Thursday, December 27, 2007

Artist talk at MICA

On November 9, 2007, I gave an artist talk to Fiber students at Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, MD. I showed performance videos and discussed my process for making costumes and how I use costumes to transmit stories and ideas in performance. Concurrent with the talk, ten years worth of my costumes were exhibited in the costume gallery. The two aqua costumes on the far left and the baroque undergarments on far right front were made by costume designer Gregory Nelson.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dress Me Slow, I'm in a Hurry

Evergreen Museum and Library
Baltimore, MD
October 25-27, 2007

Project Coordinator, Kelly Cobb
featuring Micheal Simmons on flamenco and classical guitars and mandolin

As the 2007 artist-in-residence at Evergreen Museum and Library, I was invited to make a site-specific work inspired by the house museum, its collection and history. I was fascinated by Evergreen's idiosyncratic patroness Alice Garrett, who, in addition to being an esteemed art patron and high profile wife of a diplomat, sang, danced and staged lavish productions she called Songs in Costume during the 1920s in an in-home theater designed by Ballets Russes set and costume designer Leon Bakst.

As I researched Alice's archives, I discovered that while she was a consummate entertainer, Alice was not a very good singer or dancer and was deeply conflicted about her artistic aspirations. As an artist who has developed a performance form based on my passion for the music, obsession with costumes and an untrained stage persona (rather than undisputed vocal talent and acting skills), I felt a powerful affinity with Alice and developed the piece around our similarities and differences. Dress Me Slow was my own version of Songs in Costume. I sang songs drawn from Alice's repertoire of Irish and Spanish folk songs; wore costumes I designed and handmade inspired by the intensely colored costumes Bakst created for Alice; and shared monologues exploring Alice's conflicted artistic aspirations and my own ambivalence as a artist.

Throughout the piece, I was in a constant state of changing from one costume to another to suggest the multiple identities Alice navigated in her life—ambassadress, socialite, social reformer, art patron and performer.

The Irish costume was inspired by the Irish selkie, or mermaid. The belt suggests the ubiquitous Irish seaweed, with the brown i-cords on the belt, around my neck and in my hair referencing the ropey kind of seaweed. The "gloves" riff off cable-knit Irish fishermen sweaters.


The Spanish costume is a traditional flamenco dress rendered in a confection of red, purple and hot pink. It was inspired by a painting in the house by Miguel Covarrubias depicting Alice dancing the flamenco and a photo of Baltimore opera singer Rosa Ponsel as Carmen.  The ruffles were hand died prior to construction and the bodice was hand painted.

I embroidered the lyrics of one of the Spanish folk songs I sang on the ruffles.


The Exotic costume was inspired by Leon Bakst’s boldly colored, wildly patterned designs for the Ballets Russes.

Under the guidance of Kelly Cobb, a Fiber Instructor at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I designed the fabric from drawings I made of plants and birds on the grounds of Evergreen. Kelly taught me how to hand paint the designs onto silk for the harem pants and Turkish vest in the style of Leon Bakst. MICA Fiber student Hanna Brancato screen printed the sheer scarf as well as a theatrical backdrop in the design. All scarves were hand dyed.

(Photos: Aaron Igler)

Gradation dyeing the Spanish costume at MICA

Silk painting fabric for Exotic costume

(photos: Kelly Cobb)

Dress Me Slow, I'm in a Hurry (video excerpt)


Institute of Contemporary Art Soft Sites exhibition at Bartram's Garden
Philadelphia, PA
July 31, 2006

As I researched John Bartram's garden, I learned that Bartram discovered a small grove of trees in Georgia in 1765.  He gathered the seeds and propagated them in his Philadelphia garden and gave them to friends back in England. The tree was last seen in the wild in 1803 and only survives today in cultivation.  This story led me to make this piece as a meditation on the extinction of plants and the loss we experience when they disappear.

I led the audience through the 18th-century botanic garden, telling stories about plants that vanished either because they couldn't survive in the the wild or because they fell out of fashion and people stopped planting them.

Dropping seeds like Hansel and Gretel, I led the audience into a wooded glen, where I sang a lament at the rivers edge. Then I paddled away in a canoe and disappeared.

Lament drew on the Victorian language of flowers--a means of communicating through coded messages that allowed people to express feelings they were not free to speak aloud. I shared the symbolic meanings of flowers in Bartram's garden and embroidered them on my costume.

I wanted to make something that could live on after the performance. Using the same blue floss and white linen of the costume, I embroidered some stories I told in performance and made a book with photos from the performance and the embroideries. The embroideries were inspired by Victorian handkerchiefs, on which women often stitched secret messages for their beloved, and by vintage needlework samplers, which feature blocks of inspirational text or sage advice. Victorian women sewed samplers to record life events, rites of passage or life history. My embroideries record the loss of flowers.

The embroideries were shown at Fleisher-Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia in September 2007 on the occasion of the book release.

Photos: Aaron Igler

A larger version of this video can be viewed at

drown'd in mine own tears

Philadelphia Live Arts Festival
September 6-11, 2005

Directed by Greg Giovanni, video by Nadia Hironaka, design by Jonathan Berger
Featuring Elizabeth Boggs (harpsichord), Helena Espvall (cello), and Michael Simmons (classical guitar)

drown’d used knitting to explore the pain of waiting and acceptance. The piece was built around the myth of Penelope, wife of Ulysses—champion of the Trojan War and hero of The Odyssey. Penelope endured 20 years of waiting for Ulysses to come home. When he didn’t return after the war, suitors demanded she remarry. She tricked the suitors by telling them she’d pick a new husband when she finished her weaving. For four years, she kept the suitors at bay, weaving by day and unraveling by night. In quiet protest, she spoke thru her handwork.

drown’d recreated Penelope’s action of creating and destroying through the knitting and unraveling of a giant afghan. The afghan provided a sense of scale—dwarfing my Penelope, who persevered despite the daunting task.

At three intervals during the performance, I broke from Penelope’s story and stepped in front of the curtain to conduct a knitting demonstration. Dressed in a floor-length hand-knit dress, I shared the rudiments of knitting a scarf, which I was “constantly knitting.” By the third knitting lesson, I emerged with a 40-foot-long scarf.

During the knitting lessons, I passed on purls of wisdom, using knitting as a metaphor for accepting your life, mistakes and all, while reflecting on how I used knitting to cope with the recent death of my mother, my first knitting teacher.

I taught myself to knit in order to make this piece and I became obsessed in the process. I knit dozens of hats and scarves. I even knit my husband a surfboard bag. That bag was the basis of the knitting teacher’s dress. I have a hard time following patterns so I knit instinctively, making it up as I go along. I wanted to make the kind of dress that an obsessed knitting teacher would wear—one that screamed “handmade.” Purldrop knitwear designer Erin Weckerly crocheted Penelope’s coat. A crew of knitting friends helped knit the backdrops on size 50 needles.

top 3 photos: Aaron Igler
bottom 3 photos: J. J. Tiziou

Petals from the Same Flower

Rosenbach Museum & Library
Philadelphia, PA
April 11-May 22, 2001

Costume by Gregory Nelson and Candy Depew, installation by Depew
With Elizabeth Boggs on harpsichord and Michael Simmons on guitar

I was commissioned by the Rosenbach to make a piece in response to their collection of rare books, 18th century furniture and decorative arts. I was fascinated by the way the brothers used their collections to reinvent themselves: They grew up the sons of middle-class Jewish merchants who went bankrupt but as the brothers amassed a fortune from selling rare books in the 1920s, they assumed the lavish lifestyle of English country gentlemen. I took the audience on a tour of the museum, focusing on objects that were pretending to be something else (chinoiserie mirrors, Empire furniture, Shakespeare forgeries) to examine how we use our objects to redefine ourselves. My costume was an exact replica of an 18th-century dress, constructed using a historic pattern but rendered in decidedly contemporary fabric.

I combined historic facts about the Rosenbach brothers' idiosyncratic collecting habits with stories about my own collections (ceramic nuns, fiesta ware, vintage bathing suits) to explore the obsessive nature of collecting and the culture of excess.

The piece was a collaboration with costume designer Gregory Nelson and installation artist Candy Depew, who designed and printed the fabric of my dress. Depew created a “period room” combining wallpaper and topiary of her design with objects from the brothers' collection where the performance culminated in a recital with harpsichord.

Photo: Aaron Igler

The Garden

The Brick Playhouse
Philadelphia, PA
June 4-6, 2000
Directed by Joe Shahadi

This piece combined an Elizabethan folk song about a king who has to "cut his wife open" as she dies in childbirth to save their baby, with stories of my teenage brother's and my mother-in-law's death, and descriptions of my garden each season of the year to explore death and rejuvenation.

Girls on the Rocks

HERE Arts Center
New York, NY
August 2003

Directed by Greg Giovanni; Costumes by Gregory Nelson;
video by Nathalie Applewhite and Paul Haslett
with Michael Simmons on guitar and Lynn Major on cello

Girls on the Rocks explored my relationship to the lonely mermaid and siren—half-women/half-beasts who are outcasts, not fitting in on land or sea and longing for human companionship they can’t have. The piece was staged as a Zeigfield follies cabaret featuring an insecure mermaid in a leggy showgirl costume desperately trying to win over the audience in silence (the mermaid traded her tongue to get legs); and a smoky torch singer siren with an ostrich feather fan brooding over the loss of Ulysses, the one that got away.

Throughout the piece, I played with ways I seduce an audience with my voice—singing a coquettish duet with myself on video; imitating the terrifying wail of an air raid siren (the modern vestige of the mythological siren); and performing a lush, mournful lament.

top photo: Adam Wallacavage
bottom 3 photos: Jim Rose