In the beginning was a pink mushroom cloud—the obligatory Crayola scribble of girlish self-expression on a sheet of construction paper, documenting the efforts of my three-year-old brain and eye and hand 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) boomed, “It’s an iron!” And then pointed to the other object 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 drawing pencil, encouraging me to follow. My dad continued to beam his pride like a beacon, into my future.
Every Sunday afternoon I had just enough time—until Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color came on TV—to flop on our living room rug and pore over what seemed like an acre of black-and-white newsprint. There were no comic strips in this paper. I was outgrowing that childhood pastime, even though Betty and Veronica still lounged in my frilly, pink bedroom. Instead, its more grownup content was absorbed, page upon page, raising the kindling temperature of a twelve-year-old girl and igniting a tiny flame of ambition. My trajectory began to take form. Somehow, it would propel me light years away from where I was in 1965—living in a suburban ranch house in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania—and into a wonderful world of color which, surely, awaited.
Still, how could I imagine back then that thirty years later, in the middle of the last decade of the last millennium, I’d be featured in this very same newspaper? I was being photographed in front of the New York Times building on West 43rd Street, its globed lamps and distinctive typeface serving as focal points while prompts were called out by the photographer, George Lange. My large art portfolio was wedged under my arm, tight against my leather biker jacket. With Great Aunt Lenore’s crocheted scarf cocooning my neck and a tube skirt snug around my legs, I strode down the block like I owned it. By the 1990s, I certainly knew it well. Real estate agents were marketing the neighborhood to yuppies as “Clinton,” yet I refused to call it anything but what it had always been known as—Hell’s Kitchen. Looking slightly up, my face was captured in a smile, crimped along the edges with a bit of self-consciousness. Who’s that girl?
She was the illustrator chosen by the New York Times fashion editor Carrie Donovan—a boldface character right out of the Audrey Hepburn classic film Funny Face—for a Sunday Magazine feature story about Manhattanites deemed to have personal style. Carrie, in her ubiquitous black and leopard prints and super-sized accessories, saw me once a week in whatever ensemble I had thrown together that day. I hand-delivered my artwork for her “By Design” column that appeared Tuesdays in the newspaper’s Style section.
Entering the mythic, monolithic building from the street, I would head over to a sentry lineup of black telephones on a marble ledge, liaisons to people higher up in this bastion of journalism. After dialing Carrie’s extension, I passed the receiver to a security officer, then got the nod to go through the turnstiles and over to the elevators. Sometimes a recognizable person would be waiting there—one time it was Reverend Jesse Jackson just after his presidential aspirations ran out of steam—but more likely it was a New York Times notable such as Dith Pran, the staff photographer whose horrific ordeal in Cambodia I had seen depicted in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, or Bill Cunningham, the irrepressible bicycling photojournalist who captured all manner of street fashion while wearing a blue sanitation worker’s jacket (albeit, a Paris sanitation worker).
The elevator ran local. Once I landed on nine, I made my way through a moat of bullpen cubicles, then was given the signal and admittance to Carrie’s inner sanctum. Now I would experience the heady feeling of being the center of her universe for ten minutes, as I presented my art for her approval.
“Ohhh! This is divine!” she might warble.
Or “ Hmmm, don’t you think it’s just a bit de trop?
Sometimes, if she was just finishing up the story, I had to do the job entirely on the spot. This last-minute deadline would send me around the corner to the design department to borrow art supplies and a surface to work on, a pearl-encrusted fashion gun to my head.
My weekly gig was fun, sometimes stressful, but most of all, a fulfillment of destiny. I had promised myself, back on our tan living room rug, that I would one day be in the New York Times. I had meant my artwork, but here I was—like Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show—in love with my job, my life, and most of all, my city. As Mary tossed her hat into the air, the catchy theme song promised—not only her, but all of us young, single women in 1970—You’re going to make it after all!
Years later I find myself wondering—did I?
copyright Sharon Watts