Here I sit, pondering where my story fits. WhereIfit. When I started this memoir, in 2010, the time-gap didn’t seem all that huge. Now 1971 feels like centuries ago, and without knowing what will happen even tomorrow, I wonder. Will I be able to finish this? Does the world need one one more coming-of-age-in-NYC story? Maybe not, but this feels like an organic way to fill my days at this strange time. Looking back at the path taken, because there really was no other.
It’s hard to believe that I was preparing my portfolio to apply to Parsons School of Design fifty years ago. I decided to share some of my earlier art and influences that led to my wanting to become a fashion designer/illustrator.
And, to enter “The Way-Back Machine”! . . .
And let’s not forget the influence of my mother. She’s the one who encouraged me with that very first ruffle.
In the beginning was a pink mushroom cloud. The obligatory childhood Crayola scribble of girlish self-expression on a sheet of construction paper documented the efforts of my three-year-old brain and eye and hand. Looking back, it was as if I were trying to mesh gears and get on with the business of growing up in the slipstream of postwar America.
And becoming a fashion artist.
It all started, according to family folklore, with an appliance. To anyone (i.e., my “Mammaw”) who questioned the subject matter of my first recognizable creative masterpiece, my father (her son) would boom, “It’s an iron!” And then point to the other drawing on the paper that further emphasized my genius: a two-prong wall outlet. My iron had a dangling cord and plug—even then I knew the importance of detail and accessorizing properly.
Luckily for me, my mother put down the Sunbeam Steam/Dry as often as she could and picked up a graphite pencil, encouraging me to follow. My dad continued to beam his pride like a beacon, into my future. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
HOT~HOT~HOT! And add the word SPOT. More than just temperatures are rising in our Covid-19 summer. Just ask folks in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. New Yorkers are sipping a breath of relief, along with that glass of Chardonnay, and wondering if there will ever be another summer—the way it’s supposed to be.
Well, one fun indoor activity is plowing through the photos and music of your life. Especially if one (like me) is trying to compile a memoir / scrapbook of a very unique time and place. New York City, the early 1970s. Yep, that tar-pit of a time—after flower power’s petals had drooped, and before we even knew we wanted our MTV. I didn’t become anyone famous. I didn’t hang out at Manhattan “hot spots.” I had a few friends (most are still in my life today), and we somehow navigated the times we were in. Just like we’re doing now.
Our Bleecker Street apartmentwas a little social club and the center of our universe: Washington Square Park, the Waverly Theater, and the West Village. With unlimited access to cheap street pizza, we Velcroed together on weekends and shared slices of our art-student lives.
17 June 72
We bought a kitchen table & 2 chairs—all for only $8. All it needs is a red &white checked tablecloth. We have the candles & wine bottles. Today I had to escape the humidity & went to this movie theatre where all they show is real old musicals. They’re always playing someplace, especially in the Village. Don’t worry, I’m taking it out of my food budget.
Our building’s narrow entrance and one-step stoop led right to the pavement. Sandwiched between an Indian restaurant and a hippie accessory shop whose table of pluming incense was set up on the sidewalk, home was a tenement on a very commercial, if mythical, street. The outside door, locked and flush against the elements, led into a dark, narrow hallway with small black-and-white octagonal tiles set into a floor pattern common to these buildings: worn and dirty from a century of foot traffic, missing pieces like the elderly lose teeth. Broken overhead light bulbs added to the rundown ambiance, requiring a braille-like approach for inserting the key to our ground-floor apartment, just past where the ancient bannister ascended.
One of two railroad flats on the street level, our apartment faced a tenant we rarely saw. He worked nights as a bartender and slept during the day. Besides the built-in mailboxes, the only other feature on the left side of the entry hall was a door to our toilet, once separate from the living quarters and in 1900, accessible only through this now-sealed door. I thought how strange that must have been, to have to pee in the middle of the night by first padding through a public hallway with a view to the street.
The front door to our apartment opened into the kitchen, tenement-typical with its old cast-iron tub right next to the kitchen sink. The wainscoting trim was rounded by decades of paint, currently a coat of dried-blood red—a misguided attempt to match the exposed brick in the main room, which served as both living room and my bedroom. The rabbit ears of our small black-and-white TV separated the two windows opening to a neglected urban jungle of a courtyard.
We had inherited the apartment “as is,” including a mold-encrusted old refrigerator with leftover remains from the former tenant. Our exultation at landing this dream pad soared above any squeamish disgust as we began to transform it. I taped up a poster by Henri Rousseau, whose naif approach to his subject ironically echoed our courtyard sauvage.My roommate hung one of her large abstract paintings in the kitchen, its turquoise and turmeric-colored drips melting down the canvas as curry fumes snuck through the window open to the air shaft that housed the neighboring restaurant’s cooking vents.
Droogie, our nearly-grown kitten, made herself at home, nestling on Great Aunt Lenore’s knitted quilt that I was hauling around like a security blanket. Not yet spayed, she would perk up at the sound of the neighborhood feral cats fighting and mating outside the windows. Every so often a beer bottle, soda can, or pizza box would sail down into the courtyard. But our burglar gates remained broken and unlocked, and our paranoia unstoked. Like cats, we roamed the neighborhood, and then returned home with not so much as a scratch.
The promise of spring is finally starting to put a positive little ding on my thoughts and fears, which have been exponentially expanding with the pace of bodies being layered into refrigerated trucks outside New York City hospitals.
Just a month ago, I was in Manhattan, excited to be there on the final day of a fashion art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators. I met my old friend John, who dates back to our early years in Hell’s Kitchen (mid-1970s) when he lived across the hall of a fifth floor walk-up all the way west near 11th Avenue, and introduced him to Bil Donovan, the show’s curator. Bil is what I wanted to be when I first arrived in New York City—a bonafide fashion artist star. And deservedly so. I have no envy, only awe at his talent, focus, and arc. We all come from varying degrees of working-class Pennsylvania, and I’m pretty sure we all pinch ourselves that we’ve managed to live our dream in New York City.
For this exhibit—“The Visionaries”—Bil rallied many of the same fashion artists that inspired me when I was an eager young sponge. Included were works by three of my favorite Parsons instructors—Bobbi Pearlman, Al Pimsler, and Albert Elia—as different as chalk, cheese, and Chinese checkers.
On that early spring-like day, we all knew a little bit about the coronavirus, but no real alarms were being sounded. A touching-of-elbows greeting was performed by some with a smile of self-awareness, as a hopefully unnecessary precaution. Of course John and I hugged. The devastating rollout that soon would cross continents and oceans was still being met at the top with: “It’s a hoax” (of course, “perpetrated by the Democrats”). It’s a cold. It’s nothing. Dismissive drivel and drool from the president was constant when prodded—the same person who had recently gutted the Center for Disease Control’s pandemic response team. And, racist to the core, he insisted on calling it “the Chinese flu.”
Good-natured diners at the Society of Illustrators acclimated to our group of about fifteen hovering over them, as Bil gave democratic attention (with low-key charm and a scholarly fashion knowledge) to each piece of artwork on the walls of the café. John and I then relaxed on the patio, enjoying some late winter sun, planning his birthday celebration. On April 7 we had tickets for Patti LuPone in Company, and we were jazzed. Here the two of us were after all these years, “ladies who lunch.”
We then wandered up Madison Avenue to Bemelmans Bar at the Hotel Carlyle for a taste of vintage Cafe Society. Ludwig Bemelmans’ demented bunnies painted on murals and lampshades are always a delightful reminder that there is still a touch of an old New York time warp to tumble into. And so we did, on that day shortly before the city closed up shop.
John is always a fixture on Fifth Avenue for the Easter Parade. He alternates between bunny ears and elaborately flowered hats, always with a spiffy bowtie, prompting smiles and photos as he revels in his own particular fashion-art expression. This year the parade is cancelled. If John is out and about, practicing social distancing, a matching mask will be part of his get-up. John lived through the AIDS crisis up close and personal, so he dourly proclaims, “This ain’t my first ride at the rodeo.”
On Easter Sunday I’ll be isolated here at my house with my cats, blasting my Jesus Christ Superstar album. Hoping for a complete resurrection of all we fear may be dead.
By my third and final year of art school the soft, black stick of charcoal was a natural extension of my arm, its loosely controlled line cantering over the newsprint pad. The class with the freest range was taught by Barbara Pearlman, whose own lush fashion drawings adorned the Galey and Lord textile ads appearing in Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily since the mid-1960s. We longed to emulate or even (was it possible?) transcend her, and basked in her approval when she nodded her head at our efforts. Dark-haired and -eyed, she was gypsy-fiery, brimming with both confidence and charisma—qualities I wished I had, or could still attain.
But “Bobbi” Pearlman did not prepare us to churn out gracious Murray Hill fashion plates for Lord & Taylor’s loyal lady customers browsing the Sunday Times over tea and croissants. Not by a long shot. The models she hired veered from sweetly eccentric to truly bizarre, the fringe of the Warhol fringe, not-yet-iconographic downtown denizens.
With the hippie scene a decomposing compost heap somewhere in middle America and the neon dawn of punk yet to break on the city’s horizon, the missing evolutionary link was found in this room on lower Fifth Avenue, in these living, breathing mannequins who flourished in the tar pit of a time when New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
None possessed the healthy, golden glow of a Cheryl or a Christie or a Cybill. Instead, we had towering transvestites in platform shoes and glam rock Lurex, striking the exaggerated poses of their Hollywood heroines, reveling being on any stage, even a plywood platform in the middle of a drawing class. Others—Dietrich-esque women with pencil-thin eyebrows, slicked back hair, and bored expressions—languished in their men’s pinstripes as we dragged chalk lines around the forms, into our sketch pads. Fleshy dominatrixes in full regalia straddled fishnet-gartered legs over wooden chairs to assume Bob Fosse slouches, while we smudged the red pastel rouge onto their portraits with abandon. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
Forty-five years ago (!) (I just did the math, both in my head and on the calculator), I was shifting into what would ultimately be the ejector seat that got me to where I am today. Which is sitting in a chair at my computer, going through digital mountains of Collyer Brothers-style desktop folders filled with scans of my art through the decades. Over the years I have often detoured from the fashion art I had felt destined to create since childhood, but the whimsical style that became my career trademark is all here— interspersed with more serious veins I tapped into through collage, assemblage, and photography. This is one of my new year’s resolutions: to see what all I have and organize it. The archivist in me is following her slightly OCD’d lead.
I still have my tackle box for toting art supplies, and my first and only pack of Color-aid paper. All purchases were made at the Parsons School of Design “company store” in 1971.
After a bumpy first semester, where I decided that Draping and I were never going to be a seamless match, I switched departments from Fashion Design to Fashion Illustration. And the rest is, shall we say, history.
By the end of the first semester, I had managed to extricate myself from the Fashion Design department and was transferred into Fashion Illustration with my full scholarship intact. Amid my angst of landing in the wrong place after all those childhood years of strategic fashion career planning, there was also discomfort from my weight gain and shame. I no longer enjoyed dressing inventively, or envisioning myself in my own creations that had once filled spiral sketchbooks. Besides, I had gotten a whiff of where fashion was heading and I wasn’t embracing it. Counterculture values were combining with my newly hatching mores, convincing me that there were more important things to focus on than French bodices and cutting fabric on the bias. Besides, the current styles were meant for very thin, androgynous people.
Like Richard—my first openly gay friend—who always came to draping class with a pale midriff peeking out from under a cropped sweater, slim arms stacked wrist to elbow with his signature chunky Art Deco bakelite bracelets. From there, it was a short trajectory to the glam rock look that would erupt onstage just one year and a few blocks away from our Avenue A apartment, at CBGB’s on the Bowery.
After the department transfer, I found myself in the deep end with city sophisticates from the High School of Art and Design—mostly young women with names like Romney, Anelle, and Karin (with an “i”)—poised and secure on their classroom stools, and in their place in the world, or so it seemed to me. They wore boutique folkloric blouses and pricey Frye boots, and were clannish with each other and chummy with the teachers. Desks lined three sides of the classroom, freeing up the wall for us to hang our 18” X 24” newsprint pad sketches. I would compare our differing styles, wondering if I could hold my chin above water in that talent pool on the Upper East Side.
Soon I would even be mixing with the General Illustration department, leaving behind Women’s Wear Daily dish for discussions about Cat Stevens, Carlos Castaneda, and Color Theory.
Fri. Jan.21, 1972
I like illustration a lot. Here is my schedule:
Even tho my course names are repeated, I always have a different teacher. No homework so far, either. This weekend, Tessa and I are going to art galleries, buying furniture, going to church (?!) (you heard right—Norman Vincent Peale’s), eating out in a cheese restaurant, and seeing A Clockwork Orange (again).
There’s so many things (little) wrong with the apartment—the piping at the tub still leaks (it was fixed once), there hasn’t been hot water, & no heat! We might check out another apartment on 12th St. that is a bit smaller and $200/month to our $180. Ours has more character but is more of a fire trap. Also, in my bedroom, the ceiling is cracked and water or something leaked along the cracks from the apartment above us. Plus someone is breaking into mailboxes.
I’m in a life drawing class now, on a break. I think the only other “A” in Life Drawing besides me last semester was Richard.
Well, that’s all that happened.
P.S. Art supplies CO$T A LOT!! — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams