I have known many storytellers in my life. Some have a natural and unrehearsed style that feels captivating and immediate; some present new or unfamiliar points of view; others are quite deliberate and thoughtful in approach; all of them are enthralling to me. As a storyteller born into a family of storytellers, I find master storyteller Gael Towey both compelling and inspiring. She has a distinct perspective and is skilled at many things: crafting a storyline, discovering and highlighting the unique qualities of her subjects, eliciting a response from the audience, and designing beautiful visual elements. Her work has informed contemporary visual language in a way we can barely imagine.
I was lucky to be among Gael’s subjects as part of her series of short films about artists called “Portraits in Creativity” www.portraitsincreativity.com (and I especially love her piece on friend and heroine Maira Kalman). Each of her portraits uncover the unique qualities of her subjects and reveal Towey’s fascination with the creative process. For over two years, we have been speaking with Gael about her past, her present, and the creative processes, media, and methods she uses to propel her ideas forward.
Gael was raised in New Jersey and was the oldest of six children. She revealed that, as a child, she was mildly dyslexic and almost flunked the second and third grade because she couldn’t spell; she reversed all her consonants and vowel combinations. She was drawn to art and studied it enthusiastically through college. “I loved printmaking and accidentally signed up for a class in typography, and I fell in love with it from the first lecture,” Towey says. “I’d never looked at the design of a letter and had not noticed how beautiful they are.” She switched her major to graphic design and graduated from Boston University, College of Fine Arts. Gael said, “I was extraordinarily lucky. I have met so many young people who don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew. I struggled academically and art was the only thing I was good at… And it’s funny that I wound up working in the publishing business since I had no confidence in my ability to write properly.”
Gael worked on the book, In the Russian Style, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
She started out as a mechanical artist at Viking Press, working on books with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Irving Penn, and Georgia O’Keeffe. From there, she became Art Director at the Clarkson N. Potter publishing company, and then moved on to become Design Director at House and Garden magazine. At Clarkson N. Potter, Gael met Martha Stewart, who offered her the opportunity to work on a startup magazine project, Martha Stewart Living. As Creative Director, Towey worked to create a collaborative environment with writers, editors, photographers, chefs, and craft experts – all of whom had a role in creating content. Towey believes that “collaboration is fun because the spirit of the group and the sharing of ideas work together to create the finished story, or finished product, or finished dress design… For me, the role of Creative Director is to bring together all of the different aspects of storytelling, have a vision, and produce the story without suffocating everyone else’s contributions.”
She believed that her role at Martha Stewart Living (and eventually Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia – or MSLO) was to act as an effective channel between the content and the reader. “Our role at the magazine was to be a conduit between the subject of the story – the farmer, the vegetable, the oyster, the bread baker – and the reader. We worked to create a community of people who shared the same story. We hope the readers enjoy the telling of the story and benefit from the telling, or feel inspired, or find enjoyment. Enjoyment, delight, learning: those are huge things, incredible gifts.” While working at MSLO, Gael helped usher in the first digital offerings – websites, videos, interactive features, and an award-winning iPad application. Throughout, she always looked for the most efficient, creative, and effective way to tell the story at hand.
Her early involvement with digital media perhaps inspired her to become involved in video production. She saw that with video and digital media it was possible to create connections that may not be possible in print alone. Today, after spending 22 years at MSLO, Gael runs her own studio that creates short-form documentary videos. Her “Portraits in Creativity” series focuses on telling the stories of artists, their individual inspirations, and their personal creative processes. She credits her children and her husband – designer Stephen Doyle – with inspiring and challenging her artistically. She has an instinctive knack for finding intriguing people and getting to the heart of their stories. As a storyteller, Gael delivers personal portraits to an audience; she still acts as a conduit between subject and viewer without a heavy hand or obvious agenda. She is a natural storyteller and I anxiously look forward to the next telling. She is currently at work on a short film about our friend, the singer-songwriter, Rosanne Cash.
The photographer Victor Schrager was making platinum prints of Chickens with his 8 x 10 camera in the early 90’s and we convinced him to photograph Martha’s chickens. When I arrived at her farm, Martha was in the process of bathing and blow drying the chickens to get them ready for their close up.
AC: You’ve spoken often about your love for typography – that you find beauty in something (the alphabet) that many of us don’t spend much time thinking about. What specifically appeals to you about typography? And does it reveal anything specific about your approach to design?
GT: Typography can express an emotion and a philosophy. The viewer may not be aware of it but they will feel something – perhaps the typography is clean and spare, strong and bold, classic and elegant, humorous or straight-faced, or even over-the-top illustrative. When we designed Martha Stewart Living we made the decision to use very simple, classic and spare typography because we wanted the photography to take the lead role in expressing both emotion and information.
The chef and farmer Ryan Hardy at his organic garden in Colorado. Photographs by Victoria Pearson.
AC: You have worked in many aspects within the publishing industry. Can you tell us what stands out most about your journey in that industry?
GT: I have seen publishing evolve, and it has been a great teacher for me. In book publishing I learned about photography because we published Alfred Eisenstadt, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Brassai, as well as photographic portraits of historic figures like Abraham Lincoln. At House and Garden, I learned what not to do because the magazine was very compartmentalized and there was no collaboration or sharing of information. I found it suffocating. Then when I had the opportunity to start from scratch at Martha Stewart Living, we fostered a creative environment that rewarded experimentation and inventiveness. Now I was learning from the growers, farmers, chefs, gardeners, and craftsmen that we visited all over the country, and we were able to give them a voice and applaud their work with evocative photography and well-researched articles. I think we were leaders in creating the current DIY movement.
The background for this fig glossary, photographed by Maria Robledo, was inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko.
AC: You were instrumental to creating Martha Stewart Living and worked with MSL and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for over 20 years. There’s no way to summarize such an important time in your life with one quick blurb. But, can you tell us what elements of your creative life were nourished during those years? Were you surprised to find you were good at things you didn’t expect to be?
GT: I guess I nourished my visual sensitivity by working with talented photographers, videographers, editors and stylists. Malcom Gladwell talks about his 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers, and I truly believe that training your talent is necessary for your development in any field. This interest in the process of creativity and how artists and artisans combine their mastery of skill with bravery and risk taking, motivated me to create the “Portraits in Creativity” series. I think that the creative process of pushing yourself to take one step at a time and explore an idea is something that is learned with constant experimentation. With the 5 women I have profiled, all of them at some point said to me “I don’t know where this is going to take me,” and I marvel at their comfort level with that phrase. Life long learning is a goal for me, and my new venture is a continuation of that need to keep exposing myself to what I do not know.
This story on the cheese makers of Vermont was masterminded by Lucinda Scala Quinn, our food editor, and photographer, Christopher Baker, who shot the story with the Red Camera which could shoot video and stills at the same time.
AC: At MSLO, you directed projects that required work from various creative artists – writers, photographers, developers, farmers, crafters, etc. Did the process of directing projects with so many contributors inform your perspective on collaboration? How important do you believe collaboration is to an artist’s growth?
GT: Not all artists like to collaborate but many are stimulated and challenged by it. I believe that you should always hire or try to work with someone who is better than you and brings a talent to the project that you do not have. When you work with people who are better than you are, you have a double or triple chance to be successful. In the short film that I am working on now about Rosanne Cash, she talks about collaborating with her husband, musician John Leventhal, and how they each brought something to the record that the other could not do.
I have been really enjoying the process of building a new business and finding great collaborators to make these films. After so many years running a big organization, I am energized by being hands-on and small scale. I work with small teams to produce and direct these short form documentary videos, matching the cinematographer with the subject. The amazing photography team Gentl and Hyers shot the Gabriella Kiss video, their iconic beautifully-composed stills working in tandem with film to give the piece a distinctive, elegant style that suits the stillness present in Gabriella’s work and process. I traveled to Alabama with cinematographer and editor Joe Tomcho to capture the landscape and the natural beauty of the place that drew Natalie back home ten years ago and continues to inspire her work. Joe has a great eye, a wonderful and natural sense of lighting that made Natalie and the model look great; I love his shots of the needle moving through the fabric because it is sensuous and emotional. For the film on Maira Kalman, I had the opportunity to use Maira’s amazing paintings, but I also had a great deal of footage from lots of different places, projects and interviews, so I needed an experienced editor. I worked with Antoine Mills, and learned so much from him because he made me see the value in selecting only the very best dialogue. He taught me that most people speak by saying the same thing 2 or 3 times but in different ways using different words; he taught me to really listen and choose. We had many fruitful discussions about the merit of every line. He has a wonderful sense of timing and as a result the video is crisp, and snappy, and funny, and it keeps on moving. I have also learned about sound. Most videos use music that is free or that you can buy on inexpensive music sites. But, I learned that commissioning music is an important part of the story telling process. For me, the music should mimic the personality of the artist and send those subtle clues to the viewer. Additionally music creates the emotional pacing of the film and can emphasize certain experiences that you want the viewer to take particular note of, as well as add rest periods where the viewer can just enjoy the visuals. Daniel Knobler at Mason Jar Music created the music for the Alabama Chanin film, and the southern influence in the guitar composition makes the landscape come alive.
The first iPad cover was a stop action video of 180 still images photographed by Gentl & Hyers over the period of one day at Martha’s farm in her peony garden.
AC: Perhaps your career is a great mirror for the way the publishing industry has changed over the years. During your time at MSLO, the company created and developed a magazine that was unlike any seen before in content, direction, and marketing. You were early adopters of the internet and you won awards for iPad applications. Do you find it difficult to communicate ideas about making, crafting, things you do with your hands, via a digital medium? How do you feel about open sourcing materials and methods among artists and makers?
GT: I was electrified when I saw an early version of the digital magazine experience being developed by my friend Scott Dadich for Wired. He was working with Adobe on the software and the design even before the iPad was released. I am indebted to him for showing me that this was a game changer for magazine publishing; suddenly we had new tools for story telling: animation, moving images of informative and luxurious photography, the ability to create seamless how-to instruction, or an evocative narrative that captures the sense of place and the voice of the artisans, farmers, fishermen, and chefs that we covered. Our first cover was a stop action film of a peony opening before your eyes, it was surprising, beautiful and seductive, and the viewer got to experience the flower in a completely new way. Sound was very new to us, so the first cover did not have sound because we just didn’t think of it, but once we did, sound became a powerful tool for eliciting emotion.
AC: You are married to another artist – designer Stephen Doyle. Do you influence one another’s artistic choices? Have you ever collaborated on a project?
GT: Yes, we collaborated on several projects when I was at MSLO. Stephen’s company Doyle Partners created the logo and packaging for all the products at Kmart when we first started that business in 1997. I was a graphic designer and had never designed products before so I was consumed with building the product design department and working with Kmart on marketing and advertising. Stephen and I had a wonderful time working together, often at night after we put the kids to bed, we would spread all the work out on the living room floor and talk about the designs. Then, when MSLO started designing products for Macy’s, Stephen’s company designed the logo and the initial packaging for the home products. We love working together.
All through my career Stephen has been a sounding board for me and a source of constant support and encouragement that is couched in his high expectations of me. Both of us share our careers in a variety of supportive ways from thinking through analytical problems, to creative feedback, to managing people and working with clients. Stephen was very supportive as I went through the agony of deciding to leave my job at MSLO; it was tremendously difficult and scary because my identity was so tied to my role there over 22 years. I did not know what I would do next when I left my job. I knew that I would need time to rest my brain and reset my goals. After 6 months when Stephen perceived that I was ready, it was he who encouraged me to “just start making videos” and stop being consumed by the fear that they wouldn’t be good or that I didn’t know what I was doing. It goes back to that “take one step at a time” mantra.
Screen shot of Maira sitting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from the film.
AC: Your current work focuses on short film. Do you have a methodical way of selecting your subjects? Or is it more of an instinctual selection process?
GT: I am trying to capture the visual seduction of the creative process, so I do look for subjects with the potential for lush imagery. I wanted to capture creativity in action and capture the sights and sounds and the mess of the studio. The subjects of these films are all experienced; they have achieved a mastery of their craft, each working in their respective fields for 20 or 30 years. They are comfortable saying, “I don’t know where this will take me.” They follow their instincts and use their knowledge of materials and craft to investigate and discover a direction. The videos are not meant to be comprehensive, they are open-ended and tell the story of one moment in these artists’ careers and end with as much room for possibility and discovery as they began.
AC: How is film different/unique in communicating your message, as opposed to print media?
GT: These short form documentary videos give the viewer the opportunity to see the artist as they work, feel their sincerity and see their expressions, laugh at their sense of humor and hopefully go on a journey with the artist as they reflect on their creative life and tell their stories first hand. I think video is emotionally immediate for the audience and it is immediate in the way it goes out into the world. The ability to create your own website and share your work is amazing and it helps build a community of viewers and other artists. The “Portraits in Creativity” short films have been picked up by various blogs who are interested in design and culture and twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been essential in getting the word out. I have to thank Brain Pickings for the amazing review of the Maira Kalman film.
AC: Do you have ambitions to make a full-length film? Or do you feel that short films are better suited to your message(s)?
GT: I am still learning and do not feel ready to take on a full-length film. I also like how small the team is now because it allows me to be so hands on. But if I had the right subject and the right team, I could be tempted!
Gabriella Kiss’s studio photographed by Gentl & Hyers, from the short film.
AC: In a life full of amazing achievements and awards, what is your proudest achievement – in work, in life, etc?
GT: I am enormously proud of my children and think the privilege of being a mother is my greatest achievement, although they are off on their own now and fully in charge of their lives. I am also proud of my marriage to Stephen. A good marriage is enormously rewarding and we share interests in art, design, travel, and culture. We love to cook together and entertain our family and friends. Friends are essential and they keep you growing and reaching and caring and sharing. My career has been fulfilling but I have to say that the relationships I have built and the people I have met are more inspiring to me and more important to me than any particular design or product I had a hand in creating. People and relationships widen your world and sustain you and help to push you in new directions. I am proud that I had the nerve to leave my job of 22 years and strike out in a new direction. (fingers are still crossed!)
AC: As an artist, filmmaker, tastemaker, etc. – what is on your to-do list right now? What are you reading, watching, listening to (if you have time to do any of those things…)?
GT: My next short film is about our mutual friend, and the woman who introduced us, Rosanne Cash. The film is about her new album “The River and The Thread.” I hope it will express her love of learning and experiencing the world that she has mixed with her rediscovery of the South. I am working on editing the film now with Joe Tomcho who is also the videographer. This is the hardest stage. Even though we have done a lot of shooting, I feel like we are in the process of searching for the story all over again.
I just got back from a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, where I studied textiles of the Mayan communities around San Cristobal for an on-going project I am working on with The Lower East Side Girls Club.
I love to garden, make flower arrangements, and entertain friends – so that is a constant in my life. I just finished reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I recommend; it is about language, music, and love. I am looking forward to the next meeting of our sewing group – Lisa Fox, Rosanne Cash, Allison Moore, Kay Gardner, Maira Kalman, and I get together and sew for a few hours at least once a month. We share our stories, support each other and make our Alabama Chanin DIY projects. I have been making a rose appliqué and beaded skirt for two years; when I finish it will be my most prized possession because it will be so full of our stories.
Follow Gael on Instagram, Twitter, and at Gael Towey & Co.
The Kmart paint chips had 256 colors that were inspired by flowers, leaves, and antique china.
This is a really interesting and inspiring interview. I love to see the way people create and I love it when creative people collaborate. Thanks for pointing us toward yet another great artist. I learn in many new directions from your blog.
I wholeheartedly agree with Lisa’s comment!
Loved the interview with Natalie…I just downloaded Rosanne Cash’s album!
thanks for sharing!