Anna calls me her sister, though I am decidedly not Italian. I’m not remotely southern, while Anna most definitely is, coming as she does from Calabria. (Though I suspect my New York bluntness helps transcend our respective geographical markers.) And after all these years, I’m sure to her frustration—it ’s been almost two decades since we met—I still default to English when we’re together. Yet, it seems entirely appropriate that I find myself writing about the work of Anna Barbara. (This essay is, in fact, a prelude to a book we are planning together.) We are both outsiders in a world of specialists, she because of cultural geography and disciplinary unruliness and me because of academic borders, I have no Ph.D., no deep disciplinary tunnel to mine. This is an only partially exaggerated claim, since neither of us are ingénues in the design community. Still it’s true that for both of us each project is new terrain built on old soil. In our case, it is a process that entails talking, rephrasing, and re-explaining across two linguistic frameworks and, it must be admitted, not always coincident design frameworks.
What we do share is the excitement of thinking laterally. Nothing is sui generis, and yet nothing is immune from (in my case, as a writer) reconsideration, and (in her case, as a designer) reconfiguration. The resonance I feel with Anna’s work is not just a matter of sharing a suspicion that we are slightly out of place; it also has to do with her responses to that condition. Dislocation for Anna means drawing on the unconsidered elements in her surroundings, finding epiphanies in modest gestures and neglected materials, and creating platforms and spaces for others who are displaced by choice or circumstance.
In a time when so many are preoccupied with monetizing disruption, it is rare and reassuring to find a designer like Anna who innovates with cultural cues instead of trying to erase those habits of the past which make us human. Her poetic projects belong within the framework of the politics of small things. She, like George Perec, questions “that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.”1 In other words, “that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself.”2
Anna brings the unnoticed into focus sometimes with material haikus and other times with manipulations of everyday objects in projects like “DEA” (a necklace made from her husband’s broken eyeglasses), “Mediterranean Gifts” (a mesh necklace, filled with bits of sea glass she collected in Calabria), and my personal favorite, “77” (an Italian short-hand for women’s legs and the name of her two-toned tights). This is not to say she is yet another found-object fetishist. Her projects work, often performing menial tasks while giving disproportionate pleasure.
Now, at the risk of showing my age, I admit it was Anna’s object-based practice that first excited me. Here was someone who came from 21st-century design culture (as opposed to craft culture) who combined the tangible with the conceptual in ways I’d never quite encountered. So when she first started telling me about her work with the senses, I am sure she thought I was a bit dense, asking her questions about the cloying artificial scents that were then becoming popular in stores and malls. These apprehensions were quickly laid to rest by her book Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell. Never before had I considered the 20th-century the dry century, desiccated by air conditioning and smothered in deodorant.3 For Anna, the senses are already present; they are design materials no different from pigment (which, in fact, does have a scent). Smell, touch, taste, sound may be invisible but she makes them perceptible by virtue of her gift for what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.”4 Moreover, Anna engages with what he would call the politics of “sensory inequality.”5 In her case, the politics of migration stand out most obviously but more subtle and equally affective is her work on giving access to the senses where they are obscured by dint of illness or simply the pressures of daily life that immunize us to their affects.
Whether working with the visible or the invisible, Anna Barbara operates on the principle that we are stronger when we allow ourselves to be susceptible to foreign bodies. She makes it happen in the molecular friction of a scent or the frisson of unexpected encounters with everyday objects. Contamination—constructive cultural contamination—is the essence of her work.
1. Georges Perec, “Approaches to What?” in Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and other Places, ed./trans. John Sturrock, (London: Penguin Books, 2008 ) 210.
2. Highmore, Ben. “Introduction” and “Approaches to What,”  Georges Perec, in Highmore, Ben. ed. The Everyday Life Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001, 176.
3. Anna Barbara, Anthony Perliss, Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell(Milan: Skira, 2006).
4. Jacques Rancière frequently refers to the “distribution of the sensible” in his critiques of aesthetic hierarchies. He does so mostly directly in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible(London: Bloomsbury, 2006)
5. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London, Brooklyn: Verso, 2011) 70.
As a title, “Inexhaustible Things” would have been easier on the eye and the ear, but ‘Objects’ is more accurate given that I’m writing about something solid. Though the more I think about it, this vase is already both an indefinite thing and a definite object.
‘Thing’ encompasses the idea of the vase that resides in its volutes and terra cotta-colored glaze—a romantic’s idea of neoclassicism. ‘Object’ covers the sensory experience of the vase when I touch its curves and watch it as the light changes the relationships between those curves over the course of the day.
But why ‘inexhaustible? Partly because this vase never fails to satisfy something in me; partly because it is impossible to not to see something new in it every time I look at it. This is the Mobius strip of perception(s) which James Dodd describes as “…the fulfillment of form and the stubborn indeterminateness of material existence.”1 He was writing about architecture, but I am going to take the liberty of applying it to artifacts. Particularly in this case, since this vase is clearly a pilaster hollowed out to hold a plant. Given that the first columns were most likely trees, it seems fitting that this one should host some vegetation.
1. James Dodd. Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology. (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017) 73.
Mike and I have had our home in Bovina—the Ernest and Marilyn Francis house, a.k.a., Art Russell’s house—since October 1987. We’ve regularly spent long weekends here and, now and then a few weeks stretch, usually in the summer. But it’s fair to say that we’ve only truly lived here since March 12, 2020, when self-quarantine eerily coincided with retirement. Our son Henry has stayed in the city. (Someone in the family still works.) We have come up for the duration—duration of quite what we still don’t know. The second coming of Covid? The third? Or just through summer?
We are well suited to the quiet and even welcome it. More creatures of nurture than nature, neither of us have spent a lot of time outdoors. Strenuous exercise, hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, and camping weren’t a big part of our childhoods, which I’m certain is why our adult pleasures are largely sedentary. I write and Mike paints. He cooks and I bake. I knit while Mike sets the Roku to MHZ, the streaming platform that takes us to crime scenes Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia. (Beats flying.) Very little has changed for us since we were already accustomed to sheltering in place. And that is why this reflection is not going to be about virus-coping but, instead, a patchwork of meditations on our thirty-two year experience of and in Bovina, written by someone whose vocation has already made her socially distant but whose sanity nonetheless is dependent on friends.
1986-87. New Year’s Eve. Linda Dunne invited us to join her and her husband the artist John Egner in Andes for New Years. They’d just bought their home on Tremperskill Road about halfway to the reservoir. At the time (and for 15 more years) Linda and I worked at Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She, on the operations side of the house; I, on the content side. As in all small museums, everyone did at least two jobs and put in investment banker hours at a minute fraction of their salaries. For his part, Mike was working for clients who thought nothing of calling at all hours of the night about a bathroom renovation. In short, we were frazzled. So when we got to Andes that day late in December, the quiet was shocking. As happens with a black-out (or in this case a white-out), we were jolted by silence. It was bliss and it proved addictive.
We came back in July for a couple of weeks to house hunt. Luck struck in September when John Egner saw an owner-for-sale sign in Bovina. By October, we’d signed a contract with Ernest and Marilyn Francis and 1784 Main Street was ours, or would be in 30 years when we paid off the mortgage in 2017.
In the meantime, Bovina would be there as a refuge—not so much from the city we loved (and love) as from the tensions of the workplace that always get in the way of working. In other words, people. Or at least some people, the ones that always seem to have an outsized claim on our thoughts.
Not surprisingly, we became a little insular. The truth of it is that we were a bit insecure about our presence as newcomers in a community where families can count back six generations. Though one of those in particular—the extended Hilsons—seemed not to mind and welcomed us. Christine Batey still laughs about the time Henry rode their horse, shouting “Ride ‘em Ninja cowboy.” Even though he was only three when we came to Bovina he was already a confirmed city kid. For him, the real novelty of ‘the country’ was the Oneonta shopping mall. He’d never been to one before. Plus the mall had movies (and we didn’t have a television then). We took an embarrassing number of trips to the northern metropolis in those years. We didn’t spend every weekend in the car, though; and certainly not sunny ones. There were Super Mario games with Evan Hilson. Kevin Brown would come over with his sisters to play, as later would Sarah Doe Osborne whose parents Kip and Margot had just renovated the mill on Creamery Road.
In any case, partly out of shyness and mostly out of the need to decompress, Mike and I largely kept to ourselves. We were both working full-time and we wanted (like everyone does) to be in control of our time. You would think that being three and half hours away from the ‘office’ would have given us that. In some ways it did. We were free to spend more time with friends and family when they came up for weekends; we were also free to weed, move rocks, keep up with housecleaning, homework (ours and Henry’s), baking, and cooking, usually for the aforementioned houseguests and their kids. It took me (less so Mike) a few years to realize it that my enthusiasms (and determination to get as much done in two days as possible) were threatening the very peace of mind we were after.
Which isn’t to say that we didn’t have fun. The great thing about having a child is that you have to play. Though I confess I did try reading to 4-year old Henry with a book in one hand and a gardening spade in the other. The Andes pool provided swimming lessons in the mornings; Bovina had S.O.S. on Wednesday evenings; and Margery Russell sold penny candy and popsicles. We saw smoke-filled demolition derbies at the Delaware County Fair, rode the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Margaretville’s 4thof July carnival (where my stomach paid for it), watched the ax throwing contest at the Lumberjack Roundup (Chuck MacIntosh was the odds-on favorite), and rarely missed the Schjeldahl’s annual firework extravaganza. (Mike was one of the volunteer foot soldiers charged with setting them off, so his presence was all but required.)
Then there was the great escape when Chief and Baa-b came clattering down icy Main Street all on their own. Chief was the Hilson’s horse, who wanted to be a cow; Baa-b was their sheep who wanted to be a horse—or at least run away with one. (The exact date eludes me but I’m pretty sure it was the early 90s.) The pair had clearly bonded but we didn’t expect them to elope so dramatically. Needless to say, their plans were foiled by Tom Hilson.
Adult entertainment was furnished by Chuck MacIntosh’s auctions in the Bovina Creamery and Brooke Alderson’s emporium in Andes. (Between them, they furnished most of our house.) The Bibliobarn was always a source of unexpected book bargains. Trips to Cooperstown were annual summer treat. Our social life, such as it was, seesawed between the Egners’ in Andes and our house in Bovina on Saturday nights. It gradually expanded, mostly thanks to John and Mike’s time at the Delhi Golf Course and to Linda’s ease in making friends. The beneficiaries of their more outgoing personalities, we now knew more people in Andes than Bovina. But that would change on August 3, 1993 when Bovina’s bravest and their brethren in Andes and Delhi would convene at our house.
That night, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to see what appeared to be flames coming out of the toilet in our upstairs bathroom. The flames were real; the source was actually in the basement three stories below. What we thought was a defunct electrical junction box had chosen that night to spark. After rousing Mike (who had the flu) and telling seven-year-old Henry to stay on the front lawn, I called the Bovina Fire Department from the phone in our dining room, watching the kitchen go up in flames just a few feet away from where I was standing.
Within minutes, firefighters from the tri-town area were charging up the stairs inside, cutting through the roof, and hosing down the house. They saved the front half—something close to a miracle. (One wit on the squad told Mike that night that the fire department’s reputation was based on saving foundations.)
Meanwhile Mike was out on the street helplessly watching their progress in whatever he’d been sleeping in, prompting Mike Batey to give him pair of pants and shoes. Henry and I retreated across the street to the Osborne’s rental and spent the rest of the night watching “Princess Bride” (at least three times) until he fell asleep. I don’t think I slept much but I do remember having to go out walking in the early hours of the morning because I was so allergic to the cats in the house that I couldn’t breathe–either that or it was plain and simple panic. The next morning we went back to what was left of our home and sat on our deck staring at the charred kitchen, wondering what next.
Laundry was what was next. When Ken and Barb Brown offered to let me use their clothes washer, little did they know I’d be over several times a day for days. I must have done 20 loads of smoke-saturated clothes, sheets, and towels. Scrubbing down the furnishings that made it through the conflagration (a grand word I know, but it really felt like one) was more of hand-laundry affair. What couldn’t be salvaged were our paintings: Mike’s, his brother Pat’s, and mine. We do, however, still have a couple of blackened canvases around as well as a two paint-blistered doors. (They hang in the upstairs bedrooms even now, suspended in the doorframes, which we enlarged. The house’s first occupants were much shorter, as was everyone a century ago.)
Insurance forms were next–and days of tallying losses. We were young and stupid. We had fire insurance but we didn’t know enough to have replacement insurance. That meant I had to figure what each item cost when I bought it. Chuck MacIntosh kindly looked over my estimates for the furniture I had bought at auction, but of course, I was on my own to figure out how much the beds, household appliances, plates, dishes, forks, knives and spoons and all the rest had cost when we bought them five or six years earlier. So while Mike was slogging through the debris, I was compiling lists of the stuff we lost and entering them on a primitive laptop, which was frustratingly prone to crashing. To add insult to injury, after submitting our accounting, the insurance company (which will go nameless) tried to suggest that we started the fire. It took months to settle on figure.
Rebuilding was next. Mike is and was a general contractor but had never done house building. So he hired Leland Stein for the job—an excellent choice as it turned out. The insurance settlement was just enough for Leland and his crew to deal with the exterior. That left the interior to Mike—the kitchen cabinets, the window and doorframes and sills, and the painting of every room. Our best ‘souvenir’ is our kitchen table, built from fragments of the house’s original floorboards.
Meanwhile I was asked to apply for the job of director at the Building Museum in Washington, D.C. I went through the interviews; and we even did a little half-hearted house hunting. As flattering as the eventual offer was, we weren’t ready to leave New York—not the city, not Bovina. Being creatures of habit, we stayed put. As of October 2020, we will have lived at the same addresses, in the city for 43 years and in Bovina for 33. Apart from the fire, our lives have been incredibly stable: I worked for 25 years at Cooper Hewitt and 15 at Parsons School of Design and Mike was always his own boss.
Once the house was livable—sometime in the early summer of 1994—we began the process of furnishing it all over again. That summer’s Bovina Day was a goldmine for plates and glasses and various other kitchen sundries—to the point that if anyone were to inventory our house now, they’d find fragments of other Bovinian homes in every single room. As we were approaching Thanksgiving, I was making plans to have an open house to thank everyone (especially the firefighters) for all their help. But a week before the holiday, I got hit hard with the flu, practically passing out in the Price Chopper. Much to my embarrassment to this day, we never did throw that party. We continued to live in Bovina, but largely apart from Bovina.
The mid-90s through the early oughts was an unusually intense period of our lives. In 2002, Henry left for college; I was ‘restructured’ out of a job I’d held for 25 years; Mike was renovating apartments with little time for his own work. Happily, 2002 was also the year I learned I’d won a six-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Mike came with me and, as it happened, so did Bovina: Towards the end of our stay, we got a letter telling us that as part of a water management plan a sewer system and a storm drain would run through our yard.
After a suitable period of mourning the (necessary) loss of my now 18-year old garden, I realized that this was a good thing. For not long before we’d left for Rome, the run-off stream that went through my iris garden turned white one day—opaque white. Ed Rossley was washing a paintbrush loaded with white paint in his sink and didn’t realize where the water was draining. (Don’t ask me why I thought to cross the street and investigate but I suppose I figured the water had to be coming somewhere above us.) On the strength of that episode alone, water management was just fine with me. But I did, and still, take issue with the idea that the drainage pipe installed wasn’t angled more into the stream. Now when there’s a big rainfall, the water hits the stream at 90-degree angle and bounces over to our neighbor’s yard and floods it.
Storm drain 2004, 2014
For the next fourteen years, Bovina remained something to look forward to. ‘Bovina’ in our house meant trips to the Green Thumb, the St. James Church tag sale in July, the Margaretville Hospital sale in early August, Bovina Day, Andes Community Day, the Delhi Golf course annual tournament, and barbeques on Saturday nights. Things happened, but none were as cataclysmic as the fire (except for the loss of our dog Louie who adored Bovina). In 2007, a storm hit our big black willow destroying the tree house Mike had built inside it. Rather than wait for the rest of the tree to land on the house in the next storm, we asked Richard MacIntosh to cut it down. Its massive stump became an excuse to plant a new garden, with it as its central feature. (As I write this today 13 years later, said stump is barely standing, its soft wood hollowed out with age.)
There was a major flood in 2011 whose effect we escaped by virtue of being on high ground; and the invasion of the red squirrels in the summer of 2013. They burrowed into the walls of the house—the sounds of their scratching were very unsettling, especially to houseguests who were surprised at our tolerance. It was actually more like ineptitude. Several ‘have-a-heart’ traps later, we found the only thing that worked were the silent sonic deterrents. We think that they worked, but it’s just as possible that the squirrels got tired of messing with us.
On the brighter side, 2015 was the year I won first prize in the apple pie baking contest at Bovina Farm Day. I made it from the apples on our tree, which in August were the size of small plums. I’ve never peeled so many tiny orbs of fruit before but apparently it was worth it. I can’t say, as there wasn’t much of any of it left to taste after the judging.
2016 and 2017 are a blur, mostly because I was doing a lot of traveling for work. (The biggest perk of working for museums and academic institutions is that if you’re willing to sing for your supper, you can see a lot of the world.) It was during those years that my neighbor Peter Manning introduced me to Catherine Roberts, the best helper I’ve ever had in my garden. She took on the painstaking challenge of extracting the grass from the mesh of vinca surrounding my choke berry tree. Score: Grass 0, Catherine 100. I also know that 2017 was the year Joyce Haut, one of my oldest and dearest friends, moved to Andes to live there year-round. We can often be seen walking on Bovina’s roads together–lately at six feet apart, talking about thing like whether the Andes pool, another favorite hangout, will open this year. (Suspect not.)
2019 was the year of the wedding. The Egners’ daughter Julianna was getting married to Athan Tsakalakis. The couple enlisted Mike to marry them and me to make the wedding cake. That summer I baked four versions of the cake, each time learning how to keep the layers from toppling, how much butter was needed (16 sticks), what pans worked the best, and how to hide mistakes with extra butter icing.
The trial cakes weren’t wasted though: one went to celebrate the opening of Brooke’s Putt Putt van Winkle mini-golf course, another to the Bovina Bicentennial Cake and Pie Auction, and one sat in the freezer of the General Store in Andes as my insurance policy in case the real cake flopped. (Both made it to the wedding venue.) Meanwhile Mike got his license to wed the couple from the Universal Life Church and worked on his remarks, which he delivered with eloquence and grace—and not a little emotion.
2019 was also the year I finally availed myself of Deidre Larkin’s horticultural expertise. By now my gardens were pretty established and so were the dandelions. Her tutorial Weed Wise was timely, to say the least. Not that I actually did much about my crop. Instead, I spent the last weeks of summer moving white lilac volunteers from the side of the house to the bottom of the yard to be a foreground for the weeds that line the stream. Much better than ripping them out.
August, living up to its Latin root, proved especially auspicious. That was the month that I started paying attention to the upcoming Bovina Bicentennial celebrations (now on hold). I now had the time to come out of my cave and get involved somehow—gingerly, since my civic-mindedness was a bit Johnny-come-lately compared with the decades of effort others had been putting into the life of the community.
Before I proposed anything, I tested a few ideas out with Chris Batey. I’d just seen a project that inspired me to think about using textiles to create some kind of bunting to line Main St during the parade, but quickly realized that it would be too difficult to hang and wouldn’t withstand a summer shower. We settled on the idea of asking local knitters to knit squares for a commemorative afghan that could be auctioned for the benefit of the town. Ray LaFever gave it his blessing and word was sent out. Chris Batey, Jan Bray, Linda Dunne, Lori Glavin,Peg Hilson, Susan Muther, Sangeeta Pratap, Carol Smith, and I formed a loose band and chose our squares. We met once at Russell’s and then again at my house a couple of times more, until the COvid virus put an end to what were becoming really enjoyable hours. People I’d waved at over the years (Jan, Lori, Peg, Susan, Sangeeta, and Carol) were now people I was getting to know.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, more friendships seem to be developing during the shutdown. Thanks to Instagram, I find myself ‘chatting’ with Peg Hilson’s daughter Julie and really enjoying her inventive homeschooling posts. I knew Fred Dust and David Young from teaching at Parsons but now we talk more frequently than we ever did in the city. They stop by our house on their long walks over Russell Hill Road. Our conversations have led to a collaboration between David and me, of which I’ll say nothing until we see if it bears fruit. In any case, it’s the doing, not the showing, that matters right now. More to the point, I doubt it would have happened had we not been sheltering in Bovina for so many weeks.
No longer isolationists, but not quite social butterflies (we never eat out), we are becoming more in tune with Bovina: our neighbors, its vistas, its flora and fauna. Mike’s studio is packed with the latter. There may be no cows in the field outside our kitchen window but they roam contentedly on the canvases inside Mike’s barn, alongside his Roman landscapes.
I think it is in the nature of artists and writers to be observers, like photographers who have to step back from a scene to capture it. But what scenes!
British barque and steam pilot, c. 1890 @rovingcrafters.com
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s, the museum where I was working (and would work for 25 years) put up a small exhibition of sailors’ embroideries.1 There couldn’t have been more than 20 of them, if that, and they were probably up for less than three months. Given their almost incidental appearance in the galleries, I am surprised how regularly I think about them.
I don’t sail or read nautical histories; and nautical paintings (even Turner’s) have never held much interest. I certainly don’t romanticize life at sea. Captains Ahab and Queeg took care of that. Life aboard ship was hard, if not outright brutal, in the 18th- and 19th-centuries when these ship portraits were sewn. (As much as anything, they should be valued as evidence that there was some down time for their crews.)
However, my interest in ‘woolies’ (a.k.a., ship portraits) has little to do with maritime labor or leisure. It has more to do with their material nature. (That and my love of the Atlantic, whose waves were the high points of summer beach trips.) Admittedly, the ships’ embroidered sails are impressive, and undoubtedly, the vessels themselves were the true subjects of these portraits. Nonetheless, it’s their oceans, like all oceans, that mesmerize.
Changing water into thread seems more miraculous than changing water to wine. The New Testament only asks us to increase the alcohol content of a substance already liquid. The conversion of salt water to wool involves an alchemy of a different sort, one whose catalytic agents are repetition and scale. Together, they work the miracle of tricking the eye into feeling wool, while seeing waves. Get up close and then stand back. You’ll see interlocking loops of yarn anchoring the ocean’s ebbs and flows within the shallowest of spaces, with stratified running stitches providing the depth. Each line of thread is a sounding from the fathoms of the sea. There is none of the pretense of realism that comes with perspective. Though perhaps these sailors stitched a different kind of reality, one in which dimensions give way to the seemingly expanses of sea and sky.2
It’s tempting to chalk up the satisfactions of these needle-worked scenes to what I think of as an regressive attraction to tightly confined spaces. For that matter, it wasn’t all that long ago that folk art of any type was thought to be the work of childlike adults, or when treasures such as 14th-century Sienese paintings were considered to be decorative, ergo primitive. Besides confusing the graphic with the shallow, that diagnosis sinks on other grounds here. Instead of presenting a continuous surface as a painting does, these portraits are obviously fragmented. They belong in the company of mosaics. Both are made by masters of the incremental image. Both might also be described as pixelated.
After all, our optical nerves construct pictures-from-parts everytime we open a screen. However, the critical difference is that ships’ portraits, like their tesselated cousins, allow us to see the parts and the whole, engaging our eyes in a sophisticated game. We laypersons only notice pixels when the weather scrambles our satellite transmissions; on the other hand, type designers see them all the time as the building blocks of letterforms, while artists like David Young pry them apart using artificial intelligence.
In the interest of trying to understand the phenomenon’s attraction, I am conducting a small experiment. I’m attempting to sew some waves. With each halting movement of the needle and every tangled strand, a flattened seascape accrues dimension. Until now, I hadn’t thought of sewing as masonry, but laying stitches on rows of stitches is like building a wall, albeit of cloth. The sense of not just watching something grow, but making it grow – or better, allowing it to grow in concert with the properties of thread – is key to my fascination with textile processes generally. More specifically, I love the absurdity of embroidering a body of water that looks solid enough to walk on.
1. The museum is/was Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, then Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Smithsonian Institution. (The longer name was cumbersome and, had it been kept, the inevitable acronym would be CHMDADSI. Still in the age of branding shorthand, I’d applaud a revival of longer institutional monikers.) The exhibition featured ‘woolies’ from the collections of its director Lisa Taylor, whose secretary I was, and the fashion icon Bill Blass.
2. Every time I set foot on the sand, I sense I’m entering a protected and protective space. But it’s the leaving that confirms it. Crossing the boardwalk into the parking lot seems a bit like disembarking on land, but with none of the pleasures that sailors must have imagined, only a disappointing re-entry into the world.
A third of the way into W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, my attention was snagged by a phrase. Given all of the insights he excavates, it seems especially odd that this one stuck: “follow one’s thoughts.” It’s a commonplace expression easy to dismiss. But on the day I encountered it, I found myself wondering if it were even possible to follow a thought. Can a thought really get ahead of one?
If this seems a bit too literal, my excuse is that the phrase appears in Sebald’s novel (itself, about a journey) at a point when he’s describing a room he finds especially conducive to reflection. Fittingly, it’s a sailor’s reading room. Where better to let the mind rove? (And compound the metaphor.) It hadn’t occurred to me before this that thought might have a geography. A trajectory certainly, but one led by the mind, not followed.
So, I tried. But I found myself lapsing into ‘what’s next?’ Should I do the laundry? Take a walk? Continue reading Sebald? I chose to walk, but nothing emerged from the leafless trees and straw-colored fields I passed. Nothing I could follow.
After a few days of fruitless searching, I realized that I was being followed. Sebald’s ‘thought’ was dogging me. My only option was to turn around and face it – literally put a face on it. Turns out she has one. The ancient Greeks called her Metis. Classicists tell us that she represents “a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing.”(1) Metis earned her mythological bona fides by defeating the Titans with Zeus.
Zeus, it seems, had a strange way of acknowledging her help. After victory was secured, he ate her. He wasn’t about to take the risk that she’d outwit him in the next Olympian conflict – and there would always be a next. However, unbeknownst to Zeus, Metis was pregnant. Her fetus grew inside him and emerged from his head as Athena, another goddess of wisdom, to which she added war. Meanwhile, Metis lives on as a voice in his head (2) – as do all mothers. Or so they say.
The way Zeus sees it, Metis is the embodiment of a different order of intelligence, one that is closer to cunning. (Hence, the scholars’ caveat that she is a ‘type’ of intelligence.) Because Metis has been subsumed into his body, she has to resort to trickery to be heard.(3) Sorcery and the feminine thus become fatally intertwined. Should a woman refuse to be cast as a manipulator, should she speak out, Ovid tells us that the gods will mess with her head.(4) She will become grotesque. She will become Medusa.
So argues Jay Dolmage in “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.”(5) In tracing millennia of misogyny (as well the rejection of bodies like that of the crippled Hephaestus), Dolmage follows the thought of thought and ends up in the body. Specifically, the body as thought.(6) This is body language understood not as gesture but as the totality of appearance. Metis’s murder – the mythological catalyst for the split between the orderly-masculine and disorderly-feminine in both body and mind – still reverberates in our socialized neurons.
Emerging from this rabbit hole, I’m still wondering if I have any of my own thoughts to follow. Maybe one. I’ve often wondered about my attraction to certain contemporary mythological figures: as a young girl, the very young Lauren Bacall, and today, the confidently mature Charlotte Rampling. I suspect that they owe something to the fierceness of Metis – and probably more to her daughter Athena, who broke through her father’s skull. Of course, I was unaware of the origin myth. I only knew that my father believed that what he called ‘smarts’ transcended gender. And that those actors embodied them.
My father saw something in me that mirrored his sense of self, which was inseparable from the idea of ‘intellect.’ His thought (that I had one), compounded with my mother’s idea that I wasn’t suited to frills, made me think I was supposed to be a tomboy. Except I wasn’t. I couldn’t read while running around; and reading was my father’s way of releasing me to realms outside of his (and mine), outside of suburban New Jersey. No Zeus, he. He pushed me into the world when the world was telling girls not to stray far from home. And he did it with the help of his literary gods: Fielding, Bronte, Austin, Thackeray — half of whom were women.
So I adopted ‘toughness’ as a style, after the fashion of my heroines. I became competitive and insistent about joining conversations that didn’t include me. It has worked to a point. But I can’t shake the feeling that in the end I am a parasite, feeding off the thoughts of others, not quite free enough to follow my own. (Just count up the footnotes.) In any case, there’s no question that Sebald’s, and every novel that resonates, seems to have found my thoughts for me. Maybe that’s enough. And maybe the operative word in the phrase that triggered this essay is not “follow” or “thoughts” but the possessive “one’s.” The idea that we have thoughts solely our own is seeming less and less likely. For what could come out of our skulls if they weren’t impregnated? Metis may be less a metaphor for the imprisonment of female bodies and their thoughts and more a figure of thoughts yet-to-be, regardless of whose head they hide in.
Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean Pierre, “Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991)in Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 1-28. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.
People often write about stitching as therapeutic. The concentration it requires repels all thought but that to do with where to place the needle. Anxiety goes for a nap while we’re at it. True, but incomplete. The movement between hand, eye, and brain has more to do with building than blunting. More to do with addition than subtraction.
Piercing a piece of cloth is a spatial gesture. The hand guides the needle through the spaces in the weave or knit of the cloth at hand. From there the finger tips guide the slender missile up, down, across, over, and under it, creating a nest of colored threads and the most shallow of constructions. It is the sensual nature of sewing that makes it so addictive. One more stitch, like one more word, holds the potential for the state of grace that’s always out of reach.
Finally, a hausfrau. After doing respectable work, or work that I hope is respected, for all of my adult life, I am reveling in what are quaintly called the domestic arts, even those I usually avoid like cooking. (Baking is another matter altogether.) It helps that the Coronavirus has us all in self-imposed quarantines. I was already used to the silence. I need it to write. But then silence isn’t really the point: time is.
I’ve never felt it to be so accommodating. Usually the hours are an obstacle course of obligations, self-imposed for the most part. But now there is no sense of inappropriateness if, at say 10 a.m., I choose to darn a woolen scarf and keep darning until I find the peculiar pattern I wasn’t expecting to see. The knitting I’d kept on the evening margin of the day comes out whenever the stitching gets boring. In between there is the laundry to do and letters (a.k.a., emails) I want to write, like this one to myself. And eventually, the floor will get swept and the bathroom scrubbed, but when I want to, not on any schedule.
Of course, a legitimate hausfrau would be far more organized and watchful of the clock. After all, the word is German. I use it because my father used it. He said it with a measure of affection (his mother was an Austro-Hungarian hausfrau) but also with bit of caution. I was not supposed to be one, even though I was put through domestic boot camp. My sister Chris and I would help my mother dust and mop. In those years (the late 1950s) before the next three children came, cleaning was done on a schedule: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were light cleaning days; Saturday brought out the heavy artillery of vacuum cleaner and cleansers. Plus, we had to go over every surface again, but even more thoroughly. (This always puzzled me; I really resented cleaning when you couldn’t see any dirt or dust. To this day, dusting is something I only do when we have people ‘over’ and that is virtually never now that we’re in retreat from each other.)
The training of a young girl in the household arts, however, wasn’t restricted to domestic hygiene. Thankfully, it also included learning to embroider, knit, crochet, and sew. Walking into a fabric store rivaled going to the library. There was so much temptation, so much choice: printed velvets, roughly woven tweeds, fine woolen plaids. Though, often as not, sheer material attraction proved stronger than any sense of appropriateness. When I think about the dress I made out of a yard of navy and Kelly-green corduroy, I cringe. (I knew it was wrong even then. But you didn’t waste money. You wore your mistakes.)
In any case, I was grateful to my aunt who taught me to knit the Continental way, for it put me in the company of her mother and hers before her. I couldn’t have known when I knit my first sweater at the age of 13 that I would have to put away my needles and embroidery hoops as a child puts away her toys. Coming of age in the late 1960s meant trading them in for a new consciousness. Hence, the caution in my father’s use of hausfrau, early feminist that he was. In fact, one of his much repeated refrains at the time was, “Any fool can get married.”
Only 17 when I first heard him say it – along with the caveat that if I did get married in college, any tuition support would end – I was mildly disconcerted. It contradicted everything I’d seen in movies and heard on the radio. Songs like “Cherish” by The Association had promised a future of gowns with sweetheart necklines and a man who would cherish me. I wanted to be loved. Now the only thing on offer was ‘free love’ without commitment.
The concomitant move from A-line shifts to peasant dresses signaled you were less uptight, though in fact you were probably not much more liberated than the wenches who wore them first. (Women’s liberation was actually more men’s.) Nonetheless, being a competitive sort, I was damned if I was going to be kept behind by my bourgeois hankerings for decorum. And, in fact, after weathering the years of sexual revolution, I emerged thankful to my more radical counterparts, whose insistence on women’s rights insured that I would work long and happily outside of the home while having a home. Still, I have a vestigial feeling of having missed something, which I suppose is why I take inordinate pleasure in my resumption of needle and threads. Now there’s time for that too.
I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. I’d seen it, read about it, but was never really confronted with its lethal distillation of beauty, affront, and risk. The British television series written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,* follows the neurotically symbiotic relationship of MI6 spy Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Their mutual fascination builds up around a vortex of casually grizzly murders and frenzied responses. The violence is made palatable, and more than that, seductive by the script’s wickedly black humor, the actors’ physical comedy, and a mesmerizing deployment of fashion. Killing Eve is a whole new genre of costume drama.
Eve’s sense of style—borderline grunge—is the foil to Villanelle’s haute couture. The government agent’s closet is a study in neutrals, while her counterpart’s is as highly keyed as her sociopathic personality. Villanelle fears nothing, certainly not color. Her wardrobe is as eclectic as Eve’s is predictable. But then Villanelle’s costume changes are part of her job. A succession of targets in international locales—Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and so on—demands a new persona and a different outfit. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: Villanelle wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be read as a disguise intended to obscure the murderer’s identity. But in Killing Eve, fashion-cum-costume is both signature and calling card. Villanelle’s games of dress-up are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization. Each ensemble speaks to a different manifestation of Villanelle: Sloane Ranger, Oxford undergrad, baby doll ingénue, Russian peasant, and, of course, pig-faced wench. Even Villanelle is a cover story, as it were. Her real name is Oksana.
However, Villanelle’s outfits aren’t only worn in the service of a hit. They are also the objective of the hit. She works for these indulgences. How else could she afford them? Though for all her hard work Villanelle doesn’t have a style or a look. She wears fashion. That was my epiphany: The point of a Molly Goddard bubblegum-pink tulle dress or a black Alexander McQueen mourning dress is that it shatter norms and normality. This is precisely what Villanelle does to Eve. She reverses the hunt and becomes Eve’s stalker, suddenly appearing in her London home, keeping tabs on her husband, even murdering the husband’s flirtatious co-worker. Villanelle, like fashion itself, is a dictator. She is desperate for Eve’s allegiance.
Villanelle’s sartorial intelligence is evenly matched with her murderous cunning. Together they whip up a maelstrom of psycho-sensual effects. Fashion is hyper-present, but not self-consciously serious—no more than the character herself. Consider the scene where Villanelle flees a hospital in a pair of bright blue pajamas she borrows from the boy in the next bed—just before she kills him. The snug fit and goofy pattern would smother another woman, but on Villanelle they slay, making a literal cartoon of both violence and fashion, while winking at fashion’s flirtations with camp. Villanelle subverts the status quo that Eve is supposed to defend. Not even children and their pajamas are taboo. Villanelle regularly plays on (and with) the alleged innocence of youth, not only by dressing like a child but also by deploying children as lures and fatal distractions.
Jody Comer’s flamboyant portrayal of Villanelle charges every scene with Sandra Oh’s Eve, who is taunted by the Russian’s uncanny ability to insinuate herself into her life, when it should be the other way around. The reversal of roles starts early in Season 1 when Villanelle sends Eve a spaghetti-strap dark blue dress that fits her perfectly. At this point they’ve yet to meet, so it’s uncanny that Villanelle knows her size. In this power-play-by-fashion, the tacit message is ‘I know you. I know you better than yourself.’ Eve is given a sliver (the dress really is slinky) of the forbidden fruit that Villanelle offers: absolute freedom, a state of being promised by fashion and reached by narcissism.
For all that, the show doesn’t devolve into the sinister. Villanelle wears her crimes like her dresses – lightly – leaving Eve to feel frustratingly inadequate, even though she has the higher moral ground. Sandra Oh describes the dynamic in more familiar terms, saying: “A lot of people wish they were more fearless and more confident and a lot of people wish they had a lot more style.” Though most of us don’t wrestle with our envy so literally. Not because most of us can’t afford ‘fashion,’ but because we have a harder time surrendering to its dominion.
The remarkable thing is how Jody Comer (a.k.a., Villanelle) conquers fashion so thoroughly. I wonder whether another actor could animate the outfits so powerfully. Or am I confusing the actor with the character? Can they even be separated in the mediated moment? It takes a particular body to infuse the clothes with the risk they represent. Without Villanelle, my experience of fashion would still be confined to museums and tabloids. Clearly, I’d never seen it truly worn. It took a psychopath to make me realize that when fashion does its job, it truly kills.
Fashion’s inherently dangerous nature—think of the femme fatale—accounts for why so many of us are unable to submit to it as completely as Villanelle. Apart from going broke, there’s the fear of being erased by someone else—though usually not murdered—in the art of incorporating a designer’s ego into our own. Instead, we settle for something we like to think of as “personal style”—which is code for the mashup of knock-offs, basement bargains, and vintage finds that make up our personas.
Villanelle is able to carry off fashion because it underscores her artifice. Jodie Comer pulls it off because, like Villanelle, her job is to be someone else. The character-actor manages to do something more extraordinary. She makes “fashion” an actor as well, yielding something exponentially more powerful—something close to the tour de force we usually associate with literature. To paraphrase Karle Ove Knausgaard, Killing Eve draws the essence of what we know, or think we know, out of the shadows. The show magnifies the inherent risk of fashion, making it synonymous with a truly hysterical personality disorder with no compunction about killing.
*Waller-Bridge also wrote and starred in Fleabag, for which she wonthree Emmys and a BAFTA Award in 2017. Season 3 starts April 26 at 10 p.m. on both BBC America and AMC. The show’s costume designers are Phoebe de Gaye (Season 1) and now Charlotte Miller.
I’ve never joined a book club. Churlish as it sounds coming from someone who just published a book about literature and design, the prospect of sharing the relationships I’ve made through the intimate medium of the page seems like a violation. To be clear, I’m not opposed to talking about books and the ideas they proffer. It’s just that the book-in-my-head has no need of a public autopsy — unless it’s my public autopsy. (Yes, I’m not only churlish, I’m also a bit of a hypocrite.)
Passing judgments on characters’ choices, plot directions, and alternative scenarios strikes me as disrespectful of the author. Such speculations reject the gift of literature as it is given. They refuse “the politics of the primary” (Steiner, Real Presences, 6). In other words, the immediacy of a close reading. This is the kind of attentiveness which allows us to respond directly to an author’s words, rather than talk around them. If, instead, we ruminate about whether the plot is feasible, or what might have been written, or what’s ‘behind’ the novel or poem at hand, we turn a blind eye to what is right there on the page. This kind of domesticated reading fragments and undermines the integral nature of reading — a composite of the order and tone of words on a page, the time, spaces, and beings those words evoke, and the images that they form inside us.
The book-in-my-head is a narrative in another form. It is a disorderly composite of recollections of what I’ve read, colored and perfumed by other experiences. This internalization, this possession of the book, accounts for my urge to safeguard the integrity of what and whom I envision. I don’t even mind if my suppositions are flawed; that’s what re-reading is for.
Reading may happen in silence but it isn’t solitary. There are the women who struggle with their respective confusions in Magda Szabo’s novels set in postwar Hungary; they manifest themselves to me in very specific ways, making direct appeals to my sympathies. Likewise, the protagonists of Anna Burn’s Milkman in Ireland and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in Poland, just two cite two new additions to the cast of characters (and places) that accompany me. They are animate enough for me to think of them as companions and co-sufferers with whom I’ve formed a kinship – even when that relationship is antagonistic, as it is with Cesar Aires’ gluttonous priest in “Acts of Charity.” I suspect it is precisely because I recognize my own foibles and good intentions within the women-and-men-of-the-page that I am reluctant to subject them analysis by committee. Plus, I doubt any committee would want to have someone so committed to her narcissistic version of things.
Paradoxically, I still view reading as social. Not only is the experience of reading an experience of near visceral encounters with people-of-the-page, but those encounters also shape our interactions with people-off-the-page. Our conversations with the latter are enriched, even if only tacitly, by stories that have entered our consciousness – stories we have ingested, not merely digested. Only then can we share them because then they are our stories.