Recently, I was thinking about what I was doing or where I was when I heard life-changing historical news. I’m certain many people remember what others told them about a specific day, or what they read in ensuing years – perhaps on the event anniversary. This sparked the idea of writing about events for which I could remember something distinctively unique and worth sharing when I heard or watched history playing out. I decided to broaden the stipulation slightly to encompass what I was doing within a 2-hour time frame of hearing the news. I have a visual memory, so my recollections of events and associated emotional reactions are retrieved from the recesses of my brain via images. Within these parameters, I could only come up with 11 events, listed here in chronological order. Other memories were a little too vague to include (e.g. when John Lennon was shot) or too commonplace. I believe certain factors influence how a person recalls events, including one’s own memory aptitude, age at the time of the event, and the event’s magnitude, which most certainly is impacted by personal factors. For instance, countless movie and rock stars have died during my lifetime, but I can only recall the unique circumstances of what I was doing for three, as you’ll read below. I was 5-years-old when JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was sitting at the top of the slide in my kindergarten classroom at Todd Hall in Lincolnwood, Illinois when an announcement was made on the school intercom. A full-size slide in a school classroom is pretty remarkable – perhaps that helped engrave this tragic event in my visual memory. Of course as a 5-year-old, I hardly understood the magnitude of this tragedy.
I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized. About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.
My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
Although certain candies bring back really sweet memories of childhood, I’ve been thinking lately about some of the bath and beauty products from my youth. These items are associated with vivid memories of a simpler time, devoid of all the gadgets and high tech products kids have today. Some of them, like unopened feminine products from yesteryear, are actually collected now for their nostalgic factor – I have personally sold a few on Ebay. If you have any products you used in your youth that bring back memories, whether fond or angst-ridden, please share. Procter & Gamble introduced Prell shampoo in 1947. Growing up, the clear green concentrate packaged in a tube was my family’s shampoo of choice. The color really looked radioactive, but the plastic tube was ingenious – lightweight and no risk of breaking a glass bottle. Although Prell was also available in a plastic bottle, the tube is what I associate with its iconic image. According to the website, in 1955 Prell was marketed for “women who wanted their hair to have that radiantly alive look”. Honestly, I cannot remember if the shampoo was good for our hair, but thinking about it brings back a host of memories. Procter & Gamble sold Prell to Prestige Brands International in November 1999. Prestige sold Prell, along with its other two shampoo brands (Denorex and Zincon) to Ultimark Products in October 2009 in order to focus on other product areas. Much to my surprise, the tubes are available for purchase on Amazon.
The announcement on Thursday, May 30 from the Chicago Sun-Times that they fired/laid off all full-time photographers immediately evoked a torrent of responses from media outlets all over the country. I cannot help but wonder what the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert would say about this – I think I hear him grumbling from movie heaven. Among those fired was John H. White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who blazed a trail for black photographers in the 1970s. I had the honor of meeting him at a Prevent Blindness America charity luncheon at Neiman Marcus in 2002, where he shot a few photos for the Sun-Times. For me, this announcement evoked a torrent of personal memories that started with an appreciation of documentary photography at the tender age of 11 – nurtured by a passionate interest in history and appreciation of visually powerful moments in time. When I was 12, my dad taught me how to develop black and white photos in a makeshift darkroom in our basement. I was immediately taken with the magic of pictures developing before my eyes in the chemical trays lined up on the rickety plywood shelving my dad had rigged up.