Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Creature Features

Now that we've got your attention, more on this wonderful old Japanese cartoon of marching octopi later.


The first cicadas were spotted several weeks ago, a bit earlier than expected, more of them are showing up now, and they are expected to reach a noisy crescendo in June. We bring this up because - if you are unfamiliar - this year's cicada crop has lived (like its ancestors) underground for seventeen years. They're coming out to mate now, by the gazillions, and then we'll hear nothing of them for another seventeen years. When asked how the cicadas know it's time to come out, entomologists shrug their collective shoulders and say "Beats me." They are noisy, sounding like a million people shaking rattles, but harmless, so if you run into an army of cicadas, don't worry. Just gaze in wonder that they do all that without a clock. For everything you ever wanted to know about cicadas but were afraid to ask, check out Sex and the Cicada or Cicada Mania.

For some reason, artists like portraying cicadas. The daddy cicada above (about three inches long and purchased at the recent Pier Show, in complete ignorance of the coming invasion) is actually a brooch, most likely made of horn, and most likely from early 20th century China. A British Museum website entry states that in ancient China, cicadas were associated with longevity for the living, and that jade cicada amulets were placed on the tongues of the dead, possibly to symbolize resurrection.

In France, in the 1930s, cicadas brooches were popular good luck charms. Made of shagreen, a favored material in French art deco design, this mommy cicada (two inches long) has been dyed three separate colors: blue, olive and cream. She was found on Etsy, and purchased to celebrate the invasion.

Another favored material of the art deco period was resin. This baby cicada (one and a half inches long), in molded purple, also French art deco, has wings outlined in gold paint.  With three cicadas (this one also from Etsy), you can put a creditable imitation of the impending invasion on your hat or jacket!

While we're on the subject of brooches, this seems as good a time as any to say be very careful when buying and wearing them. Brooches probably ruin more women's clothes than cigarette ashes.

1. A brooch with a fine, sharp, smooth point is best. If the pin is not sharp and smooth, work it VERY slowly through the fabric to prevent tearing. Tearing even one thread can ruin the look of the material. Try putting your fingertip on the other side of the fabric where you want to insert the pin. If you work the pin in slowly and carefully enough that you do not hurt your finger, the fabric should also be unhurt.

2. If the point of the brooch is blunt, wear the brooch on a fabric with a large weave, or a thick wool knit. These materials are more forgiving.

3. Match the weight of the brooch to the strength of the fabric. Don't put a heavy brooch on a thin silk, for example.


Okay, you've been very patient. To take your mind off bugs - just for a moment, mind you - here's a bunny.

This is a hand carved glass bunny bead. If you're having trouble making him out, he's facing left, and sitting up with his forearms on his haunches. He has a red bead eye, and you should be able to see his carved whiskers. Based on his size (about 1" high), we're guessing that he's from China, and was originally part of a set of twelve beads depicting the animals of the zodiac. Jean found him at Becky's stall at the Columbus Avenue Flea Market, and Valerie scooped him up to do somethingorother with, sometime.


Okay, back to bugs now, but we're going to ease you into it nicely, with a stunning decorative hair comb Ann Wagner found on an auction site. (Sorry, we don't know where it is or what it cost. We don't know how big it is, but you can sort of guess from the size of the tines.)

This is a plastic hair comb, dated to about 1900 - 1920, also French. Don't you want to know who made it? Don't you want to know who wore it? And don't you want to know if someone bought it for her, and if so, who, and why???? (And don't you want one for your very own?!  Wouldn't it be worth growing your hair to be able to we this?)

So, since we're on the subject of spiders, we want to show you some of the research a young man, Jurgen Otto, has been doing on the peacock spider of Australia. One look at Otto's pictures, and you can see how this spider got its name.

Now for readers who are afraid of spiders, let us put this into perspective for you.

And here's Jurgen Otto himself in a video introducing the courtship dance of the peacock spider, which is when he (the spider, that is) shows off his finery. If you hate anything longer than 30 seconds, fast forward to the three minute point.


We have Lyle Zapato to thank for putting this little snippet (only nine frames long) online where we can enjoy it. It's from a cartoon called The Monkey Fleet (Osaru no Kantai), which dates back to 1936, when Japan was gearing up for war, and military themes were everywhere. Lyle writes that the whole cartoon is only sixty-eight seconds long. For more from Lyle on The Monkey Fleet, click here. Unfortunately, the cartoon is not available online in its entirety, but you'll see a few more stills, and Lyle's descriptive powers help you conjure up the rest.

Kids, that's all we have time for today. Tune in next time for something completely different!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

A digital fox hunt leads us to the marvelous art of Rae Stimson

A primary perk of writing this blog is the opportunity to meet some really unusual people. One such person is artist Rae Stimson. This remarkable young woman is a true artist and artisan in every sense of the words. She inhabits her space with the products of her multi-faceted craftsmanship. We originally discovered her because of her felting and her beautiful felted hats. Once we got to know her, we started to appreciate the breadth of her handiwork, as you'll see below. Her focus is not to make money but rather to work, to construct, to make. Luckily, her creations are ingenious and without artifice.

To say she is unique is an understatement. Home schooled in Iowa until high school, she and each of her two brothers attended Interlachen Art Academy, a high school in northwestern Michigan devoted to fine arts, music and visual arts. Both of her brothers and her parents are all artists. Her mother is a sculptor and her father is a jack of all artistic trades.  At one time he even made bag pipes on commission. Both of her parents work at the Maharishi University of Management (formerly Maharishi International U.), which strives to provide a consciousness-based education with transcendental meditation; organic, vegetarian and vegan meals; and to produce graduates who focus on people and the planet.

Rae herself went to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. A Buddhist-inspired, student centered liberal arts university, Naropa is a leader in contemplative education. The school seeks to produce graduates who "think critically, communicate effectively and know their hearts and minds".

Rae's boyfriend, Graham Swindoll, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, is a photographer. His photographs of her work appear on her Etsy site. Both working artists, they make a formidable pair. Each is inventive and original because that is who they are, not because it is something that someone else thinks they should do or be.

The time we spent at Rae's home was a refreshing and stimulating experience which we'd like to share with you.

Rae's hat depicting a World War II aerial bombing raid, complete with felted tanks, felted smoke, felted bombers suspended on wires, and a target bridge ... (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Her hat depicting a graveyard, complete with open coffin with a movable lid ... (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We recently went to visit Rae because we found her work riveting, joyful, and a bit subversive (in the best possible way).

It all started around November, when Valerie was searching on Etsy for a small felt fox or wolf (to put on an Easter hat next to an Easter chick or Easter bunny -- never too soon to play with an idea). She discovered Rae Stimson's felted foxes. They were all too big for a hat, but one thing led to another, and instead she found Rae's swallow tail hat -- that's it below, front and center with gray swirls -- and countless other mind boggling creations. At the time, the hat was away at an art fair, so Rae contacted Valerie when the hat was returned to Rae's apartment in Brooklyn. And one fine day in early May, we traveled to Brooklyn to see and try on the hat, and experience first hand Rae's many other marvels.

Valerie brought with her an Issey Miyake jacket that seemed tailor-made for the hat.

"That was easy!", to quote the Staples office supplies commercial. No question -- this hat was a keeper.

In our never-ending quest to show there's more than one way to wear a hat, Jean shows her own take on how the hat could be worn.

Below you can see how that looks from the front. In the original Etsy photograph, Valerie saw some resemblance to the Starship Enterprise (no, she's not a Trekkie), but when she asked Rae about her inspiration for the hat, Rae said it came "from a hat that briefly appeared in a Marx Brother's film. I don't recall which one. I loved its elegant simplicity and interesting shape that reminded me of the forked tail of a swallow. I emphasized the swallow's tail element of it in my version of the hat and made it the deep blue color of a swallow."

Once we got the business out of the way, we set about oooooohing and aaaaaahing at Rae's marvelous ingenuity, playfulness, and manual dexterity. We found this armadillo bag among Rae's work. (Like so many of the pieces you see here, you can find it at Rae's Etsy shop.

You can clearly see the armadillo's head and claws. We asked Rae how long it takes her to make her creations. She was unable to give an estimate, saying it involved many hours of repetitive work, which she did while watching television (and clearly old movies as well). Rae sees needle felting as a technique [that] has much, mostly unexplored, potential as a fine art medium", which she hopes to use "to push the boundaries between craft and art..." In Rae's work you can already see that happening. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Here it's rolled up into a ball, an armadillo's defensive position. Rae thought the shaped of the rolled up armadillo lent itself to a bag shape, and added a felted cord to sling it over the shoulder. Rae used flexible, durable annealed wire so the armadillo starts out nearly closed, but is easy to pull open. Don't forget to take a closer look at how she's rendered his armor. Rae is great at details! (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

For a costume party, Rae made this long horned sheep's head out of felt, then added a ruff (which she also made herself) and a satin cloak. (That's Rae in there.) We asked if she starts with a completed idea, or if her designs evolve as she makes them. Rae responded that "[w]ith needle felting you need to know exactly what you're making the whole time for the shape to turn out right."

As with so many artists, there is never enough room. When not being shown to visitors, the ram's head lives at the top of a book shelf, along with this life sized fennec fox, which lives in the desert. (Can you see his ear hairs and paw pads?)

An arctic fox collar.  Rae said she "learned the basics about needle felting in a fiber arts class at Interlochen Arts Academy", and taught herself the rest.

And Rae's fox cub hat, in a photo taken from her website. Rae styles her Etsy pictures with a lot of forethought. Here she's painted a fox's black nose on her own, and given her eyes a fox-like accent. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Also living atop the book case is Rae's life sized baby spotted seal, shown here in a picture on her Etsy site. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

And more toys! A needle felted parrot designed to strap to your shoulder... Check out her earrings: a key hangs from her right lobe and a tiny airplane hangs from her left.  Her vest is made from one which belonged to her grandmother; Rae redesigned it for her own purposes.

Two new creatures were added to Rae's Etsy shop that we didn't see during our visit: this gorgeously colored Iberian emerald lizard, (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

and an adorable tiny three-toed sloth (were his claws made from disposable chopsticks?). (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Rae also makes needle felted hand puppets! We fell in love with the vulture chick and the baby tapir. We also appreciate the fact that Rae doesn't anthropomorphize her animals. They don't smile or have human eyes or wear cute little sweaters ...

And if you thought 'engineering' and 'soft and fuzzy' were at opposite ends of the spectrum, Rae has found a way to combine them in her wonderful felted mobile.

Venus de Milo is a work in progress. Check out the articulated strands of hair and abdominal muscles. Rae hopes to take this a step further in the future by getting the wool to look smooth and hard like marble.

Valerie couldn't resist trying on the graveyard hat -- with coffin open. The wearer has the option of open or closed coffin. Very Tim Burton! Given the broad array of Rae's millinery creations, we asked her what gave her the urge to make hats. Rae said "My inspiration for the [first] hat [I made] came from looking at extravagant vintage hats on ebay with much yearning. At the time I was unable to afford these, so I decided to make my own vintage style hats. These later developed into more surreal creations with strange creatures and miniature scenes."

Valerie also tried on the kitchen hat, complete with dalmatian dog, kitchen table, curtained windows and tiled floor. This hat is beyond amazing.

Here is how Rae styled it to appear on her website. Rae wins the Who Wore It Better? contest hands down. The straight black bangs, the graphic, nearly geometric black and white dress, and the right-angled block of mascara (on one eye only!) are unbeatable. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

"Don't look Now!" The humor of Rae's pieces is inescapable. When she adopts the wide-eyed look of silent film stars, she looks like something out of a vintage photo album.

Rae's octopus hat, complete with hand-sewn netting and pearls.

Valerie captures a portrait of Rae wearing her octopus.

Want to win the prize for best costume at your next costume party? Speak to Rae. Here she appears in a complete 'alien robot' costume looking like she stepped out of a Flash Gordon serial. The grainy black and white of the photo is perfect, not to mention the early 20th century bee-stung lips. And don't even get us started on the fabulous felt cone bra with spirals! Rae feels, as we do, that fashion is a form of art, and uses "needle felting as a way to create wearable sculptural pieces." (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Jean had to get into the act.

The way that this gramaphone curves over her shoulder is reminiscent of Bjork's famous Swan outfit. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

A woman of many talents, Rae also made this wood carving of silent film director Fritz Lang with a scene from Metropolis. (OK, the shorter list would be what she can't do.)

She also made and hand-colored these black and white photographs.

Nobu, one of her two rescue cats born right around Super Storm Sandy, just had to get a closer look. (Yes, we know the picture is blurry. He moved, and we can't resist cats.) His brother, a solid black mirror image, was much too shy to make a public appearance.

Rae's boyfriend Graham was sweet enough to capture the three of us together. On the wall is a wood carving of another silent film director, less well known, whose name escapes us.

Rae and Graham -- after we departed, they headed to the park.

Well, we did it again! We really should have photographed ourselves together, at Rae's, each wearing one of her fabulous hats, but we didn't! When will we ever learn???!!! So instead we lassoed a hapless passerby at the train station in Brooklyn before making our way back to Manhattan and asked her to take pity and photograph us. ("And can you get the feet in?", we pleaded, as if we were wearing shoes by Nicholas Ghesquiere.)

What we're wearing:
Jean is wearing an Amy Downs turban, Hedari black with white polka dot pants, Kyodan jacket, black resin Creepsville skull necklace, black with white polka dot and white with black polka dot cuffs from Chaos, black customized Dansko clogs, vintage glasses, pearl and skull earrings by Kirsten Hawthorne, vintage bakelite rings, and vintage gold rings.

Valerie is wearing an unlabeled military style straw hat, with a pin by Georges Larondelle, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jean's mom's earrings, unlabeled bolero, shirt by Express, pants by Jones New York, shoes by Bernie Mev.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In Which the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas Bib + Tuck

Bib + Tuck, an innovative website that eschews the usual pay-for-it model, and instead advocates the barter of what-you-have for what-you-want, sent us an offer we couldn't refuse. How would you like, they asked us, to put some of your clothes on our website for barter, and have us do a video feature on you?

Well! How could we say no?!

We each gathered together five things that we love, but have had to give up wearing, to see what Bib + Tuck would do with them. The folks at Bib + Tuck (their unique way of expressing Give + Take) had a fun assignment for us and our things: take them to a shop where we could pair our items with other fun and fashionable clothes and accessories to show them off to best advantage.

So in late April, Bib + Tuck snagged us visits to two of our favorite Soho/Nolita vintage shops: Amarcord and Marmalade, and off we went with our goodies.

To give you a taste of what happened next, have a look at the Bib + Tuck video. (We've made it small to fit our website, so when it opens, hit the little four cornered box at bottom right of the You Tube picture. That will give you a full screen view.)

Back to our story!

When we arrived at Amarcord, Bib + Tuck co-founder Sari Bibliowicz had an additional surprise for us: she asked each of us to style her with clothes from the shop - first an evening look and then a day-time look. What a great idea!

Here, Jean surveys the territory as we plan our course of attack.

Jean selected this red 1980's silk dress. She matched it up with a pair of shoes she brought for Bib-bing - size 7 Donna Karan black velvet high heeled booties (which Jean refers to as SIOWO -- Shoes I Only Wore Once) as well as black bangle bracelets, glass beaded necklaces, and plexi-glass sunglasses, all from Amarcord. We all agreed that sheer black stockings would put the finishing touches on the outfit.

Valerie pulled together this terrific daytime look, using a black 1980's Betsey Johnson strapless knit jumpsuit and a black nipped waist 3/4 sleeve Norma Kamali jacket. For accessories, she added a yellow glass bead necklace, yellow glass earrings, woven yellow, red and aqua knit belt, yellow and multi-color French (non-vintage) bakelite bangles, topped off (ok, bottomed off) with Jean's black Walter Steiger pointy-toe, kitten heel flat booties (also SIOWO). These are among the items Jean is Bib-bing, and let us mention here that most of our BIBS are already up on the Bib + Tuck website. Finding a hat to finish off this particular outfit turned out to be challenging. Valerie showed Sari this vintage purple hat as an example of a good shape for Sari and for the outfit (post-photo we placed it at a much more rakish angle, closer to the eyebrow), but the color was not a good match for the red and yellow already in play. What to do?!

Jean to the rescue! Change of plans! Keeping the base layer intact, Jean lent Sari her own red Amy Downs turban and round bakelite earrings. Valerie added low red leather heels and a red leather belt from Amarcord's display, then turned up the collar to frame Sari's face and complete the look. What great luck that all these shoes just happened to fit Sari.

To the same black jumpsuit and red shoes with Jean's red turban and earrings, we added a red, pink and black 1950s print bolero jacket and black, white and red bangle bracelets from Amarcord's racks and vitrines. Total time elapsed from one look to the next: about two minutes. See how quickly you can change direction?

The three of us posed for a final photo to memorialize our handiwork. This was truly a first for us, since we'd never had a -um - victim (other than each other) to style before. Like cats that ate canaries, we were quite please with ourselves. Of course, it always helps when you have a beautiful size "0" to size "2" victim and a resource like Amarcord's racks from which to select such dynamite vintage pieces! So now can we add stylist to our resume?

We have to give loads of kudos to Amarcord's Ashley, who knows her inventory inside out, and was wonderful to work with. She had to be three places at once while we invaded the store with the Bib + Tuck crew. How did she manage that, and with such aplomb?!

Our next stop was Marmalade on Mott and Grand Streets. Owner Hannah Kurland was a wonderful hostess, letting us comb her racks and try on clothes with abandon. Here, Sari models the pink and white hand painted cotton-lined silk dress that Valerie brought for Bib-bing, paired with vintage pink wooden mules from Marmalade.

To change it up, we added a chunky bone-colored necklace and white shawl from Marmalade's eclectic stock for a very light and airy look. The dress is cut on the bias, a la Madame Vionnet, so it's floaty yet clingy at the same time.

Then, changing the look entirely, we tried a red hooded shawl for a much more exotic vibe.

Want to see the dress at its new online home? Click here.

Valerie brought a lightweight double layered (black on the outside and white on the inside) Italian knit turtle neck sweater for Bib-bing. 'Buttons' and 'cuffs' are part of the knit design. She matched the sweater with a variety of boots she went wide-eyed over. These ranged from graphic black and white giraffe print booties and silvery grey slip-ons to (quick, fetch the smelling salts!) Maud Frizon nylon mesh cap-toed boots. Again, the seemingly endless selection at Marmalade made this exercise enormously enjoyable.

Jean found this absolutely stunning Norma Kamali snap front batwing coat/cape with leatherette trim.  Look carefully and you can see a large round 'hole' carefully cut out and sewn up under each arm.

Both of us in Norma Kamali. We gravitate toward her instinctively, without even looking at the label. Valerie's elbow-length tie-up felt cuffs, which she's Bib-bing (you really need an extra pair of hands in the house to tie them up correctly), are from DKNY.

It's a first! Until we went to Marmalade, Valerie had never seen Jean in a red jacket. Meanwhile, Jean was too busy talking about her second pair of Walter Steiger SIOWO pointy-toed booties.

Valerie selected these fingerless gloves for Bib-bing. The text on them - I LOVE on one and I HATE on the other, is fabulous! (Makes you think of Robert Mitchum in the noir classic Night of the Hunter.) But by the time Valerie needs gloves, they need to cover the whole hand, and not just the palms and knuckles. She matched the taupe color of the gloves with one of the colors in this multicolored sweater/coat.

Just before we left, we spied a light straw Sally Victor hat on one of the mannequins. Neither of us could resist trying it on for size.

Wouldn't it look great with a white suit?

When all the hard work was done, we sat down for the interview that's excerpted at the top of this post.

Before leaving, Valerie took a picture of the whole crew: Jean, Sari, Hannah, the very patient and very helpful owner of Marmalade, Ilana Savdie, also of Bib + Tuck, who conducted the interview, Tyler, the able and helpful Bib + Tuck intern, Sarah, who put together our fabulous video, and a gorgeous visitor/stylist.

After handing off our items to Sari and her able colleagues to Bib for us, we quickly departed and headed to the Bowery Diner to collect our thoughts and relax in the late afternoon sun with a couple of aptly named tequila-based "Sunshine on my Shoulder" cocktails! Hasta la vista, Bib + Tuck, and thank you for a lovely day!

Wanna visit? Amarcord is at 252 Lafayette Street and Marmalade is at 174 Mott Street.

Ilana sent us an email to let us know we were also featured in the web version of Paper magazine!

Wanna see some of the other stuff we Bibbed?

Like Jean's gold claw earrings?

Or Valerie's natural straw Clergerie platform sandals?

What about Jean's black elastic booties?