It took 18 years of rural living for Guerrilla Art for Curious People to appear.
The idea popped into my brain because I love nothing more than discovering public art in unexpected places. Every time I’m surprised by an installation – turning a corner or driving through a neighborhood – my body vibrates, my head alights and I am consumed by happiness. To quote Mr. Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric. Continue reading Guerrilla Art for Curious People→
Unless you’re a regular reader of The New York Times or part of the city’s high society or fashion elite, it’s possible – even probable – that you’ve never heard of Bill Cunningham.
Bill has been described as a “pixie on a bicycle,” riding around the streets of New York in his fail-safe uniform of khakis and blue jacket in search of fabulously dressed women and men to photograph for his weekly column On the Street.
At 85, he is an unlikely sex symbol. But I have a crush on Bill Cunningham, not unlike the other dozen or so ladies-of-a-certain-age who attended the docent-led tour of Facades at the New York Historical Society. They swapped Billspotting stories, one woman rueing she wasn’t dressed smartly enough for her recent “clothes” encounter.
Modest, discreet, curious, unequivocal, impassioned, simple, gentlemanly, and with a deep knowledge of fashion history, Bill is an enigma in a time (and city) that habitually lays itself bare. He wants what he wants – to photograph street fashion – and gets it with little fuss or fanfare on his part. However, everybody else is happy to gush on his behalf.
The Facades exhibition, a re-mounting of the 1977 show of the same name, is a fusion of three things I live for: photography, vintage clothing, and architectural history.
Between 1968 and 1976, “Bicycle Bill” scoured New York’s thrift stores and flea markets for vintage clothing, compiling over 500 period outfits including underclothes, shoes, hats and accessories.
The earliest find was a 1770’s mob cap ($6) which the shop thought was a doily, a 1780 calash bonnet ($18), a late Napoleon I dress and shawl ($100) that came to the shop as a protective wrapping around a porcelain vase.
Fashion in hand, he researched buildings around the city, carefully matching construction dates with the corresponding couture of the period, paying particular attention to complementary design details.
Editta Sherman, Bill’s friend, neighbour, and muse 17 years his senior, known as the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” became his model and fellow adventurer. Amongst other things, she was a mother of five and a celebrity photographer in her own right.
For eight years they worked weekends to document over 1,800 locations, including Egyptian temples and Russian cathedrals, Beaux-Arts mansions, Gothic Revival churches, Art Deco office buildings and high-Victorian apartments. This required shooting four to five different locations every weekend for more than four hundred weeks.
While Bill gets credit for the photographs, Editta was every bit the star and equal. Her striking classical look, hourglass figure, theatrical personality, focus and knowledge of photography elevated the project from mundane fashion spread to enduring, historically- and culturally-significant record. She is far more subject than object.
Like so much of what Bill does, the Facades project was never about the money.
“Never take money doing what you love, that way no one can tell you what to do.”
The joy of having an empathetic partner-in-crime, the treasure hunting, the exploration, the poetic cleverness, and mostly the fun of their eight-year odyssey can hardly be contained in a few sentences. What a blessing to be such friends and exercise that friendship so absolutely on a regular basis. They are, I think, what George Bernard Shaw had in mind:
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Editta Sherman passed away in 2013 at the age of 101. Bill may have been an introvert in some regards, but he was never alone. He always had Editta.
I found a first edition of the book being sold by the estate of the Sherman family. I feel grateful to own a copy, which provides insight into Bill and Editta’s adventures. I would dearly like to talk to Ms. Sherman’s children one day. Goes without I’d saying I’d love to follow Bill around for a day.
A few days after my return from New York I happened upon a tiny garage sale on a gravel road not far from my house. There, next to a sparkly 80’s jacket, hung a gorgeous full-length black velvet coat with leg-of-mutton sleeves, probably Edwardian. The label read Maritime Furriers Ltd., Halifax and it became mine for $50.
I immediately kitted up and headed to the churchyard to capture the evening light. Unusually, I am in front of the camera and so, here, I am barking orders at saintly Husband (not a photographer) who is charged with engaging the shutter.
This week I sandwiched the framing of a friend’s bunkie between shooting the glories of summer on Waupoos Island, Prince Edward County. The county is a renowned foodie heaven, overflowing with traditional farming, artisanal food producers, cideries, vineyards and fine craft, all underpinned by the history of the United Empire Loyalists. Fortunately, a work focus provided the blinders I needed to keep from dashing off madly in all directions.
By their nature, small islands, like Waupoos, are cut off from the rest of civilization. This is a slow-life blessing or an inconvenient curse, depending on the point of view. Everything has to be hauled onto and off the island, more than a kilometre from the mainland. Christoph makes the supplies list – 3/4″ plywood, concrete footings, PL, and 30 kg bags of stonedust – and fires up the barge, which manoeuvres like a leaden football field. God forbid we should forget something.
Off we go, first to Waupoos to pick up the van, then on to the Home Hardware in Picton. Back we come, unloading and humping the materials up the embankment to the work site.
After two days we have levelled and re-laid the concrete footings, sheathed and screwed the floor, and framed and sheathed the last two walls. I recruit the other adults for the wall-raising the next morning at 9:30am. An hour later the four walls are up and secured. My work here is done.
My father’s 80th birthday and a 2,200 kilometre drive brought us to a family reunion in the middle of Canada. We’ve tooted around the province and Winnipeg marks the finale.
Another day of relentless blue skies and the city continues to surprise me with its ubiquitous public art, wealth of classic architecture, and intriguing tapestry of grand and pocket public spaces. I love that these work so seamlessly together, that art is interwoven with everyday life and business, that social justice issues appear to be studied in plain view, and that artists of all stature seem to command a respect here that isn’t as obvious in other Canadian cities. And I love the quality of light and the freakish colour of wheat fields and black soil that is absent from the Ontario palette. As it always is when travelling with children, it has been a survey trip rather than a deep study of place, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t feel that loss. But, alas, I photograph to save my soul, even if that means the occasional drive-by shooting at a polite and objective distance.
Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities