Monday, November 7, 2016

®Made in Montgomery: Growing Up with Dolls and Honoring the Craft Work of Mrs. Essie Thomas

My grandmother's cousin's wife Pauline's porcelain doll collection in the late 1990s

Pauline, Megan and Me with Pauline's doll collection

Me with Pauline's porcelain doll collection

My cousin Megan with Pauline's porcelain doll collection. Some of the dolls were literally as tall as she was!

The soft-sculpture doll that I made at age 15 in 1987 for the Alabama Association of Federated Youth Clubs talent competition, that Mrs. Essie Thomas painted the facial features on

The soft sculpture dolls I made at ages 15 and 18, along with one of my first quilts in the Daughters of Africa Series.

Above, Images of My Soft-Sculpture "Adoption" Dolls Designed and Created by Our Neighbor Mrs. Essie Thomas, Made in 1986

I have loved dolls since my childhood. Though I have seen myself with dolls in pictures from my toddler and early childhood years, Baby Alive was the first doll that I remember playing with. However, my time with her was cut short when I naively fed her Play Doh once her packaged food supply ran out and her chewing mouth mechanism ceased to ever move or work again. My uncle and his wife bought black "life-size" walking dolls with blinking eyes and long floor-length dresses for my cousin and me the year when I was 6, my next major gift from them after the Sunshine Family Dollhouse the year before. The Bionic Woman was my other doll for Christmas that year, one I enjoyed for all of her accessories. I took her little red shoulder bag to school as a change purse one day, though not the doll itself. I was forbidden by my grandmother to take toys to school because "You go to school to learn, not to play."

Among all my toys and games, I received 4 baby dolls for Christmas in 1978 when I was 7 and in second grade. They included a black ballet dancing doll, Dancerella(see photo above), Baby-That –Away, who could crawl, and Baby Come Back(see photo above), who could walk, along with another one whose name and function I can’t recall. We got busy putting the batteries in all of them to see what they could do. We even got my aunt's walking doll that Uncle Richard and Aunt Mae had bought her as a child out of the closet, put batteries in her and put her down beside Baby Come Back for a little walking competition that the whole family watched and enjoyed for a few minutes, which was fun. I also liked the Fashion Plates and the Christie Fashion Face doll (pictured above), but did not open it or play with the latter for several years because it was still a bit over my head with all of the makeup and hairstyling accessories that came with it. In spite of the Play Doh debacle with Baby Alive, it was also great to have Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop among my other toys and games that year.

The next year, for Christmas when I was 8 and in third grade, I received several more dolls among my toys and games. I remember that Happy Baby was a big hit in my family and it was fun to demonstrate her laughter as she was bounced. There was also a doll with a stroller that was fun to play with by pulling a mechanism and seeing her zoom across the floor, and my family enjoyed watching her go, too. My Play Doh supply continued to go strong that year with Dr. Drill ‘N Fill. The baby doll collection continued to expand some as time went on, and eventually included another Baby Alive, who was black this second time around.

By the time I was 10, I became interested in Barbie dolls. I asked for 5 things for Christmas that year, 1981, including Golden Dream Christie, a basic doll trunk for her clothes, a Corvette car for her, a Quiz Whiz game, and a knitting machine. I received all of those things, plus lots of other toys and games, including a Quiz Whiz Challenger and various other electronic and board games. From that year on, I was mainly invested in dolls that expanded my Barbie doll family. I got the first black Sunsational Malibu Ken when he came out, which I learned about from my best friend with whom I mainly played with this collection, along with a Sunsational Malibu Christie, at age 11. It continued to go in new directions the next year.

Around this time, one of my aunt's friends established foundations for the small collection of dolls that I have from Africa and the Caribbean when she brought me 2 straw dolls from the Bahamas, with my name sewn on them in straw (including the accent mark!). It was interesting to learn of my family roots there years later, so those dolls turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one.

I won't ever forget the Barbie doll crisis I thought was building in the days leading up to Christmas of 1983 when I was 12, a period during which my aunt got married. In the midst of all of my family's final preparations for the Christmas-themed wedding, which from my end included my final fitting at Gayfers for my emerald green dress and matching tinted shoes that I was wearing to be a part of the wedding as a candle lighter, I took a look at the Christmas tree daily. My heart dropped day after day because I did not see a one box shaped like a Barbie doll box under it. I looked at the tree day by day in disbelief for not seeing one box that could remotely be a Barbie box. My cousin Lamar, who loved his collection of Hot Wheels cars, got a big kick out of my situation and had a ball laughing at me and teasing me about the looks of things, for it seemed clear that I was not receiving any Barbie dolls that year. But within days, I got to laugh at him, too, when he ended up in the same boat because my uncle and aunt threatened not to buy him this electronic race car he wanted. To cover our bases, we cut a deal so that he would suggest that they give me a Barbie doll for my gift, and I would suggest his race car to my mom. Finally, Christmas morning, I prepared myself to face the day without receiving one Barbie doll to add to my doll family. I was so surprised and happy to get several Barbie dolls as I opened my gifts; my mom had thrown me off by putting the smaller Barbie boxes inside larger shirt boxes!

Soon after that, like everyone, I became fascinated with Cabbage Patch Kids and was amazed to see news stories about parents clamoring for the precious boxes in stores. They were clearly a cultural obsession. The official Cabbage Patch Kid that my mom bought me at age 12 was a black one with 2 ponytails whose name was listed on the "Certificate of Authenticity" as Lilly Elizabet, as in a "bet" in a card game. So that wasn't a typo. Before I got mine, my other best friend had received a boy whose name was "Bertram," a name I had never heard before. I felt that I already knew something about their history and origin because my grandparents had bought me the book on Xavier Roberts's Little People Pals at Gayfers, which I read and treasured, including all of its beautiful pictures that helped to tell the amazing story of his soft sculpture dolls. I studied the pattern that the book included and longed to have one of my own.

My mother ran off the pattern and my grandmother bought beautiful brown fabric and the black yarn for the hair until we could find the right person to make them. Every now and then, I'd take the fabric and yarn out of the plastic bag in which we stored them, look at them and try to picture how the dolls would look. I'd then carefully put all of the materials back in the bag and put it away. I hoped that the yarn would be enough to cover both dolls' heads. I could not wait until the day that I finally had my own "adoption dolls." Meantime, because I knew the basic composition of the dolls from studying the pattern in the book so well, I pulled off a few miniature ones and filled my Barbie doll kingdom with several as decoration for the beds, replete with ribbons and rooted hair.

One day, we had a visitor who said she could sew and promised to make them, and I gave her the bag of materials. But I never saw it again and the dolls never materialized. This was so disappointing.

I had gotten over it by the time I was 14, and so was surprised when my grandmother, Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, mentioned that a neighbor down the street was making and selling the dolls for $60 and said that she intended to buy me one. I was a bit older by then but still very excited to finally have my doll. A few days later, my grandmother and I went down to Mrs. Essie Thomas's house to meet with her and put in our order. Mrs. Thomas showed us the fabric options that allowed her to make dolls in 3 shades, including white, light and brown skin shades. She dressed them in dresses and bloomers with matching shoes that she also made, thickly rooted their hair with yarn ponytails tied with ribbons, then painted on the eyes as features. Her workmanship was outstanding. I admired it and found it to be inspiring. Her dolls were absolutely beautiful. We decided to place an order for 2 that evening, a brown one and a light one with black yarn hair. Around that time, another neighbor and her sister ordered one with a white skin tone and brown hair for their daughter and niece, who was half my age. It was nice to know about and witness Mrs. Thomas's creative work as she filled several orders for girls on our street and to see the final results. The dolls were beautiful and I proudly displayed them on my bed at home, among stuffed animals. One was dressed in a red checkered dress and the other in pink polka dots. My mom suggested that I name them "Adrienne" and "Nanette," to echo the names of my great grandmothers, Ada Jenkins and Nancy Richardson.

In general, many women on our street made things or sold products to supplement their main income, so I also thought of Mrs. Thomas’s doll crafting in a continuum with those enterprises. For years, my grandmother had bought our Lucky Heart hair grease from Mrs. Thomas's next door neighbor, Mrs. Thompson, along with the tar-based hair shampoo that my grandfather liked. We regularly bought cakes and rolls from our cousin Eddie Mae, who lived in the house on the corner and who babysat me growing up, along with her mother, "Mama Berta," short for Lueberta. Miss Emma and her sister, Miss Sara, both sold Cokes, and had real refrigerators from the company in their homes where they mainly sold them to loyal teen customers, including my aunt and other teens, as they were growing up. Next door, Mrs. Mitchell, who was a hairdresser, was well known for making delicious rolls and regularly filled orders for them. Another neighbor sold Avon, and another Mary Kay. My own grandmother did private duty nursing and did not sell anything on her own time, but took up a collection annually on behalf of the March of Dimes on our street. She would usually also assume the responsibility for going around to take up a collection to give to any neighbor who had experienced a loss, on behalf of the neighborhood. I usually accompanied her. Annually, she also always took other neighborhood children and me Trick or Treating. Mrs. Thomas's dolls were yet another illustration of how entrepreneurial many of our women neighbors were.

When I was in tenth grade and at age 15, as a member of the Dora Beverly Federated Youth Club in Montgomery, I made a small soft sculpture doll and dressed her in a purple jumper and white blouse (pictured above), the organization's official colors, to enter her in the talent competition at the state convention. When I finished, I went and showed Mrs. Thomas my work. She painted on the eyes for me, then drew on a mouth. It was a great honor to have her add the finishing touches to my work. I was happy when it won a Second Place Prize in the competition at the convention.

It is astonishing that Mrs. Thomas did her extraordinary work to design and make soft-sculpture dolls on top of her full-time job; I usually saw her from a distance coming or going and wearing her white uniform. She and her husband had 2 sons, John R. Thomas, a dentist, and Ricky Thomas, a lawyer (he lived in Jacksonville and passed away in 2012), who continue her legacy through their beautiful families and all of her grandchildren. I wish her generations many blessings now and always. I am so thankful to have known her and for her impact on my life. I will always treasure the dolls that she made, including the ones for me, and the story of her outstanding and beautiful doll craftsmanship. I am sharing its impact on me because her work made a difference in my life and she provided an important artistic example when I was growing up. It is a story that the world needs to hear about, one to which I proudly bear witness. The 2 soft-sculpture dolls that she designed and made are also featured with the smaller ones I made myself in the 2008 short film about my art quilts, A Portrait of the Artist.

As I graduated from high school, I also became interested in building a porcelain doll collection and have a box of beautiful ones packed away, like my Barbie doll collection. But my porcelain doll collection does not hold a candle to the extensive collection from places like Home Shopping Network and QVC that literally filled the living room of my grandmother’s cousin’s wife Pauline, which she began in her senior years. My cousins and I enjoyed seeing her doll wonderland in the late 1990s, which my grandmother had described, and posing with them one night (see photos above). It was as extraordinary as my grandmother had described, and one really had to see it to believe it. All kinds of dolls were literally lining the walls in every room with the porcelain ones showcased up front, where the living room doubled as a gallery for their display. I was saddened to hear of Pauline's passing earlier this year and will never forget her extraordinary collection.

My favorite doll story from my grandmother herself is the one about her and her sister Janie Mae Reese, Aunt Mae, accidentally finding these black “bald-headed dolls” that their Aunt Vinnie had bought them for Christmas when they were children during the 1920s, taking them out of the trunk to play with them for a little while, and then putting them back. Aunt Vinnie also gave them China tea set pieces of her daughter Amanda, who was born during the 1800s and whom she had lost years before they were born. We still have and treasure the ones that she gave my grandmother. In my grandfather's family, I love hearing the stories about "Cousin Ludie," who went and participated in the March on Washington, and who had a very extensive and beautiful collection of antique porcelain dolls, which my mom loved seeing when she was growing up. I also love the photos of the beautiful black dolls that my grandmother, who long collected whatnots, bought my mother and aunt during the 1950s and ‘60s, which can be seen among our vintage family photos in other posts on this blog. I am from a family in which many other women have also loved dolls and related things.

I treasure all of the dolls that I have ever owned through the years and still have the vast majority of them, but the ones that our neighbor Mrs. Thomas made for me in Montgomery and so close to my home will always have a special place in my heart, along with her. Thank you, Mrs. Thomas, for making my dream of having those “adoption dolls” come true. Hugs and blessings to you eternally in heaven.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Reflections on the Dorothy Dandridge Quilt and the Genius of Halle Berry

Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, 1954

Halle Berry as Carmen Jones, 1999

Views of the Dorothy Dandridge quilt in art studio during several stages of composition

“Dorothy Dandridge Playing Carmen Jones” Installation-style quilt. Includes sound technology features. Composition 2012-2014.

The 1954 musical film Carmen Jones starring the legendary and iconic actress Dorothy Dandridge, alongside the actor Harry Belafonte, is one of the most famous productions in African American cinematic history. When I watched it growing up, I most enjoyed it for its dynamic singing performances, including the riveting performance of “Dat’s Love” As an adult, I’ve recognized the deeper contours of the title character, including her wise, memorable and witty lines, such as the one “Bait your hook on fish you can fry” spoken to a younger woman. I also love the film for memories that my grandmother, Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, shared with me as I was growing up about its impact among some of the women she knew when it came out. She said that some women she knew at home in Montgomery, Alabama actually went out and bought their own “Carmen Jones” outfits, and that some women in our extended family also started a group that they named “The Carmen Jones Savings Club,” including one of her sisters-in-law, my great uncle’s wife, “Aunt Honey.” His brother’s wife also had the nickname “Honey,” and nieces and nephews called her “Aunt Honey,” too. So sometimes, as part of hearing the story, I would get clarification from my grandmother by asking, “Which one?” She said that the group even elected officers and met regularly. She said that she wasn’t a member herself, but clearly enjoyed witnessing the fascination that many of the women she knew, along with their friends, had with the film. She usually told the story when Carmen Jones was on television. The profound influence of the film Carmen Jones among some women of her generation of black women is palpable in her stories of how paeans to it seeped into their everyday lives and underscores how deeply Dandridge inspired her contemporaries through her talent, beauty and glamour on screen.

As an art quilter, all of this is mainly what influenced me to develop an art quilt in honor of Dorothy Dandridge for my Hollywood Series. For me, the quilt of her simultaneously recollects the larger cultural influence of Dandridge as an actress as well as the powerful stories that my grandmother told me about the impact of Dandridge’s famous character. In making this art quilt, whose various stages of development are illustrated in the photos above, I decided on a sepia background to invoke 1930s aesthetics from Hollywood’s golden era and underscore the common ground shared by Dandridge’s beauty and glamour on screen as a black woman actress with that of actresses from the golden era who were typically white and blonde, even though Dandridge was associated with later decades as an actress, and the film itself is from the '50s. While they are unseen, the backs of my art quilts are also always carefully designed. In the case of this quilt, I chose to make the back out of synthetic fur, again, to invoke 1930s glamour.

Like the Marilyn Monroe quilt that I discussed in a recent post, my art quilt featuring Dorothy Dandridge was developed as a larger, installation-style work, includes a soundtrack component and highlights more of the body as a “torso quilt.“ Like the Monroe quilt, it was developed with many of the design principles from engineering, architecture and geometry that come to a head in the large Debutante Triple Quilt installation that grounds the “Portraits II” exhibition and features quilts of my grandmother, grandfather Joe Richardson, and aunt Pamela. Its visible cleavage, curvy form, graceful hands and tilted head celebrate and showcase the femininity of the character Carmen Jones, and more broadly, that of Dandridge. Like the Monroe quilt, it is veiled, which helps to add another layer of mystique and heightens the glamour, while hinting at the status of Monroe and Dandridge as contemporaries in the sense that the Dandridge film biopic portrayed. I used the red nails left over from the Josephine Baker quilt for Dandridge’s manicure. The red rose that the hands are holding had to be special ordered. Because they are on such prominent display in this case, the hands do not include the cardboard inserts that typically underpin my torso quilts, although the quilt is grounded by the typical sculpted and stuffed body. I bought the red fabric for the skirt new, as is the case with most of the fabric I use for my quilts, but the black lace was thankfully among the materials in my fabric files (I keep just 3 small boxes of fabric on hand in a closet). Rooting the hairline a few strands at a time, as is the case with all of my quilts, was very painstaking and time-consuming work. The hair, too, is designed to capture the glamour of the Carmen Jones character.

I love the way that the piece turned out. At exhibitions, I am always intrigued and inspired to hear word of who likes what and why. For some, it was interesting to hear that this quilt was their favorite one of all in the show, including my mother’s close friend Zandra Moore. My aunt Pam liked it a lot as well, as I saw when she went back to take just one more look at it before we left the gallery room, when 60 of my art quilts that made up “Portaits II” were on public exhibition in Montgomery last year from January 10-March 27, 2015 as part of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. I went through the gallery room several times with her and my mother and they also saw it several times on their own. I was glad that my uncle toured it, too.

The art quilts that make up my Hollywood Series always honor actors and actresses “in action” in one of their most memorable roles. This quilt honoring Dandridge, because Halle Berry is one of my favorite actresses and portrayed Dandridge so compellingly and so spot-on in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), to the point of becoming visually indistinguishable from her in my mind in a way, makes me think about Halle Berry as well. The compelling visual similarity to Dandridge as an actress in this film reminded me of her portrayal of Queen, Alex Haley’s maternal ancestor, in the television miniseries by that same name in 1993. The amazing back story about Berry being born in the very same Cleveland, Ohio hospital as Dandridge is just one factor that makes me agree, like so many, that Berry was born and destined to play this role. And like so many, I won’t ever forget that night at the Oscars in 2002 when Berry became the first black woman in history to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She became the fulfillment of dreams for many other black women, including Dandridge, and as Berry said in her tearful and heartfelt acceptance speech, opened the door.

However, I learned another valuable lesson that night that always comes to mind for me when I think about Halle Berry, though it was less obvious. Let me explain. I was fascinated by her story of the lengths that she went to in preparing for her first major film role as the character Viv in Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, to the point of getting so into her character as a crack addict that she said she did not bathe for 10 days! Once she got her first film role, and even for a relatively minor character, she gave it everything she had. She went on to hone her craft and build a body of work throughout the 1990s in films such as Boomerang (1992) and Losing Isaiah (1995). In spite of our hardest work, sometimes it feels as if we do not always get the recognition or respect that we deserve, and it can feel as if our best efforts and most beautiful work is invisible. It seemed as if the Dandridge role made critics notice and appreciate Berry in an entirely different way. I thought it dazzling when she was invited to introduce the work of film sound technicians at an awards show, and mimicked the various sound effects on stage that go into film, a routine that alone showcased so much talent and wit. During one of her first major acceptance speeches, it touched my deepest heart when she said that for the first time, she felt as if she was really a part of Hollywood. In spite of her years of hard work, she was likely referring to having had a lingering feeling of being an outsider in the industry, or of still being on the margins. For example, for most of the 1990s, as Berry went about her work, Denzel Washington was an actor who was widely known. Much of her hard and passionate acting work, including the brilliant body of work that she was building, was not as widely known. Yet, I noticed that both she and Washington received the ultimate award and recognition as Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively, on the very same night! Their walks down very different paths extraordinarily converged that historic night. It was a moment that inspired me deeply and reminded me to continue to do my best work and be my best no matter what, and no matter who ever recognizes, validates it or sees it. It reminded me to keep running my very best race. It reminded me that God knows and cares how hard we work even if no one else seems to notice. Hers is a story that inspired me to keep walking by faith.

I value and treasure the mentoring that I have in my family, in academia, and among friends in the profession. In my life, I have always kept an open mind and operated on the premise that I can potentially learn from many people, including those far beyond the worlds in which I primarily move and live. I find my mentors far and wide. For example, I believe that the playbook and professional insights that I developed as a teen by reading biographical accounts and hearing about business projects of women such as the supermodels Beverly Johnson, Naomi Sims, Iman, Carol Alt, Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, and Cindy Crawford, and others, helped me a lot, inspired me, taught me well and are a big part of why I approach all of my work in the way that I do now. As I continued my work as a scholar in California, I even eventually came to see Halle Berry as a kind of mentor, too, for the principles that I began to learn from her as I navigated my academic career.

My view of her in this sense fully consolidated when I read a piece on her in the March 10, 2002 New York Times, which described just how long and how much she and her manager persisted until finally winning the rights to the Dorothy Dandridge film. I admired the commitment of her manager to her, realized how serious she had always been about what she was doing and what her goals were, and liked her tenacity. And even as she celebrated the contributions of black women the night of her Oscar win, it was not like she was sitting around to waiting to be validated by anyone or seeking anyone’s permission or approval to do her work. She just threw herself into it and worked her hardest and her best to achieve her goals. All of that deeply influenced and inspired me and helped me to just work hard and focus on my goals, regardless of what anyone was doing around me and of who thought what. To just be true to your craft and let your passion drive you is a major lesson that I have learned from Halle Berry.

The other thing that helped me begin to see her in this way was an interview with her that I saw on Actor’s Studio in 2007. While a lot of media tends to play up the beauty of her face, for an hour, it was nice to see the spotlight focus primarily on her high level of intelligence and beautiful, articulate voice and to hear her discuss in a sustained way what it means to be an artist and how she goes about her work. At one point, she began to describe what it had meant to “work with” various directors and what she had learned from them in the process, including ones like Benicio Del Toro. I liked that outlook. It resonated with how I also view my career. It helped me to make the most and learn the most from the expertise of various colleagues and to understand what it means to work with them for the time that I have to do so, and to recognize the privilege in having such opportunities, which do not last always and eventually come to an end. For example, in this sense, I fully appreciate what a privilege and honor it was to have my first job in a department for ten years where the writer and artist Clarence Major was my senior colleague in the field of African American literature. I am proud and thankful that to this day he thinks of me as a friend. I can say the same thing about the profound impact that the historian Clarence Walker made on my life and career and continue to value his mentoring. Similarly, I have learned a lot from the work of the scholar Patricia A. Turner, including her campus leadership, work in folklore and outstanding research on quilting for which she has interviewed me and documented my work. I am very proud and honored to have worked with them and so many others, and very thankful for what I learned.

I realize that it can be challenging to work in some places and have definitely had challenges of my own; my work has by no means been all sunshine and roses all the time. But I always say that the world can always send you a bigger enemy, and so believe that it’s best not to ever invest too much time or energy in fighting metaphysical battles about any folks on the job. It amazes me now that people whom I linked to big problems or struggles at various points are no longer even in my life now. I think of all of the wasted time spent worrying about this and that, which was pointless, really. Life would have been a lot better if I had just listened to my grandmother and forgotten about all of it, and not thought about it because "They're not thinking about you." Indeed, my life and perspective changed altogether when I asked her at age 89 in 2007 what her best time had been so far, and she told me “the time when I was in Florida.” She was referring to her work in the Navy Yard in Pensacola during World War II. She kept her identity card and even took my mother and uncle down there during the 1950s so that her colleagues could see them. That was my wake-up call. My rant sounded like this: “I could not say that about my job in a million years! My grandmother feels that way, though that was during the era of Jim Crow. Generations should move forward, and not back! This is the 21st century and I can't say that I feel that way, even now. Ten years is a long time to be in any place. If I lived to be 100, then 10 years would be a tenth of life! I won’t ever stay 10 years in another place again where I am not entirely happy.” I also vowed that from then on, it would be important to me that my work also be “happy and fun,” if I am to be in a place and do it. I choose to view the glass as “half full,” rather than “half empty.” I tend to view my work environment in a far more optimistic way and keep the bar for it set high because of the perspective that I learned from role models such as my grandmother and Halle Berry.

I use the word “genius” very purposely in describing Halle Berry because I believe she is one. She has always had the courage, ambition and drive to “think outside the box” and march to the beat of her own drum while working very hard to achieve her goals and in a way from which many people can learn. I know I have. In the month of her 50th birthday year, I honor her for all of his and more.

Of Halle Berry, I sometimes say that I believe that she has the “gift of contentment.” I admire the sincere love that she showed children well before ever having children of her own, including the little girl who starred as her daughter in the Dorothy Dandridge film. I actually met the little girl who played Berry’s daughter in this film with her family in Sacramento at a group art show in Florin Mall sponsored by Les Belles Artes in 1999 when I was exhibiting two of my early quilts, and after I had made my very first portrait quilt.

I’m tremendously thankful for Berry’s work to bring the film about Dorothy Dandridge to the big screen, and for how, momentarily, she, too, recaptured and embodied the power and charisma of Carmen Jones and helped to share the story of Dorothy Dandridge with the world, including newer generations. In my mind, I already have the image of the quilt that I would make of Halle Berry if I ever did. There’s something in particular about her image in the James Bond film Die Another Day (2002) that jumps out for me as an artist, and so it’s perhaps the story about Berry that I’d be most interested in capturing in my medium. I am also one those people who liked and learned from the film Catwoman (2004) and think that it had more to offer than the critics recognized.

Finally, I grew up mainly hearing about Malibu as Barbie’s hometown. The other artistic thing that jumps out to me and that I appreciate about Berry is her white “dream house” on the beach in Malibu, whose photos I love. It is an amazing piece of architecture.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Collecting Southern Folk Art by Self-Taught Artists in Alabama and Beyond

Riché Richardson, Photographs Taken on July 20, 2016

Riché Richardson's Home Office Featuring Art Quilts by Chris Clark, Photo Taken March 29, 2016

Riché Richardson Pictured with Mose Tolliver, "Mose T," at His Montgomery Home and Art Studio, July 1999

Riché Richardson and Mother Joanne Richardson Pictured with Lee Harris, "The Renaissance Man," at His Montgomery Home and Art Studio, July 1999

By Riché Richardson

I began my collection of Southern folk art in 1999 while working as an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis and have continued to nourish and grow it over the years. My collection of original Southern folk art, which so far includes 12 different artists and over 40 paintings on wood, canvas and cloth of various sizes, is grounded by the work of Alabama artists, especially Mose Tolliver. Works by Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Bernice Sims also make up the core and foundation of the collection. Almost a dozen paintings and art quilts (the collection's first ever) by Birmingham, Alabama artist Chris Clark are also now included. His work is among my favorite art to live with in both my home and office because of its core thematic content related to religion, music and community. Indeed, he has been referred to as a “gospel singer of the visual arts.” Other artists in my collection include Michael Banks, Mose T.'s daughter Annie Tolliver, and Lee Harris (aka "The Renaissance Man"). Furthermore, the collection includes works by Zelle Manning, Myrtice West, Ruby Williams, Leonard Jones and Mary L. Proctor.

The self-portrait by Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Michael Banks's monumental tribute to Mose T. (a departure from Banks's technique reminiscent of Jean Michel-Basquiat's) and the pair of paintings by Mose T. that feature Tolliver's self-portrait and a portrait of his wife, are the works largest in scale; the painting by Lee Harris of the flower vase is the smallest. The collection is fueled by my origins in Montgomery, Alabama and my commitments to supporting the work of Alabama artists and to living with and celebrating Alabama art and the art of the U.S. South more generally. I also find inspiration in it given my self-identification as an Alabama-born mixed-media appliqué quilt artist and my academic work as a scholar in the field of Southern studies, along with black/Africana studies and African American literature. Thematically, my collection touches on topics from the Civil Rights Movement to the tragedy of September 11.

The academic who has inspired this collection most is bell hooks, whose powerful story of collecting African American art is chronicled in the critical essays in her book Art on My Mind. It deeply inspired me when I first read it as a graduate student in the PhD program in English at Duke University in the 1990s. I later began to build a collection of art when I became an assistant professor and focused on the genre of Southern folk art. California-based artists are at the core of the other original art that I have collected, including Clarence Major, Milton Bowens, Kelvin Curry and Joyce Carley. In addition, I have an original piece by Tom Feelings, along with several original pieces by Jamaican artists and some others.

Pieces from my Southern folk art collection were borrowed for an African American art exhibition held on the campus of University of California, Davis at the Nelson Gallery during the summer of 2007, which was curated by Felicenne Ramey, an exhibition that drew on the art collections of various faculty and featured works by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Elizabeth Catlett. I also loaned my collection for exhibition to the public at the Carol Tatkon Art Gallery at Cornell University from February-June 2012, which was curated by Christine O'Malley and Larissa Hensley and sponsored by New Student Programs, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Dean of Students.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe: Commemorating 90 Years!

I created my art quilt entitled “The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe” (Composition 2011-2014) in honor of the iconic Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe and wanted to be sure to post it to help commemorate her 90th birthday week (June 1, 2016). It is inspired by one of her most famous performances of all time, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds(1953). I remember seeing the singer Madonna’s video for "Material Girl"(1984) when I was a preteen, which references this classic performance by Monroe and became a metaphor for thinking of and referring to Madonna as a singer and cultural phenomenon. Back then, I didn’t have familiarity with Monroe’s performance as the background that inspired Madonna’s in the video.

The latter is intriguing for epitomizing what the theorist Jean Baudrillard describes as the potential of the simulacrum (See Simulacra and Simulation, 1981) to displace and overshadow the real. Ultimately, Monroe emerges as a kind of mentor and muse for Madonna. The unapologetic emphasis on materialism as a basis for establishing relationships is not ideal, but it is interesting that both songs invoke the theme in attempting to school women on dating and relationships. Madonna’s song offers the reminder that “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.” Marilyn’s song is amusing to the extent that it advises younger women, in instances when they are doing the unthinkable and dating married men, to “get that ice or else no dice,” kindly confiding to them that “he’s your guy when stocks are high, but beware when they start to descend. It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The most iconic images from that singing performance show Monroe surrounded by young men in identical black suits, but it's also important to recognize the role that young women dancers dressed in pink play in the scene, including the mentoring relationship that Monroe establishes in relation to all of them. The pink roses that trim my art quilt honoring Monroe allude to them and to this latter woman-to-woman dynamic in the scene, along with the larger roses positioned around its edges, which recall the flowers that they all wore in their hair. This song's main message is later invoked in songs such as Herb Alpert and Janet Jackson’s “Diamonds”(1987). Liz Taylor profoundly suggested it as well.

No woman has ever as fully embraced Marilyn Monroe’s legacy as the model Anna Nicole Smith, who recast it in visually stunning and compelling ways. All of that visual play intrigued me from an artistic standpoint. Years ago, I enjoyed watching the reality show with her beloved dog Sugarpie to get a better sense of who she was. Now, I look forward to checking out the photos of the attire that her daughter Dannielynn and the child's father Larry Birkhead wear to the annual Kentucky Derby, the major public event that Dannielynn has grown up attending. What I find most interesting about the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and the reason that I like it and even believe that it holds some feminist implications, is that it urges women to resist ways in which some men attempt to discard, dismiss and devalue them over time by urging women to keep their focus on the big picture and to invest in themselves instead of seeking elusive or ephemeral forms of validation. In her song, that something as materialistic as a diamond emerges as the "friend" that sticks with and stays true to a woman over time in life, in a way that a man may not, is a limiting message and vision in the end, however. What a Friend We Have in Jesus, to invoke the Christian hymn by that name, is endlessly and supremely powerful and true.

Marilyn Monroe is an inspiration for having reinvented herself and become such a powerful and enduring icon, though the persona that she created limited her and held her captive in some ways. I like her and value her legacy for the cultural impact that she made, then as now. As a preteen, it was interesting to see a character like Paulette Rebchuck in Grease 2(1982) who was so obviously influenced by Monroe in styling and demeanor. Monroe epitomized the "bombshell" model of femininity described in Laren Stover’s book The Bombshell Manual of Style (2001), which affirms that beauty and brains can go together and discusses the characteristics of this type of woman in detail across its rich and revealing chapters. Monroe intrigues me because, in all her uniqueness, she makes me think comparatively about modern womanhood, and reflect on its complexity and diversity at other levels, to the extent that she embodied and helped to set the standard for the modern woman in her time, including what was possible in the way of self-invention and self-definition, even as her iconic, youthful, pale, platinum blond aesthetics ran counter to those of many of her contemporaries who were living life in their own ways outside of the Hollywood limelight and who lacked her global platform, including, say, women who were not as privileged in terms of class or whose lives were defined by a rural, agrarian aesthetic and temporality. In my "Portraits II" quilt show featuring 60 quilts(2015), Marilyn Monroe’s impact on the American cultural imagination as a woman during the 1950s is also important to think about in juxtaposition with Rosa Parks as a woman who changed the world during that time by catalyzing an international freedom movement in 1955 when she remained seated on the city bus in Montgomery. My quilts of both of them that are included in the show underscore these points. My art print cards, as sets, also often juxtapose figures that ideologically don't fit together or that serve as radical and critical points of contrast. For example, I framed Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara (who, with Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, inaugurated the Hollywood Series in my 2008 debut show), alongside Malcolm X, who was represented in the Political Series.

In the early stages of developing this art quilt in 2011, I was thankful to see a wax figure of Monroe on a trip to Los Angeles, as well as her tribute on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and to take pictures. In my “Portraits II” quilt show, the art quilt featuring Marilyn Monroe was a multi-year installation-style project in its construction and falls into the category of “torso quilts,” which draw on principles of engineering, architecture and geometry in their design and incorporate a soundtrack component. Several works in this category, which are replete with lighting and sound effects, help to ground the show, whose centerpiece, at this level, is the Debutante Triple Quilt Installation featuring my grandparents and aunt. Like the quilt featuring Dorothy Dandridge, the Monroe quilt is veiled, which adds to its drama, mystique and theatricality. The quilt of Monroe, which is double the standard weight of my typical torso quilts, is literally shaped like a diamond, in juxtaposition with the rectangular shape of the Dandridge quilt and the triangulated ones in the debutante series. In gallery space when the quilts are on public exhibition, audiences are able to ponder the quilt of Monroe (replete with bosomy cleavage) in a continuum with the one featuring my grandmother formally attired in more reserved evening wear in the debutante series, and to consider the differing and contrasting ways in which both figures beautifully embody what it meant to be a “lady” and “woman” in previous decades. Similarly, in thinking about American culture more generally, one encounters the Kennedy Brothers in the Political Series. However, one is also led to reflect on the great legacy of Marilyn Monroe as an actress in the Hollywood Series. I use an official Monroe costume as the attire in developing this quilt. The beautiful red manicure had to be filled with architectural inserts for pliability and then covered with the gloves, but I know it's there, like so many features on my quilts that are time-consuming to work on and ultimately hidden, covered up and never seen again. The intricate and exhaustive workmanship is important to me to achieve and is part of the creative process that I most savor.

The hot pink on pale pink color scheme was particularly fun to work with as an artist. I kept several Victoria’s Secret shopping bags on hand in my art studio for inspiration in the process as well. The Victoria’s Secret bag is one that I envision as one of the greatest marketing tools ever! I am truly intrigued that the beribboned bag seems to be quite captivating on its own terms for some people who make purchases there. It’s as if one of the main highlights of shopping in the store is to be able walk out with the bag itself, whatever the precious treasure might be that’s carefully tissue-wrapped inside. My preferences for lingerie, and the brands that I like most for their prettiness and comfort, and wear most, are Chantelle and Hanky Panky with dreams of Dior. However, living away from major department stores as I do here in Ithaca, New York, I’ve had to mix in some items from there. One of my cousins once worked there part time when she was in college. My grandmother saw me wearing a Victoria’s Secret nightie (I have about 7 and feel most comfortable sleeping in them) and wanted to know where I got it, and when I told her, asked for something from there for Christmas one year, and so we bought her pajamas to add to her many pretty sets, and a bag from there was among the gifts for her under the tree.

The Victoria’s Secret bag is such a fascinating item. I always cut off and save the ribbons on them and other store bags in that category and put them in a special box that I keep among my art fabrics and textiles, before recycling the bags, for in a world in which so much is needlessly wasted, those cloth features can be reused in a creative way and for art projects down the road. Its typical hot pink/pale pink color scheme mirrors the one in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the basic color scheme for this quilt. The pink colors are some of the main ones associated with love, roses and events like Valentine’s Day. I enjoyed making this art quilt and learned a lot in the process. I am posting it on this blog now in tribute to Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday week, and for her fans. Blessings to her eternally in the Lord.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The "We Is a Family" Album: Richardson News Features

Here are some of the selected news features of my core and immediate Richardson family over the years from my Wall of Frames honoring the legacy of my grandparents, Joe Richardson and Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson. This includes the debutante news features of women in my family from over the years, along with those related to some of our federated and civic club activities, Catholic school and Catholic retreat activities, professional activities, and public and civic events, etc. The earliest and perhaps most interesting historical item here is the wedding announcement from the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in 1938 in which my grandparents are included because they were somehow mistaken for white. It was a blessing to find their marriage license on Easter Sunday in 2015 and to lift up the document to discover this very small clipping taped underneath. I will also be sure to add additional May Day news features from the 1960s once I find them, including one highlighting my uncle Joseph Richardson as May Day King in 1963 at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, along with a news feature of myself as a child pictured in the Montgomery Advertiser with my grandmother's Aunt Viney Russell, who lived to be 109, at one of her birthday parties that were celebrated annually by the television and newspaper media in Montgomery. (I will do a separate post at some point featuring some of the news articles related to Aunt Viney and some of the other members of our extended family). The character 'Tildy from Roots, Chicken George's wife, sums up in the post-Emancipation moment the place in the heart that family holds for us and for so many, and that we even love to hear and say now and then because of the beauty in the meaning: "We is a family, and we is going to stay, a family." All glory to the Lord for who He is and for what He provides.

My dear grandparents, Joe Richardson and Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, married on October 3, 1938, which was also the birthday of my grandfather’s mother Nancy. My grandparents were together for 47 years until we lost my grandfather in 1985, and my grandmother was here for her 75th anniversary. Giving praises and thanks for the remarkable lives that they lived and for their legacy and sending them my love and wishing blessings upon them in heaven. This past Easter, coming across their 1938 marriage certificate felt like a special gift from heaven. My mother recognized the signature of my grandfather’s brother, her beloved Uncle Murray, on the document as one of the witnesses. Taped and hidden away underneath this document was a very small newspaper clipping mentioning “Joe Richardson” and “Emma Lou Jenkins” as one of the 5 “white couples” who had applied for marriage licenses in recent days. This case of mistaken racial identity is absolutely the only way that this information about my grandparents’ marriage made it into the paper, for the Montgomery Advertiser typically relegated black news to the “colored pages” during that time. My grandparents were somehow grouped with all of the “white couples” by mistake. Interestingly, in the wake of the loss of her first husband, my grandmother’s mother Ada was also listed as “white” in the 1910 census, along with her son, my grandmother’s oldest brother later known as “Jack,” though that was not his name back then; this likely happened because of her light skin color, long black curly hair and their light gray eyes. A decade later, in the 1920 census, she and her children with her husband Frank Jenkins, including my grandmother Emma, are all listed as “mulattos.”
"Marriage Licenses." Montgomery Advertiser. October, 1938.
My mother Joanne Richardson's photo as a baby in a local Montgomery magazine; she is being held here by a white woman in the Junior League visiting as a volunteer when she was sick and in the hospital, likely at St. Jude Hospital. My grandmother, a phenomenal archivist, kept her copy of the magazine among her treasures. Who thinks of possibilities like this when they imagine blacks in Montgomery during the 1950s?
My aunt Pamela Richardson featured in the Montgomery Advertiser as the May Day Queen at Booker T. Washington Elementary school in May of 1970. "'Gala Day Festivities Held at Washington Elementary." Montgomery Advertiser. May, 1970.

Debutante news article in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper on April, 1976 featuring my aunt, Pamela Richardson. This is the second part of the feature, which unfolded over two weeks, and was published on April 15 and April 22. This is the feature from April 22. "Phi Delta Kappa Debutantes." Montgomery Advertiser. April 22, 1976.
Riché Richardson featured in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper with fellow debutantes in April, 1989. Chrys Robbins. “Sorority Presents its 19th Annual Debutante Cotillion.” Montgomery Advertiser. April 9, 1989.
A feature that includes an interview with Riché Richardson in the October, 1993 issue of Essence Magazine. Natasha Tarpley. "Voices from the College Front." Essence. October, 1993.
A feature from the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in the 1990s that includes my cousin Keri Smith (seated third from left) as an elementary student at Resurrection Catholic School with a Nigerian sister. Ron Ellis. "Nigerian Nuns Happy to Help in Montgomery." Montgomery Advertiser. March 13, 1999.
Mother's Day feature from the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in the early 2000s that highlighted my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson's (and Joe Richardson's) recipe for Italian spaghetti.
Feature in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper highlighting my mother Joanne Richardson's (seated left) work as historian in the Montgomery City Federation of women's clubs. "Club Profiles." Montgomery Advertiser. January 31, 2000.
An early 2000s feature of my aunt, then Pamela Richardson-Smith (standing right), in relation to a community project of the Cosmopolites, her federated club. Deborah Moore. "Federated Club Makes New Year's Presentation." Montgomery Advertiser. January 8, 2004.
My Cousin Keri Smith and her escort featured in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in a close-up of the dance during the minuet in April, 2004. Deborah Hayes Moore. "40 Debutantes, Kudos, Presented at Cotillion." Montgomery Advertiser. April, 2004
My cousin Keri Smith, attending a Catholic retreat as a college sophomore, where she performed as a liturgical dancer. She is pictured here on the cover of the regional newsletter that addressed the impact of Hurricane Katrina. In A Word: A Publication of the Society of the Divine Word. Southern Province. 7(Volume 23). November, 2005.
My cousin Megan Smith featured as a debutante in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in April, 2006. Deborah Hayes Moore. "Phi Delta Kappa Presents Debutantes, Kudos." Montgomery Advertiser. April 16, 2006.
A 2007 feature of Riché Richardson as artist and scholar in the Davis Enterprise. Beth Curda. “Professor Pays Tribute to Her Southern Roots.” Davis Enterprise. February 28, 2007.
Riché Richardson as the pick to feature in Paris on Inauguration Day, 2009 in the ParisDailyPhoto. Eric Lieu. “Quilt, Always.” ParisDailyPhoto. January 20, 2009.
Riché Richardson featured as an artist in the Cornell Chronicle. Daniel Aloi. "Artist Shares Her Cultural Quilts with Parisians." Cornell Chronicle. January 23, 2009.
Riché Richardson featured in Ezra magazine, Cornell University. Summer 2009. Daniel Aloi. "Riché Richardson Shares Her Art Quilts and American Perspective as a Cultural Envoy in Paris." Ezra. Summer, 2009.
My cousin Megan Smith's former work as production assistant at a business magazine. Amazingly, when I was a little girl, my mother Joanne Richardson also worked in publishing at a business magazine called Business Review Edition in Executive Park in Montgomery during the mid-70s when she was in her 20s.
Riché Richardson featured in the Montgomery Advertiser as a participant, along with Montgomery postmaster Donald Snipes and Rosa Parks Museum Director Georgette Norman in the historic unveiling of a U.S. postage stamp honoring Rosa Parks's 100th birthday, taken during the gala celebration in Montgomery. Associated Press. "Postal Service Unveils Stamp Honoring Rosa Parks." Montgomery Advertiser. February 5, 2013.
Riché Richardson featured in the Ithaca Times in tandem with talk honoring Rosa Parks's 100th birthday. Rob Montana. “Cornell Professor Speaking about Rosa Parks Legacy at Cornell, National Museum.” Ithaca Times. February 6, 2013.
My aunt Pamela R. Garrett (standing far right), a current member and former president, featured in the full-page feature on the Cosmopolites Civic Club in the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in honor of the organization's 75th anniversary. Deborah Hayes Moore. "75 Years and Counting: Cosmopolites Civic Club Celebrates 75 years in Montgomery and Counting." Montgomery Advertiser. June 15, 2014.
A view of the Debutante Triple-Quilt Installation that reproduces my aunt Pamela Richardson's 1976 debutante cotillion and features her, along with my grandparents, Joe Richardson and Emma Richardson. Rebecca Burylo. “Quilt Artist Honors Civil Rights, Southern Roots.” Montgomery Advertiser. January 11, 2015.
Riché Richardson. “Can We Please, Finally, Get Rid of ‘Aunt Jemima’?” “Room for Debate.” New York Times. June 24, 2015
Various views of the "Wall of Frames" dedicated to my family in my home office. Framed copies of all the newspaper features of the women in my family as debutantes across generations are on display above my desk and complement the debutante photos of women in my family and other photos of us that I keep on the vanity in my bedroom. Various other news features are in the section to the right.

Vintage family photos and various others that have in some cases inspired my art quilts are included on my artist website at!vintage-family-photos/efizr