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.
Last week, we introduced you to Ashley Christensen: chef, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and badass. She is August’s featured chef in our café (and collaborator for our upcoming Piggy Bank Dinner). Ashley recently spoke to us about good food, sustainability, community, and what she has planned next.
AC: Congratulations on your recent James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. How did you celebrate? (We hope you took time to celebrate…)
We had a total of 22 folks sitting with us at the ceremony, so we kind of brought the party with us, which was really fun. After the awards, we decided to make the party about simply having a good time with our crew. We called in a pile of to-go Shake Shack burgers, ordered a bunch of champagne and crowded about 40 friends into our little room at the Ace Hotel. We followed this celebration by attending Jamie Bissonnette’s victory party at Toro, and then the Nomad’s epic party at the Highline Ballroom. It was more perfect than I could ever find the words to describe.
AC: You currently operate five restaurants in the Raleigh, North Carolina area – with more on the way. Do you have a different role at each establishment? How do you balance your roles at each? And how have those roles changed as you continue to grow?
In addition to being the proprietor, I’m the Executive Chef for the company, but I consider my most important role at this point to be “lead catalyst”. I have lots of ideas for new projects, and for refining existing projects. My job is to make sure that we ask of ourselves to improve each day, and to see the opportunity in studying the details that guide us to do so. We have an amazing crew of folks who make it happen every day, on every level. It is also my job to provide the tools and support that make them feel competent, empowered, and appreciated.
Last year, I was introduced to Inez Holden over a glass of dry white wine at a fundraising event in our community. Mrs. Holden’s story, told with humor and passion, reminded me that the fashion industry runs deep here in our community. Before Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid, there was Bubbles Ltd.
As Alabama Chanin continues to explore the world of machine-made fashion with our new line and manufacturing division, A. Chanin and Building 14, respectively, Mrs. Holden reminded me that we humbly follow in a line of companies that completely designed and manufactured a fashion line in The Shoals and the surrounding area.
Around 1983, Mrs. Holden got her start as a designer quite by accident. She bought an oversized top and banded bottom pant that she loved the style and fit of, but the material was very rough and scratchy. So, she asked a friend of hers to help her make more sets in a similar style, but out of jersey fabric. She had about five sets of these pantsuits made in different colors, but kept giving them away because so many of her friends and family wanted them.
As part of our ongoing Heirloom series that focuses on the precious things we treasure – even though they might not be considered valuable by the rest of the world – we continue to tell stories of items that have been passed down through families, from one generation to the next.
Today, we hear from Sara Martin, one of our Journal contributors. She shares a story of her great-grandmother’s butcher knife and how a potential family scandal became a source of family pride.
My great-grandmother, Roxie Mae Hurst, doted on my sister and I when we were born. She passed away when I was quite young, so I don’t have many memories of her. But, my family tells stories of her frequently – of her bold actions, her stoic nature, and her toughness.
She was (somewhat scandalously during that time) married twice. In 1907, at the age of 20, she married the Circuit Court Clerk of Lauderdale County, Alabama. His family was financially well off and his brothers were both respected county judges.
My great-grandmother was not particularly well liked or respected by her first husband’s family. They were well-educated and held substantial wealth and community respect; she was bright and literate, but not formally educated. This caused a cultural and social disconnect in the family that lasted beyond her husband’s lifetime. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in April of 1912. Continue reading →
It has been said that holidays like Mother’s Day are actually manufactured celebrations, created only to sell cards and gifts. It is not really true that Mother’s Day was created to boost sales and create commerce, but that’s not to say that the evolution of the holiday didn’t cause quite a commotion, especially by its own creator.
Holidays very much like our American Mother’s Day have been celebrated globally for centuries. There were festivals in Egypt and Rome honoring the goddesses Isis, and Cybele and Rhea, respectively. European celebrations of the Virgin Mary were expanded in the 1600s to include all mothers with a celebration called Mothering Day. The Mother’s Day as we know it today in America was established by a woman named Anna Jarvis. Her mother, named Ann Jarvis, had attempted to establish Mothers Work Clubs in the late 1860s, meant to help clean cities and tend wounded Civil War soldiers. After the war, she established a Mother’s Friendship Day to unite families from both sides, North and South.
Ann’s death devastated Anna, who began what has become our modern Mother’s Day. She wanted it to be “Mother’s Day” (singular), rather than “Mothers’ Day” (plural), so that each family could focus on their own mothers and not all mothers, everywhere. It was meant to be a day to spend time with your mother, to thank her for all that she had done for you. Jarvis campaigned heavily for Mother’s Day to become a national holiday, finally finding success when Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it so in 1914. The carnation became the symbol for the holiday, simply because it was Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower. Continue reading →
This May, Alabama Chanin is featuring two of my personal heroines (and, now, dear friends) as part of our ongoing Chef Series at the café. They might not be chefs, but Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva are The Kitchen Sisters—independent producers who create radio stories for NPR and other public broadcast outlets. Davia and Nikki are two of the most genuine and real women I know. Without their dedication to telling the real story, I would not be the person I am today. Route 66 changed my perception of storytelling in the autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a square in Savannah, Georgia. Just like that, my life changed.
Davia and Nikki met and began collaborating in the late 1970s, hosting a weekly radio program in Santa Cruz, California. Their name was taken from two eccentric brothers—Kenneth and Raymond Kitchen—who were stonemasons in Santa Cruz in the 1940s. One night, they were discussing the Kitchen Brothers, who were featured in a book about Santa Cruz architects, as prep for an interview with the book’s author—while also cooking dinner for a group of people on the commune where Nikki lived—and got caught up in legends of local masonry (chimneys, yogi temples, Byzantine bungalows…), and food prep fell to the wayside. Dinner that evening was a disaster, and The Kitchen Sisters were (laughingly) born.
Oral histories heavily influenced their style of radio production. Over the years, they have produced a number of series, such as Lost & Found Sound, The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls, and Hidden Kitchens. Regardless of topic, Davia and Nikki find a way to build community through storytelling.
Last year, we began a series called “Real Women,” an exploration of the real women in our lives (and throughout history) that have made a difference—one way or another—in our world. Today, we are finishing a chapter of that series: real women as seen by men.
Here you find a tribute from son to mother, written by Nashville singer/songwriter (and former English professor) Jon Byrd. Jon grew up just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and is a dear friend of our editor, Sara. Please welcome Jon and enjoy his beautifully candid account of his mother, Margaret Tidwell Byrd.
The most important woman in my life, past or present, is my mother. I’m adopted; that’s probably why I feel this way. I don’t remember our first meeting, at the Alabama state orphanage in 1955, but it was obviously a life-changing moment for me.
My mother was sweet, but tough. She was not a pushover and didn’t have to win an argument or always be (perceived as) right. She had an amazing way of speaking her mind, calling someone out, and standing up for herself that made the other person in the conversation question why they were resisting her. Her strongest quality was, without question, her determination. She encouraged with empathy, compassion, integrity, and consistency. Continue reading →
Today, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. week, we turn the spotlight to one of the unsung heroes (or heroines, rather) of the Civil Rights Movement: Georgia Gilmore.
Georgia (whom we have written about before) lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a true servant to the cause of the movement. Georgia was a big lady with a big personality—frankly put, she didn’t take any bull from anybody. She worked as a midwife, as well as a cook at the National Lunch Company. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave her seat on a bus in December of 1955, a group of black ministers and community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)—and initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Association often held secret meetings around the city. As soon as Georgia heard of Rosa Parks’ arrest on the radio, she joined the MIA, determined to aid the effort in any way she could.
Outspoken and feisty, Georgia let her disapproval of the discriminatory bus drivers be known—an action that got her fired from her job at the cafeteria. When that happened, Dr. King and other leaders helped her set up a restaurant in her home kitchen. Georgia was well-known around town for her fried chicken, pork chops, and stuffed bell peppers and often served these and other dishes to Dr. King and fellow supporters of the boycott. She even hosted secret MIA meetings there in her kitchen.
Georgia’s love (and talent) for cooking and her passion for equality and change led her to start a club with a few of her friends, named “The Club from Nowhere.” The ladies in the club, most of them maids and cooks, sold homemade pies and cakes (and even Georgia’s chicken dinners) to supporters of the movement in order to raise money for the boycott. The Club from Nowhere often set up shop in beauty parlors, Laundromats, and on street corners in downtown Montgomery. Both black and white supporters of the boycott were able to contribute anonymously. The Club from Nowhere used the money they collected to buy gas and station wagons, which were used to transport people to and from work during the boycott. Georgia always said that the money came “from nowhere.”
Many of you know that we at Alabama Chanin hold a strong admiration for lyricist, musician, vocal Twitter user, and writer (among other things) Rosanne Cash. I was a fan and supporter many years before we actually met and became friends. The more that I get to know this incredible woman, the more I respect her talent and her humanity. She has said that she wears Alabama Chanin pieces on stage for nearly every performance, an honor that we do not take lightly. Rosanne has become one of our favorite clients, a dear friend, and a near-constant source of inspiration.
Many of you may know of Rosanne Cash because of her renowned family lineage. She is the firstborn daughter of revered American icon Johnny Cash. As a songwriter and performer, she is doing honest work, from her own perspective. For over 30 years, she has written and released 15 albums and four books, charted 21 Top 40 singles, including 11 Number Ones and received 13 Grammy nominations and one Grammy win. Her 2010 album, The List, was named Album of the Year by the Americana Music Awards and her upcoming album, The River and the Thread, is already garnering critical praise.
Her book, Composed: A Memoir, not only tells the story of her upbringing and explores her relationships with her parents and her famous stepmother; it is also the story of a woman in the process of discovering who she is and who she wants to be. Last year, I first read Composed on a trip to Berlin and found myself sitting in an airport terminal, openly weeping; the language is so beautiful and her story is engaging and unfailingly honest.