So what do you think, too cool NOT to wear?
So what do I do in my SPARE time? I work on my vintage fashion doll magazine, of course!
Yes, I’m a guy and I like dolls. That being said, I really like vintage Barbie and family dolls and am considered to be an expert on the subject – really! Almost more than the dolls themselves, I’m drawn to the fashions. And there are loads of fashion dolls other than Barbie, with weird, wild and wonderful wardrobes that are at times both fascinating and god-awful. But there’s just something about those mini fashion mannequins and their tiny shoes, gloves, purses and hats that I just can’t get enough of.
Now several years ago, the Barbie doll collecting market had a bit of a melt down and the collecting magazines went away. Hard-core vintage collectors (like me) have always missed them. There’s a crazy thrill or rush of excitement at seeing a gorgeous, mint condition doll in a pristine outfit that’s been beautifully photographed, especially when the subjects are hard-to-find examples. Call it doll crack or call it crazy, but when you’re into it, it’s awesome! So the fact that the publications I loved and wrote for were no longer around was always bugging me.
Enter my friend Barry Sturgill. Barry is a Seattle area photographer who just happens to be one of the top toy photographers in the world, and he’s nuts about vintage Barbie dolls too. Well our little doll-lovin’ minds got together for lunch about a year and a half ago and decided we needed to bring back a magazine devoted to vintage fashion dolls in general, not just Barbie, but the whole enchilada. As we figured it, with all the technological progress in the last ten years, doing an online publication would be a snap, right? HA!
Figuring we’d “just have to learn a little HTML” and be on our way, we dove into the project. And about three months later we realized we were way over our heads. Too much stuff that sounded sic-fi and well, technical, made our pretty artsy heads hurt, and we hired a tech-savvy design firm to help us make it a reality. We started tracking down obscure dolls, fashions and accessories. We found some knowledgable collectors who knew loads of stuff about dolls we were just vaguely familiar with, and our project started moving forward much faster.
January 2013: our premiere, online issue is published! 68 pages chock full of Barry’s gorgeous photos and loads of vintage doll info to make a collector’s head spin: Ideal’s Tammy doll, vintage Barbie’s first evening ensembles, information on clone dolls (knock-offs made of the more expensive, brand-name toys, sometimes using pirated molds), obscure dolls like Bonnie Breck – this issue wasn’t just good, it was GREAT!
Our 2nd issue came out at the end of May featuring Dawn. A lot of people think my project – and me – are a bit weird, but I don’t really care about that. I’ve got a completed product that I’m really proud of and it does what I wanted it to do – entertain, educate, and get readers excited about toys we loved as kids. And even if we don’t get to hold them in our hands, we can still feel that same thrill we had walking through the toy department or ripping into a beautifully wrapped birthday or holiday gift bearing a tag with our name on it…FUN!
And now we’ve got our 3rd issue out – we’ve “embraced” online marketing and social media (to the best of our abilities) and have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and even use MailChimp for our marketing and email updates – how’s that for creative-type-meets-the-interweb?
Hey – even if you’re not into dolls, you might love seeing some gorgeous pictures and reading some humorous stuff about toys. It’s a mid-century vinyl love fest – check out or website and buy a copy – it’s just $5.99! Oh yeah – and it’s an online publication – we hope it will be in print soon, but right now you view it on your computer.
This past summer working on the RING cycle at Seattle Opera went beyond just another show to work – it was the 3rd time I’d done the production and that meant LOTS of favorite performers and friends returning – kind of like a family reunion, but with people you like! There was Greer Grimsley, Luretta Bybee, Margaret Jane Wray, Richard Paul Fink, Rosetta Greek and Stephanie Blythe.
Ms. Blythe is super talented, and even more fun to hang out with. My first chance to work with her was on the RING production in 2005. I’ve been on several operas with her since, but I’d never made her a sock monkey. I decided that THIS would be her year. If you’re not familiar with the RING, there are four separate operas in the “cycle”, and Stephanie sang more than one role/character, but her most iconic and gorgeous was Fricka, the wife of Wotan, King of the Gods. I decided Fricka was the right monkey for her.
Stephanie’s real Fricka costume* was a grey, wool jersey dress with a quilted silk coat appliquéd with metal tags in an abstract tribal pattern. But I had to figure out how to do it in sock monkey size! I started with the dress and figured the easiest thing to do would be to create it in wool felt so I’d have less finishing work on the seams. It didn’t drape as well as jersey, but I got it done in about an hour, including some decorative silver braid I used on the sleeves to replicate the actual embroidery. I found a small piece of the dress trim in our costume patch kit, cut it down to monkey size and fused it to the front closure. It looked great and Fricka was well underway.
The coat proved more difficult as it was an asymmetrical pattern that was part kimono/part coat with pieces turned back on themselves. I found a turquoise/teal silk similar to the real version and figured I’d save time just quilting the outer turquoise to the grey silk lining and trim the whole thing with bias tape rather than make two separate pieces and sew them together like in standard construction. Quilting all the straight lines was easy (and the kind of sewing I like), but it took almost two hours to do!
After the quilting was all done, my boss Ron stepped in to assist me with the pattern. I have to say once again how much knowledge and help he is. Professor of Costume and Design at Cornish College of the Arts, he can just “see” how all the parts fit together when I’m standing there thinking “Is this the front or the back?” So Ron mapped out my pattern pieces, we got it cut out, and I started making yards of bias tape.
I also had to make the little metal “God tags” to appliqué on the coat. I hit on the idea of using pin backs – I cut the pin part off, then put some antiquing/patina on them with a marking pen. After stitching them to the coat, I finished assembling it. It was so heavy on the monkey it kept sliding off, so I added some snaps to the coat and dress to make sure it stayed on. I mean, even for a sock monkey, it’s all about looking good, right?
The last step was the wig. Stephaine/Fricka had this beautiful, long hair in several shades of blonde/brown with braids, twists and ribbons worked into it. I knew mine would be less intricate, but thought I could give her a close approximation by using a couple different colors of yarn to start. I machine sewed the yarn onto a piece of bias tape so I only had the tape to sew to the monkey’s head, not individual yarn strands. I worked in some silk ribbons I made from my leftover coat fabric and I had a pretty good version going. But I didn’t like the white monkey head showing under the hair, so I took a large tapestry needle threaded with one of the yarns I was using and sewed it vertically across the back of her head to cover the white – perfect!
The finishing touch was the face. I used a couple of different buttons to make the blue eyes more interesting, and I gave her big, thick black lashes like Stephanie wears – so cute – and she was ready for her debut.
Stephanie was thrilled to receive her, and couldn’t believe she was being presented with one of my “famous” monkeys. I told her she was joining my inner circle of favorite opera singers and she rewarded me with a big hug and kiss, and a few tears of joy and gratitude. I thought she might squeeze the stuffing out of her little monkey as she paraded her around the foyer of the dressing suite showing her off…..
…..and THAT’S why I love making my monkeys!
You’re going to want to know more about Stephanie Blythe – check out this youtube video of her show “Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate Smith”. She’s got a fantastic new album out too – As Long As There Are Songs (you’ll find it on iTunes). She nails one of my all time favorites, “How Deep is the Ocean?” – trust me, you’re going to love it!
*The costumes for Seattle Opera’s production of THE RING, were designed by the super-talented, Tony-award winning costume designer Marty Paklidenaz. He passed away in 2012 from brain cancer, and his absence was sorely missed on this production. He was loved by all of us in the wardrobe department for his amazing work and wonderful humor…
HALLOWEEN is barely over, and I’m ready with a CHRISTMAS GIFT and I couldn’t be happier with it!
After finishing the beading on the beard and hair, I did the mustache, with dimensional bead loops. I wasn’t happy with how the nose outline and the cheek looked, so I took out the stitching and switched the colors so the cheek was the darker rose color and it looks much better.
I think I like this idea of starting Christmas projects way before the deadline – no rush and I’ve got time to jump onto a couple more ornaments that I’m doing without a kit or pre-purchased pattern: gingerbread men and women with lots of sequin and beaded bling, and snowmen heads I’m making from yarn and old thread spools. Look for those posts soon!
It’s so exciting to be on track with a project and know it will get finished WAY BEFORE the Christmas deadline!
I always think that I’m going to crank these things out in a couple of hours, partly because I never build in any “fix it” time. And I definitely needed fix it time on Santa’s hair and beard. I had finished two of the four sections and was cruising along on my third when I realized something was way off. I pored over the pattern and my work and couldn’t really figure out a way to “fudge” it with what I’d completed because it would affect Santa’s face, so I took out all of the stitching on the third section and started over – what a difference! Everything now lined up properly, and even though I was annoyed that it took a lot more time, it did give me more confidence in what I was doing.
Every year I have this grand idea that I’m doing a HANDMADE CHRISTMAS! complete with beautiful embroidered ornaments, stockings using my stash of vintage fabrics, baked goods, home-canned jams, jellies and pickles, tote bags, pot holders, knitted scarves and other amazing stuff that will inspire me to create things I haven’t even thought of yet. The problem with this plan is I always start thinking about it the day after Thanksgiving, which means I’m doomed to failure as I’m usually working 50+ hours/week on some holiday show that’s just gone into tech rehearsals and I don’t have a minute to think about what I’m doing, let alone make it.
Well this year is different! I finished up some really cute little beaded and sequined angel ornaments in August that have been in the “To Be Completed” pile for several years, and it’s lit a fire under me to keep on it. And so begins the tale of Emily’s ornament.
Every year since they’ve been born, I give my nieces and nephews a Christmas ornament. Remembering back to after college graduation and finally being on my own, I was flat broke and had absolutely no money to buy ornaments for a tree of my own. I figured if I gave each kid an annual ornament, by the time they left home they’d at least have enough to decorate something, even if it was just a tree branch. I also stick with one theme for each, so one has angels, another snowmen, reindeer, Circus, and Emily gets Santas.
I love old vintage craft kits, and even though I have a large box of unstarted/unfinished pieces, it didn’t stop me from picking up a little cross stitched and beaded Santa/Father Christmas face for $.99 at the thrift store earlier this summer. I’ve actually never done any cross stitch as I prefer embroidery, but thought this would be a quick and easy way to dip my toe in the water. My problem isn’t just that I buy too many of these things, it’s that my idea of how long it takes is way off. I’m always sucked in by the “Simple, easy-to-follow instructions with just a touch of embroidery/beading/crochet” ad banner on the package and figure I’ll just crank these things out in a couple of hours.
So at least I take the time to read the instructions, and after separating the floss and beads, the thing just sat on my desk. It suggested making an “X” on the hole-punched base to find my center point, but I didn’t get any farther than that. My pal EJ does lots of cross stitch and she said “The easiest way to start is to make a cross with a basting thread to divide your work into sections.” Bingo! That little tip suddenly made the whole thing easier to get moving. I also used a highlighter to divide the instruction graph without covering the pattern, and I got to work.
This particular kit is made in two pieces – a hat and then face. I started with the smaller hat piece first. I realized as I got going it was easier to do the cross stitch before the embroidery, especially since the beads were so tiny. If nothing else, this project demonstrated to me that I NEED NEW GLASSES (and I’m heading over to the eye doctor after I finish writing this to order a pair). It didn’t occur to me to take some progress pics until I’d done quite a bit of the hat, but here you go:
I’m getting a little bit done every night – it doesn’t make me feel like a complete slug while watching a bit of television. And until I get those new glasses, it’s easier on the eyes!
Stay tuned for the creation of Santa’s face…
My friend EJ and her husband recently purchased a new house circa 1961. The house needed work, but EJ is always up to a challenge and she had great ideas to modernize it while leaving a lot of the wonderful mid century details intact. She enlisted my help on the project, and we had a great time knocking out walls, painting, restoring wood floors and trim, more painting, and of course, SHOPPING for new stuff!
Many years ago some different friends of mine were putting new flooring into their old house, and unearthed that cool old linoleum they used to do with borders or to make into the appearance of rugs. It was all cracked and broken, but I saved a couple of the prettier pieces, squared them up and framed them, and gave them to them as found “art”, and a reminder of the old. So remembering that, I started “shopping” all the junk that we were ripping out and throwing out of EJ’s place. The kitchen ended up being a goldmine of project and crafting bits, I just needed them to reveal what they were waiting to be transformed into.
The previous owners had decided to “Victorianize” their very ’60s kitchen by applying layer upon layer of decorative moldings and trims to the cabinets. It might not have been so hideous if they’d actually finished the project, but they seemed to run out of steam and never bothered to PAINT the raw wood trim, and in some cases, didn’t bother to nail it up either, but “secured” it in place with blue painters tape – UGH. Well I knew some of the decorative trim was a definite keeper, and started squirreling bits of it away right from the start.
One cool thing about the kitchen was it still had the original countertops intact! They weren’t perfect, but they were a wonderful ’60s snapshot of decorator chic – white with tiny leaves of aqua, coral, chocolate and chartreuse with a sprinkle of gold across it all. Once those slabs of old formica were ripped out I knew I had to put a couple chunks into my treasure bag too.
The last bit of inspiration came from the electrical wiring. The kitchen had these bizarre and ultra-dangerous electrical outlets – a double plug per outlet that weren’t even grounded! In fact they were so scary, the building inspector told EJ he couldn’t sign off on the safety of the kitchen because the plugs had to be replaced – no questions asked. This was the perfect little bit of kitchen inspiration and nostalgia I needed to move forward.
The first item was quick and simple. My handy work friend, Marc, trimmed a piece of wood with decorative molding and we glued a piece of the formica on top to become a trivet. It’s really a decorative trivet because this old formica can burn or melt if something hot gets on it, but it looks pretty cute and I know EJ will find a use for it. I just needed to fill the nail holes with spackle, sand and paint – easy.
The second project I envisioned was a “shadowbox” to showcase the cool but crazy dangerous plug. Marc made me a little box,trimmed it with the decorative wood, and I had him back it with the formica. Some more spackle, sanding and painting and it’s a pretty dang cute little piece of art for the kitchen wall, isn’t it?
You could easily use these ideas as a starting off point for your own craft projects made from parts of the old house. I used the formica, wood pieces and an electrical outlet, but there are dozens of bits you could salvage for housewarming gifts or from a remodel project of your own: cabinet knobs or pulls, house numbers, old shingles, decorative wood trim and molding from baseboards or ceilings, fireplace bricks – the list is endless and your imagination is going to go crazy with it once you put your creating hat on. In fact I’ve got quite a few bits of decorative wood trim available and some small glass tiles – maybe a birdhouse?
I needed several little projects to fill down time backstage during my recent stint on Wagner’s RING Cycle, especially during the 5+ hours each of Siegfried and Gotterdamerung – oy! My strategy was to work on several unfinished projects, which was part of my GRANDER scheme of getting my basement back under control. I heard this great quote by Dr. Phil (yeah, I know), that was something like “…to be a better person, finish what you start…” or something to that affect. I took that to mean cleaning and organizing my basement by finishing up the multitude of craft/sewing projects overflowing from boxes and surfaces. So I made a list of the projects I wanted to work on, but in the general disarray could only find one of them. Anyway….
You know how much I love the old embroidery and craft kits from the ’60s and ’70s, right? Well I’d picked up this particular little gem about four years ago because it was one of my favorite styles – felt ornaments with a little embroidery and tons of bling with sequins, beads and braid trim. These old kits have great felt colors (and it’s not crappy polyester felt), they’re graphically cute and silly, they’re easy to pick up and put down when I’m at work, and I can give them as gifts, use them as package ties or on occasion, keep them for myself. When I find these kits at yard sales and thrift stores, they’re often opened with some of the contents missing. Using/substituting my own materials, trim, and sometimes even pattern pieces, is part of the challenge and fun of working on the stuff, and these little angels fit the bill.
For some reason the crafty, creative designers at Bucilla billed this charmer as:
Novel “MOBILE” may be hung from Mantel, Chandelier, Archway; or in windows and doorways – handsome decoration for Foyer or any room in the home. So gay, so cheerful, so decorative for the Holiday Season. A real conversation piece!
OK, let’s just examine that for a moment. Yes, it’s definitely gay, which is a good thing, because the cheerful kitschy quality is a conversation piece. However, there’s no way I could hang this from my mantel as the plastic ring the angels swing from is about 8″ across, so it would hardly hang “freely”. And the only chandelier I could see this dangling from is the crappy piece of junk in my dining room, which I definitely do not want to draw attention to. Add to this the fact that the tinsel garland and “velvetex” ribbon used for hanging were flattened beyond use after 40+ years in their package. So mobile was out, but ornaments were on.
I had to pick out some beads for those that were missing and some braid trim. I added purple beads to the original “color palette”, and I scrapped the directions to cut out and use this hard, gold vinyl to fill the opening of the skirts – I just couldn’t figure out how I’d attach it to the dress – hand sewing with felt isn’t really the easiest thing because the felting process makes it come apart when it’s manipulated too much. So I just ended up stuffing the body and sewing the skirt closed.
The ornaments filled up lots of time (although there was still plenty of time to read, write letters, do some clothing repairs, work on my magazine and make a SOCK MONKEY, which I’ll share in an upcoming blog) and they turned out so cute. My friend Anne wanted one (and I forgot to photo), and after deciding to keep the blue for myself, decided to give the hot pink to my awesome college pal LeAnn, and the green will go to my niece Nicole.
Oh, and the basement is back to a functional state! I owe this more to LeAnn’s help in the last few weeks, than decluttering by completing a few little angel ornaments, but I can actually work on stuff again and I see a busy fall of completion ahead! I’ve already found the other projects I wanted to do this summer that were MIA, and the parts for a few more Christmas ornaments that I’ll share soon – snowmen and some ginger boy and girls. Time to get crafting!
I just can’t help myself when it comes to throwing out useable cast-offs. I have a garage and basement full of stuff that I have no idea how I’m going to use, but it just seems too cool to trash. Sometimes that piece of junk ends up being the EXACT THING I need to finish a sewing or craft project, but it doesn’t reveal itself until another piece comes along to create that “Eureka!” moment.
Such was the case with the bird feeder I just made. I’ve been helping my friend EJ remodel a house she just bought, and it’s been a treasure trove of cool stuff. The people who moved out left TONS of crap behind – and a lot was crap – and there were a few gems I had to adopt and bring home. Among my new findings were some decorative woodworking pieces and an old lathe-turned spindle to a staircase. All they needed was for me to find the giant, over-sized vintage tea cup at a thrift store to know they were meant to be a bird feeder!
Now this was one idea that I couldn’t realize without the help of my handy work friend, Marc. He’s made and/or repaired great stuff for me over the years including a shelf for my laundry sprinkler collection, bookends from old bowling trophies, and a kitchen counter to help organize the clutter of my tiny 1940s kitchen. He has awesome ideas to make things easier and more sturdy than my concepts often are, and he has access to a huge shop full of tools and equipment at our workplace, which he’s a whiz at using.
So – the first thing he did was make a little platform to set the tea cup and saucer on, which would become the actual bird feeder. He trimmed the platform with some of the decorative wood pieces I had, then he attached that to the turned spindle. Although I hadn’t asked him to do it (but had thought about it), he added a metal rod to the bottom of the spindle so I could stick that part into the ground for stability.
The next part involved the “feeder”. I really scored the day I found that oversized cup and saucer while thrifting. I mean, it’s not just large, it’s HUGE, and I’ve never seen another like it. The fact that it has fancy/cheesy Rococo-style images and lots of gold trim on it make it that much better! My plan was to drill through both pieces so they could fit onto a threaded bolt inserted into the platform, then I’d hold them on with a gasket and wing nut. I wanted it to be removable so I could wash the feeder every so often.
Drilling through this tea cup was WAY HARDER than I thought it would be. I had my special drill bit for drilling tile and glass, but the pedestal portion of the base I was drilling trough was almost 5/8″ thick and it took for-freakin’ ever. Seriously, I must have spent an hour and a half on it and several battery recharges to the drill over a couple of days. Anyway, once I got through that, I tackled the saucer, which took five minutes at the most.
Now my garden is not exactly the most lush, verdant thing I’ve always hoped it would be (I used my neighbor’s yard for the picture) and I’m not entirely sure the feeder is going to be at home there – it may end up as a wedding present – but I like the way it looks among the leaves and flowers, and I hope the birds will like it too.
You can do this project easily – fancy tea cups and saucers are easily found at thrift stores and yard sales, and you could use any pieces of scrap wood for a stand. You might even want to make one that hangs and skip the stand part. Just get some decorative chain to attach to the base and you’re ready to hang it. I do think you’re going to want to anchor the cup and saucer to the base – if not with my method you could always glue it, but I like the ability to take it apart and wash it and maybe put it away for the winter months if there’s a chance it could freeze and crack if it ended filled with rain or snow.
It’s another summer RING at Seattle Opera (you can read all about that if you click here), and as this is the third one I’ve worked since 2005, lots of my favorite singers are back in town, including several who own my sock monkeys! You can click on the following to see my creations for performers Greer Grimsley, Gordon Hawkins and Rosetta Greek. But I’ve never posted pictures of the monkey I made for the super talented Luretta Bybee.
Luretta is a southern lady. She’s beautiful, charming, gracious, is a Chair of Vocal Arts at the New England Conservatory, has a wonderful sense of humor and she’s a mezzo-soprano opera star with a heavenly voice. A couple years back, Seattle Opera produced a new work, Amelia, and Luretta was cast as Amanda, a 1960s homemaker who was the mother of the show’s namesake, Amelia. I’d worked with her on several shows before this, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to get her own monkey.
Now you could put Luretta in a tin can and she’d look gorgeous, but she literally stepped out of a guest starring role on the Donna Reed show in her striped shirtwaist dress, pearls, and flip hairstyle – she looked amazing. The dress was pretty easy to do, but the collar was a little tricky on the smaller scale. I decided to cut it from felt and top stitch it to the dress rather than trying to do it “for real” – the notched collar was more work than I wanted to do and the felt gave it the same look as the costume. The apron was easy, but I added a hanky because my grandmother always had one in her apron or smock pocket and I think Amanda would have used one too. The character wore a locket, and I found the tiniest one I could for her. I put a little picture of her real husband – opera superstar Greer Grimsley – as well as her stage husband – the phenomenal tenor, Bill Burden – into the locket so she’d have them both close to her little monkey heart. Then I stitched on some “pearls” for earrings and got my friend Anne McGowan in the hair and makeup department to create the perfect little ’60s flip hairstyle for her. She’s awesome!
When I got ready to do the photo of her, I envisioned her standing at a stove with a pot holder in hand. Since sock monkeys don’t really have fingers to hold anything, I created an oven mitt for her, and posed her in front of my mom’s childhood toy stove from the 1940s. Let me tell you, this is no cheap Easy Bake oven, but an electric stove with a HOT hot plate and an oven with a working thermostat – my brothers and I used to make burgers in a tiny frying pan on it when we were kids. It was exactly what Amanda needed and the photo is perfect!
Luretta was so happy to get her little Amanda, and Greer told me later that it ended up costing him a lot of money because Luretta wanted to redecorate their music room to display his Wotan monkey with her. Now seriously, am I really responsible for that?
Earlier this winter I had the good fortune of attending the wedding of my dear friend, Rosetta Greek and her partner, Miss Roxanne Oliver. Same-sex marriage was legalized by Washington state voters in November of 2011, and these lovely ladies – partners for 17 years! – were finally able to celebrate their commitment to each other in front of friends and family in a wonderful January ceremony. What an afternoon! Rosetta wore a gorgeous ’30s-inspired beaded gown with a custom headband she created herself, and Roxi looked awesome in slacks, vest, bow tie and matching two-tone wing tips.
Rosetta owns Verboten – one of my opera-themed sock monkeys, and she’s a highly talented and creative artist. As the proprietress of Heavens2Betsie she creates hip, urban textile essentials, and she’s an accomplished photographer with an amazing project titled Perfect Strangers that you should check out.
Rosetta and I share a love of vintage textiles and embroidery – I have a few treasured embroidered pillow cases my great aunts did as wedding gifts for my mom back in the 1950s, so when I found a cool old pair of percale cases with a crochet edge at a thrift store recently, I knew I wanted to do matching embroidered cases as a wedding gift for the newlyweds.
You’re probably not surprised to know there aren’t too many “Hers and Hers” vintage-looking transfer patterns out there, so I had to create one myself. I found a floral design and a font I liked in a new transfer pattern, so I cut and taped them together to create what I needed. I reversed the pattern on the second case so they’d be a mirror image of each other, then chose embroidery thread in shades of pink (Rosetta’s favorite color) and several different greens for the leaves and vines. Time to get to work!
Like too many of my projects, I dive in then lose momentum. As I kept working the pattern, it seemed to be one of those situations where the more I worked, the more work I needed to do. Even though I liked the results I was getting, I didn’t seem to be making progress, so I wasn’t working too hard on it, which is why they took five months to complete!
I do have to say I loved doing the little forget-me-knots, and I chose a yellow/orange ombre’ floss to do the French knot centers, which looks great. I finally finished the cases last week, and after a quick wash and press, got the cases to Rosetta over the weekend. She was more excited then I could have hoped, and all that work was really worth it. Even though it’s a labor of love, it’s sure a great feeling to know all that effort is appreciated. And I love Rosetta and Roxie!
What a wonderful surprise to receive a phone call from my long-time friend Trish Lehman, inviting me to join her at a Mixed Media Collage class in Edmonds last weekend. Besides the opportunity to create in a medium I hadn’t really worked in before, I was excited to see Trish, as she’d just returned from a trip to ICELAND and I wanted to hear all about it! We agreed to meet, and I offered to pack a special picnic lunch for us.
The all-day class was taught by an amazing Seattle artist, Caitlin Dundon, the owner of One Heart Studio. Caitlin is known for her trademark handwritten script and colorful mixed media paintings, and she’s a professional calligrapher and instructor in both mixed media collage and pointed pen calligraphy. Her introduction class was titled “Put a Bird On It”, and we were to spend the day using bird imagery and themes to explore the different techniques and possibilities creating work on paper, paperboard and wood.
After Trish and I fortified ourselves with the thermos of coffee I brought and some home made cinnamon rolls I baked the night before, we were ready to get to work. Of course, I couldn’t just “put a bird on it”, I had to use goldfish! There was a wonderful handprinted wrapping paper in the paper box with big fat goldfish on them, and it made me want to create something for Rolland as he loves blue and orange. Thinking the collage thing would be really easy, I started ripping and pasting to my board (OK, it’s actually a gel matte fixative, but I call it pasting). I had the fish hiding in some weeds at the bottom of what I thought was going to be a fishbowl, complete with fishy air bubbles. It didn’t look so great. Caitlin gently got me to think about a couple of ideas to make more of a composition from it – adding another fish, less of a highlight on the air bubbles, more of a “horizon” line toward the top – and she was right on every one of them. I added a light wash of yellow and the whole thing popped in a way that made me like the piece instead of wanting to chuck it.
On to Bird piece number 2. For me, that was a SOCK MONKEY! I’ve been saving paper stuff with sock monkeys on it for a couple years now, thinking one day I’d find a use for them. I had this idea of doing a tree with some monkeys hanging from it, but it evolved into a house. I don’t think a sock monkey house would look like a regular house, so I gave it some cartoony, angled walls, roof and window frame. My original plan to have three monkeys in the house made it too crowded and busy, so I chose my favorite guy (from a calendar of vintage sock monkeys), and had him looking out the window. A tree next to the house was the right addition – highlighted with some yellow to make it pop – and I added a door step in some hand-marbled paper I made WAY BACK in college when I was studying book binding and decorative papers. And last, I added SMile! to my piece, because that’s what always happens when I look at sock monkeys for awhile.
Lunch break! I loaded my favorite vintage picnic hamper with freshly made chicken salad, cantaloupe, yogurt, carrot sticks and bagels. I must say I make a MEAN chicken salad, and of course I’d brought along my favorite Stangl plates from the ’50s to serve it on. For dessert we had some spice cake cupcakes with cream cheese frosting – YUM! Luckily, cupcakes just happen to be Trish’s favorite food, and I’d brought along a few extra for her trip back home to Friday Harbor. Trish reported later that several of them didn’t survive the long journey north…
So the afternoon was winding down, and I’d yet to do anything with my bird! I decided to just crank it out and not overthink it, and I really wanted to finish my project DURING CLASS because the last thing I needed to take home was another unfinished ANYTHING. I’ve been working on this children’s book lately where the main character realizes the way out of his problem is to sing, so I wanted a little bird with SING on the piece. I’d prepped my board with blue and green (I love blue and green!), then I used this very cool technique of transferring my bird image onto fabric before I glued it down. A few leaves cut from a spin painting I’d done at the fair years ago, some music notes, lettering, then my final touch: a pearly, embossed swirl with the same embossed swirl over it in gold. I wanted it to look like that was the song coming from the bird, and I like how it turned out.
A fun, fun afternoon creating really gets my blood pumping, and the collaging techniques let me get a little bit dirty, but not so yucky I couldn’t get cleaned up in a few minutes – it’s so fun to get messy! Trish and I both came away with pieces we loved, and she’s getting ready for a BIG collage project, which I could tell was really starting to gel in her head during this class. I think she’s going to create something wonderful with vintage photographs of her family and I can’t wait to see it. And now I know what I can do with all that vintage wrapping paper, funky paper scraps, ticket stubs and old photos I’ve been saving – make some more art!
Week #2 looked really promising as half the class didn’t show up, which meant I’d get more one-on-one time with our instructor, Ollie. He’d given me a homework assignment from Week #1 to finish ripping out the old upholstery tacks, nails and staples. Because I had completed it (I’m a model student), I was able to get right to work on the chair when class started.
Right off, I had to retie the springs because some of them were broken, and the front spring was tied incorrectly (said Ollie), which made it feel like the front of the chair had a slope to it when you were sitting in it. This was not too difficult, but since I never passed the knot tying section in Cub Scouts, it took me a little longer to figure out. But it’s done right now, and nobody will be sliding off the front!
Problem two with the springs: there are these little staple things that I think he called “cinchers”, that anchor the springs to the heavy canvas webbing in the bottom of the chair. My chair didn’t have ANY of them, so that meant the springs could slide around the webbing, which always made the chair feel kind of spongy. I used the cincher tool to reattach all of the springs to the webbing and the result was fantastic – the bottom of the chair was now firm and felt like it would support weight a lot more evenly.
Step three was to fix a broken part of the frame holding the springs in. If you think of an old timey set of bed springs, this chair has a miniature version for the seat. One section of the outside frame on the top was broken apart, which made it uneven. Ollie was able to put it right with a barrel clamp and a new metal section – a piece he fashioned from a 10 penny nail! Then I wrapped and knotted it with lots of upholstery twine to keep it in place and make sure it wouldn’t poke up through the padding.
Covering the frame is a burlap/canvas cover that the padding sits on top of. This has to be sewn to the outer spring frame with a big, fat curved needle and upholstery thread, which is like a super skinny, industrial strength twine. This is one of those points in the process that hurt my head because each stitch is knotted onto itself as it’s sewn around the outside of the frame. I just suck at visualizing these things, and once I’d master it, I’d have to turn the corner to go another direction and then need to figure it out all over again. I think there must be physics or some higher math involved in this that my brain is just not wired for.
Now on to some new fabric! The part the seat cushion rests on is called decking, and the funky old kelly green fabric had to go. I replaced it with a beige that looked great with my new fabric. There’s tacking and nailing involved to keep the foam padding tight over the front, which I had to do a couple of times to get right – too tight the first time and not tight enough the second, but third time was a charm.
And finally, some sewing – I cut and shaped the piece that goes on the front where your legs would be – I think there’s an actual name for this part, but I can’t remember it. Ollie told me my choice of fabric would make things easier to line up because if has a kind of grid on it, and he was right. I slid it right into place and I felt for the first time I could start to visualize how great the chair would look when it was finished.
These few steps had taken the whole four hours of class, and I was pooped out! All that knotting, pulling, pounding, stapling and stitching wore me out. I think I had it in my head that this was a more “gentlemanly” art, but it’s a lot more blue collar than I expected, and this boy is definitely a white collar, let’s-not-get-that-dirty kinda guy. But it was fun, and I can’t wait for Week #3.
Deciding it was time to stop saying I wanted to learn this and just LEARN it, I signed up for an upholstery class last week.
My choice for the class is a mid-century club chair that belonged to my grandmother. She had it recoverd around 1970 in an OVERSIZED floral print in three shades of orange with lots of avocado and celery green accents. It sounds worse than it really is, but dog chews to the arm, fading to the fabric and the overwhelming smell of cigarettes and wood smoke meant it needed a fix or a toss. I chose to fix it!
Other than the instructor Ollie, I was the only guy in the class. My fellow classmates had all taken the class before, so were far into the reupholstering process already – boy could these ladies use a nail gun! They were tacking, cutting, sewing and stapling like mad. The woman next to me said “I’m finishing this during this class or my husband says the damn thing’s going in the trash.” I could tell she was serious about finishing it.
Since I was just starting, I spent four hours pulling upholstery tacks, decorative hammer nails and staples – and I didn’t even get the chair completely apart! There was a lot of dust and floating bits of old padding and foam in the air to go with it, and I was wishing I’d taken an allergy pill and worn a dust mask – there’s always class #2 for that, huh?.
I found a lot of “hidden treasures” as I ripped my chair apart – a screw driver that was lost inside by the last upholsterer, an ink pen, a few assorted pieces to board games, a couple candy wrappers, and a penny for good luck! The best thing inside was the instructor saying “this chair has a good frame and will look great when you’re done.” Nice to know I hadn’t chosen another fruitless effort to work on –
The chairs can’t stay at the class location, and as I had howmework – to finish ripping it apart – I loaded my chair back into the car to work on in the garage. My instructor said we’d be reusing some of the original padding, so I doused it with a lot of odor neutralizing spray that’s supposed to work on cigarette smell, but I don’t think they ever tested it on something as stinky as this! I’m leaving it outside to help with the de-smelling process.
When is the right time to introduce a child to his or her first sock monkey? When they’re born!
My awesome culinary school buddy, Loreilee, and her husband JR recently had their first baby. Little Noah is adorable and as cute as can be, and I wanted to make a sock monkey for him to go along with the book of nursery rhymes Rolland and I picked out as a baby gift. I remembered I’d picked up a sweet little vintage wool sweater intending to felt it for a project, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Pastel blue and green with cream stripes, I thought it would be perfect to use for the monkey.
I guess by using a sweater it’s technically not a sock monkey, but I’ve been wanting to move past the traditional brown socks used and come up with something more colorful. It’s a little harder than I expected – there just aren’t that many socks out there that work. The ideal candidate has at minimum a contrasting heel – which becomes the mouth and the bum – and hopefully a contrasting top as well, which becomes the feet and hands. A lot of the socks I’ve found that look like they’ll work have a lot of spandex in them and are too “tight” when trying to stuff them and create a character. So even though my vintage sweater didn’t have a heel, the sweater’s stripes were the look I wanted for Noah’s monkey.
After gently washing, drying and blocking the sweater, I cut it out and assembled it. The stripes required a lot of pinning to match up, because I’m a bit obsessive on stuff like that. I sat and watched an episode of “Downton Abbey” while I stuffed and assembled him, and planned on adding ears, tail, eyes and mouth the following night, leaving him on the table next to my chair in the living room.
Of course, I hadn’t consulted with my dog Noodle about my plans, and just to remind me of my error, she ate Noah’s monkey. This has happened before. The first time, she just took the monkey and put it in her bed, claiming it for her own. After my initial freak out when I saw it lying there, I told myself it was a good lesson and how lucky I was that she wasn’t interested in chewing it up. The second time it happened was on a road trip last summer, and I’d brought along a monkey to do some detail work on while in the car. Rolland and I stopped at a convenience store during the trip and I put the monkey in a bag and shoved her under the front seat. When we came out ABOUT 3 MINUTES LATER, Noodle had taken the monkey, shredded it, and left its lifeless carcass on my seat. She had this “I told you so” look on her face, and I was pissed, mainly at myself, but also because it was a vintage sock for a monkey that was nearly finished and going into my exhibit at McCaw Hall. So you’d think I’d learned my lesson after the 2nd disaster, but evidently not.
Fortunately I was using a sweater, so there was a lot of fabric left. I was trying to use the sleeves as the body to save time, which worked great. Again I cut it out, pinned it, sewed it, stuffed it and planned to finish the following night – this time, leaving the monkey on the middle of the dining room table. And again, Noodle got it, tore it to pieces and left me to find the fuzzy remains on the couch. How she got it off the dining table, I don’t know – she’s never climbed onto a chair to get up there before, but I guess she wanted to expand her skills that day.
I still had some sweater left, and started monkey #3. As it was a vintage sweater, there were a few moth holes in it, and now it was harder to cut out the larger pieces I needed – I was able to save the arms and tail from the first two disasters, but the body of the monkey ended up being shorter than the others to avoid the holes. After assembling the newest attempt, I placed it in my dresser drawer in the bedroom while waiting to finish the detail work on it. Noodle was pretty annoyed that she was unable to grow opposable thumbs immediately and open the drawer, but I was able to finish the monkey without further chewing.
Because it was for an infant, I had to forego the button eyes (choking hazard). I made jumbo French knots from wool yarn and used the same yarn for a mouth. I loved the result and so did Noah – he snuggled right up to it in his stroller and went to sleep. I named this monkey “Third Times a Charm” – or just “Three” for short. And of course Noodle is still waiting to teach me who’s boss the next time I start another monkey…..
I’ve always thought of an artist as a person who is an accomplished painter, singer, sculptor, pianist, photographer, etc. Because I don’t think of myself as a powerhouse in any of those areas, I usually think of myself as “a guy who makes stuff”, but according to a favorite co-worker/blogger/crafter friend of mine, Kati Dawson, I’m the ARTIST OF THE MONTH on her cool blog, The Curious Dressmaker –
Kati is an uber-talented, funny, creative dynamo who is going to make it big in theatrical costuming and the crafting world. We first met when she became the assistant to the Hair and Makeup Department at Seattle Opera, and proved to be a huge asset there. Since then, we’ve worked together on several shows at Pacific Northwest Ballet where I found out she’s a terrific costume technician, and I learned several construction/sewing tips from her. Kati recently launched her business, “Bagatelle” – a cool line of purses, totes and other fabric items – and has a growing number of loyal customers and fans for her beautiful work. This summer, she is going to be an assistant wardrobe manager at the Santa Fe Opera*. If you don’t know about the Santa Fe Opera, it is one of the top opera venues in the world, with the biggest opera superstars performing there and patrons fly in from all parts of the globe to spend the summer in Santa Fe and watch performances under the stars at this beautiful outdoor space. This is a really big deal and I’m so proud of her for landing this gig.
So check out Kati’s interview with me on her blog, and make sure to look at the great crafting ideas she has. I’m working on her “Fabric Flowers” pattern to make some for gifts and package trims. Her instructions are really easy to follow, she has good pictures showing you the steps to take, and the end result is a fool-proof item for yourself or as a swell gift. Bring out your thread!
*Two favorite singers I’ve worked with, the awesome tenor, Bill Burden (who owns two of my sock monkeys), and superstar baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, will be performing King Roger there together this season.
I am great at starting projects, and I’m great at shopping. This is not always a great combination as I find “must have” new fabric, patterns, vintage craft kits, etc. It often feels like the new project has barely gotten underway when another new thing acquired on a shopping trip takes its place. This results in a dresser full of things to finish – granted it’s organized into project bags and well labelled, but it’s still a constant reminder about how easily I can get distracted.
This little hedgehog pincushion is something I started four or five years ago. It began as a vintage 1970s craft kit I found unopened at a yard sale for $2. I loved the sweet and happy look to it, plus I needed a pincushion, so I felt that purchasing it was OK as it had a function and wasn’t another project to work on that I had no idea what I’d do with once it was finished. And I liked it for the fact that it was embroidery and then assembling, so it was “multi-dimensional” skill usage.
The embroidery went quickly, even though some of those flower centers proved tough to keep sewing into with the wool crewel yarn as the thickness built up. I didn’t have a sewing machine at the time, so I thought I’d just hand sew the pieces together, and that’s when the project started to fall apart – I just couldn’t get the seams lined up well enough so they wouldn’t show when I turned it inside out to stuff it. It went in and out of the unfinished project drawer for a couple years, until I tried a new approach at finishing – buying the perfect stuffing! This was emery sand for weight and to keep pins and needles sharpened, but it didn’t move me any closer to finishing, so back to the drawer.
Fast forward to my present avoidance of working on the five different sock monkeys I have started, and I decided to hit the temple of unfinished business. Not just for something to work on, but to hopefully inspire sock monkey sewing again. I started by taking out all my hand sewing, and put the hedgehog together by machine sewing. It didn’t go right the first time, but it was much faster and easier to whittle down that seam allowance mark by machine, rather than by hand. Next I made a couple “pillows” of emery sand to pop in his nose and tummy. I used a double layer of muslin so the sand wouldn’t leak out. Finally, I stuffed fiberfill around the pillows and sewed him up.
Finished result: adorable and functional! And one less piece of unfinished business in my craft zone. But as I’ve come to learn all too well, nature abhors a vacuum, and garage sale season is about to be in full swing – time to reload!
I’ve temporarily run out of steam on my sock monkey production. Well actually, I have five different monkeys in various states of doneness at the moment and I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed by it. And when I feel overwhelmed, I procrastinate! Enter the Easter crafting….
I picked up these “finger puppet” kits at the craft store, on sale for $1.50. The kits contained four felt figures, an assortment of precut flowers and “ties”, a few rhinestones, craft sticks and the pattern for where to glue the bits on. I thought the kit was a good jumping off point, but I wanted more. Being the committed thrifter and garage saler that I am, I have loads of extra crafting bits – vintage sequins, novelty beads, felt and googly eyes to name a few – that I thought would be the perfect enhancers to bump up the volume on these kits. It also meant not following the “how to” pattern. I’m not against all-out cute, but I also wanted to balance it with some funny and kooky.
With a few extra hours to kill at work and a big bottle of white glue, I cranked these out the other night in between costume changes on Don Pasquale. I plan to use a couple on the coconut cake I’m baking for dessert on Easter Sunday. Can’t you just see the snowy white coconut piled on the cake, with just a small bit of coconut tinted green in the center of the cake for a bunny or chick to stand on? Right now the strongest candidate is the chicky with the psychedelic eyes, with a close 2nd going to the pink bunny with the glittery lei –
My job at the opera is so much easier and lots more fun when a favorite singer is part of the production, and at the top of my favorites list is tenor Bill Burden. Bill has one of those voices that is incredibly expressive and beautiful, and so recognizable it’s in a class of its own – “The 3 a.m. Voice” – if you woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and heard his voice on the radio, you’d know instantly who it is. I first worked with him on the 2006 production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, with the amazing mezzo soprano, Stephanie Blythe – talk about operatic musical heaven! – and this production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (with the gorgeous soprano, Davinia Rodriguez) would be our 6th show working together. Bill is so easy to work with, treats everyone like a million bucks and he has the distinction of owning two of my opera sock monkeys: Dodge, from Amelia, and Edgardo from Lucia di Lamermoor. For several weeks I’d been wondering what to do as a momento of the show for him, figuring a 3rd sock monkey would take it from cool to lame/overkill real fast. I mean how many sock monkeys does an opera star really need, even if I did make them?
You probably remember from reading my bio (you have read it, haven’t you?), that I have a background in collecting vintage Barbie doll stuff and used to write for magazines about it. One of the things that still floats my boat about vintage Barbie, are the amazing clothing ensembles from the 1960s still in their original packaging. Mattel was on the cutting edge of marketing toys to kids in the ’50s and ’60s, and when you look at the way this stuff was packaged, no wonder kids had to have it! I remember walking down the Barbie aisle of the Giant T Drugstore or Valu-Mart and being overwhelmed by the dazzling display of Barbie clothes in those striped boxes hanging from the wall and how they were just waiting to be ripped open! It got me thinking, why not just give Bill a “fashion” for one of his existing monkeys? His costume as Orpheus was really basic – white jeans and a white tunic – so the magic of what I wanted to do was going to be in the accessories. Anyone who collects vintage dolls or action figures knows that assembling the accessories to an outfit is the fun/frustrating part and what can really make the cost skyrocket. Focusing on the accessories also let me get crafty, which I love too. I decided Orpheus would need his tunic (he had white pants for “Dodge”), medallion, lyre, golden apple and blindfold. And, I wanted the tunic, medallion and blindfold to be correctly scaled so the monkey could actually wear them if they ever came out of the package – yeah, I know, a bit too obsessive, but look at the stuff I make!
- Medallion: easy – my buddy Marc in the Props Dept. had a drilled gold coin for me to use and I picked up the chain in a thrift store.
- Golden Apple: easy too – an apple from a faux centerpiece at the thrift store painted gold.
- Lyre: kind of tricky. Everything I found was way too big or way too small. I finally settled on the lyre you’d use on a clarinet or trumpet to hold your music in marching band. Back to buddy Marc who took all the welded stuff off of it for me so I’d just have the lyre itself, then I glued straight pins on the back for the “strings.”
- Blindfold: easy, but with a bit of work. I ended up using a black sheer nylon because the original black jersey piece I’d made looked too dark and thick when packaged. The sheer reads as “lighter” in the package, and it’s a bit more theatrical and is something we would actually use on stage so a performer could see through it.
- Tunic: pretty easy because I had leftover scraps from Bill’s actual costume, I just had to sew it together. The most difficult part of the construction was to have it open in back so it could go over a monkey’s head if it needed to. For those of you who sew, I’d like to point out that the opening has a continuous lap placket – something I’ve learned to do recently and am damn proud of having actually done it! I’m using it a lot now because it gives a much more finished look to sock monkey garments (particularly the tail opening in skirts and pants), and it worked out great here.
The most fun I had with this was putting it all together. I used blue poster board so the items would stand out more, and blue was used as a predominant costume color in the show. I made a header card with some information about the “product”, and added the stock #0312 – March 2012 – to commemorate the production date, and as an homage to the old doll packaging. The finished piece measures about 11″ x 16″ and is complete with a hole in the header card to hang it for “sale” at the store. I gave it to Bill on closing night of the show and it was nearly as a big a hit as he was. And yes, working on this project made me start hunting for those NRFB (Never Removed From Box) vintage Barbie doll clothes I never had when I was a kid. If only I’d had a checking account when I was five years old…..
Although I enjoy making my sock opera monkeys and other monkeys inspired by fictional characters from theatre and books, sometimes I want to make one to commemorate or celebrate other inspirations.
A little over a year ago, my partner Rolland had to have open heart surgery. He had a history of heart disease, and had suffered a heart attack five years earlier. Between then and a blockage problem a year and a half later, he already had eight stents, and the doctor felt a bypass to restore blood flow to an area of his heart that didn’t appear to be getting any was his only option. We were scheduled for surgery at the UW Regional Heart Center on a Monday morning in mid-June, and had met with his awesome surgeon, Dr. Daniel Rabkin. The doctor told us what to expect during surgery and the 5 to 7 day post-op recovery at the hospital. We notified family, and got ready, which really means I had no idea what to do so I went on a manic house-cleaning frenzy. I said it was to prepare for Rolland’s mom and sister who were coming into town for the surgery, but in reality I was totally freaked out and just needed to stay busy. Rolland stayed calm, but underneath it he was pretty scared, and my crazy cleaning wasn’t helping the situation much.
Rolland was pretty sick – something we didn’t realize until after the fact, but there was a tip-off when he suffered another heart attack between his pre-surgery testing on Friday and the surgery Monday morning. When he was being prepped for surgery that morning, I was trying to be strong, but I had no idea if it might be the last time to see him. I just smiled a lot, told him I loved him and when they wheeled him out, told him I’d see him soon.
The surgery went OK – Dr. Rabkin said he had completed two bypasses, but wasn’t entirely happy with the results. Rolland was doing fine and we’d be able to see him soon. About four hours later, the doctor returned to say that it appeared one of the bypasses was not working at all, and he thought the best option was to return to surgery for another operation. As power of attorney, he needed my permission for the second surgery – YES! Several hours later, an exhausted doc returned to tell us things looked great, with the help of a colleague they’d restored blood flow to the heart as he’d hoped to and Rolland’s heart was in better shape than it had been in years. I think I cried, but I know I felt like the weight I’d felt pressing down on me during the weeks leading up to this was gone. Now to get Rolland strong and back home!
We weren’t exactly out of the woods yet – there were complications in recovery and Rolland’s 5 to 7 day post-op lasted 17 days. There were also two more unexpected hospital stays that summer as he continued to heal and get stronger. At this point, Rolland’s care was in the hands of his cardiologist, but each time Dr. Rabkin checked in to see how he was doing. He is a kind, brilliant and humble man who saved Rolland’s life, and thanking him a billion times just didn’t seem like enough. Enter the sock monkey.
I had a blue and white sock I wanted to use for the monkey, and I knew a surgeon costume would be easy – I picked up some scrubs “for authenticity” at the thrift store, and a friend who works at Children’s Hospital got one of those surgical hats for me to use as well. Rolland’s mom has one of those fancy embroidering sewing machines, so I got her to embroider the lab coat with Dr. Rabkin’s name, and my final accessory came from ebay – a sock-monkey sized stethoscope. The finished result is probably not the usual gift a world-class surgeon receives, but he fixed my patner’s heart and I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than give him a gift from mine.
THANK YOU DR. RABKIN!
P.S. – I entered the Dr. Rabkin monkey at the Western Washington State Fair (the Puyallup) this past fall – I’ve entered embroidery pieces and Christmas tree skirts I’ve made in the past, so this was a departure for me. The good doctor earned a “Judges Craftsmanship Award”! He was displayed with a hand-made wool rug of sock monkeys that was really amazing – thanks again Doc!
Even if you don’t know who George and Ira Gershwin are, or have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you know their music. So much of the work, which was actually conceived as an opera by George Gershwin, is so ingrained in the American popular songbook that once you hear a few notes of any of the great songs like Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So, you can hum along. The work itself presents a lot of difficulties – not just from the sheer size of the cast, the different sets and the overall complexity of it, but also the political and racial questions that come from a work that’s about African Americans living in a tenement that’s written by two New York Jews and a Southern white man, DuBose Heyward.
Thankfully, our society has changed a lot since the opera’s debut in 1935, and I was excited to spend my summer working on the Seattle Opera production with a favorite baritone, Gordon Hawkins. Gordon is an amazing artist. He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition in 1992. He has a powerful voice with a rare ability to make it emotionally heartbreaking and tender. I actually cried backstage a couple times listening to him and the pain and longing he conveyed as the disabled beggar, Porgy – just too beautiful!
Of course, I wanted to do a sock monkey for him, but I was a bit gun shy after preparing my show for the “New Visions” exhibit at McCaw Hall (see my post about “Verboten”). I thought the best way to proceed was to tell Gordon I wanted to make a Porgy for him, and let him decide if it was OK. He was all for it!
I pushed myself to add a lot of details to this character. I found a crutch from a ski set for the American Girls doll line that was the perfect size for him. I wrapped it with cloth strips from a favorite old shirt of mine, added some bits of leather and distressed it. The result came really close to the actual stage version he used, and with the club foot I gave him, he needed that crutch. My boss, Ron, helped me distress the pants and the wool I used to make the cardigan. I added a removable hankie to his cardigan
pocket, and leather tabs to his suspenders, trying to bring it as close as possible to the costume worn on stage. The most fun I had was making a felt fedora for him. I made my own pattern and kept cutting it down until it fit just right, added a hat band and distressed it.
The production was terrific – for the most part, it was an entirely new group of performers who’d never sung at Seattle Opera before, and they brought a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to the show every night. The first costume change I had backstage with Gordon was primarily an instrumental point in the show with little singing. I went a bit early to the change each night – I felt completely immersed in and surrounded by this lush, gorgeous Gershwin sound. I could hear bits of other Gershwin pop songs throughout the orchestration, and a little Rhapsody in Blue every now and then – absolute heaven!
Porgy and Bess is one of the most beautiful and fun productions I’ve worked since my first show at SO in 2002. I wish they were all like that –
If people aren’t familiar with lesser-known Broadway musicals, they usually think you’re talking about something risque if you mention the show Once Upon a Mattress. That’s too bad, because it’s a funny, family-friendly show that earned a young Carol Burnett a TONY award nomination for best actress when it premiered in 1959. An adaptation of the classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the musical has attracted a large amount of star power over its 50+ years for various Broadway, national tour and television versions, including Buster Keaton, Ken Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elliot Gould, Imogene Coca, Bernadette Peters, Wally Cox, Jack Gilford, Dody Goodman, Matthew Morrison, Jane Krakowski, Zooey Deschanel and Tracey Ullman.
Of course, this is an ideal show for high school theatre productions as you can put as many kids in the chorus as you like, the set isn’t too complicated, the dance numbers are comical and the music isn’t too difficult to sing. So this fall when my step-daughter Jessica was cast in her high school’s version of the show, we were proud and excited for her. And you can imagine one of the first places my brain went – sock monkey!
Jessica was to play Lady Mabelle, one of Lady Larken’s maids in waiting. She’s French and pretty much only ever says “yes”, but I think that any time a character you play has a name and you’re not just listed as “ensemble”, it’s a big deal. Jessica’s drama department doesn’t have much of a budget, so the kids had to supply their own costumes, which they ordered online. I only had a black and white photo to work with, so I found out from her mom that the dress was made of deep blue and black velvet with gold trim. I had never sewn with velvet before and it sucked! Later on my costume shop friends were all saying “Oh, you should have basted it together before sewing it,” but of course, they didn’t give me that tip until I had fought and cursed my way through the project.
Jessica has tons of beautiful, wavy brunette hair, and she looked quite beautiful in her costume. Although it’s difficult to capture beauty in a sock monkey, I tried my best with giving her big brown eyes (vintage buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box) and some flirty eyelashes. As she is a lady, she wears satin petti-pants trimmed in lace, and I did my best to make her yarn wig look something like the style she wore her hair in for the show. The sock monkey version is really sweet, and I loved sending off and surprising her with it. I have hopes that Jessica will continue her interest in theatre and maybe even pursue a career in it. I just hope she doesn’t have to sew much with velvet.
Have you ever had a situation where you do/say/create something with a certain intent (or no intent), then somebody else comes along and puts their own spin on it and completely changes your original idea into something you never intended or never actually even imagined somebody would think of when you originated that thought or idea? Such is the case with VERBOTEN – the sock monkey that dare not show her face.
During a production of Lucia di Lamermoor at Seattle Opera last season, it was our good fortune to have among the supernumaries Miss Rosetta Greek. Rosetta is one of the coolest, most creative people I know – she is the kick-ass proprietress of Heavens To Betsie, and a very talented actress. She also inspired me to start my own sock monkeys after she created the beautiful Mermonkey, Atlantis, a few years ago. So it wasn’t difficult to decide I wanted to make a sock monkey for Rosetta based on her character, The Love-Cursed Bride, in the opera.
I wanted to do something different for this monkey – a different look and I wanted it to be special for Rosetta. I found a pair of gray, vintage socks I thought would be perfect for a ghost, I had some lovely silk for the wedding gown and matching gloves (trimmed with real vintage mother-of-pearl buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box), I made her a real boned corset, some lace-trimmed bloomers and I hand beaded the veil similar to what was on her original costume. She is beautiful! But that’s not quite the end of the story.
As you’ve seen from my other posts, I had a show at McCaw Hall during the opera’s production of Porgy and Bess over the summer. I submitted photos of my work and I got the green light that I was chosen to exhibit. Then the problems began. When you assemble a sock monkey, the heel becomes the head, face and mouth of it. My ghostly gray sock had a black heel, so the monkey had a black head, face and mouth. I received an email a couple weeks before the show that the Ghost Bride would not be allowed in the show because it would “potentially offend patrons.” Huh? This was followed by another email a few days later telling me I could not refer to my work as “sock monkeys” because the term “monkey” was used to negatively refer to African Americans. Wow. And this is 2011?
I found it rather difficult to believe that anyone was going to look at my work and read it as offensive (so not what this project/endeavor has ever been about), but I offered to call them “sock puppets” (even thought they’re not) and be done with it. I did find it interesting that the Seattle Opera’s blog showed photos of the Ghost Bride and referred to my work as sock monkeys, but then I wasn’t in charge of that, was I?
Anyway, the show got a lot of positive feedback, Rosetta was thrilled with her monkey, my friend Rozarii did an amazing photo of her, and I think she’s still my favorite. After all the “trouble” she caused, Rosetta decided to name her Verboten, which I think is absolutely perfect. And just in case you’re wondering, they were called sock monkeys when they were invented 70+ years ago and they have tails like real monkeys do. What do you think?