The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
“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.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
I have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia – it comes with age and recent losses of dear friends and our beloved little kitty Pepper. For me, the holidays seem to inspire reflections on the past – thinking back to how much New York City used to mean to me at Christmas. I have been digging up wonderful Christmas-related NYC photos from the Library of Congress and decided to delve into my own archives to see what I could find. When I was a child and up through about 2004, my parents would visit NYC every December for an annual psychiatric meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. While my dad was attending lectures, my mom would go window shopping with some of her friends. As children, my sisters and I always looked forward to my parents coming home with intriguing presents. My dad would also visit Russ & Daughters and purchase obscene amounts of candy that he had shipped home. Chocolate covered coffee beans, pastel chocolate mint lentils, and chocolate covered raspberry rings are the candies that I remember most. He would tell me stories about buying pretzels and roasted chestnuts from street vendors, shopping at B. Altman, Gimbels, and other now defunct stores; telling me tales that made it sound so magical.
A few weeks ago, a young man from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) called me with a pitch about giving money to fund scholarships. He identified himself as a sophomore printmaking major and we had quite a nice chat. Unfortunately, I could not commit to giving anything to this worthy cause, due to my current financial circumstances. His call gave me the kick in the rear end to finally write this article – one that has been ruminating in the recesses of my brain for some time. In essence, I have come full circle since RISD and a brief explanation of how I got from there to here and back is required. I have exhibited my fine art over the years, but after a divorce in 1995, I found myself pretty much responsible for raising a then 7-year-old as a single mother. While I followed a career path in the non-profit sector that I did not anticipate, I discovered that it was indeed a good fit, in lieu of making a living from my fine art. This 18-year ride took me from a communications department administrative assistant and managing editor of newsletters – to national media relations director – to director of communications at a prestigious international medical association.
My love of jewels, cabochons, beads, gemstones, rhinestones, vintage jewelry and other baubles goes way back to my early childhood. So it was with great anticipation and near glee, when I stumbled upon a terrific article heralding a wonderful hidden treasure trove of such things in NYC. The 17 Apart article prepared me to some degree, but when my friend Barb and I actually ventured into CJS Sales last month, we were dumbstruck. This was a dream come true for me – reminding me of my youth, but on a much grander scale. When my younger sister Janet and I were very little – probably 3 and 8 respectively, we had a secret stash of jewels in a little cardboard jigsaw puzzle box. We carried this beloved stash on outings, including when our mom traded in her massive light blue Chevy station wagon for a new car. Much to my dismay – Janet was really too young to panic – after we drove out in our new vehicle, I realized it had been left behind, hidden under the seat. Luckily, we were able to reclaim it and we had this box for at least another 5 years, adding to its content here and there.
When teen pop idols Davy Jones and Don Grady died, I wrote tributes to both of them. When a pantheon of greatness like Roger Ebert dies, it is a bigger challenge to write a worthy piece. Roger Ebert is as synonymous with Chicago as Oprah Winfrey, Vienna Beef hot dogs, Wrigley Field, Deep-dish pizza, and Studs Terkel. Roger Ebert made me proud to be a native Chicagoan – I took other aspects of the city for granted, but never Roger Ebert. He was without a doubt the greatest film critic that ever lived. There have been others of considerable talent – the legendary Pauline Kael at the front of that list, but Ebert wrote in a natural, conversational style without any pretense. How is it possible to be so knowledgeable about film without sounding pedantic or pretentious? I think many of his colleagues hit it right on the head – Ebert was just a regular Joe at the core – a chubby, bespectacled, brainy geek from downstate Illinois. And he basically stayed that way despite fame, acclaim, and fortune. Think about it – he probably met more famous movie stars and directors than any person on earth – even Barbara Walters, yet never came off as elitist or snobby. Here are a few tributes to Ebert from his Chicago buddies/colleagues: Neil Steinberg Rick Kogan Richard Roeper Jim Emerson Dan Gire I first discovered the powerful magic of movies when at age 10, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Some Like it Hot – we were going to meet my dad at the Chicago Auto Show and had to leave the house before it was over. But my earliest memory harkens back to the age of 3 or 4 – very vague and I cannot remember the film, but a little girl who was paralyzed etched an indelible image…
Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659. During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.