I have known many storytellers in my life. Some have a natural and unrehearsed style that feels captivating and immediate; some present new or unfamiliar points of view; others are quite deliberate and thoughtful in approach; all of them are enthralling to me. As a storyteller born into a family of storytellers, I find master storyteller Gael Towey both compelling and inspiring. She has a distinct perspective and is skilled at many things: crafting a storyline, discovering and highlighting the unique qualities of her subjects, eliciting a response from the audience, and designing beautiful visual elements. Her work has informed contemporary visual language in a way we can barely imagine.
I was lucky to be among Gael’s subjects as part of her series of short films about artists called “Portraits in Creativity” www.portraitsincreativity.com (and I especially love her piece on friend and heroine Maira Kalman). Each of her portraits uncover the unique qualities of her subjects and reveal Towey’s fascination with the creative process. For over two years, we have been speaking with Gael about her past, her present, and the creative processes, media, and methods she uses to propel her ideas forward.
Gael was raised in New Jersey and was the oldest of six children. She revealed that, as a child, she was mildly dyslexic and almost flunked the second and third grade because she couldn’t spell; she reversed all her consonants and vowel combinations. She was drawn to art and studied it enthusiastically through college. “I loved printmaking and accidentally signed up for a class in typography, and I fell in love with it from the first lecture,” Towey says. “I’d never looked at the design of a letter and had not noticed how beautiful they are.” She switched her major to graphic design and graduated from Boston University, College of Fine Arts. Gael said, “I was extraordinarily lucky. I have met so many young people who don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew. I struggled academically and art was the only thing I was good at… And it’s funny that I wound up working in the publishing business since I had no confidence in my ability to write properly.”
Gael worked on the book, In the Russian Style, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
We at Alabama Chanin have long been obsessed with and inspired by Maira Kalman. She has a rich and singular voice – as a visual artist, author, illustrator, and storyteller – that imbues people, objects, and words with knowing wit and humanity.
Maira has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, all of which have been popular nighttime reading with my daughter Maggie. Maira’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resides, beautiful and dog-eared, on my desk each day—as it has become part of our company style guide. And for years, I have traded and passed on copies of and links to her columns from the New York Times, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness (both of which are now published exquisitely in book form).
MAKESHIFT began three years ago as a conversation about the intersection of the disciplines of design, craft, art, fashion, and DIY—and, on a bigger level, using this intersection as an agent of change in the world. Since then, we’ve explored making as individuals, and how making as a group can open conversations and build communities.
For MAKESHIFT 2014, we have once again partnered with Standard Talks in New York to host the conversation, and will cover a range of topics, including raw materials, craft, fashion, global communities, food, and the act of making. 2014 James Beard award-winning chef Ashley Christensen will also participate in the discussion, helping answer the question: What can design learn from food?
Yesterday, I wrote about my appreciation of hand-painted signs, inspired by the book Sign Painters, authored by friend Faythe Levine with Sam Macon. Faythe and Sam have directed a documentary – also called Sign Painters, as a companion to the book.
In 2008, Faythe co-authored and directed a book and film, both named Handmade Nation: The Rise of Craft and DIY. We welcomed her to Alabama last April for our Visiting Artist Series, where she highlighted “craftivism” and brought her light-hearted stories to the Factory. This summer she has taken Sign Painters on the road for a series of screenings.
Faythe has an itinerant spirit. She states in the book’s preface, “Many of my earliest memories involve travel, much of which was by car. I’d stare out the window of the family station wagon and watch America transition from one place to the next.”
I don’t want to overstate the obvious, but most of you would know that I am neither a New Yorker nor a fashion expert. While I enjoy style and design and I’m somewhat awed by the city, it’s clear to any observer that I’m native to neither. But, there’s something about Bill Cunningham that makes me feel comfortable with both. He lives and roams in the intimidating worlds of fashion and Manhattan, but manages to do so in an unpretentious way.
This weekend I re-watched the feature-length documentary Bill Cunningham New York, which profiles this prolific photographer and wise fashion observer and, once again, this eighty-something gentleman captured all my heart. Sometimes, as a fashion outsider, I imagine that NY style begins and ends on the runway. Bill Cunningham is a firm believer that this notion is not true. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been, always will be,” he assures us. His “On the Street,” column in the New York Times is a collage of on-trend people, items, movements, and real-time style progressions. In the film, Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains that Bill attempts to “tease out trends in terms of the reality of how people dress.” Cunningham himself demurs, “I don’t decide anything. I let the street speak to ME.”
I’ve written a couple of times about what happens when your heroes and heroines become friends. For me, it brings about a feeling of connection to the ever-expanding universe; all things are possible. A girl from the countryside in Alabama can dine with royalty (in all its meanings). The picture above is proof. When I look at this picture, I laughingly think of The Death of Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain….” However, those moments will not be lost. Knowing and dining with Les Blank gives me a connection to the stories and tiny details of human nature that make me a bigger, and better, person. His contribution to the genre of documentary film is exceptional; his contribution to my life is priceless. His clear vision of humanity (like that of The Kitchen Sisters) helped mold the designer, story lover, and human being I am today. I am so sad to write that my friend, and hero, is very ill with a protracted cancer. The City of Berkeley, California declared January 22nd the official Les Blank Day and wrote this: “With a soft spoken demeanor, an eye for beauty, an insightful mind and great enthusiasm, Les Blank has captured the essence of aspects of American culture,” and “through his respectful, quiet presence, and non-didactic style created films that allow his subjects to reveal their true selves in a unique way.” Well deserved. The world is a better place because of Les Blank, visionary wayfarer. P.S.: Photo above with Les and Alice Waters from April 2008 at The Edible Schoolyard (where Les first filmed and then cleaned everyone’s plate).
Next week we return to our regularly scheduled programming:
Monday – Beautiful Life: Things, stories, and people that inspire us.
Tuesday – Sustainable Life + Design: Good, good, and more good.
Wednesday – In the Kitchen: Food, of course, recipes and cookbooks, and occasional garden updates. And a cocktail (or three).
Thursday – DIY + Sewing: Do-It-Yourself, Design, Craft, or what ever you would like to call it.
Friday – The Heart, Travel + Other News, or, anything we find fascinating: Stories about our studio, interviews with our team, where we have been, where we are going, what people are talking about, and, sometimes, cotton.
(Disclaimer: Natalie reserves the right to mix it all up from time-to-time.)
We also have some new categories on our mailing list. Take a minute to join or to simply update your preferences, email address, or information. Tell us how much you want. We really want to know. Look for a monthly newsletter, coming soon, and a weekly update, coming later.
In the meantime, make things (and fly),
xo and Happy New Year from all of us @ Alabama Chanin