of a show, there’s more inventiveness, wonder, and genuine delight.

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I couldn’t move from the Noa Zilberman video where the woman was applying wrinkles that were strands of gold.



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Like Koons, many of the artists play with materials.  Todd Pavlisko uses retail tag fasteners to create his huge  portrait of Richard Pryor.  Can you make out the texture?

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I’m partial to MAD chairs.  Every exhibit has them.  Here are three I really liked this time.

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The terrarium room is mesmerizing.  I felt like I was underwater, swaying with the rhythm you may hear in this video.

Mum Bet

Next time you’re wandering in the Berkshires, I recommend a stop at the Ashley House in Sheffield, MA.  It’s an interesting house for its period–a mansion for 1735–and the blending of British and Dutch cultures in the Western Massachusetts/Connecticut region.  Colonel Ashley, a Brit, made his fortune producing cannon balls.  Well somebody had to.  Hannah, his Dutch wife, took  a much harsher approach with their slaves, including the seven year old her parents gave her.  Now the story gets really interesting.

Mum Bet grew up in Ashley House, which at the time, wasn’t the worst way of life for a slave.  She had her own room off the kitchen.  Nearness was a necessity, as Mum Bet tended the  2014-07-05 13.28.52only fire in the two-story house.  But this also meant she had a nice warm room.  No sleeping in the stable for her.  She also cared for whatever infant needed her, in the adjacent alcove.

Here’s what her bed on the floor might have been like, in the plain room, but nice and toasty.

Mum Bet, who later took the name Elizabeth Freeman, was inspired to claim her freedom after a pivotal event with Hannah, and then with the Colonel.  Hannah severely burned Mum Bet, when she was trying to protect her daughter from punishment.

Then in 1773, a meeting was held in the upstairs good room.  No women, except Mum Bet, were allowed, and she listened and absorbed.  There the men drafted up the Sheffield Declaration, with Ashley, Ethan Allen, and Tapping Reed, who started the first law school in the colonies, in nearby Litchfield, CT, among others.

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The words they wrote:  “Resolved, That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free and independent to each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.”  Sound familiar?

It was adopted in Sheffield, then Boston, before moving to Philadelphia.  And so we get Thomas Jefferson’s version: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” an apparent direct descendant of the Sheffield Resolves.

Mum Bet heard all this and demanded her freedom.  The Colonel, more liberal than his wife, stated that as a woman she had no rights, so along with a male slave, she sued for her freedom.  A jury of all white, male farmers in Great Barrington granted it to her in 1780.  Hannah said no, but when another slave was emancipated, Mum Bet couldn’t be denied.

Elizabeth Freeman resolved the issue of where to go as a newly freed person by becoming a nanny for the Sedgewick family in Stockbridge, supplementing her income by working as a midwife.


Mum Bet, age 69 or 70.  Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811.

One other story shows Mum Bet’s feistiness.  Shay’s Rebellion was a rowdy tax revolt by area farmers in the 1780s.  Mum Bet, hearing the men were coming to the Sedgwick house, hid the silver, replacing it with pewter.  Then she served the men wine that had turned to vinegar.  So disgusted were they by the wealthy ways of the Sedgwick’s, that they left.  Mum Bet saved the day.  Or so the story goes.

And the story was told by the Sedgwick daughter Catherine, who was raised by Mum Bet and later became a novelist of “domestic fiction.”  The account of Mum Bet appeared in Sedgwick’s essay “Slavery in New England” in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1853.  Pretty cool, eh?

Mum Bet lived to be 87 years old and is a new inspiration for me as I learn about historic, bold women who go after their passion, and their rights.  So glad to have met her!


Fun tidbit:

2014-07-05 13.28.21This tiny iron was used to teach children to iron (hmmm) and for ironing the lace in men’s cravats, cuffs, etc.  I think I believe the latter before the former.

Good eyes will pick out the press mold for making cookies on the left.  The mold depicts a boy on a chamber pot.  Not terribly appealing as a cookie.  Colonial humor is apparently no less scatalogical than today’s.