Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bright Star: An Ode to a Seamstress

Toots Brawne and her sister, Fanny, the fiance of the great English poet John Keats.

Bright Star is a film no one who loves sewing could not love, and for good reason, it has been nominated for an Oscar in costume design. The film opens with zoom-in shots of a needle passing through fabric. Unlike the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, which used embroidery only as a backdrop in the credits, this sewing is carried throughout the film. Fanny Brawne, the fiance of John Keats, according to the film, was a seamstress and designed and made all of her clothes. Throughout Bright Star, we see Fanny and then her little sister, Toots, doing their hand sewing and embroidery--in good times and bad.

The film is a beautifully photographed period piece about the friendship and then love between Fanny and Mr. Keats--with precise and nuanced acting by all actors and the recitation of poetry in a way that seems perfectly natural and not affected. Jane Campion's movie is to be praised as pointing people in the direction of Keats' works and the story of Keats himself.

Despite the fact that Keats' friends were apparently hostile to Fanny, Campion assumes, and I imagine rightly, that if Keats' love for Fanny had enabled him to write again, it could not have been bad. By focusing in on Fanny's love of beauty through her craft of sewing, we can see that she has a temperament that was attracted to and receptive to his. This temperament in Fanny is drawn out when, upon hearing of the death of Keats' beloved brother, Tom, she races upstairs to her bedroom to make a pillow slip for Keats, embroidered with a highly detailed and gorgeous bare-leaved tree, and enclosed is what seems to be a linen envelope with ribbon. "She was up all night sewing it," Toots tells Keats proudly. At another point when Fanny decides to bring Keats some biscuits, she carefully arranges the package with ribbon and cloth, explaining to her mother, "Anything that goes to Mr. Keats must be perfect." "Perfect" is an adjective that is often on her mind.

Naming her film after Keats' beautiful love poem to Fanny Brawne, Bright Star, I think Ms. Campion's consciously tried to craft the film as a poem of visuals. Scene after scene simply takes your breath away with the beauty of its coloration and composition--a metaphor for the Keats and Fanny's love of beauty and each other.

The costuming contributes to this effect. I do not really care for the empire style of Regency era clothes or how they are presented in most movies, at least. In this film, there is no decollatage, as Fanny wears delicately made blouses over empire jumpers in ensembles of color that go perfectly with Abbie Cornish's coloring. The effect, scene after scene, is stunning and the reliance on diaphanous materials for sleeves, ribbons, and curtains points to the mood of delicacy and sensitivity Keats waited for to create his poetry.

Another feature that endeared this film to me are Fanny's younger siblings, Sam, and Toots. And here we see that the whole Brawne family, including Fanny's widowed mother, cared deeply for John Keats. The presence of Toots--marvelously played by Edie Martin--acts as a grace note,a lyrical poem in itself against the backdrop of the unfolding tragedy of love and loss.

Bright Star is a celebration of poetry and sewing--two genres that appear be anachronistic in today's post-modern world but, it seems, many yearn for.

P.S. See Jane Austen's World for a post on the white embroidery we see in Bright Star.

Also, you may want to see these two other "sewing" movies, Broderies, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I reviewed them here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

After This by Alice McDermott: Faith and Family

A few years ago I read a review of a book by Alice McDermott, who was presented as a Catholic writer raised in Long Island. The book was about family life. I clipped the article with the idea of finding the book and reading it. I lost the clipping but never forgot it. I held in my memory this picture of the author:

Alice McDermott

Old-fashioned hair cut, sad eyes, but with a knowing and contented smile, someone who had taken life in and accepted all its gifts and disappointments. Not remembering the name of the book or the author, I tried to search on the web with various keywords to see if I could find the author and her book. To no avail. Then one day, I found Catholic Fiction and bumped right into her. I recognized that picture and made a beeline to the library to find her books.

After This is Alice McDermott’s story of a family that starts out in the years after World War II and whose children come of age in the tumultuous and perilous times of the late 1960s. The book is suffused with the humility reflected in the eyes of Mrs. McDermott herself. We are not talking about historical figures or even upper-middle-class "Ordinary People," but of real ordinary people, who struggle to build a family and a scrape a living together in a Long Island suburb of diminutive small homes.

A street in postwar Levittown, New York: a street that I imagine was similar to the setting for After This.

In part the book shows how these people were ravaged by the seismic changes in their culture: a son goes to Vietnam to prove himself as a man and becomes a martyr to his own goodness and fears. Of the daughters, one is overseas and lives with a man, another becomes pregnant and wrestles with her Catholic conscience. All of these vital issues are presented sotto voce, so to speak.

What I liked about After This was this: the story is infused with history — those events that always seem beyond our control but affect our lively so profoundly — and with liturgy and prayer.

For history, for example:When John and Mary Keane, the parents, said "during the war," that is, World War II,
their children imagined the world gone black and white, imagined a hand passing like a dark cloud over the earth, blotting out the sun for what might only have been the duration of a single night, or the length of a storm. Long before any of them was born, after all, their parents, the world itself, had emerged from that shadow.
Is this not the shadow that haunted the world long after the war had been won. Had the war been won truly in the heart of man?

And for liturgy: In the midst of a hurricane, after the electricity goes out, the family goes down to the basement:
Their mother patted Jacob’s hand to soothe him. On their way through the kitchen she took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and the remaining paper cups from their picnic. They followed their father’s flashlight down the wooden steps. … They sat together on the old could that was just the other side of the toy-train table. Their mother between the two boys to avoid trouble, Annie on her father’s lap. The washing machine and the sink and the long string of the clothesline where she hung clothes in bad weather were just behind them, each illuminated, however dimly, by the blue light of the storm at the narrow windows. Around their own circle of light, their mother said, “Let’s say an Angel of God,” the bodies of her two boys pressed against her. “Angel of God,” they said, following her voice, “My guardian dear, to whom God’s love, commits me here, ever this night, be at my side, and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

Catholic religious card with guardian angel guiding two children across a broken bridge.

Such interpolations of liturgy appear throughout the book, letting us know that, especially within the mother, another world is always at hand to give strength for the survival of the soul in this one.

My problem with the book is only this: it is way too short. The most vivid characters are the children, whereas the characters I was most fascinated with were the parents. I wanted to know everything about what made them tick, who they were, and what they thought of every moment described and of their own past moments. Most especially I wanted to know far more profoundly the feelings of the mother, which I knew were complicated but possessing a goodness that softened the harsh edges of a sometimes disappointing life. I felt that the book was character-dispersed.
But that greedy complaint does not take away from the fabric of the book itself. God’s love is truth that rescues our souls from the follies of man. The echoes of prayer and liturgy throughout the book remind the readers, as it reminds the characters, of this loving truth.

You can read interviews with Alice McDermott in the Washington Post here and here. Articles on Alice McDermott can also be found in the New York Times.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mary Cassatt: Studies in Mothers and Children 2

Mother Combing Her Child's Hair, 1901

I love this painting by Mary Cassatt, because it shows the child's patience in being attended to. Having one's hair combed can be uncomfortable, but this child is sitting on her mother's lap, head up, her hands folded in patience, waiting for her mother to finish. In her stance is a pride and enjoyment in her mother's careful attention to her. A child lets the parent do this, because the child knows he is too young to take control of these matters and needs this help--that too is conveyed in this painting. I try to imagine these paintings as photographs to see in my mind if they would have the same impact, but somehow the painting raises these seemingly mundane moments to a higher appreciation. Although the subject is the mother and child, Cassatt is celebrating the intimacy of the relationship between them--as seen in the counterbalanced tilts of their heads--with particular attention to the child's cooperation.

The Bath, 1893

Here again, we see the child patiently watching as her mother take care of her, in this case washes her feet. The child looks down with patience and interest; one can only imagine that it is a gentle mother who may also be talking to her child. In the close composition of this painting, each element echoes the other in perfect harmony, and this painting is often discussed as showing the influence of Japanese painting and prints on Cassatt's oeuvre. It is also a triumph in painting the moment. Here again, the cooperation is shown through the stance of their heads--side by side, looking down at the child's feet. The solemnity of the event--washing the child's feet--may also have a religious connotation, highlighting the way in which mothers think and act, usually without hesitation, for the needs of their children, without a second thought to themselves.

Young Mother Sewing, 1900

I love this painting too. The mother looks at her sewing; the child is looking at Cassatt painting her and her mother. The mother was sitting there sewing, and the child has come over to see her. She leans down on her mother, as if she is waiting for her mother to finish and attend to her need--Can we go outside? Can you read a book to me? Can you get my toy that's on the top shelf? Can you play with me? Just a minute; I have to finish this seam. The child may be patiently waiting or may be pestering her mom, but suddenly there is a third person. The child looks with interest but with no excitement--she is nonchalant about being the subject of attention for a painter; she is concerned with being an object of attention for her mother. That's what she is waiting for.

In these three paintings, as in many others, Cassatt shows her acute sensitivity to the way mood transforms a child's face, gestures, and postures. Mrs. Cassatt had no children of her own, a source of pain for her, but was actively involved with her nieces and nephews and with the children of friends, whom she painted as the passed through the childhoods. One wonders if her studies of the intimacy between mother and child were also for Miss Cassatt metaphors for her own process of artistic creation.

You may also want to see Mary Cassatt: Studies in Mothers and Children 1 and Mary Cassatt: More Than an Impressionist.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Work Comes Back Home

Betsy Ross's house, both a home and a place of business for Mrs. Ross from 1773 to 1785.

States and municipalities are revisiting their zoning laws, reports the Wall Street Journal, as the number of home businesses has dramatically increased. The general rule is that home businesses are permitted as long as you don't receive your customers there--a ruling geared to keeping residential areas free of noise and traffic. But home businesses are growing, as people are laid off from jobs in companies and seek to use their skills to create a business from home, or small business owners seek to reduce their expenses by foregoing their shop or office and moving their work activity into their homes, with businesses being set up in garages, basements, bedrooms, or studies.

This is one interesting result of our current economic difficulties. The home has not been a prominent locus of employment since the early days of the 19th century, when encroaching industrialization took the man out of the home into the labor market and the woman was bound mostly to the home, unless she too had to work outside. In the urban setting, work in the home was mostly piecework for an employer performed by women and children.

A family does piecework the garment industry in the home in 1913, earning $2 a week.

But before industrialization, homes in the cities and towns were often places of business, and apprentices or employees often lived there too with the owning family. All these people were also referred to as "family." In this way many women ran businesses in their homes, either as a central focus of their work or on the side to bring in extra money. One such lady was Betsy Ross, who originally ran an upholstery business from her home with her first husband, John Ross. He and Betsy had been apprentices together under an established Philadelphia upholsterer.

The parlor in Betsy's house where George Washington asked her to make the flag. If you have ever been to this house, you know how small it is.

When her husband was killed after only two years of marriage, Betsy ran her business alone, earning extra money by making and repairing supplies for the Continental Army, and was engaged by Washington to make the first American flag. Even after the twice-widowed Mrs. Ross left this home with her third husband, she continued her upholstery business until her retirement at the age of 76. Living and working in the same location enabled her to also bear and raise seven children, six of whom lived to maturity. With its prime location near the Delaware River port, Betsy's house also continued its life as a home and business for more than 150 years.

If Betsy Ross had been caught making the flag, she could have been charged with treason. Given the secretive nature of the project, it is believed that she probably sewed the flag in her bedroom.

Fun at the Sewing Machine

Thanks to a hiatus in work, I was able to spend last week doing some sewing with my sewing machine. I find that I can knit no matter how tired I feel, but sewing requires far more concentration, and I need to be on my toes,especially since I'm a novice and still terrified of my machine.

I had a lot of fun making this apron as a belated Christmas present for my aunt. I bought a 1-yard remnant of this fabric on sale with no idea what I would do with it. But I like the almost stained glass effect on this apron with the fabric and black binding. The pattern is Simplicity 4282.

Then I made this nightgown for myself. I wanted a winter nightgown that was more light-weight than flannel and softer, and then I remembered I had bought this soft fabric as a remnant, again unable to pass up the lovely flowered print. So I bought Simplicity 9012, an easy nightgown pattern. While the apron took me 2 days because of adjustments I had to make, I was able to finish the nightgown in an evening, and it is comfortable. This Simplicity pattern is very easy, and I hope to make myself some soft white muslin nightgowns for the summer from it.

Once I got going, I felt like I could easily become addicted to my sewing machine and can now understand why Anna over at Pleasant View Schoolhouse always wants to bring her machine on vacations! She is a fabulous seamstress. Her blog is my browser homepage.

In my dreams I make all of my own clothes -- with exactly the design I want, exactly the fabric I want, and exactly the fit I need. I like to read about Gertie's adventures in this regard at Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing. And it's always fun to check Sew Retro to see what a lot of talented people are up to.

I learned how to sew in home economics class in high school with help from my mother -- opportunities for which I am very grateful. My mother sewed dresses for me when I was in elementary school and a gown for a prom. In high school and college I sewed myself skirts and dresses. Then for a long time, I sewed only curtains. Now I am venturing back to make aprons, dresses, and Christmas gifts.

I find it fun and sometimes suspenseful to see how stitching turns a perfectly flat boring object (in shape, that is) into a three-dimensional article fit for a particular purpose. If you like the finished product, it's a real pleasure.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Smithsonian Celebrates Women Religious

A sister of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital, c. 1920.

An unusual exhibit, Women and Spirit, is on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s C. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., through April 25. The exhibits brings together photographs, documents, and artifacts from hundreds of orders of women religious in the United States and shows their vital work through the history of the country. Here is a fascinating review of the exhibit in the Arlington Catholic Herald. From the Smithsonian, the exhibit will continue to tour the country.

Mary Cassatt: Studies in Mothers and Children 1

Mother Berthe Holding Her Baby, 1900

Mary Cassatt is rightly associated with her many paintings of mothers and children together and also her portraits of children. As I looked closely at her paintings, as I said, I was astounded at her psychological insight into the qualities of the relationship between mother and child at the particular moment she portrays. In the painting above, I feel that Ms. Cassatt has captured the mutual physical comfort that mother and child find in each other. When I first held my daughter as an infant, I felt that her body simply molded itself in perfect comfort to mine and it seemed to me she felt the same way. In the painting, the eyes of the mother and the baby's ease seem to say: We are happy to belong to each other.

In 1890, Ms. Cassatt produced several paintings centered on the child's caress of the mother that are also fascinating in probing the nuanced world between mother and child where so much communication is physical rather than linguistic.

Baby's First Caress, 1890

In this painting, Baby's First Caress, Cassett portrays that moment when the child contemplates the mother with the first-time apprehension of a different being. The mother is beloved and is the infant's whole world--but it is different, and the caress also carries with it a studying and contemplation of the beloved, all-giving face. While the baby's caress is a loving gesture, it is also a step toward independence.

In this next painting, the studying of the mother's face dominates in the child's gesture, as if the child were blind and seeking to know the object through touch. Haven't all mothers experienced their child's probing fingers like this? Yes, I see you have lips, a mouth, a nose, eyes, eyebrows--is this like me?

Child's Caress, also 1890

Here is a painting that might be called the cranky caress. The child seems to be a bit out of sorts, and the caress represents both a protest against enclosure and tiredness and also a probing for security and affirmation of the mother's presence. Soon this child may be asleep in its mother's arms or permit itself to be dropped down gently into bed.

Mother and Child, 1890

Six years later, Ms. Cassatt painted this Maternal Caress--the caress of a toddler who is in serious study of her mother.

Also see: Mary Cassatt: More Than an Impressionist

Friday, February 5, 2010

Children and the Outdoors: Therapeutic

Dr. Sebastiano Santostefano, a psychoanalyst renowned for his work with traumatized children, believes that the out of doors is therapeutic for his young patients. An article in the New York Times in 2005 described how Dr. Santostefano and his wife created a home for psychologically troubled children and built a garden around it. In his book, Child Therapy in the Great Outdoors, Dr. Santostefano argues that interacting with the children outside and in the garden has played a crucial role in their treatment and growth. Dr. Santostefano had the area designed with a running stream that goes to a pond filled with fish and frogs, hills to climb, a woodland to explore, a cave of tree branches, and a wide open space for jumping and running.

I think that Dr. Santostefano is most probably right. Once my daughter and I took two elementary school age children to a forest about an hour away. The two were siblings who had had a horrific early childhood and were now living with foster parents. They displayed all the signs of anxiety one can imagine such children would have. It was a hot summer day, and the road in the park follows the creek. We had a picnic lunch in a clearing and then walked a ways and found a nice quiet spot on the creek. The two waded in the creek picking up tiny shells and putting them into their socks, which they had turned into bags. My daughter and I never suggested this activity and did absolutely nothing to entertain them, just lazed on the bank and looked on. After three hours of this, we tromped back along the creek to the car. As we were driving back home, the older one smiled and heaved a huge sigh, “Ah, this has been the most relaxing day of my life.”

I have wondered why this is the case. Yes, the woods were nice; there were no distractions; and they felt safe. But is that enough to make it the most relaxing day of a child’s life? I think the source of the relaxation lies elsewhere. My hunch is that through the opportunity to explore nature in leisure and in play, a child's heart has an apprehension of God’s love for them, and it is this silent, unthought, unspoken receipt of God’s beneficence that relaxes them.

These verses in Psalm 136 (6-9, quoted in part in The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris) remind me of the same idea:

Who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
Who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
The sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
The moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.

Mary Cassatt: More Than An Impressionist

Self Portrait by Mary Cassatt, 1880

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) has always been classified as among the French Impressionists rather than the American impressionists, with she and Berthe Morisot as the only two female painters within this school. Cassatt had showed her early paintings in the Paris Salon and after her later paintings were rejected, Edgar Degas invited her to show her work with the Impressionists and she did. I find though that her art is consistently different than most of the work of the other French Impressionists because of Cassatt's focus on the psychological moment and her perspicacity in painting children. In this she reminds far more of such Renaissance giants as Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1490-1576) and the great painter of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velasquez.

Born into a prominent and wealthy family near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mary began her education at the age of six in Philadelphia where her family had moved. At the age of 15 she began to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with a determination to become a professional artist. Although her family did not agree with Mary's commitment to becoming a professional, they nevertheless did everything to support it. Her mother went with her on European tours--an obligatory part of every wealthy young American's education at the time--but in Mary's case, this meant long stays in Spain where Mary studied and copied great works in the Prado, such as those of Velasquez, in Italy where she studied the great artists of the Renaissance, and to the Netherlands, where she studied the works of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. This immersion in great classical art shows in Mary Cassatt's paintings. For instance, compare

Infanta Margarita by Diego Velazquez, 1656

with Mary Cassatt's

Mary Cassatt in a White Coat, 1896

Mary Cassatt's sensitivity for children reminds me of this great Titian painting, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, painted in 1542. This is one of my most favorite paintings because Titian was able to capture the most subtle nuances of this young man's human condition. At once he see that he is a young man, with all the innocence of youth, as seen by the softness of his expression, particularly in his eyes. Yet, he is clothed in the raiment of his position, a tunic hardened by pleats, a heavy overcoat trimmed with fur, bearing a cross, his hand on a sword. His expression encapsulates his future--as if he were gazing down the length of a road that is his known and inevitable future life.

I see the influence of Titian's painting in this painting by Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Marie Louise Durand Ruel, daughter of the premier art dealer of impressionist art. This young lady is not burdened with society's demands in the same way as Titian's young Farnese prince, but her facial expression has the same degree of subtlety. This is a thoughtful young lady. She is poised before her portraitist in perfect ease; she is herself, at this moment, but pregnant with her future as she looks not quite at her portraitist but a little to the side with calm confidence.