“TO VOTE IS TO EXIST”
American graphic designer Milton Glaser’s 2016 “Get Out The Vote” poster
More from the AIGA Design for Democracy
“TO VOTE IS TO EXIST”
American graphic designer Milton Glaser’s 2016 “Get Out The Vote” poster
More from the AIGA Design for Democracy
The Dead of September 11
Some have God’s words; others have songs of comfort
for the bereaved. If I can pluck courage here, I would
like to speak directly to the dead–the September dead.
Those children of ancestors born in every continent
on the planet: Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas…;
born of ancestors who wore kilts, obis, saris, geles,
wide straw hats, yarmulkes, goatskin, wooden shoes,
feathers and cloths to cover their hair. But I would not say
a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about
nations, wars, leaders, the governed and ungovernable;
all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen
my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil—wanton
or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of
a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple
compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge
my language of hyperbole; of its eagerness to analyze
the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their
higher or lower status among others of its kind.
Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for
a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.
Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be
seduced by blitz.
To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim
false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed
just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear,
knowing all the time that I have nothing to say–no words
stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture
older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you
And I have nothing to give either–except this gesture,
this thread thrown between your humanity and mine:
I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you
have done, the wit
of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through
the darkness of its knell.
What words can be said that have not already been uttered? How does one comprehend the incompressible; the tragic, sudden loss of life, the sense of security forever marred?
Today we remember the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, friends…fellow human beings…lost to us that day.
Despite the countless tragedies that day, and the many in the days since, we must all never stop striving to live by the sentiment uttered so prophetically by Martin Luther King Jr.: “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Remembrances on the Journal:
Gloria Steinem was born in 1934, the daughter of a traveling salesman and the granddaughter of activist Pauline Steinem. Pauline was chairwoman to the educational committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, and the first woman to be elected to the Toledo Board of Education. She was also known to have rescued several German family members from the Holocaust. Now herself recognized as a prominent American feminist, activist, and journalist, Gloria was inspired by stories of her grandmother, but also by the experiences of her mother, who was mentally ill, and who suffered from a “nervous breakdown.” As an adult, Gloria described caring for her mother and experiences with dismissive doctors as having been key to her understanding of injustice toward women.
Because of her father’s itinerant vocation, she traveled often and did not attend school regularly until she was eleven years old. Steinem eventually attended Smith College and, afterward, received a fellowship to study in India, where she was influenced by Gandhi’s approach to activism. Upon returning to the United States, Gloria worked as a freelance writer for publications like Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times magazine. For one of her most famous early articles, Steinem went undercover as a scantily clad waitress (or a “bunny”, as they were called) at New York City’s Playboy Club. Published in Show magazine, the piece exposed the sexism rampant in Playboy and male-dominated social circles. In 1968, she helped create New York magazine and wrote a recurring political column for the publication. Her articles, including those on abortion, a radical feminist group called the Redstockings, and essays like “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” reflected her growing feminist views. She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1971, she joined 300 other women, including prominent female leaders like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, and Myrlie Evers-Williams to form the still-active National Women’s Political Caucus, which works to advance pro-equality candidates in elected and appointed offices at the state and national level.
In 1972, Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine, where she worked as an editor for fifteen years. The magazine began as an insert in New York magazine and it shortly grew into its own publication. She pushed for the magazine to join and be published by the Feminist Majority Foundation and still serves as a consulting editor. There were times when Steinem’s position in the feminist movement was challenged because she portrayed a glamorous image, though she was undeterred by the criticisms. In 1972, Gloria also became the first woman to speak at the National Press Club.
In 1986 and at 50 years old, she publicly battled breast cancer but saw it as a sign that she should focus her activism where it was sincerely needed—in order to prevent burnout. You would hardly know, as that same year she published a book about Marilyn Monroe called Marilyn: Norma Jean. This is one of many books that Steinem has written, with others including My Life on the Road, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking the Boundaries of Gender. Her writing also appears in anthologies and textbooks, and she was an editor of Houghton Mifflin’s The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History.
Steinem worked with Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda to found the Women’s Media Center in 2004, which works “to make women visible and powerful in the media.” She also co-founded Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee, and serves on the board of URGE, a national organization that fosters young pro-choice leadership and promotes responsible sex education in schools. Steinem also began the Ms. Foundation for Women, which works on grassroots programs that empower women and girls and she founded “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”, a tradition that has spread across the world.
Throughout her often controversial career, Gloria has remained steadfast in the idea of equal rights for women. As she told the New York Daily News, “We’ve demonstrated that women can do what men do, but not yet that men can do what women do. That’s why most women have two jobs—one inside the home and one outside it—which is impossible. The truth is that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”
Gloria Steinem has been the subject of both books and documentaries, including HBO’s “Gloria: In Her Own Words”, the PBS documentary series, “MAKERS”, and the biography, The Education of a Woman. In the book, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times, she said, ”I think the fact that I’ve become a symbol for the women’s movement is somewhat accidental. A woman member of Congress, for example, might be identified as a member of Congress; it doesn’t mean she’s any less of a feminist but she’s identified by her nearest male analog. Well, I don’t have a male analog so the press has to identify me with the movement. I suppose I could be referred to as a journalist, but because Ms. is part of a movement and not just a typical magazine, I’m more likely to be identified with the movement. There’s no other slot to put me in.”
Throughout the years, Steinem has been the recipient of an impressive number of awards, including the Clarion Award, Equality Now’s International Human Rights Award, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Liberty Award, the National Gay Rights Advocate Award, the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award, the United Nations’ Ceres Medal and Society of Writers Award. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2014, Rutgers University created the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair, which funds teaching and research for an individual –man or woman—who exemplifies Steinem’s values of equal representation in media.
Gloria was an honorary co-chair and speaker for the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and is a current advisor to TIME’S UP, a movement against sexual harassment. For all of these reasons, we consider Gloria Steinem one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: Encylopedia Britannica
African-American journalist Ethel Payne was born in 1911, the granddaughter of slaves and the fifth daughter in a large family. Her father, who worked in a stockyard and was a Pullman porter, died when Ethel was 46 and Ethel’s mother became a domestic worker to support the family. There was little money for education so after high school, Payne began putting herself through junior college and then Garrett Biblical Institute.
In 1941, she met A. Philip Randolph, a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and a labor organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Her experiences with Randolph would inspire her to eventually cover the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the 1963 March on Washington.
Payne got her first taste of journalism in the 1940s while working as a hostess at an American military social club in Japan. At that time, President Truman had ordered military quarters and clubs to be desegregated, but leaders were defying those orders and keeping facilities segregated. While at the club, she met a reporter from the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, and allowed him to read her journal examining her experiences there; her notes described discriminatory practices in the military and the poverty experienced by many Japanese people after World War II. Her accounts were published in serial form on the front page of the Defender.
During the early 20th century, the Chicago Defender was America’s leading black newspaper, with the motto, “American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed.” In his book on Payne, Eye on the Struggle, author James Morris notes that the circulation of the weekly magazine was at least 130,000, but it actually had a wider reach because copies were shared from person-to-person. At that time, it would have been frowned upon to buy copies of the paper in the South, so editors worked with Pullman porters to stow them in their train cars and drop the papers off at barbershops and churches on their Southern routes.
In 1951, Ethel moved to Chicago as an employee of the Defender—eventually becoming the paper’s sole Washington, D.C. reporter. She was one of only three African Americans who had credentials in the White House press corps. Payne was known to relentlessly question President Eisenhower on race issues and segregation, to the point where Eisenhower virtually stopped calling on her for questions; one of his angry responses to her made national front page news. According to the Washington Post, the House press secretary looked for ways to have her accreditation revoked, including investigating her income tax returns. Ethel said, “It was just unheard of for blacks to be standing up and asking presidents impertinent questions, and particularly a black woman.”
During this time, Payne was one of the most diligent and vigilant reporters covering civil rights issues—becoming known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” During the 1950s and 60s, she focused heavily on desegregation efforts, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Inspired by her friendship with A. Philip Randolph, she wrote a notable series of articles on the South during the civil rights era called, “The South at the Crossroads.” Ethel said that she had a “box seat to history” and, due to her prominence in the black press, was invited by President Lyndon Johnson to visit the White House when he signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Understanding the connection between civil rights and international affairs, she began to travel widely. She visited Bandung, Indonesia, for the Asian-African Summit and accompanied Richard Nixon to Ghana, witnessing the first meeting of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nixon. The Defender sent Payne to Vietnam in 1966 to cover African-American troops, where she was the first black woman to cover the armed forces. She was also a correspondent during the Nigerian civil war and the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. Ethel accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa. She earned a formidable reputation for her interviews with Senator John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
Payne became the first African-American female radio and television commentator on a national network when she was hired in 1972 by CBS. She worked on the program “Spectrum” from 1972 until 1978 and appeared on “Matters of Opinion” until 1982. She remained an activist journalist, working for the release of the long-imprisoned future South African president Nelson Mandela. In 1988 the District of Columbia Women’s Hall of Fame inducted to Payne into their ranks; she also won awards from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and the National Association for Black Journalists. Ethel died at age 79 in 1991. She did not live to see a U.S. postage stamp bear her likeness—one of four female journalists to receive the honor.
Throughout her career, Ethel Payne made a point to be an activist journalist, advocating for civil rights and women’s rights. Prior to her death, she told an interviewer, “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased . . . when it comes to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.” For her advocacy at home and abroad, Ethel Payne is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: NPR
Even in today’s relatively progressive world, female journalists often face discrimination or are corralled into writing or producing material that is meant to appeal to the so-called feminine point-of-view. As we recently highlighted, there are those like Christiane Amanpour who have worked hard to challenge the status quo. But for every Amanpour, there is another young woman likely being pushed toward producing pieces about beauty, the home, or entertainment news—subjects supposedly geared toward a feminine audience. Amid persistent sexism in media, we can look to nineteenth-century journalist Nellie Bly, who became both a popular and respected voice of her time and a strong role model in investigative news.
Nellie was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864. She got her unofficial start as a writer by responding to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch column titled, “What Girls Are Good For,” which suggested that women were suited only for housekeeping and having children. She answered the article under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”, openly challenging its misogynistic message. Cochran eventually revealed her identity to the newspaper’s editor, who offered “Lonely Orphan Girl” the chance to write more about female-centric issues like divorce and working women. She was eventually offered a permanent position and, as was the custom at the time, she was assigned a pen name: Nellie Bly.
Like most women writers of the time, she was primarily assigned columns focusing on the home, children, fashion, and society—but she quickly became restless in this role. Nellie pushed her editor for freedom and began writing on more pressing societal issues like challenges facing the poor, women’s status in society, conditions in local factories, and other similar topics. Though Bly’s articles were popular, the newspaper began to receive pushback from local businesses who threatened to pull advertisements from the paper unless the stories stopped. Discouraged, Nellie traveled to Mexico as a foreign news correspondent for the paper, reporting on the lives of everyday Mexicans and the Mexican government. She once again found herself mired in controversy, this time over her criticism of the government. Bly had to flee the country, but her writings on the subject were published as a book called Six Months in Mexico.
Once back in the states, Nellie moved to New York City and struggled to make her way as a professional journalist. Nearly destitute after four months, she talked her way into a column at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World. The paper’s editor was intrigued by her proposed story—an undercover exposé on the poor living conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Bly managed to get herself committed to the asylum and was immediately subject to the horrific conditions therein. Bly apparently was so convincing in her feigned insanity that other patients refused to room with her. The facility held a staggering 1,600 patients, most of whom were subjected to “treatments” like ice baths, wore threadbare garments, lived in vermin-infested quarters, and ate rancid food. She wrote, “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”
Bly’s writings centered not only on the cruelty of the facility and its doctors but also on the humanity of its patients. She witnessed that a number of them were not mentally ill at all; they just lacked the ability to speak for themselves in court or spoke little to no English. After a few days, Nellie revealed that her “crazy” persona was a ruse, but The New York World ultimately had to send an attorney to have her released from the facility. Days later, the newspaper began running Nellie’s writings on the asylum in installments called “Behind Asylum Bars” and they became a sensation. Her stories were syndicated in newspapers across the country. Her investigative journalism spurred examinations into the treatment (and mistreatment) of the mentally ill and prompted a grand jury investigation that resulted in overhauls to the asylum’s practices. Bly’s installments were compiled into a book, titled Ten Days in a Mad-House.
Nellie Bly continued to go undercover, writing about unwanted babies by pretending to be an unwed mother trying to sell her child, exposing corrupt government officials by attempting to bribe a crooked lobbyist, and secretly posing as a poverty-stricken factory worker to uncover poor working conditions.
In 1889, she began a more lighthearted assignment, attempting to make a trip around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. At the time, women were considered too much trouble to take on long journeys, as it was assumed they would require constant chaperoning and lots of luggage. To combat this stereotype, Nellie set off on her journey with no escort and only the most essential items. Heading east from New York, she journeyed to England, Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The New York World held a popular contest, challenging readers to guess her arrival date. Early telegraph cables allowed Bly to send short travel updates to her editors. Nellie traveled by steamship and rail and faced setbacks, like rough ocean weather, that delayed her travel time. After landing in San Francisco, she boarded a train that brought her home to New York. Seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after her departure, Bly arrived at her original starting point—handily beating Verne’s fictional eighty days. After her journey, Nellie toured the world giving lectures and wrote Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. Not long after, she was back on the beat writing articles about police corruption, labor strikes, and women’s suffrage.
At age 31, Bly retired from journalism when she married 73-year-old millionaire Robert Seaman. She helped manage his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing, which made milk cans, barrels, and garbage cans. Nellie even patented a milk can and stacking garbage can during her time there. When Robert died in 1904 and the company eventually went bankrupt, Nellie returned to journalism. She traveled to Austria during World War I and acted as a war correspondent for five years. Eventually returning to New York, she wrote an advice column, worked for women’s suffrage, and aided widows and poor families. She wrote until her death in 1922 at age 57, from pneumonia.
Nellie Bly did not let her gender define the course of her career. Through her actions, she proved that women were capable of great and captivating journalism. She broke barriers by showing that women should not be relegated to lifestyle and society columns and put her life on the line for a good story. Though women still fight not to be pigeonholed in the media and in all professions, Nellie Bly stands as a model of someone who challenged gender roles and succeeded. This is why she is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Margaret Bourke-White, born in the Bronx in 1904, was one of the earliest prominent female photographers – working for a number of notable publications, primarily LIFE magazine. Though she studied photography in college, she was uninterested in pursuing it as a profession until long out of school. Eventually, she formed her own company, with Otis Steel Company among her first clients. Through this work, she proved both her worth as a female photographer and her skill at capturing detail through the lens. Accordingly, she began to attract national attention.
Bourke-White was hired in 1929 as a staff photographer for Fortune magazine, allowing her up-close access to the financial collapse that ultimately became The Great Depression. In 1936 she was hired by publishing magnate Henry Luce as LIFE Magazine’s first female photographer. One of her earliest assignments was covering the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a Public Works Administration project in Montana. Her photo negatives, arriving at the LIFE office just 24 hours before the first issue’s publication, made the cover—published on November 23, 1936. The issue sold out immediately and within months the magazine’s circulation more than tripled. The cover photo was selected by the United States Postal Service to represent the 1930s in its series, “Celebrate the Century.”
During the mid-thirties, Bourke-White also traveled the American Dust Bowl, photographing those living through the national disaster. The photos became a book, You Have Seen Their Faces, that explored the humanity of those suffering in the Dust Bowl and during the depression.
In 1941, Margaret toured Europe and the Soviet Union as what we believe to be the first female war correspondent. She is alleged to be the only Western photographer in Moscow during the German raids on the Kremlin, where she captured Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s portrait. She and her fellow journalists are said to have ushered Russian citizens to safety—all while taking the only photographs of the attack, including a shot of the Kremlin, lit by bombs exploding around it. Over the course of the war, Bourke-White was embedded with the U.S. Army and Air Force in North Africa, Italy, and Germany, coming under heavy fire in each location.
While in Europe, Bourke-White traveled throughout Germany with American General George S. Patton and, through her lens, documented untold atrocities. She captured images of brutal work camps, Nazi officials and their families, dead from suicides, and the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, including survivors and the furnaces where so many Jews were burned. She kept secret the fact that her father was Jewish and later admitted that she used her camera lens to create a barrier between herself and what she was witnessing.
Margaret also requested permission to cover the North African campaign, where she traveled by ship. The boat was struck by a torpedo and sunk. Bourke-White salvaged only one of her cameras and captured images of other survivors on lifeboats. Between this and her experiences in Europe, she became known at LIFE as “Maggie the Indestructible.” She was also the subject of an Army “pin-up” poster, the photo for which was captured after she flew on a B-17 bombing raid. Her photos of the raid would run in LIFE magazine, and pictures of Margaret dressed in flying gear made her perhaps the most clothed military pin-up of all time.
After an entire career as a conflict photographer, Bourke-White traveled into Pakistan in the late 1940s to cover the battles between India and Pakistan and the Indian freedom movement. She recorded horrors that were unlike any she had seen since photographing concentration camps. After the war, she spent a great deal of time documenting the life of Mohandas Gandhi. One of her most famous images was that of Gandhi at his spinning wheel, taken in 1946. According to documents from the International Photography Hall of Fame, there were two conditions for photographing him: do not speak to him, as it was his day of silence, and do not use artificial light. Due to the dim light in his hut, she convinced them to allow her three flashbulbs. According to Bourke-White, “I was grateful that he would not speak to me, for I could see it would take all the attention I had to overcome the halation from the wretched window just over his head. He started to spin, beautifully, rhythmically and with a fine nimble hand…When Gandhi made a most beautiful movement as he drew the thread, I pushed the trigger and was reassured by the sound that everything had worked properly.” She also interviewed and photographed Gandhi a few hours before his 1948 assassination.
After India, Margaret’s next assignment was to cover the Korean War. It was there, in 1953, where she began to notice symptoms of what she would learn was Parkinson’s disease. Within four years, she found herself unable to continue working and eventually retired from LIFE in 1969. Bourke-White endured multiple treatments and two brain surgeries in an attempt to combat her illness; she was able to successfully end her tremors but her speech was permanently affected. During this time, she wrote her autobiography, Portrait of Myself and continued to lecture. Over the course of her lifetime, Bourke-White would write eleven books.
Bourke-White died in 1971 at age 67, from Parkinson’s disease. She is quoted as saying, “Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.” For her immeasurable skill and ability to find the humanity in the most difficult circumstances, Margaret White-Bourke is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: Time Magazine
The newsroom has traditionally been a “boys’ club”—and we are just beginning to see a shift in this mindset, both on cable and network news. For decades, Christiane Amanpour has been challenging that norm as a prominent news correspondent and a leader and role model for women (and all journalists) all over the world.
Growing up in both Tehran and England as the daughter of a Muslim from Iran and a Christian from the United Kingdom, she is fluent in both English and Farsi. Her family left Iran due to tensions between Iran and Iraq, which heavily impacted her father’s business. The dual perspective provided by these circumstances of her adolescence has likely been a foundation of the open point-of-view Amanpour brings to her news work and the empathy she offers in her programming.
Amanpour made her debut on the national news scene in 1983 at CNN and three years later was working as a producer-correspondent in their New York offices. By the late 1980s, she was sent to Europe, covering the fall of communism and the rise of democracy. She became more prominent as a television reporter during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, covering the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the later United States involvement. From there Christiane moved to Iraq, reporting on the Kurdish revolt and then to Bosnia and Herzegovina – a move that put her in American living rooms on a regular basis. It is widely believed that her reporting on the conflict made our citizens more actively informed and aware of the atrocities occurring. Amanpour was sometimes criticized for her passionate editorials on and bias surrounding the conflict. But, as she told the Guardian, “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”
Christiane’s experience in conflict reporting has found her covering crises in Haiti, Afghanistan, Palestinian territories, Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, and she reported from Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Amanpour has also obtained interviews with world leaders that other reporters could not. She famously interviewed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat live via telephone during the siege on his Ramallah compound in 2002, and the leader angrily hung up on her. She was the sole journalist reporting from the courtroom during Saddam Hussein’s 2004 trial and the last reporter to officially interview Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before he was overthrown and killed in 2011. She also secured the only interview with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.
Currently, Amanpour works for two networks – an incredibly unique arrangement. She serves as global affairs anchor for ABC News and provides international commentary and analysis for their other news programs. She is also the chief international correspondent for CNN International and her show “Amanpour” permanently filled the spot vacated by Charlie Rose, who faces sexual harassment allegations.
Recently, Amanpour created a CNN documentary series called “Sex and Love Around the World,” seeking to examine cultural approaches to sex, love, relationships, and marriage. The series of composed of six episodes, each helmed by a female director. “I wanted to know how many women and girls understand that they have a right to their own happiness,” Amanpour told Variety. “It doesn’t happen in so many parts of the world for so many reasons — culturally, legally, religiously. Now I’m finding that this is changing and young women are becoming the agents of their own happiness. They’re investigating the full extent of what it means to be a human being.”
Amanpour has received virtually every journalistic award possible, including nine Emmy Awards, two George Polk Awards, the Courage in Journalism Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award, and multiple George Foster Peabody Awards. She is a commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and an honorary citizen of Sarajevo. Christiane is also on the board of directors for the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for freedom of expression and journalist safety. Amanpour continues to delve into new and difficult subjects and is a world leader in international journalism. For this and many reasons, Christiane Amanpour is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: The New York Times
Tanzila Khan was born in Sialkot, Pakistan, and a physical disability has confined her to a wheelchair since birth. Her activism began early in her life, as she was on the receiving end of discriminatory practices. In Pakistan, those with disabilities are often relegated to a lower status and their needs and desires are rarely taken into account. When she was sixteen, Tanzila wrote her first book, A Story of Mexico, and has since published her second book, a novel titled The Perfect Situation. The profits from both books have funded disaster relief for victims of the Pakistani earthquake, for disability awareness, and female empowerment.
She faced discrimination in school, as she was not allowed to participate in theater, social activities, and philanthropic clubs. “I think earlier when I was in my school, it was the identity that I was given and that was the girl on a wheelchair. And during that part [of my life] I realized that this doesn’t sound right to me, it sounds too hopeless, it sounds too upsetting and sad—not just for me but for the person who is addressing me either. This whole circle of sadness didn’t appeal to me that much. So, I thought that I have to change this identity. So at that time, I considered myself, I looked at myself and said to myself that what do you have, what can you do? And the only things that I had were my hands, so I had to use my hands. So, deliberately I pushed myself towards reading and writing.”
According to Tanzila, her primary motivation is the simple joy of being alive. She feels that she has a great responsibility to impact the youth of Pakistan, focusing not only on disability rights but also access to education and resources. She has partnered with the British Council, Global Changemakers, and Oxfam to further the reach of her causes. Tanzila has also used her platform to press the Pakistani government for wheelchair accessibility in all government buildings. She describes herself as a “soft-skills trainer” for development and the corporate sector and is an international motivational speaker.
Tanzila believes that her college experiences helped her crystallize her focus on disability rights. In her TEDx talk, she explains, “I wasn’t allowed to take part in any activity because the faculty feared that I might face some physical obstacle. They had their fears, while I had my own: someone was killing the spirit inside of me… And then again, again, again, I was not allowed to be part of many activities. Again there came a point where I decided to break the line. I declared, ‘Fine—you can have your own events, you can have your own theater, you can do whatever you like; I’ll have my own… It took me quite a while to realize that my cause, my passion, my subject was inside me, was with me all this time, and it took me so long to get there. This is the reason I was created.”
At that moment she began to formulate the idea of her own production company called Creative Alley, which now trains and empowers the community through events and projects. It provides the youth of Pakistan and across the world a platform to share artistic works. The group’s primary initiative is a “youth capacity-building workshop” taught by Tanzila called Let’s Get M.A.D. (Make a Difference). “Creative Alley is a platform for everyone and anyone out there who has the talent, who has the skills, but who didn’t get the chance.” It acts as a springboard, encouraging and assisting individuals with disabilities to exhibit and distribute their work across the world.
In her work as a speaker, she advises, “Leadership involves initiatives. So in whatever walk of life you are currently in, take an initiative. Because in later years, initiative will define your identity.
Lead image courtesy of Be Bold People.
In August 2016, Wagatwe Wanjuki live streamed herself burning her once-loved Tufts University sweatshirt on Facebook Live. She held up the shirt bearing the name of her former college, one she bought in high school when she was accepted to Tufts. “I was very proud to claim Tufts as my school and my alma mater,” Wanjuki said before setting the sweatshirt ablaze. But Tufts failed Wanjuki, who reported that a fellow student she was in a relationship with raped her multiple times in 2008. The school opted not to investigate the crime; Wagatwe was expelled in 2009 due to poor grades, which she attributes to the trauma she was experiencing as a survivor. She was less than a year from her scheduled graduation. “My confidence was shot,” Wanjuki told The Huffington Post. “Tufts was saying I was too stupid to stay there. A big part of my identity was that I was always a good student.”
It is reported that one out of five women will be sexually assaulted while attending college in America, but universities often fail to act or mishandle cases, when they are even reported. According to the US Bureau of Justice, only 7% of campus rapes are reported to school officials and 4% are reported to law enforcement; students say they opt not to report because they fear ridicule, not being believed, lack of confidentiality, or that no action will be taken on their behalf.
Wanjuki made waves in 2014 when she felt compelled to respond to a Washington Post column written by George Will that suggested the campus rape epidemic was being exaggerated and that women may be lying about their assaults, as survivors receive “coveted status that confers privilege.” Enraged, she sent out tweets saying “Where’s my survivor privilege? Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans used to attend a school that didn’t care I was raped,” and “The #survivorprivilege of being too scared to leave my dorm room for fear of running into my perp.” The #survivorprivilege hashtag took off and Will’s column came under heavy criticism. “There is nothing to gain by being raped, and there is no privilege to coming forward,” Wanjuki told Mic. “In fact, many survivors lose more after they report due to backlash thanks to our victim-blaming culture.”
After her assault, Wagatwe began to act on behalf of other survivors, calling for reform alongside the national group Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) and helped organize campus demonstrations demanding reform. She and fellow rape survivor/activist Kamilah Willingham, who was assaulted as a student at Harvard Law School, started the Just Say Sorry campaign in an attempt to get colleges and universities to offer formal apologies when they fail students and mishandle on-campus sexual assault cases.
The campaign is part of a larger organization the women have since founded, called Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC) with the goal of stopping sexual violence before it happens. Their website proclaims, “We believe that we can only stop gendered violence by focusing on changing the institutions and beliefs that enable and perpetuate sexual violence. Through the use of strategic education and advocacy, SERC aims to create a world in which organizations like ours are obsolete.” Willingham says, “We want institutional accountability to be the norm, not the exception.”
Since she began to speak out, Wanjuki has appeared in The Hunting Ground, a documentary film about sexual assault on college campuses, and has joined the board of directors for Know Your IX. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding. It addresses sexual harassment, sexual violence, or gender-based discrimination that may deny anyone access to educational opportunities or benefits. Know Your IX is a youth- and survivor-led project that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools. Title IX was bolstered under the Obama administration, which formed a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The current administration has announced plans to roll back federal guidance on Title IX—though no action has yet been taken.
In an incident unrelated to Wanjuki’s, Tufts University was found in violation of Title IX in 2014 for a failure to address student complaints of sexual assault in a “prompt and equitable” way. Shortly thereafter, the university released an updated sexual misconduct policy aimed at addressing these findings. Wagatwe told Mic that she saw this as a victory because “the school that wronged me was finally told that it wasn’t doing enough to help survivors.”
She remains active in her Just Say Sorry campaign and hopes increased focus on campus sexual violence will make campuses safer and help others to come forward. She also wants to increase awareness of violence toward marginalized survivors, like trans, queer, gender non-conforming individuals, and people of color. Manjuki believes that apologies validate the experiences of victims of violence. She told Salon, “Apologizing is a meaningful statement. It is a public declaration saying that we acknowledge that this thing that happened to you is wrong and we’re sorry. It’s a really valuable tool for survivors because at the end of the day what survivors want is to be recognized. And they want to have the community say that what happened to them is wrong so they’re no longer carrying the shame on themselves, which is completely unfair.
Wanjuki told MSNBC, “I hope that women of the next generation will be able to attend school under the leadership of administrators who won’t see sexual assault as a public relations issue, but rather a safety issue they can address. And I really hope that survivors of all identities of color, queer, low-income, with disabilities, trans, gender nonconforming, from community college, in relationships, etc.—will find it easier have their stories heard.”
For more information on Wagatwe Wanjuki, SERC, and their goals and strategies, visit eradicaterape.org.
Image Source: Wagatwe.com
Fashion Revolution Week is part of the year-round Fashion Revolution movement that encourages consumers to look more deeply into the fashion industry, with the ultimate intention of making clothing in a safe, clean, and fair way, the norm – across the world. This year, Fashion Revolution Week runs from April 23 – 29th and it is always scheduled in a way that honors the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,138 people and injured many more.
Because of Alabama Chanin’s commitment to transparency, we make it possible for you to know how your clothing is made and by whom. The initials on the label of your Alabama Chanin garments help tell the story of how each piece has been passed from hand-to-hand, with no unknown stops along the way. But, worldwide, approximately 75 million people work to make our clothes, with 80% of them women between the ages of 18 and 35. The majority of these makers in the global market live in poverty and are often exploited, abused, underpaid, and work in unsafe conditions.
This is why Fashion Revolution encourages consumers to flood social media with posts, asking your favorite designers and brands #whomademyclothes? This encourages brands to be more transparent, hopefully resulting in better and safer working conditions and better pay for textile workers. As a consumer, you have the power to make a positive change in the industry. Please use this week to ask #whomademyclothes on social media.
We will proudly be posting Alabama Chanin makers as part of the #imadeyourclothes movement. Look for spotlights on them throughout the week on Instagram stories—by following @alabamachanin and #alabamachanin and #imadeyourclothes.
We encourage you to post your Alabama Chanin garments—letting others know you know who made your clothes. Using the hashtags #whomademyclothes, #alabamachanin, and #alabamachaninmademyclothes.
We are all world citizens, so let’s push for change.
Did you know that (per the Indian Law Resource Center) more than 4 out of 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 50% have experienced sexual violence? Were you aware that, according to the Center for Disease Control, the third-leading cause of death for Native American and Alaska Native women aged 10-24, is murder? Twenty-five-year-old Calina Lawrence knows and her mission is to speak the truth of Native women until the world understands the scope of this problem – one that goes largely unaddressed in the justice system.
For 40 years, United States law has made it nearly impossible for Indian nations to prosecute non-Natives, who reportedly commit about 88% of violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands. In the 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the court determined that tribal courts do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-indigenous people, and so they may not punish them without authorization from Congress. Non-Native individuals compose over 75% of the population on tribal lands and federal and state authorities decline to prosecute nearly 70% of matters occurring on tribal lands that are referred to them. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 updated some of these issues, giving tribes jurisdiction over “domestic violence, dating violence and violations of protective orders that occur on their lands,” but violence has not decreased.
As an enrolled member of the Suquamish Tribe, Lawrence was raised in the Pacific Northwest within her indigenous culture. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with degrees in performing arts and social justice and, since graduating, has become a leader in pushing for awareness in violence against native women, advocating for Native Treaty Rights, and has been an active participant in the “Mni Wiconi” (Water is Life) movement led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Lawrence strongly believes that there is a strong connection between the violence against Native people and the violence against Native lands. She said, “The violence against women is synonymous with the environmental injustice that we have been facing… And until we can really sit down and continue conversations that address that reality for the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, which, in my experience, [are] Native American women and LGBTQ and children…we have a real shot at redefining our humanity and redefining how we exist and coexist with Mother Earth.”
Awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women was first brought to light in Canada when the true nature of government-mandated boarding schools was made public. These school systems and their near-identical counterparts in the United States were created for the sole purpose of assimilating Native children into “white” culture. Students were forced to move long distances from their families, prohibited from speaking their native languages, were exposed to diseases like tuberculosis and flu, as well as physical and sexual abuse. In Canada, at least 6,000 students are estimated to have died while at these boarding schools; there is no true number of those who perished in America. The larger legacy of these institutions has been a created culture of violence, post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide within indigenous communities in the Americas.
According to Calina, “This [has] been ongoing since colonial invasion. It’s been ongoing since the boarding school eras, where they stripped our children from families and abused them in religious boarding schools. Those things have been inherited. The patriarchal violence that we’ve been on the receiving end still very much exists today. And so, there’s a lot of work that’s happening, not only around collecting these stories and this information but really working in the community to shift our psychological approach, to start to ask the comfortable questions and to hold more folks accountable as to what contributes to our dehumanization.”
Referring to water, land, and animals as “non-human relatives”, she works to aid all at-risk elements of violence against Native peoples. She considers herself an “art-ivist”; a talented singer, Calina has released a number of singles since her college graduation, most relating to Native issues and featuring other indigenous artists. She is scheduled to release her first full album this year.
When it was announced that the “Times Up” campaign, which was created to fight sexual harassment, assault, and inequality for women in all industries, would participate in the 2018 Golden Globes, many advocate attendees opted to bring notable activists as their companions. Lawrence attended with actress Shailene Woodley – whom she met when both were protesting at Standing Rock. The indigenous activist said, “As an indigenous woman from Washington state, and on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women and those who commit their lifetime and effort to finding justice for us, we stand in solidarity with the Time’s Up movement and this initiative to create healing and empowerment across the world. It’s an honor to be a part and to celebrate and to speak truth.”
Lead image credit: The University of San Francisco
In the late 1950s, Jane Goodall visited Kenya at the urging of a friend, not knowing that her life’s work lay just ahead. She fostered a love for all animals since early childhood and, while there, summoned the courage to reach out to famous anthropologist Louis Leakey, whose fossil discoveries documented that modern man’s origins lay in Africa. Then-curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, Leakey initially hired Goodall as a secretary—but was looking for someone to dedicate time to the study of chimpanzees in the wild, for the purposes of the study of evolution. Chimpanzees, the world’s second-most intelligent primate, had not yet been successfully observed in the wild, nor their behaviors cataloged. Though Goodall had no college degree, Leakey determined that she was the woman for the job and sent her to study with famed primatologists in London; she then moved to the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, a move that directly determined the remainder of her life’s work.
When Jane walked into the forests of Gombe, neither she nor the rest of the world had a strong understanding of chimpanzees or their close genetic ties to modern man. Because she was not formally trained in traditional research methods, Goodall approached her study in an unorthodox way, working to immerse herself in the chimpanzee habitat and studying their day-to-day behaviors up close, rather than as a distant observer. Instead of numbering her chimp subjects, she named them and observed their individual personality traits. This practice has continually called into question her objectivity in studying her subjects.
Goodall’s studies uncovered information that was unknown to that point: that chimpanzees have a complex social system, their own form of language, they go to war, use touch and comfort to bond, and are not vegetarian. She has been credited as the first person to observe chimpanzees making and using tools, a trait previously attributed only to humans. Supposedly, Goodall witnessed a male chimpanzee strip the leaves from a twig, insert it into a termite nest, and use it as a spoon to collect his meal. She said, “It was hard for me to believe. At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker—yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.” Her findings were the first to suggest that there was a closer relationship between humans and chimps than ever seen before.
In order to bolster her scientific credentials, Leakey sent Goodall to Cambridge University, where she earned a Ph.D. in ethology. This provided her a level of credibility in a community of scientists who were highly critical of the practice of anthropomorphizing animal subjects. “These people were trying to make ethology a hard science,” Goodall told The Guardian. “So they objected—quite unpleasantly—to me naming my subjects and for suggesting that they had personalities, minds, and feelings. I didn’t care.” She did concede one important point: “The brain of a chimp and the brain of a human are not that different anatomically. But we [humans] started to talk to each other and that drove the brain—because there were more and more things that we could do with it. Chimps can do all sorts of things we thought that only we could do—like tool-making and abstraction and generalization. They can learn a language—sign language and they can use the signs. But when you think of our intellects, even the brightest chimp looks like a very small child.”
In 1977, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which houses most of Jane’s research and continues the work she began in Gombe; it has dozens of offices around the world. She is the face and driving force behind efforts to protect chimpanzees and their natural habitat. She has also written a number of books, including In the Shadow of Man, a study of chimpanzees, Through a Window, which discusses problems associated with keeping chimps in captivity, and The Chimpanzee Family Book, which is geared toward children. Goodall was also the subject of “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees”, a television program that demonstrated Jane’s work with primates and conservation. The film “Jane” combined footage from the television series with modern-day interviews to give a full view of Goodall’s work with chimps.
Jane has accomplished something remarkable: attracting more women to the field of research, particularly primate studies—an area that was almost completely filled with men when Goodall began her work. She has also directed attention to the impact of deforestation and the destruction of the habitats of wild animals and works actively to educate local communities and to improve their quality of life. According to the Jane Goodall Institute, more than one million chimpanzees lived in Africa a hundred years ago, while today that number could be as low as 200,000.
Though in her eighties, Jane Goodall still travels widely as an advocate of chimpanzees and their environment. She is a board member for “Save the Chimps”, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary outside of Africa, serves on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project, and is a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Goodall has received many honors, including the Gold Medal of Conservation from the San Diego Zoological Society, the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, the Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute, the National Geographic Society Centennial Award, and the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. She has also been named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Lead image credit of The Jane Goodall Institute.
Rachel Carson’s childhood was spent in a smoky suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, far from the seas and oceans that would one day capture her heart. Her home was near the local glue factory, where she would watch slaughtered horses fed by conveyor belt into an oven; the smell was so rancid that families rarely went outside in the evenings. Without realizing it, she was learning about the impact that companies and chemicals had on animals—even the human animal.
Once she was old enough, Rachel attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, then studied at the oceanographic institute and Woods Hole Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, before receiving her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. A gifted writer and scientist, she was made editor-in-chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s publications. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, written in 1941, told the story of fish and seabirds written in a clear, narrative style. In 1951, she published The Sea Around Us, which was essentially the biographical story of the sea. The book became a best seller and won a U.S. National Book Award. The Edge of the Sea, another bestseller, described the ecosystems of the entire American east coast. She was beginning to address issues that, while at the time were uncommon discussion points, are now critical worldwide issues: climate change, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and dwindling animal populations.
These books prepared her for the arduous research and writing of what would become her seminal work, Silent Spring, published in 1962. It was serialized in The New Yorker, making its way into the homes of average Americans—not just to the desks of scientists and academics. Carson also made an appearance on “CBS Reports” that brought her message into our living rooms. The book primarily focuses on the effect of chemicals on Earth’s ecosystems, but also speaks to their effects on humans, in the form of cancer. The book warns of the dangers resulting from misuse of pesticides, particularly DDT. Through this work, she questioned whether man had a right to manipulate and control nature. She accused chemical companies of intentionally spreading misinformation and public officials of believing those claims without questioning them.
Using tactics that are now commonplace, chemical companies attacked Carson personally—launching publicity campaigns to discredit her science, calling her a Communist sympathizer, accusing her of colluding with the Soviet Union to cause massive crop shortages, and deriding her as a crazy cat lady. Biographer Linda Lear described their characterizations: “She was an alarmist, they claimed… Even a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was known to wonder in public ‘why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics.’ Her unpardonable offense was that she had overstepped her place as a woman.” Even today there are those who believe that banning DDT caused massive outbreaks of malaria in Africa due to a rise in the mosquito population. This conflict marked the beginning of environmental issues as a partisan issue.
Less than a year after Silent Spring was published, Rachel Carson—secretly dying of breast cancer—testified before the Senate about the effects of pesticides on the environment. “Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and, in time, return to bring hazard to ourselves.” She lived long enough to see her book become a success, selling over a million copies before her death in April 1964. President John F. Kennedy instructed a science advisory committee to investigate Carson’s claims. Their report eventually vindicated her, finding that overuse of pesticides was causing a buildup of poison in our food chain. However, it took a decade and two subsequent presidents to officially ban the production of DDT in America.
Since the publication of Silent Spring, the environment has become a more divisive issue than ever. As a society, we have chosen not to heed many of Carson’s still-relevant warnings. “Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire,” she wrote. Today, we see honeybees dying by the hundreds of thousands, and more and more fish and wild game being wiped out by chemicals and lack of stewardship. Leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt said, “I think she would have been horrified about the state of the planet today. Silent Spring outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else. Yet we have not taken that idea on board or fully appreciated its significance. In that sense, we have let her down.”
Still, Rachel Carson’s work remains relevant, is cited as an influence on conservational organizations across the world, and was influential in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson is considered by many to be the mother of the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring has now sold over two million copies and Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. It remains up to us to heed her message and work toward a cleaner Earth, led by an educated population.
Lead photo credit: The Allegheny Front
“All black art is political. I think our very presence is political. Anyone that is able to establish a voice and a consistent presence and put their voice forth is doing something radical and political with their very presence.” – Ava DuVernay
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay was born in 1972 in Long Beach, California, and raised in Lynwood—just outside of Compton. She grew up surrounded by the violence that permeated that time and place, but also in a space where art and activism lived. Her mother Darlene was an educator and activist and her Aunt Denise, who she constantly references as a major influence in her life, reinforced the idea that art was important. DuVernay explains that her aunt worked at night so she could “pursue her passion during the day, which was art and literature and theater…. She worked to live. But what she loved in life was the arts. She was fed by it. That was a huge influence on me.” Both her mother and her aunt made sure Ava knew that you could make an impact through the arts.
DuVernay majored in English and African-America Studies at UCLA and, remarkably, did not pick up a movie camera to produce her own work until she was 32 years old. Prior to that time, she spent years working in film publicity and marketing. After years of watching other directors work, she began releasing short films before writing and directing I Will Follow in 2010. Middle of Nowhere followed shortly thereafter in 2012. At that year’s Sundance Film Festival, she won the U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic – the first African-American woman to do so.
Her next major film was Selma, a biopic on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—the first ever presented on the big screen. Selma was an important historical drama, but it was also a personal project for DuVernay; her beloved step-father was an Alabama native and she would visit his childhood home on summer vacations. As a child, he watched the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers pass and his memories informed her experience making the film. The movie was both controversial and acclaimed, but it was undeniably powerful. DuVernay became the first African-American female director nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director and was the first black female director to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The film’s lack of nominations in other categories—and the absence of diversity in the moviemaking industry—contributed to the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
As the movement picked up steam, DuVernay became a strong voice, challenging the entire industry to evaluate its representation (or lack of representation) of people of color. She told Time Magazine, “If the person who gets to tell the story is always one kind of person, if the dominant images that we see throughout our lifetimes, our mothers’ lifetimes, our grandmothers’ lifetimes, have been dominated by one kind of person, and we take that? We internalize it. We drink it in, as true, as fact. The images in our minds that make up our memories are all told by one kind of person, one kind of background. It shouldn’t be this way. That is a deficit to us. A deficit to the culture… For anyone who is working in a house that was not built for them, at times it is not particularly welcoming… So, it’s about making sure we push against tokenism and vain attempts at diversity and push for different points of view to be centered, valued, and seen.”
In 2016, DuVernay directed and co-wrote 13th, a documentary about the Thirteenth Amendment and how race, the American justice system, and mass incarceration have devastated the African-American community. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Outstanding Documentary. Currently, she is wrapping up Disney’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and is the first black woman to direct a movie with a $100 million budget. Her movies inspired a race equivalent to the Bechdel Test (for women in film) called the DuVernay Test, which asks if films feature minorities with fully realized lives, who are not simply scenery in white stories.
In 2010, Ava founded AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), her own distribution company meant to focus on films made by and/or focusing on black people. In 2015, she rebranded the company under the name ARRAY to focus on bringing attention to films by both women and people of color, worldwide. She also owns Forward Movement, a film and television production company. Recently, she partnered with Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, to launch a diversity program to fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people in underserved communities.
DuVernay has earned the right to be selective in what films she makes and how. She is known for her care in creating inclusive environments on her film sets—recognizing every member of her cast and crew, from the marquee star to the key grip. But she acknowledges her privilege at this point in her career and the pathway that other, less renowned, black female filmmakers helped pave for her. DuVernay is and will remain dedicated to showcasing varied voices and images in cinema, further clearing the pathway for new voices in global media.
Lead Photo Credit: Super Soul
“What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” – Sophie Scholl
These were the words of Sophie Scholl, a 21-year old leader of an Anti-Nazi rebellion movement in the 1940s. Sophie, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, were executed by Nazi party officials in 1943, as a result of their distribution of a revolutionary leaflet called The White Rose. Their actions helped spur an undercurrent of revolt across Germany, throughout World War II.
Like many of the changemakers we have written about, the Scholl children were the products of politically aware parents. Their father, Robert Scholl, warned his children that Hitler was a dangerous man whose actions could lead to the destruction of Germany. But like most teenagers of the time, Hans and Sophie followed their peers and joined the Hitler Youth—beginning their indoctrination of the superiority of the German nation. In 1942, their father was arrested and spent time in a Nazi prison for speaking out against Hitler himself. He was quoted as saying, “This Hitler is God’s scourge on mankind, and if the war doesn’t end soon the Russians will be sitting in Berlin.” And so the Scholl children began to understand that the things they’d been taught in Nazi youth organizations might not be morally correct.
Because of their father’s arrest, Sophie and Hans knew that open dissent against the Nazi party was a dangerous enterprise. The government moved from more quiet deportation of Jews to concentration camps, to violent and overt conflict across the nation. In 1942, Sophie was attending the University of Munich and found an anti-Nazi pamphlet in class, which after some detective work she discovered was the work of her brother and some friends who’d formed an anonymous resistance campaign. Despite pleas from her brother, she decided immediately to join the group.
Inspired by the non-violent resistance tactics of American civil rights activists, the students began publishing anonymous pamphlets they distributed across central Germany. The first leaflet of The White Rose group (so named for the symbol of purity in the face of evil) appeared at the University of Munich and included an essay explaining how the Nazi regime was imprisoning and murdering entire groups of German citizens. At the bottom of the flyer were the words, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.” Its appearance caused an immediate stir on campus since dissent against the government was almost unheard of. “We will not be silent,” wrote The White Rose. “We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
The second pamphlet described the murder of 300,000 Polish Jews; the third leaflet called for destruction of arms plants, government-supported media, and public political meetings. Rumors, dissent, and more leaflets spread rapidly among students, and Nazi agents frantically began a search for the authors. Citizens began receiving, duplicating, and distributing the flyers in communities across Germany. The White Rose group also took to the streets, painting graffiti across the city of Munich, saying “Down with Hitler!” and “Freiheit!”—Freedom. They wanted to create the impression that The White Rose was a major revolutionary group. Before being caught, the group published six pamphlets in less than a year.
In February of 1943, the group was apprehended when leaving pamphlets in suitcases all across the University of Munich. Sophie took to a balcony that overlooked a courtyard and scattered reams of flyers as students exited classes. Her action was witnessed by the school’s janitor, who reported Sophie and Hans to the Gestapo. After being interrogated for nearly 24 hours, Sophie emerged from questioning with a broken leg but a steely spirit. She was quoted as saying, “I’ll make no bargain with the Nazis.”
The students’ hearing began a mere four days after their arrest and, because all pled guilty, they were not allowed to testify. Still, Sophie did not sit quietly throughout the proceedings. She interrupted the judge throughout, with statements like: “Somebody had to make a start! What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare say it out loud!” and “You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”
She was allowed one official statement: “Time and time again one hears it said that since we have been put into a conflicting world, we have to adapt to it. Oddly, this completely un-Christian idea is most often espoused by so-called Christians, of all people. How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone who will give himself up to a righteous cause? I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences.” She and her fellow defendants were sentenced to death by execution, which was carried out within hours of the decision. On the back of Sophie’s indictment, she wrote the word “Freedom”. Her reported last words were, “Die Sonne scheint noch”—”The sun still shines.”
At least 14 members of The White Rose organization (reportedly numbered around 30) were executed. More than 5,000 people were beheaded or sent to concentration camps during the height of the Nazi regime. Today, the story of The White Rose is known throughout Germany—which, as a country, has made a commitment to reconciliation and remembrance. There is a square at the University of Munich named for Hans and Sophie Scholl and there are streets, schools, and buildings across the country named for the Scholls and other members of The White Rose.
There have been moments in the last decades, even in the last couple of years, when the question has been asked: “Will you be on the right side of history?” Sophie Scholl knew that she had the opportunity to use her voice in a dangerous time, and she knew which side of history she wanted to be on.
Champion of women’s suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst was born in 1858 in Manchester, England, to radical politically active parents. When she was 14 years old, they opened her eyes to women who were fighting for the right to vote – a cause she immediately took up and advocated for the rest of her life.
When Emmeline was 21, she married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a liberal barrister 24 years her senior. He was also a prominent supporter of women’s rights and a friend and colleague of John Stuart Mill, who authored the first women’s suffrage bill in Great Britain in the late 1860s. Emmeline’s husband encouraged her to continue with her efforts in challenging what they both considered to be the oppressive status quo. He was her partner in founding the Women’s Franchise League which in 1894 secured the right for married women to vote in local elections, though not for members of the House of Commons.
After Richard’s death, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (ESPU), who were the first activists to be labeled “suffragettes”. The members were known for their militant and sometimes violent approach to activism. “Deeds not words” was Pankhurst’s approach to change, a distinct departure from the peaceful protests that women had previously used. These policies led the ESPU to sometimes act with violence and extremism, including bombings, arson, window smashings, and violence against police. Women would chain themselves to buildings and railings to protest inequality. The group’s tactics were not without fatalities. In 1913, union member Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in protest of the government’s failure to give women the vote.
Early on, members of the ESPU were expelled from a Liberal Party meeting for loudly demanding the members make a statement on votes for women. The women were arrested for assaulting police and, as the group would continue to do in the future, refused to pay bail and opted to go to prison instead. Emmeline was arrested over a dozen times, often staging hunger strikes which the government attempted to thwart by violently force feeing her. Police began using a “cat and mouse” tactic wherein they would release a hunger-striking prisoner, then re-arrest them once they were healthy. Objecting to the group’s violence and militancy, some members began to drift away from the union, including some members of Pankhurst’s family.
In 1914, Pankhurst temporarily set aside her suffrage efforts, devoting time and energy to Britain’s participation in World War I. She encouraged women to take industrial jobs to aid in wartime efforts – jobs usually given to men. An estimated 2 million women entered the workforce during the war. Proving they could do the work as efficiently as men, these women’s efforts did a great deal to change the perception of women in Britain’s society.
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 granted voting rights to women over the age of 30, though men 21 and over had the right to vote. The WSPU reinvented itself into what became known as the Women’s Party, which worked toward women’s equity in society. In 1926, Pankhurst was nominated as the Conservative candidate for an East London region, but was unsuccessful in her attempt, as her health began to fail before the election. Emmeline passed away just two weeks before women were awarded the same rights to vote as men. Though considered by many to be a revolutionary to the end, The New York Herald Tribune described Pankhurst as “the most remarkable political and social agitator of the 20th century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women.” In 1996 Time named Pankhurst one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating that “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.” There are plans for an 8-foot bronze statue in Britain’s Manchester city center, the first statue of a woman to be erected in the city in more than a century.
Pankhurst was quoted as saying, “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half,” a motto she promoted until the end of her life.
Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida Wells was the child of politically active parents, and her life was an example of that influence. Her father James, after being freed from a lifetime of slavery, was involved in the Freedman’s Aid Society, and he helped found and served on the first board of trustees for Shaw University (now Rust University), a school for freed slaves.
Ida began her education at Shaw, but dropped out at age 16 due to tragic circumstances: her parents and one of her siblings died in an outbreak of yellow fever and her remaining siblings were in danger of being moved to foster homes. With the help of her grandmother, Ida kept her family together, finding work as a teacher at a nearby segregated school. Wells was paid $30 per month, while white teachers were paid $80 per month—a fact that enraged Wells and moved her further toward activism.
She later moved with her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt, eventually finding a little bit of time to study at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1884, on one of her train rides from Memphis to Nashville, Wells purchased a first-class ticket that was not honored by the train staff. When she refused to move to the African-American car, she was forcibly removed from the train. She successfully sued the railroad and won a $500 settlement, though the decision was later overturned.
This incident and her lifetime of discriminatory experiences inspired Wells to begin writing about race politics, particularly those in the South. She penned a number of articles under the pen name “Iola” and eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregation newspaper that addressed racial injustice. Still teaching elementary school, she was approached by the Evening Star in Washington, DC, to write editorial pieces. In 1891, Ida was fired from her teaching position by the Memphis Board of Education for articles criticizing conditions in black segregated schools.
A violent and devastating incident in Memphis would help determine much of the course of Ida’s life and work. Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, and two other men, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, opened the People’s Grocery in a black neighborhood just outside of Memphis’ city limits. Because Moss’ store provided significant competition for a nearby white-owned grocery store, white mobs attacked the store on multiple occasions. During one of these attacks, three white men were shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed, but they were never allowed to face trial. A large white lynch mob drug the men from their jail cells and murdered them.
After the brutal lynching, Wells wrote a number of articles on the prevalence of lynching of African Americans. She wrote in Free Speech and Headlight to encourage black citizens to leave Memphis, saying “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but take us out and murder us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” Eventually, over 6,000 black people did leave Memphis, while others put their lives at risk to organize boycotts of white-owned businesses. Wells also risked her life, spending several months traveling the South to investigate and document other lynchings. Wells found that black people were most often lynched for social rather than legal reasons. She found many instances of murder surrounding economic competition between black and white farmers and business owners. She failed to uncover evidence of the most popular given myth for lynchings or violence against African-Americans: sexual violence against white women.
Wells followed up her research with a book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings In the United States. She was one of the first journalists to collect and report data surrounding instances of lynching. Many of her findings about lynching in America have since been supported by other formal research, including the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy of Lynching project. Her detailed report resulted in mob destruction of her newspaper offices while she was out of town. She was told that should she return to Memphis, she would be killed.
Ida Wells brought her anti-lynching movement to Washington, DC, holding a protest at the White House and calling for President William McKinley to take action. She established and helped organize a number of civil rights organizations, among them the National Association of Colored Women, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She later left the organization because she found them too moderate. Wells also worked with the National Equal Rights League, calling on President Woodrow Wilson to end discriminatory hiring practices, and fought for women’s suffrage. In 1930, at the age of 68, she ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois state senate. A year later, she died of kidney disease.
Since Wells’ death, she has been recognized on many fronts. In 1941, the Public Works Administration built a public housing project in Chicago named in her honor (though the buildings have since been torn down). Organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists, Northwestern University, the University of Louisville, the Investigative Fund, and the New York County Lawyers Association have established awards in her name. In 1990, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in her honor. Her work for truth in reporting remains a standard for reporting in American journalism.
Lead image credit: Google Arts & Culture.
“We presented Southern white racists with a new option: kill us or desegregate.”
“Who the hell is Diane Nash?” Robert Kennedy Jr. asked his then-special assistant John Seigenthaler in 1961. At the time, Nash was helping to coordinate the legendary Freedom Rides, filling buses with black and white activists protesting the lack of desegregation enforcement. The initiative, originally organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), faced a major setback after a bus was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, and riders were severely beaten by a mob in Birmingham. CORE was hesitant to continue the Freedom Rides but Nash gathered supporters and persisted. Seigenthaler pleaded with Nash to discontinue the rides, saying “You’re going to get somebody killed,” to which she replied, “You don’t understand—we signed our wills last night.” Nash explained years later in the documentary Freedom Riders, “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”
A few years earlier, Chicago-born Diane Nash arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. She planned to study English and become a secondary school teacher. There, for the first time, she witnessed the intensity of segregation and Jim Crow laws. She was enraged when she had to use a “colored” restroom at the Tennessee State Fair and shortly thereafter helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At Fisk, she began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops and eventually became the leader of the Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in the city. Nash eventually left school to work in the movement full time.
In 1961, she participated in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and was arrested. After the arrest, she and her fellow protesters began employing a “jail, no bail” policy. Alongside fellow Nashville organizer John Lewis and other protesters, who became known as the “Rock Hill Nine”, Nash was arrested and sentenced to pay a $50 fine for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. She defiantly told the judge, “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.” Over the course of her life, she was arrested dozens of times.
By the spring of 1962, Nash had earned her place as a leader in the male-dominated civil rights movement. She and other Nashville activists held a silent march to the steps of Nashville’s city hall, asking mayor Ben West, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” To the surprise of almost everyone on both sides of the movement, the mayor admitted that he did. In the Freedom Riders documentary he said, “[She] asked me some pretty soul-searching questions and one that was addressed to me as a man. I tried as best as I could to answer it frankly and honestly. I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service, and I had to answer it exactly that way.” Weeks later, the city’s businesses desegregated their lunch counters.
Nash became a prominent figure in the Alabama Project, working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight voter disenfranchisement in Alabama and helping to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. In 1962—when she was four months pregnant—Nash was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent principles to children. After days of prayer, she decided not to appeal her sentence, knowing her child would be born in prison. “I believe that if I go to jail now, it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free—not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.” The judge was not willing to face the public relations nightmare that would result from this and reduced her sentence to ten days. “I was scared the whole time,” she recounted. “But here’s the thing: you had to do what was required or you had to tolerate segregation. And whenever I obeyed a segregation law I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to do what the general population did.”
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Diane Nash to a civil rights committee, which eventually resulted in President Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC awarded Nash its highest honor, the Rosa Parks Award, for her leadership in the Selma voting rights fight. She was awarded the Distinguished American Award in 2003 by the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Award for Leadership in Civil Rights in 2004. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009. At age 79, Diane Nash continues to be active in the civil rights movement, remaining committed to nonviolence as a form of protest. “We will not stop,” she is quoted as saying. “There is only one outcome.”
Lead image courtesy of PBS.
American artist Louise Nevelson has been an inspiration for several elements of our style aesthetic for some time now. The textural and stylistic elements of her sculpture have found their way into our collection a few times, particularly with the Tweed fabric design in our Bridal + Eveningwear Collection. Its sculptural qualities can find parentage in her layering techniques.
Central among Nevelson’s large installation sculptures (known as assemblage sculpture) was “Dawn’s Wedding Feast” a full room-sized work that became one of her signature pieces. The sculpture was created in 1959 for the Museum of Modern Art as an all-white wood assemblage including four chapels, a bride and groom, a wedding cake, furniture, and columns that were meant to represent guests. White, to Nevelson, represented “emotional promise” and “summoned the early morning”, making it ideal to exemplify the traditional aspect of the wedding and the promise of newness that surrounds it. Each element of the work was made from discarded wood pieces reassembled to create symmetrical figures—like two tall columns with disk-like bases: “Bride and Disk” and “Groom and Disk.”
The installation was eventually broken down into 16 individual sculptures all centered around the theme of matrimony. The Bride and Groom became iconic, with the disks attached interpreted to represent the sun and moon and dawn’s role in the allegory of the wedding feast.
P.S.: Visit our Signature + Bridal collection to explore our take on structure and the marriage of modern and traditional.
Lead image: Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959-1960). Photo courtesy of ritalovestowrite.com.
Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk—that is the name of fiber artist Xenobia Bailey’s ongoing cultural art project. It’s colorful, challenging, multi-disciplinary, and incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to categorize. Bailey’s primary media are yarn and fabric and most of her pieces are crochet or knitted. She often uses concentric circles or repeating pattern motifs and her work takes many forms: hats, costumes, quilts, giant mandalas, and even freestanding tents. Her art is partly informed by the love and care that her mother and other working-class women put into making their homes inviting and special. “She [her mother] created a beautiful ambiance with nothing,” Bailey said in an interview with The Root. “She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.”
Born Sherilyn Bailey in Seattle, Washington, she changed her name to Xenobia in honor of an ancient warrior queen. She studied ethnomusicology—the global exploration of music in its anthropological context—at the University of Washington. This was her introduction to the sounds and cultures of world music and Asian philosophies. Bailey worked as a costume designer for Black Arts West, an acclaimed African American community theater until she was accepted at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1974. While earning her BA in industrial design, she learned to crochet under Italian Swiss artist Bernadette Sonona, whom Bailey described to The Root as “a brilliant needle artist” who taught her how nearly every skill she uses today in one lesson. Her signature stitch is referred to as “liquid stitch” – a flowy line that almost appears to be dripping. She has noted that the practice of crochet is meditative for her, like counting prayer beads.
As Bailey’s work and education advanced, she found increasing influence in African and Asian cultures, Eastern and Native American spiritual ideologies, African American rural and urban life, all underscored by a 1970s funk aesthetic. “Funk is the unending cycle of life,” she says. “It’s the ultimate concept—wherever your imagination will take it.” She has been quoted as saying that African American trauma resulted in funk. “But we can make a joyful noise in that funk, too. From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”
Her explorations with yarn led her to a career designing culturally explorative hats and sculptural headpieces inspired by African American patterns and traditional motifs and African American braided hairstyles. Her work appeared in Elle, Essence, and Interview magazines, in print advertisements for United Colors of Benetton, and on media like The Cosby Show and Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing. Bailey ultimately moved to different areas of exploration because she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a milliner. She wanted to promote cultural awareness on many levels and became, in effect, an activist.
Ms. Bailey admires the Bauhaus philosophy and wants everyday people to find ways to be revolutionary in everyday life. “Art has to be medicine,” she has said many times and wants her work to show everyday people that they can inspire themselves. “People don’t make up their own recipes anymore; people don’t experiment.” Her work is accessible but futuristic and spiritual, and undeniably DIY.
The next time you are in New York, visit the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 34th Street-Hudson Yards station. There you will find her first public art commission, Funktional Vibrations—a glass mosaic that reflects her textile art and is a tribute to the African American experience. Bailey has no intention of retiring anytime soon and continues to expand her reach and express her point of view in new and innovative ways.
Lead image courtesy of SMS Commons.
“Remember, this is your day and your world.”
One of the most famous photographs taken of “Bloody Sunday”, when state troopers brutally assaulted civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, shows an unconscious woman—dressed in heels, gloves, and a formal hat—being cradled and protected by a fellow marcher. That woman was Amelia Boynton, an important figure in the Alabama civil rights crusade. The photo of Boynton’s bloodied body appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country, drawing attention to the cause of voter discrimination and the violence perpetrated against African-American citizens.
Mrs. Boynton came to Alabama from her home state of Georgia to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Selma, Alabama. Through her job, she met Samuel Boynton, whom she eventually married. Both were active in voting, property, and education rights for poor African Americans in the South. Their first activism initiative was co-founding the Dallas County Voters League in 1933 and they led voter registration drives in the Selma area. Samuel died in 1963, but Boynton remained committed to the cause, offering her home as an office for prominent civil rights leaders.
In 1964, as civil rights issues were becoming more visible, Boynton ran for Congress and was the first female African American to run for office in Alabama and the first woman of any race to run for the Democratic Party in the state; she received 10% of the vote. In the same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began planning their Selma to Montgomery March, which focused on voting rights, from Mrs. Boynton’s home. At that time, Selma’s population was 50% black, but only 300 of the city’s African-American citizens were registered to vote due to intimidation and strict or illegal voter registration regulations.
March 7, 1965, was the date planned for the march to Montgomery and some 600 peaceful protesters began their march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers were brutally attacked by policemen who beat the activists with billy clubs and sprayed them with noxious tear gas. Boynton later described the event: “Then they charged. They came from the right. They came from the left. One [of the troopers] shouted: ‘Run!’ I thought, ‘Why should I be running?’ Then an officer on horseback hit me across the back of the shoulders and, for a second time, on the back of the neck. I lost consciousness.” Selma Sheriff Jim Clark reportedly ordered his officers to leave Boynton where she lay, saying “Let the buzzards eat her.” In addition to the severe contusions she received, she also suffered throat burns from the tear gas used.
Despite her hospitalization, Mrs. Boynton participated in two subsequent marches, including the successful march to Montgomery on March 24, with 25,000 fellow peaceful protesters. The first march, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, roused the country to the cause and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By March of the following year, the number of registered voters in Selma and the surrounding area grew from 300 to 11,000.
In 1990, Boynton was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Freedom and in 2015, Boynton, aged 103, marched with President Barack Obama and fellow civil rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. She died in August of that year at the age of 104.
“A vote-less people is a hopeless people,” she once said. Amelia Boynton gave hope, a voice and, eventually, a vote to African-American people throughout the South and across the country.
Lead image courtesy of Kolumn Magazine.
As part of Black History Month, we are highlighting several women with connections to our region who made—and are making—significant contributions to the modern Civil Rights movement. Look for more of these posts in the weeks to come.
This week, we celebrate Vivian Malone who was born in Monroe County, Alabama, in 1942—the fourth of eight children in her family. She grew up in a community heavily involved in desegregation and equality efforts, and her parents placed a high value on education. So, after excelling in high school, she enrolled at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (Alabama A&M), where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Education. Because Alabama A&M was not fully accredited at that time, Vivian sought to pursue a second degree in accounting, a major offered at the University of Alabama.
The Alabama NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund worked with Malone and another student, James Hood, as part of a desegregation initiative targeting the University of Alabama. At the time and in direct defiance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the University of Alabama was denying African-American students admission. After two years and a number of court rulings, both students were granted approval to enroll at the university and Alabama’s governor George Wallace was directly instructed not to interfere with their registration.
At his inauguration, the governor vowed to maintain “segregation forever”, and intended to fulfill this promise by barring the two students from the college. On June 11, 1963—with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees—Malone and Hood were driven to the campus in a motorcade of federal marshals as state troopers took position near the governor, who stood blocking the door of Foster Auditorium.
Mrs. Malone later said in a 2000 commencement address at the University of Alabama, “It was more than a hot day, it was a dangerous day. Although every precaution had been taken by state and federal authorities and by university officials to assure my safety and that of James Hood, no one knew for sure what might happen. The demonstrations in Birmingham, accompanied by fire-hoses, police dogs, bombings and a police riot, had just ended. Later in September four little girls would die in the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The President of the United States would be assassinated on November 22. And less than twelve hours after I walked into Foster Auditorium to begin my days as a student here, Medgar Evers was shot dead from ambush in nearby Jackson, Mississippi.”
Because of the tension, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard that afternoon, meaning they reported directly to the president and not Wallace. Four and a half hours after Governor Wallace’s initial refusal of entry, one hundred guardsmen escorted Malone and Hood to the auditorium. Wallace read another prepared statement and then quickly left, allowing the two students to enter the building.
That November there were three bomb blasts near the campus, one just four blocks from her dormitory. But, she said, “I was never afraid.” The university hired a driver for her, Mack Jones, and they eventually married. In 1965, after two years, Jones earned a Bachelor of Arts in business management—becoming the first black graduate in the University of Alabama’s then 134-year history.
Despite her achievements, Malone was never able to find work in the state of Alabama. She eventually moved to Washington, D.C. to work in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She went on to become director of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Director of Environmental Justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before her 1996 retirement. Vivian Malone Jones passed away in 2005 at the age of 63. Of her historic achievement, she once said, “Walking through the door that had been closed to me and others of my color was a step toward ending segregation in the south. I thank God for selecting me for that purpose.”
*Lead image: Image source: (Warren Leffler, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
The Alabama Chanin Collection includes garments made using a new stencil design inspired by the work of multi-disciplined artist Lee Bontecou. We drew inspiration from some of her sculptures and paintings that resembled black holes or voids, but her work encompasses so much more than that. Bontecou has always been difficult to categorize, as her work reflects elements of Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and Feminist art. She was a true pioneer in the use of unconventional materials in her sculptures, integrating metal tubing, scrap hardware, and recycled linen during the 1950s and 1960s. She takes painstaking care with her work—always leaving visible traces of her making process, like stitches, scorch marks, and twisted wire.
One of her most significant discoveries was how a welding torch could be manipulated to create an easily controlled spray of black soot, which became one of her signature techniques. The torch used both oxygen and the chemical compound acetylene and when tinkering with the torch, Bontecou discovered that turning off the oxygen caused the acetylene to spray pure soot across her workroom floor. “I just started drawing with it, and I had to keep the torch moving. I burned up a lot of paper!” she said. “Then I got thicker paper that resisted the flame more, and it was an incredible black, it was just beautiful. I made a lot of drawings with it.”
Her use of soot as a material led her to create her signature black hole motifs. One of the sculptures used as inspiration for our design (Untitled, 1959) is a relief made from scrap metal scavenged from outside of factories and a broken conveyor belt from the laundromat located below her New York apartment. Like many of her sculptures, it combines industrial and natural elements and attempts to capture, as she described, “as much of life as possible – no barriers – no boundaries – all freedom in every sense.”
Many of her sculptures and wall reliefs were large and took years to create and were suspended from the ceiling or, if wall mounted, were ambitious in the amount of space they inhabited. Bontecou said, “I just got tired of sculpture as a big thing in the middle of the room. I wanted it to go into space.” For years, she left much of her work untitled, as she wanted the viewer to interpret the art without imposed meaning.
The video below from the MoMA displays some of Lee Bontecou’s seminal works.
Top image: Untitled, soot on paperboard,1958; image from the Museum of Modern Art
View our current Collection here.
“Nothing is less real than realism ― details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get the real meaning of things.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe is undoubtedly considered one of America’s greatest and most influential painters. She was a key figure in the emergence and advancement of American modernism and produced an extensive body of work over the course of seventy working years. Her skill for capturing color, light, and form via her most frequently featured subjects—landscapes, cityscapes, desert skies, bones, and (of course) flowers—was nuanced and centered in her sense of place.
Her iconic flower paintings are lush with color and have been interpreted as evocations of female genitalia. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband and promoter, encouraged Freudian comparisons, but O’Keeffe was uncomfortable with what she felt were degrading analyses of her work made by male artists; she fought to assert her own voice. She wrote to her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan, “I thought you could write something about me that men can’t – What I want written – I do not know – I have no definite idea of what it should be – but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living – might say something that a man can’t – I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore – Men have done all they can do about it.”
O’Keeffe’s ownership of her femininity and her image are examined in Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. The exhibition examines what they believe to be a well-crafted persona created by a truly independent artist, through photograph portraits and the artist’s wardrobe. Her clothing is displayed alongside photographs and O’Keeffe’s paintings as a way to demonstrate how fully she claimed and curated her identity throughout her career. Living Modern suggests that the artist was modern art’s first real “celebrity” and that she used clothing in a calculated way, to solidify her persona.
The collection documents her early years, where she established a simple style of dress and a cosmetic-free face, her time in New York when she adopted a stark black-and-white palette, and her years in New Mexico where her clothing became a reflection of her more vibrant surroundings. Until her later years, O’Keeffe wore black and white suits with a headscarf or hat and loose-fitting garments like kimonos—almost always in black. She learned to sew at an early age and made her own clothing over the years, but also leaned on a core group of designers and commissioned custom items. Her style was indelible: minimal, androgynous, and carefully thought out. The exhibition’s curator Wanda Corn explains, “She’s an artist of distillation. She takes something and brings it down to a very purist and minimalist aesthetic. She didn’t do big buttons, ruffles, lace.”
“Everyone wanted to redress her to make her appear more feminine,” Corn explains. Instead, she used clothing to demand agency in a male-dominated field. In the days before social media and message-driven branding, O’Keefe (much like Frida Kahlo) used her clothing to establish a deliberate aesthetic and identity—and to reinforce a commitment to her values and to her personal philosophies.
Click here for more information and to watch a video about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition.
Get the book here.
As part of an ongoing exploration into indigo and other natural dyes, we are spotlighting artists we consider to be experts in the field—including Scott Peacock, Donna Hardy, and today, Kathy Hattori. Kathy is one of the founders of Botanical Colors, a well-respected source of materials, support, and educational offerings for those seeking to employ natural dyeing techniques. They offer a range of services for both the new dyer and the designer wishing to use a more sustainable supply chain—including color development, prototypes, sampling, and production. Kathy was a big help to us when we started our own natural dye house at The Factory in 2014. We sourced our indigo from her, and she patiently answered questions and helped us troubleshoot our vats.
Kathy has a background in environmental studies but spent years working in the tech industry before founding Botanical Colors. When asked why she wanted to make the change, Kathy told us, “The realization of how precious time is and how I wanted to spend it prompted the leap from telecommunications to textiles. And then I found it wasn’t a leap at all, but just a firm step forward. Working with colorants wasn’t my first career, but I had created for many years with textiles and dyes in my own work. The reason I moved toward natural dyes was that I felt strongly that my next career had to make a positive impact in the world.”
It is important to Kathy that both large- and small-scale makers see natural dyeing as a feasible alternative to synthetic dyeing, as long as you understand the benefits and limitations of each; to her, the differences between the two approaches can result in remarkably different results in quality. “Synthetic dyes are efficient, as they are engineered to bond with one fiber type and are designed to produce consistent results. Their color palette is very bright and saturated. [But] they are derived mainly from petrochemical feedstock and their manufacture can produce toxic waste if not carefully managed. Natural dyes…have a more varied color profile that must be coaxed from the plant onto the fabric. Their color palette is richly colored and less saturated.” And, as opposed to synthetics, natural dyes are cultivated, grown, and maintained on closely managed land using agricultural or food processing waste—or are responsibly wild-harvested.
“Ten years ago, natural dyers were often challenged and dismissed because the dyestuffs and methods we used were perceived as lower quality than synthetic dyes. That perception has shifted as makers and customers embrace the natural beauty of the color and learn how to create quality items using natural dyes. I see that natural dyes are overlapping and being used to create inks, paints, healing tinctures, and colorants for cosmetics, so makers are getting really creative and tapping into other aspects of the dyestuffs.”
Botanical Colors and Kathy are helping usher in a new era of artisan-driven growth in the textile industry. They use their expertise to help individual makers and small businesses find sustainable solutions that will work on their respective scales. “The new American manufacturer is often a smaller scale company who must innovate in order to survive, and they are often interested in new technology or intriguing collaborations. Most of the companies that we’ve worked with are also pioneers and innovators in sustainable production. Botanical Colors provides an interesting solution with plant-based, beautiful color and this seems to resonate deeply among designers and brands.” And like many farmers who use organic methods but cannot afford to go through the process of being certified organic, there are also textile manufacturers who produce using standards like those governed by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), but cannot afford to be officially certified. “GOTS certification certainly helps to identify suppliers who adhere to the standard,” she says. “But there are many suppliers who don’t carry certification and have built their businesses on thoughtful and sustainable practices, and these companies are equally worthy of our support.”
Kathy agrees with Donna Hardy’s assertion that natural dyeing can be utilized by large manufacturers, if they make the necessary commitment to responsible production. “Moving from artisan-based making to larger format production can be a challenge, as the equipment and volumes can change dramatically. That being said, larger scale natural dyeing is quite feasible. For companies who are concerned with toxicity and wastewater issues, natural dyes can provide a solution, so several visionary companies have made the leap and introduced natural dyes.” She and Botanical Colors work with Eileen Fisher on the Green Eileen and Vision 20/20 programs that aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. “Eileen Fisher has confronted the environmental issues facing the industry head-on with their Vision 20/20 policy. Vision 20/20 is the roadmap toward a more responsible and sustainable company including emphasis on organic fibers, fair trade, safe chemistry and wise water use. It’s been a great honor to work with them on their Green Eileen recycling initiative and extend the life of clothing.”
Kathy also recommends that consumers educate themselves on the issues surrounding garment production, safety, and the environment and she supports Greenpeace in this effort. “They offer an important service by exposing the complex chemistry that industry uses for dyeing and finishing garments and publicizing the brands that continue to use toxic substances in their clothing. These chemicals persist in the environment and in some cases break down into more toxic components with home laundering.”
More than anything else, it is obvious that Kathy Hattori is still enamored with the artistry of natural dyeing and excited by the possibilities. “I’ve worked with and learned from some very talented teachers in the natural dye world, and am constantly striving to improve processes, while celebrating the tradition of natural color. I love to see how natural colors change with different locations and water sources. There’s something about being able to drop a few flowers into a dye pot and pull out a beautifully dyed fabric. That will always be magic for me.”
P.S.: We have launched an Indigo Dye Kit with organic indigo and other materials sourced from Kathy. The kit provides you with enough ingredients to dye up to 6 yards of medium-weight jersey fabric or a handful of t-shirts, to make your own naturally dyed garments.
P.P.S.: We recently received a report from our dye house, and while many of our colors are not derived from natural dyestuffs, we take great strides to understand, be aware of, and be transparent with the process that our fabrics go through. Regarding the dyeing process for most of our organic cotton, “The only dyes to be used will be natural, low-energy, non-metal, reactive dyes, bi-functional dyes, or low impact dyes.” And the exact dye formula is kept on file along with MSDS (material safety data sheet) for each ingredient in the dye bath for review or audit.
We start each week on the Journal with The Factory | This Week, which begins with an inspirational quote from an artist, visionary, or change maker.
This week’s quote is, fittingly, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
And while these words stir powerful feelings inside us, we recognize that it is up to each of us to act peacefully, to be heard, to spread love, and to teach the truth. We must choose to not sit in silence, to be compassionate to one another, and to teach our children about love, acceptance, and tolerance.
We shared Natalie’s experience at the University of Georgia last year during a community-wide gathering for sewing and discussion—which further illustrates what you can do to create Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision a Beloved Community.
Read through the posts from our Journal archives to be inspired to act. We hope you find a community to embrace you—or that you create one yourself.
The History of Martin Luther King Jr Day
MLK Day, Selma, and Songs of Freedom
Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: A Playlist
A Cake for Georgia Gilmore
Beloved Community: Part 1
Beloved Community: Part 2
Civility, History, and Song
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been revisiting thoughts from the late Civil Rights activist Vincent Harding, who was recently featured on one of our favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippett. Their conversation, “Is America Possible?” touched on so many feelings we’ve been struggling to corral recently. It reintroduced us to the idea of the Beloved Community, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most moving and evocative goals. The Beloved Community is his vision of a society where people of all backgrounds recognize that one life is inextricably connected to all others and asks us to move beyond mere tolerance, toward understanding. Dr. King urged all to “fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace” but to do so with the goal of reconciliation.
Harding said, “When I think about Martin, I think about Martin with the three C’s: courage, compassion, and creativity.” At this moment in time, we must have the courage to look at one another with open eyes, listen with open ears, and approach with open hearts; if we view one another with compassion and see the potential for community amidst the anger, then there is hope for reconciliation. “I think that the stoking of our creative capacities is one of the jobs that is still necessary for us,” Harding acknowledged. In the darkest of times, creativity and art have challenged our norms and also provided balm for our wounds. To travel through difficult terrain, “we have got to get new words, new songs, new possibilities for ourselves.”
To create the Beloved Community, we have to meet at a place that celebrates our diversity and our inclusiveness—and your Thanksgiving table offers you that opportunity. We are family, friends, and neighbors whose bonds may have been challenged in these divisive times. Dr. King advised not to make enemies of those who oppose you—to challenge the ideology but not the individual, for then the aftermath can be redemption. Though we may differ, we must question rather than challenge, ask rather than accuse. Be persistent with one another, be realistic—but be patient. Do not lose hope. Be compassionate face-to-face and not via internet.
Courage, compassion, and creativity—we offer these things to you and invite you to pass them on to others this Thanksgiving.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”
— Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010)
Bourgeois was a French-American artist proficient in an incredible number of artistic disciplines, but perhaps best known for her large-scale sculptures and installations. Her artwork was often autobiographical, referencing childhood memories—particularly those of her beloved mother and unfaithful father.
Among her most recognizable works is Maman, a massive 30-foot sculpture of a steel spider. The towering structure, whose title translates as mom or mommy in French, pays homage to Bourgeois’ mother Josephine, who passed away when Louise was 21 years old. “I came from a family of repairers,” Louise said. “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”
The creature is supported on eight slender legs and has a sac containing 10 marble eggs on its underbelly. It is the largest in a series of spider-themed pieces that became central to Bourgeois’ work in the 1990s. It has been said that her spiders are contradictory representations of motherhood—representing both predator and protector; the silk builds elaborate webs and cocoons, but also binds the spider’s prey. Maman, massive in size, but balanced on thin, spindly legs, is both strength and fragility in one.
Thanks to Milton Sandy for sending along the link and quote.
Photo courtesy of Peter Bellamy
As a female business owner, Natalie is constantly asked questions about what it is like to be a woman AND entrepreneur, what it takes to start a company from scratch, and how to “have it all.” I hope that we have been able to dispel the “having it all” myth, but even now—after a decade and a half of work—it can be difficult to find female colleagues, business owners, and mentors that can relate to the unique challenges and rewards of being both woman and businessperson.
Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge, is an all-around model for uncompromising creativity and a champion for other women. Her recent book, In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs offers interviews and portraits of women from all sorts of creative backgrounds and a diverse range of races, ages, and abilities. In the book’s introduction, Bonney quotes activist Marian Wright Edelman, who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Bonney explains, “Visibility is one of the most powerful tools we have in inspiring people to pursue their dreams and educating them about all the amazing options that exist.” This book serves as a mirror—reflecting the work of women who are walking the walk and talking the talk to others who are just getting their sea legs and finding their voices.
The book profiles artists, designers, writers, chefs, activists, musicians, and more; they talk about subjects like the meaning of success, self-doubt and fear, learning from mistakes, strengths, and their own sources of inspiration. Natalie is honored to be profiled here—alongside many talented women—including friends, collaborators, and inspirations like Rinne Allen, Eileen Fisher, Maira Kalman, Liz Lambert, and so many others.
Each profile is accompanied by a photograph of the woman in her personal workspace. Some of these women could not be more different from one another, but many share the same thoughts and fears. So many of us are learning to value our work, manage expectations, create better work/life balance, to say “no”, and we are negotiating what it means to be a business owner AND an artist. Oh—and it seems a number of us wanted to be ballerinas when we grew up. It’s immediately clear that there is no right answer to any question and no one-size-fits-all solution to our problems.
Bonney’s hope is that women will see something in themselves, somewhere in the book. We found many moments of connection with our peers that we could never list them all. Some of our favorites:
“Trust your instincts! There is nothing worse than realizing that your first instincts were right and that second-guessing led to a costly mistake. As women, we’re taught to second-guess ourselves and to look to others for direction and guidance. Most times my inner voice tells me in a flash what I want and need, and whom to trust. I’m learning to honor that inner voice.” – Lisa Hunt, designer and artist
“Create a ‘no assholes’ policy. Nobody you work with or hire can have this quality. Life is too short and we are too sensitive to suffer unkind people. Live kind; your work will show it.” – Genevieve Gorder, interior designer and television host
“Success in business is seeing how badly you can fail and still love yourself.” – Mary Going, fashion designer
“It’s been said before, but people are your biggest asset. There is no way you can be everywhere at once, and you wouldn’t want to be. Put the right people in the right place and your job becomes easier. And you have so much to learn from them, thank God. It takes a village.” – Liz Lambert, hotelier
“I think the world needs more authentic, honest, and vulnerable connections. As an individual, I think this results in richer relationships, and as a businesswoman, I find that the result is a sincere collaboration between my customer and me. Less polish, more authenticity.” – Karen Young, product designer and entrepreneur
“Gummy bears are not fruit, therapy can be interesting, don’t judge people by their shoes.” – Olimpia Zagnoli, illustrator
“The world needs more face-to-face conversation, perhaps over a meal, so we can really get to know each other without assumptions. The world needs fewer sound bites where those assumptions are formed.” – Carla Hall, chef and television host
“When I was about thirteen, my dad told me, ‘Everyone is weird,’ and that simple statement pretty much changed my life. I think of it often. It makes me feel relaxed to be myself and do things my own way and be open-minded about everyone else doing the same.” – Julia Turshen, cookbook author
“I love seeing brilliant, creative women making space and laying down tracks for other women. It’s easy to fall into the pernicious trap of thinking that just because you scrapped your way toward achieving your goal, there’s no room for anyone else.” – Carrie Brownstein, musician, writer, and actor
“The world needs your voice, so stop trying to fit someone else’s idea of who you are. Make them look you dead in the eye; make them know you.” – Danielle Henderson, writer and editor
“Say no to things you don’t want to do, kindly and politely. And give a widely known enthusiastic yes to the things you do want to do.” – Randi Brookman Harris, prop stylist
“Clothes are for real live women…They are made to be worn, to be lived in.” – Claire McCardell
Claire McCardell is effectively the founder of American ready-to-wear fashion. Working from the 1930s through the 50s, McCardell was innovative because she designed clothing that was fashionable but also allowed women to move, breathe, and generally live their lives comfortably—all while feeling beautiful. Focusing more on sportswear, she turned her back on girdles, corsets, and uncomfortable construction, emphasizing that “clothes should be useful”—but still attractive, comfortable, and feminine.
McCardell designed throughout World War II, coming up with innovative workarounds when faced with wartime restrictions. She utilized whatever fabrics were available (even parachute cotton) in her designs and, when shoe leather became scarce, contracted Capezio to make their iconic ballet slippers, which would become a mainstay of the modern woman’s wardrobe. After World War II, American women had limited (if any) access to French fashions—and France was basically rebuilding an entire clothing industry. This opened the door for McCardell to recreate the image of the American woman, independent of excess outside influence. Her new style was more casual than pre-war clothing and embraced fabrics like denim, calico, and stretch jersey. She created wardrobes of mix-and-match separates that could be worn in a number of combinations—meaning more outfits for less money.
According to McCardell, her main design inspiration was her own intuition—believing that most women were employing their wardrobes to generally achieve the same things and solve the same problems. “Most of my ideas,” she said, “come from trying to solve my own problems.” The functionality and comfort of her garments relied on how they were constructed. Where some dresses had built-in shoulder pads to accent the shape of the arm, McCardell’s dresses created a similar look by changing the cut of the sleeve; pre-war dresses widely relied on corsets or foundation garments to create a desired silhouette—but McCardell created fitted garments by cutting on the bias or by belting full, circle skirts to create the “wasp waist” look of the day.
Her “American Look” permanently changed the landscape of fashion. Looking at photographs of McCardell’s designs today, it is clear that many of them have a timeless quality. Because she was not constantly adjusting her style from fashion season-to-season, her looks were consistent. They didn’t look dated. Many of her garments made in the 1940s would fit comfortably in closets today. Her once-revolutionary approach to style has become the norm.
The Museum at FIT has a collection of McCardell garments. To see more of her garments, browse those photos here.
Photos from The Red List and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
P.S.:One of Natalie’s all-time favorite books on fashion is Claire Mccardell Redefining Modernism by Kohle Yohannan.
“He who knows how to appreciate color relationships, the influence of one color on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.” – Sonia Delaunay
Sonia Delaunay (1885 – 1979), alongside her husband and fellow artist Robert Delaunay, co-founded the Orphism art movement, an offshoot of the Cubist style that focused on abstraction, light, and color—in contrast to the monochromatic style of traditional Cubism.
Sonia was a painter but began experimenting with textiles as “exercises in color”; her fabrics combined the traditional Russian folk-art of her childhood with the avant-garde style of early 20th-century Paris. She took abstraction of style and color from canvas to fabric, and her daring and oft-photographed garments represented female agency, style, and independence. Delaunay is often remembered for her bold, woolen (and almost certainly uncomfortable) swimsuits—which were really more symbols of color and design than actual functional garments.
She found it essential to take into account the human form when designing fabrics—not just designing fabrics and then shaping them to fit the body afterward. In a 1968 letter, Delaunay lamented a trend of creating garments from Mondrian and Pop Art fabrics: “All [my] works were made for women, and all were constructed in relation to the body. They were not copies of paintings transposed onto women’s bodies…I find all that completely ridiculous.” Her work was so revolutionary and respected that she was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre.
“A longing for excitement can be satisfied without external means within oneself: For creating is the most intense excitement one can come to know.” – Anni Albers
Anni Albers was a multi-disciplinary artist best remembered for her work in textile design. She trained at the Bauhaus school in Germany, where she met her future husband and fellow artist, Josef Albers. At the Bauhaus, she experimented with traditional and innovative materials for weaving, making use of traditional yarns, horsehair, metallic threads, and cellophane. While traditional weavers may have focused on decorative motifs or floral patterns, Anni’s designs could be abstract or organic, and sometimes vividly geometric. She earned her diploma in 1929 with an auditorium wall covering made from cotton, chenille, and cellophane that both reflected light and absorbed sound—a piece that architect Philip Johnson called her “passport to America”.
When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, the Alberses immigrated to America, teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College for over 16 years. As an assistant professor of art, she continued her experiments with textiles, but also with embossed papers and, many years later, printmaking. Albers developed a weaving curriculum based on the ideas of industrial design, placing importance on both hand-woven and industrial textiles. According to Buckminster Fuller, architect and Black Mountain College alumni, Anni “more than any other weaver, has succeeded in exciting mass realization of the complex structure of fabrics.”
In 1949, Anni Albers became the first weaver to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. At the time of her death in 1994, she was the last living instructor of the original Bauhaus school.
“I fell in love with black; it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all… You can be quiet, and it contains the whole thing.” – Louise Nevelson
American sculptor Louise Nevelson became known for her large, three-dimensional wooden structures, almost all painted in monochromatic white or black. In her most iconic works, she utilized found objects and scraps gathered from debris piles, and so referred to herself as “the original recycler”. Nevelson originally limited herself to black and white to “discipline” herself—but the colors eventually became part of her signature style.
During the mid-Fifties, she produced her first series of all-black wood landscape structures, describing herself as the Architect of Shadow. “Shadow and everything else on Earth actually is moving. Movement—that’s in color, that’s in form, that’s in almost everything. Shadow is fleeting… I arrest it and I give it a solid substance.” For much of her life, critics and admirers were almost fixated on her use of black, but Nevelson never shied from discussing its importance. “You see, [black] says more for me than anything else. In the academic world, they say black and white were no colors, but I’m twisting that to tell you that, for me, it is the total color. It means totality. It means: contains all.”
I’m going to ask for forgiveness in advance as this post is going to ramble. There is a lot to say and, at face value, parts of the story don’t seem to have any relevance to one another. Bear with me—I need to let the story unfold.
I’ve numbered the facts to help you follow along:
I’ve been listening to The Moth since I stumbled on the podcast back in 2009. I fell in love with George Dawes Green’s story of Southern Gothic and never stopped listening. I’ve traveled many miles, folded laundry, walked dogs, and worked in the garden with my earphones on, laughing out loud, and/or crying—sometimes both at the same time. If you’ve ever sat next to me on a plane or seen me walking through our little town in this state, I was most likely deeply involved in a story from The Moth.
(To diverge: There are others like This American Life, On Being, and The Kitchen Sisters that have been long-time favorites that continue to inspire. Newer flavors like Gravy, 99% Invisible, TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, and Serial have also become regular stops on my ever-evolving podcast playlist.)
Around 1994, I came across a short documentary film inspired by Route 66; that film and the consequent audio recording would change my life. I had been working at a job that didn’t suit me, in a place where inter-community politics ruled, and was living in a house that was embroiled in chaos—sunrise to sunset. At that moment, my life had absolutely nothing to do with my vision for myself. I came home to the “house of chaos” one afternoon—when the house was empty—to find some quiet and was transported, through a story, down a road: Route 66. It was heaven. At the end of this story, I knew that I was going to leave the job, the inter-community politics, and that I was going to tell stories. Exactly how I was going to tell stories was yet unclear but I knew without a doubt that my life was about to change.
Many years later, I came to know that the story of Route 66 I had listened to in 1994 had been created in 1985, when I was still a young girl in design school, by two friends who call themselves The Kitchen Sisters. I became fanatical followers of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. I listened to everything I could find from The Kitchen Sisters. I listened to every kind of documentary audio I could find (more on this in the coming year). I began my version of homeschool studies in storytelling. I watched as many films as I could; I became a fanatic. I made short films (if somewhat poorly). I attended film festivals. I tried (even more poorly) to write stories. I listened—over and over again, and then over again. I applied to film school and was rejected. I bought a camera. I filmed and recorded and watched and listened, but instead of becoming a director of documentary films, in 2000 I came home to Alabama and started the project that has become Alabama Chanin. I made a short film; I made clothes; I learned to tell different kinds of stories.
In 2009, after I had been making clothes for almost eight years (and had put filmmaking aside), I was asked to do a lecture at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Davia Nelson walked into the lecture, took my arm, and became my friend that night. She wrapped me up in her spirit; she turned her recorder on me; she took me on my first tour of the Edible Schoolyard; she introduced me to Alice Waters; she put on my clothes; she loved on me and brought love around me; and she introduced me to Nikki Silva, the other Kitchen Sister.
“Pinch me,” I said.
Once on a cold and snowy New York City night, I made a bet with a friend that we would each submit a story to The Moth. The night (and bet) in question was accompanied by several glasses of wine and in the midst of the banter and laughing, the thought of reaching out to The Moth terrified me. T E R R I F I E D. It took me about a year, but I did send in a story, and the story wasn’t accepted. Bet completed. Check.
“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I said.
In early 2014, Davia Nelson calls me one sunny afternoon to ask if I would be willing to come to New York City, to tell a story at The Moth for an evening they are curating around their award-winning series The Hidden World of Girls. I agree.
“Knock me over with a feather,” I think.
Within this list of facts, we’ve traveled from 1985 to 2014, and through the larger part of my working life as a designer and an adult.
Davia and I talked many times and for hours over the course of that spring about the trajectory of my story for The Moth, all of the facts above, about the story I should tell, about life, and love, and God, the beauty of everything, and about traveling to New York City for the actual telling of the story. In the course of these talks, I was introduced to Catherine Burns, the Artistic Director of The Moth, and we talked about more of the same. She gently prodded me, and poked, and teased a story from my jumble of experiences. And she made my story bigger, and better, more fluid, and solid. I became a better storyteller for having worked with Catherine in those months leading up to the story night.
I was proud. I was terrified. I’m not a natural speaker. It doesn’t feel natural for me to stand on a stage. Each time I’ve been asked to speak in the last years, I think about this quote from Susan Cain’s book Quiet:
“In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye.”
And though I wanted to run (and run as though demons were after me), I did, in fact, manage to tell a story on The Moth Mainstage on the night of April 17th, 2014. That story is now part of The Moth Radio Hour and included with stories from George Dawes Green (yes) and Tim Gunn, and a beautiful story that made me laugh and cry from Warren Holleman.
During that spring and many times since, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with Catherine (an Alabama-raised soul sister) about stories and what makes them strong, why they are important, about our favorites, and about how stories inspire me as a designer. We also talked a lot about the terror of standing before a seated crowd at The Moth Mainstage without notes, without a podium, just you and a microphone and your life. When I first walked onto that stage, I felt like my head might separate from my body and that I might be the first-ever storyteller at The Moth to faint or die.
Catherine laughs at my morbid memory and sent me a list of a few of her all-time favorite stories this week. They are tales of redemption, and struggle, and light, and joy, and, well, just life. I learned from Catherine that Michael J. Massimino said that telling a story at The Moth was scarier than going into space. I’m in good company.
Below are a few of Catherine’s favorite stories, including “A View of the Earth” from Michael J. Massimino (one of my Maggie’s favorites too). Get The Moth’s free podcast to listen weekly:
Alan Rabinowitz: “Man and Beast”
A boy with a severe stutter finds solace in his connection to animals.
Janna Levin: “Life on a Mobius Strip”
An astrophysicist in crisis finds astonishing parallels between her personal life and her research.
A.E. Hotchner: “The Day I Became a Matador”
A young writer is talked into a bull ring by Ernest Hemingway.
George Dawes Green: “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn”
The Moth’s Founder rebels against his aging Southern belle of a mother.
Kimberly Reed: “Life Flight”
A young woman must confront her past and future when forced to go home for her father’s funeral.
Darryl “DMC” McDaniels: “Angel”
The lead singer of RUN-DMC is brought back from the brink by an unexpected angel.
Andrew Solomon: “Notes on an Exorcism”
A man who has struggled with depression gets help from an African Shaman.
Stephanie Summerville: “Life Support”
A young healthcare attendant is sent to care for an extremely challenging patient.
Cynthia Riggs: “The Case of the Curious Codes”
A woman receives an unexpected note from an admirer she hasn’t seen in more than fifty years.
Michael Massimino: “A View of the Earth”
An astronaut runs into trouble on a mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.
Carl Pilliterri: “The Fog of Disbelief”
A man is working at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima when disaster strikes.
Wanda Bullard: “A Small Town Prisoner”
The woman on whose porch the Moth began talks about her elderly father “helping out” at his local Mississippi police precinct.
If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to public radio, you become acquainted with or even attached to the sound of a host’s voice. The introduction to a show or podcast becomes familiar, like memorized lyrics to a song, and the host’s voice becomes as recognizable and comforting as a friend’s. For instance, so many times I’ve heard: “From WBUR Boston and NPR, I’m Tom Ashbrook and this is On Point”, or “This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross”. Some listeners immediately recognize the jumbled mixture of voices patched together to say, “You’re listening to RadioLab, from WNYC and NPR”, or the profane voice of Marc Maron preceding the WTF Podcast; even the sound of a girl’s voice mispronouncing “MailChimp” in the advertisement before the Serial podcast became a pop culture reference. For me—one of the most welcoming is, “PRX. This is The Moth Radio Hour. I’m Catherine Burns…The Moth is about true personal stories, told in front of a live audience.” Catherine’s is a voice I trust and one that promises I am about to be enchanted, engaged, and moved in some way.
Catherine is The Moth’s longtime Artistic Director and frequent (though not only) host. The Moth—for the uninitiated—is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, a subject near and dear to our hearts at Alabama Chanin. It celebrates both the seasoned raconteur and the first-time storyteller, equally. Since its founding in 1997 by author George Dawes Green, The Moth has presented thousands of stories, all told live and without notes. Many of these stories are compiled into podcasts—each one unique and moving in its own way.
Prior to her work at The Moth, Catherine directed and produced independent films and television and directed the highly praised Off-Broadway solo show, Helen & Edgar. She is also editor of the New York Times Best Seller, The Moth: 50 True Stories. Burns, an Alexander City, Alabama native (whose parents still live there), has also won a Peabody Award through her work at The Moth Radio Hour. She is also an accomplished fire dancer who, for the last several years, has coordinated a 70-person fire dancing show at the Burning Man Festival.
I remember an interview Catherine did several years ago for the National Endowment for the Arts that still resonates today:
“We live in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital. We sit in our little boxes, staring at other boxes, communicating through our fingers on a keyboard. I don’t think human beings were meant to live this way, and The Moth is the antithesis of all of that. It’s ironic because all our little devices and programs are meant to connect us, but I don’t think they really do. They kind of connect us, but there’s always a boundary there—the electronic wall that keeps us from really experiencing each other in a human way…We can bring people out of their cubicles and get them to interact with their neighbors. Through storytelling, you can hear from a neighbor who you might assume you have nothing in common with, and discover that you share a great deal. When you see the person on the street the next day, your perspective on them will have changed because you know something important about them and other people like them.”
Her perspective on creativity and connection—and her Alabama roots—make her an intriguing participant in our exploration of the creative process.
You can also listen to the weekly Peabody Award-winning show online: The Moth Radio Hour. Warning, you may want to buckle down the kids, and put out the dogs before you start—you’re going to want good time to get lost down this rabbit hole.
Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?
Catherine Burns: This may sound silly, but I need a clean, orderly space in which to create. Both my office and home are pretty tidy. People are sometimes surprised by that—it’s the opposite of the cliché of the blustering artist. (Natalie, didn’t you comment on that the first time you saw my office?) But my job involves juggling a lot of balls at once, and it’s easy to get distracted. Having an organized space allows me to focus on the creating. I also like to surround myself with meaningful things that make me smile (many of which remind me of my beloved Alabama). On the shelves of my office I have piled among hundreds of books, my collection of Jonathan Adler mugs; an Alabama license plate; a quilt made for me by my cousin Sunny; various quartz rocks picked up at my Daddy’s farm near Eclectic; and a portrait of my friend, the poet and raconteur Edgar Oliver, which was painted by his mother Louise in Savannah in the early 1960’s.
AC: What have been some of the most successful campaigns you have launched? Why did you feel successful?
CB: The Moth released its first book two years ago—The Moth: 50 True Stories (Hachette). We were nervous about how the stories would work in print. We transcribed the oral stories, and lightly edited them for the page. The goal was for the reader to feel like they were actually hearing the storyteller speak. After the book was published, we heard about people reading the stories out loud to each other at dinner, which we loved, because it was a brand new way for our audience to interact with the stories. And the book allowed us to feature great stories that would have otherwise been lost. For instance, one of my favorite stories in the book is “Tajik Sonata” by Anoid Latipovna Rakhmatyllaeva. We met Anoid at a show we produced for the U.S. State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Her story—about finding the courage to stand down a group of child soldiers and prevent them from destroying a room full of musical instruments at the height of their civil war—is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever directed. But Anoid told her story in Russian, and the only recording we had was of our English translator during the final show rehearsal. It sounds like it was recorded underwater. But we were able to transcribe it, and now the story has been read by tens of thousands of people all over the world.
AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?
CB: My only regret is that I didn’t move to New York City sooner. When I got out of college, I spent a number of years bouncing between Los Angeles and Boston. I find New York so inspiring. The city keeps me on my toes. It can be overwhelming at times (especially for someone who grew up in a small town in Alabama!), but New York is one of the few places in the world where when I’m here, I don’t feel like there’s anywhere else I’m supposed to be. And I love living surrounded by so many creative people.
AC: Do you critique your own work?
CB: I do critique my own work, but I get a lot of help from The Moth’s artistic team. Storytelling is very subjective. We always know it’s been a great Moth night when, the next day, no one can agree on the best story—everyone has his or her favorite. But for that reason, I rely heavily on our artistic team to weigh in on how we shape the stories, and which ones will be broadcast. A storyteller works one-on-one with a Moth director for weeks (and sometimes months) leading up to a show. But then two days out there’s a big group rehearsal where all the storytellers in a particular show will tell their stories to their fellow storytellers and our artistic team. As a director, it’s so helpful getting feedback from a smart group of people who don’t know the story as well as I do. Our rule is that if someone on our team is confused about something in a story, then someone in the audience probably will be too. After the stories are recorded, a group of about twelve of us listen to the audio to decide what will go on our podcast and The Moth Radio Hour. If we can’t decide amongst ourselves, we send it to our brilliant radio producer, the legendary Jay Allison, who will then weigh in.
AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”?
CB: I’m a big fan of the not-for-profit Narrative 4. They try to foster empathy, often among people who might have reasons to dislike each other. As I understand it, they get a group together (for instance teenagers from a war-torn area), pair people off into twos, and have them listen to each other’s stories. The person listening has to then re-tell the story they just heard in the first person (as if it happened to them). Or as the folks at Narrative 4 put it, “Our core methodology centers around a story exchange, which works on a simple idea: If I can hear your story deeply enough to retell it in my own words, as if it happened to me—and you can do the same for my story—then we will have seen the world through each other’s eyes.” It’s brilliant.
AC: Is there one single act that can open your imaginary mind?
CB: Dance of any kind, whether I’m watching or participating. I love watching dancers. I spend my days with words and language. Everything is about narrative. And while a great dancer always tells a story of some kind, it’s less direct—no words are spoken. Dancing gets me out of my head and into my body, which is always a good thing. I’m not the most graceful person, but about ten years ago I became a fire dancer, performing poi, which is where you dance with balls of fire connected to your hands by chains. Learning this technique was a huge struggle for me, and my teacher later admitted that I initially showed almost no aptitude for it. But I kept with it, and eventually became the New York City lead for the big 1000 person fire spinning show at the Burning Man Festival that happens every year in Black Rock City, Nevada. Dancing with fire scratches some kind of itch in my soul. When I come back to my Moth work afterward, I always feel ready to jump into storytelling in a fresh way again.
AC: Which ones of your products and/or services inspire you the most?
CB: I am constantly inspired by the work being done in The Moth’s community program. This is the leg of The Moth that provides storytelling, free of charge, to underserved communities. The participants could be people living with HIV, holocaust survivors, or teenagers who have a sibling with a disability. I recently returned from a trip to Uganda where I had the pleasure of working with African feminist writers from across the continent. Working with these women was pure magic and a genuine inspiration for me. In the last year, our team led a series of storytelling workshops at a prison in Manhattan. The stories told by these incarcerated men will break your heart. Prisoners can feel very disconnected from the outside world, which can inhibit their rehabilitation and eventual re-entry into the world. Storytelling can help remind them of their humanity. We recently found out that the prisoners have been getting together and coaching each other’s stories in the days between The Moth’s weekly workshops. They call it “Mothing”. We love it.
P.S.: Look for Natalie’s story, told live at The Moth Mainstage in New York City on your public radio station as part of The Moth Radio Hour, “1602: Sewing, Singing, Suits, and Cemeteries.” Natalie’s story about kudzu, snakes, and sewing includes a conversation between Catherine and Natalie—recorded on Natalie’s back porch. You will also be able to download this story (and so many more) for free on The Moth Podcast beginning next week. Check back on Friday for more on Natalie’s journey from story to Mainstage.
Photos courtesy of Catherine Burns.
This project is made possible in part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
In the years since we met Rosanne Cash, we have grown from giddy fans, to dedicated admirers, to proud and honored friends. It is no secret how much we are inspired by Rosanne—as a supporter, an artist, and a beautiful person. We’ve done our best to express our admiration whenever the opportunity arises. We are still awestruck that we know someone so talented, so prolific, and so wise.
It has been a joy to see Rosanne and her singular creativity be acknowledged by so many, lately. Her album, The River and the Thread, which will always hold a special place in our hearts, won 3 Grammy Awards in February 2015, sweeping all categories for which it was nominated: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance, for “A Feather’s Not a Bird”.
She has recently held a three-night residency at the Library of Congress, received the 2014 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for the Performing Arts, and curated a “Perspectives” series for Carnegie Hall that highlighted the best in Americana and roots music. (Among the artists included were Alabama Chanin favorites and Alabama natives, St. Paul and the Broken Bones.) Earlier this year, Rose was named the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2015 Artist in Residence, which culminated in three concerts, including one instantly legendary evening of music by Rosanne, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris.
In October, Rosanne was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor she was thrilled to receive. “This is the award I wanted. I started as a songwriter. I still consider myself, first and foremost, a songwriter, and dreamed that one day I would get this honor.” She and her father Johnny Cash are the only father/daughter members.
Rosanne seems to be always searching her own depths and looking for new sources of inspiration. She has recorded 15 albums and writes prolifically—everything from essays and fiction (in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Oxford American—among others) to her moving memoir, Composed. On top of all that, she also wrote three songs for season two of HBO’s True Detective and collaborated with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson on a song released alongside Costello’s brand new memoir.
It is only natural that we would look to someone like Rosanne as part of our exploration of the creative process. We know that her method and her products are substantive, and we trusted that she would be completely, brutally honest with us. I recently read a quote of hers that I could relate to completely: “It’s only amateurs who only work when inspired. Music is a more trustworthy way to God than religion.” It is with this in mind that we consider Rosanne’s responses to our questions on creativity.
Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?
Rosanne Cash: Before performances I have several things I do—stretching, breathing, feeling my feet on the ground, mentally clearing the space around me, a few words I always say to myself. In writing—no rituals, although I do have devices to break the constraints. Sometimes just a cup of tea will set things right.
AC: What makes you curious?
RC: Singularity makes me very curious. If someone is the foremost expert on wooden boats in the world, or knows everything about a certain brain tumor or a rare butterfly or deeply understands something that I only vaguely comprehend, like quantum physics or Mormonism, then I am riveted. I want to inhale everything they can tell me. And I’m curious about the personality that lives for one thing.
Dilettantes bore me.
My curiosity is also aroused by artists I love, but I don’t want to know about their artistic process. If I am moved by someone’s work, I want to know what they like to eat for breakfast, how much sleep they get, what their rituals are, if they watch television, their beverage of choice… I would KILL to know what Shakespeare did for amusement, who he slept with, and what his favorite food was.
AC: What do you daydream about?
RC: I daydream about color, water, silence, and nature.
Sometimes I daydream about how I would re-upholster my furniture.
AC: How important is education to your creative process?
RC: It’s important. I would use ‘discipline’ and ‘education’ together. It drives me crazy when people think what I do comes ‘naturally’ and that I don’t have to put effort into writing or performing or recording, or that songs happen because you get hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration and that’s all there is to it.
There are a lot of musicians and songwriters more talented than me. 85% of my success is because I’m tenacious and I show up for work.
AC: Do you have processes or tricks to spur creativity?
RC: Listening to music and looking at art inspires me. If I’m really stuck, I put on certain records to jiggle the door open, or go to a museum. If I hear a really good song, my competitive side might get triggered and I want to write something better.
AC: Do you have to be in a certain mood in order to create?
RC: That’s what amateurs do. If I only worked when I was in the mood, this would be a hobby, not my profession.
AC: Nature or nurture? Do you imagine creativity is part of human nature or must it be learned?
RC: Creativity is part of human nature. Mastery of creative work must be learned by doing.
AC: Creativity for me is_____.
RC: the reason I’m on the planet.
AC: How do you define success?
RC: Doing what you love and making a living at it.
AC: What parts of your work seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?
RC: The travel for performance is the ‘heaviest’. I get really, really tired of it. I love travel, in theory, but touring is brutal.
The ‘lightest’ is when I finish writing a song that I know is good.
AC: Does spirituality play a role in your creativity?
RC: Creativity IS spirituality.
AC: What makes you nervous?
RC: Doing things outside my wheelhouse. I’m about to perform with Wynton Marsalis for the first time. That makes me a little nervous. Those kinds of things.
AC: In what ways would you want to change your imaginative spirit?
RC: I’d want to make it bigger.
AC: Is there something that can halt your creativity? Distractions, fears, etc.? Have you found a way to avoid those pitfalls?
RC: Anxiety over my kids stops the whole circus.
AC: Have you ever censored your imagination or creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone? If so, how?
RC: No. There were things I didn’t put in my memoir because I didn’t want to hurt someone, but that’s different.
AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?
AC: If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?
RC: I’d love to paint.
AC: Do you critique your own work?
AC: Has rejection ever affected your creative process?
RC: It made me try harder. I’ve been depressed and felt insecure about certain failures and rejections, but it never made me give up.
AC: Who do you define as a visionary?
RC: Someone who marries two very disparate ideas to create something entirely new, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical ‘Hamilton’.
AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”
RC: The musical ‘Hamilton’.
AC: If you were to become a professor, what classes would you teach?
AC: What are your favorite things to do? What do you distinctly NOT like to do?
RC: I don’t like to unload the dishwasher.
I don’t like taking makeup off.
I don’t like to spend the day doing email.
I love reading.
I love putting the kettle on and anticipating tea time.
I love to sew with my girlfriends.
AC: Is there one single act that can open your imaginary mind?
RC: I wish I knew.
AC: Are there parts of your life that you always make a priority? That you struggle to make a priority?
RC: I always make my kids a priority.
I struggle to make doing nothing a priority.
(This project is made possible in-part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts)
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we are honoring his legacy and observing the holiday through service to our community. In the past few weeks, the Civil Rights Movement along with the work of Dr. King has received much media attention, due in part to the film Selma. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came to be and chronicles the events leading up to its monumental passing.
There were three marches that took place in March of 1965—the first is referred to as “Bloody Sunday” due to brutal attacks on the marchers, and the second march was cut short, as Dr. King felt the marchers needed protection by a federal court to prevent further violence. On March 21, 1965 the third march began—this time with the protection of the Army, Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents, and Federal Marshalls. The marchers arrived in Montgomery, at the State Capitol building, on March 25. The route taken from Selma to Montgomery is now a U.S. National Historic Trail.
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.
We often speak about our home, our state, and our community that provides an incredible amount of inspiration for our work. We are not alone: friend and occasional collaborator, Billy Reid, also headquarters in the same community. It has been mentioned (and is remarkable) that Alabama has the third largest membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), numbering at two; we rank just behind New York and California. And just as there is a rich history of textile production in our community, there is a somewhat unknown or unrecognized group of designers that have emerged from our home state.
We at Alabama Chanin have long been obsessed with and inspired by Maira Kalman. She has a rich and singular voice – as a visual artist, author, illustrator, and storyteller – that imbues people, objects, and words with knowing wit and humanity.
Maira has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, all of which have been popular nighttime reading with my daughter Maggie. Maira’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resides, beautiful and dog-eared, on my desk each day—as it has become part of our company style guide. And for years, I have traded and passed on copies of and links to her columns from the New York Times, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness (both of which are now published exquisitely in book form).
In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. week, we turn the spotlight to one of the unsung heroes (or heroines, rather) of the Civil Rights Movement: Georgia Gilmore.
Georgia (whom we have written about before) lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a true servant to the cause of the movement. Georgia was a big lady with a big personality—frankly put, she didn’t take any bull from anybody. She worked as a midwife, as well as a cook at the National Lunch Company. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave her seat on a bus in December of 1955, a group of black ministers and community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)—and initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Association often held secret meetings around the city. As soon as Georgia heard of Rosa Parks’ arrest on the radio, she joined the MIA, determined to aid the effort in any way she could.
Outspoken and feisty, Georgia let her disapproval of the discriminatory bus drivers be known—an action that got her fired from her job at the cafeteria. When that happened, Dr. King and other leaders helped her set up a restaurant in her home kitchen. Georgia was well-known around town for her fried chicken, pork chops, and stuffed bell peppers and often served these and other dishes to Dr. King and fellow supporters of the boycott. She even hosted secret MIA meetings there in her kitchen.
Georgia’s love (and talent) for cooking and her passion for equality and change led her to start a club with a few of her friends, named “The Club from Nowhere.” The ladies in the club, most of them maids and cooks, sold homemade pies and cakes (and even Georgia’s chicken dinners) to supporters of the movement in order to raise money for the boycott. The Club from Nowhere often set up shop in beauty parlors, Laundromats, and on street corners in downtown Montgomery. Both black and white supporters of the boycott were able to contribute anonymously. The Club from Nowhere used the money they collected to buy gas and station wagons, which were used to transport people to and from work during the boycott. Georgia always said that the money came “from nowhere.”
Alabama Chanin friend and inspiration, Rosanne Cash, has lived in New York for over 20 years, but her link to the South remains deep and undeniable. Her mother, Vivian Liberto, was born in Texas and her father, Johnny Cash, was an Arkansas native. Rosanne was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised for much of her life in California. As a young woman, she also spent time living in Los Angeles, Nashville, London, among other stops on the road. Though she did not grow up in the South, her connection to the region is profound, largely because of what the South meant to her family and how that shaped her growth. It is this connection to the South and the region’s physical, musical, and emotional landscape that she explores in her newest record, The River and the Thread.
Rosanne found herself traveling southward frequently when Arkansas State University began restoring her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. Knowing how much her father would have loved the project, Rosanne agreed to participate – which initiated a series of visits. As she traveled, she began to reconnect with the Southern sense of place, so essential to her family identity. She, along with husband and longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, began to shape and create an entire series of songs, all about the South. Rosanne said, “I started going back to where I was born and these songs started arriving in me. My heart got expanded to the South, to the people I had known, to the people I met… We started finding these stories, these great stories, and melodies that went with these experiences.”
Friend (and heroine) Makalé Faber-Cullen is a storyteller and anthropologist who has worked with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Festival of American Folklife, for which we collaborated on some t-shirts with Makalé a few years ago. She served as the first U.S. Director of Programs for Slow Food, where she co-launched and directed Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and education organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance, where she helped produce The Global South and The Cultivated South symposiums. Her current project, Wilderness of Wish, gives context to unusual and out-of-place objects in the course of our daily lives. In Makalé’s words:
“I founded the Wilderness of Wish in 2010 to excite an interest in the artful presentation of contemporary ethnography and material culture. With carefully chosen client-partners we showcase the people, places and goods that give our lives meaning and our communities value. I enjoy merging anthropology, commerce and art for the public good. I’m particularly interested in occupational culture and the role of objects in our relationships — to ourselves and with each other, hence my company’s retail arm.”
As the Alabama Chanin team rushes around Manhattan with our new collection during New York Fashion Week, it is impossible not to remember this day twelve years ago. Twelve years of healing is not long enough. For most of us, this day will remain very personal for the rest of our lives. And yet, a dozen years is time enough for a new generation to grow up largely uninformed or dispassionate, if only because our reality has become a story to them, a tale, the way Pearl Harbor has become, to many, a history lesson and a bank holiday.
However, we will always remember those who perished that day, those who lost friends and loved ones, and all of the heroes who saved lives and found the humanity in recovery efforts. We recall the pain, but also the national pride as we joined together in silence and exercised resilience. We take the PeaceBuilders Pledge (again) with the continued hope that there will be an end to war and hate-driven tragedies in America and across the world.
Many of us on the Alabama Chanin team have lived in Manhattan. Some of us watched the towers burn from a few blocks away. Others arrived years later to a changed city skyline. But, no matter where each of us lived on that day, and since, we have watched America change. For so many, New York represents an opportunity for growth and transcendence. This day is a moment to remember compassion, love, and gratitude.
Last October, we held a One-Day Workshop in Atlanta, Georgia. DIY Kits for the workshop had been cut, packaged, and shipped days before the event, but they never arrived in Atlanta, lost in transit. This was a workshop crisis. However, this particular workshop turned out to be one of our best to date. In a beautiful expression of communal crafting, twelve people collaborated to create two Alabama Chanin Swing Skirts from the only kits I happened to carry with me. While we were initially disappointed over the lost box, we soon learned of the people in the Northeast who lost lives and homes as Hurricane Sandy beat down on the New Jersey and New York shores. We didn’t know how lucky we were.
Here is a bit of information that may surprise you: not all cotton is white cotton. If you are like me, you may not have always known that natural cotton comes in plenty of hues. In fact, there were originally shades of cotton that ranged from many tones of brown, to dark green, to brown, black, red, and blue. These varieties of cotton were widely used by Native American peoples and, occasionally, those who were enslaved and tenant families were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless. Colored cotton became obscure because farmers and manufacturers believed it too difficult to work with due to its short staple length, which makes the cotton problematic to spin. As a result, the varieties of colored cotton have dwindled. The Central Institute for Cotton Research in India has cultivated 6,000 varieties of cotton, only 40 of which are colored.
The white cotton we primarily see now was created by planting mono-crop, or only one variety of cotton. This type of cotton requires more pesticides than other varieties and the dyeing of this cotton is a massive cause of land and water pollution (not to mention its human impact). According to the ECO360 Trust, nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and production methods. They have discovered at least 72 toxic chemicals that are present in our water system purely due to textile dyeing.
Cows were born to roam and graze. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. According to Will Harris and White Oak Pastures, these are the natural behaviors of animals, making them commonsense tenets of how to raise healthy livestock. “Nature abhors a monoculture,” is one of Will’s favorite sayings.
Five generations of Harrises have farmed a tract of land in Georgia that now raises livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, no hormones and no antibiotics. But, business was not always done this way. Post WWII, the Harris family farm moved away from the traditional ways of doing things and began raising livestock using more chemicals and fertilizers and blending into the industrialized complex of food production. In the mid-90’s, Will Harris, the current head of White Oak Pastures, made what some called a foolish decision to bring the family farm full circle: moving back to the traditional ways of natural grazing, healthy animals, and respectful butchering.
Some of us fell in love with Mark Twain the first time we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and some of us understood his genius much later on, when we were finally old enough to appreciate his humor and satiric commentary on humanity. Twain’s polished use of irony is ever-present throughout the brief book, Advice to Little Girls, re-published this year with beautiful, and equally provocative, illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky. I loved it immediately.
Whether or not Twain intended this book to fall into the hands of sweet little girls, we’ll never know. And I’m undecided about sharing it with Maggie. Of course, I want to raise a creative, independent thinking, strong daughter, but somehow I think Twain’s “advice” might give her more ideas than she is (and I am) ready for. She’s already managed to exhaust me with her picky eating habits, her refusal to brush her hair, ever, and her snail’s pace at doing just about anything I ask of her.
I think it is pretty safe to say that midwifery is one of the first DIY skills in human existence. Certainly, the human body knows instinctively what to do when the time comes to birth a child. Still, I can’t imagine that we would have gotten very far as a species without someone learning how to assist in childbirth, give guidance to a mother, provide assistance to a newborn, and generally know how to take care of business.
It appears that learning the art of midwifery is flourishing both in the US and abroad. A recent story on public radio discussed how clinically trained midwives in rural Mexico might be a real healthcare solution for mothers living in rural areas, far from hospital care. Officials are hoping that by training professional midwives in basic nursing, gynecology, and obstetrics, they can not only help mothers without access to healthcare, but ease the burden placed upon the country’s overwhelmed hospitals. Worldwide health organizations have the same hope for other countries where physicians are scarce or far from rural communities.
This week, we’ve been exploring Finnish design company, Marimekko, well known for creating colorful, often bold patterns and fabrics. While their designs were first made popular in the 1960’s by Jacqueline Kennedy, the bright and vibrant garments remain classic choices, appropriate for any generation. Personally, I love to add a bold pattern or color to my regular wardrobe from time-to-time, and re-visiting the Marimekko story inspired this Tunic.
This pattern is a variation of our T-shirt Top, available in Alabama Studio Sewing + Design cut to tunic length. The tunic has a bit of a flare starting at the waist, which makes it comfortable and forgiving. We also have variations of tunics – the Camisole Tunic and the Tank Tunic – available as patterns in Alabama Studio Style.
For Marimekko Week, we wanted to make (and eat) one of the delicious Finnish dishes on the Marimekko Feeling Festive blog. Armi Ratia has been an inspiration to so many, myself included, for decades. The clean lines and graphic look of Marimekko patterns are both simple and exciting to the eye and the bold, bright colors exude confidence and happiness. I feel a distant kinship with Armi and the Marimekko process. There exists a shared desire to create beauty in things that will last a very long time.
That colorful simplicity of Marimekko design finds its way into the Festive blog recipes. This Carrot Butter was well loved by our staff on a very cold, grey day.
“One has to dream. And one has to stand out from the rest.” – Armi Raita, Marimekko creator
I’ve been wearing Converse sneakers for years. They’re comfortable, durable, inexpensive, and I love them with our hand-stitched garments. Just in case I wasn’t standing out from the rest already, Marimekko + Converse should grab some attention, right?
P.S. Refinery29 is sharing this DIY Missoni-style sneaker project. Make your own DIY Marimekko sneakers?
This week, we highlight the Finnish design company, Marimekko. As a long-standing leader in the fashion and design worlds, Marimekko has created timeless and colorful prints for over 60 years. I’ve followed the company from my days at NC State University and, as a designer, I have deep admiration and respect for Armi Ratia, the founder who created an empire by seeking beauty through design.
After World War II, Armi Ratia, a one-time weaver who was trained in industrial design, took interest in fabric printing; she wanted to bring happiness and color to distraught, post-war Finland. Working with full-time designers and buying from freelance artists, she began printing designs on fabrics that we now identify with an era, a culture, and a lifestyle.
I don’t want to overstate the obvious, but most of you would know that I am neither a New Yorker nor a fashion expert. While I enjoy style and design and I’m somewhat awed by the city, it’s clear to any observer that I’m native to neither. But, there’s something about Bill Cunningham that makes me feel comfortable with both. He lives and roams in the intimidating worlds of fashion and Manhattan, but manages to do so in an unpretentious way.
This weekend I re-watched the feature-length documentary Bill Cunningham New York, which profiles this prolific photographer and wise fashion observer and, once again, this eighty-something gentleman captured all my heart. Sometimes, as a fashion outsider, I imagine that NY style begins and ends on the runway. Bill Cunningham is a firm believer that this notion is not true. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been, always will be,” he assures us. His “On the Street,” column in the New York Times is a collage of on-trend people, items, movements, and real-time style progressions. In the film, Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains that Bill attempts to “tease out trends in terms of the reality of how people dress.” Cunningham himself demurs, “I don’t decide anything. I let the street speak to ME.”
I’ve written a couple of times about what happens when your heroes and heroines become friends. For me, it brings about a feeling of connection to the ever-expanding universe; all things are possible. A girl from the countryside in Alabama can dine with royalty (in all its meanings). The picture above is proof. When I look at this picture, I laughingly think of The Death of Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain….” However, those moments will not be lost. Knowing and dining with Les Blank gives me a connection to the stories and tiny details of human nature that make me a bigger, and better, person. His contribution to the genre of documentary film is exceptional; his contribution to my life is priceless. His clear vision of humanity (like that of The Kitchen Sisters) helped mold the designer, story lover, and human being I am today. I am so sad to write that my friend, and hero, is very ill with a protracted cancer. The City of Berkeley, California declared January 22nd the official Les Blank Day and wrote this: “With a soft spoken demeanor, an eye for beauty, an insightful mind and great enthusiasm, Les Blank has captured the essence of aspects of American culture,” and “through his respectful, quiet presence, and non-didactic style created films that allow his subjects to reveal their true selves in a unique way.” Well deserved. The world is a better place because of Les Blank, visionary wayfarer. P.S.: Photo above with Les and Alice Waters from April 2008 at The Edible Schoolyard (where Les first filmed and then cleaned everyone’s plate).
These days, you don’t think twice about hearing a woman’s voice on the radio. There are surely female deejays or journalists on your local station. NPR broadcasts the voices and stories of women like The Kitchen Sisters or Terry Gross among others. Alabama Chanin favorite, Elizabeth Cook has her own show, “Apron Strings,” on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country. But, once upon a time, it wasn’t so common to hear a female voice over the airwaves. For those in the Shoals area, Becky Burns Phillips was one of those first voices to be broadcast.
In 1942, Rebecca “Becky” Burns Phillips met her future husband, Sam Phillips, while they were both working at WLAY radio station in Sheffield, Alabama. They were both in high school. She, 17, had a radio segment with her sister where they played music and sang; he was a 19-year old radio announcer who was on his way to making rock and roll history. The Kitchen Sisters, in an article honoring Becky, quoted Sam as saying, “I fell in love with Becky’s voice even before I met her.” Becky described her first encounter with Sam to journalist Peter Guralnick: “He had just come in out of the rain. His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen. He sat down on the piano bench and began to talk to me. I told my family that night that I had met the man I wanted to marry.”
The two were married in 1943. Sam worked feverishly to establish Memphis Recording Service and, later, Sun Records. It is said that, during that time, he suffered two nervous breakdowns – which Becky gracefully helped him through. Becky and Sam had two sons, Jerry and Knox, but motherhood never took away her desire to work in radio.
Sam proudly spoke about how Becky’s talent inspired him to co-found WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, referred to as “The First All-Girl Radio Show in the Nation.” He would say that he wanted women, wanted his wife to have a chance that no one had ever given them before – and he co-founded WHER with the money he made from selling Elvis Presley’s contract. He would say, “Becky was the best I ever heard.”
Her son Knox remembered that, at the time of WHER’s conception, women weren’t even allowed to attend the Columbia School of Broadcasting. “But, because of my mother,” he said, “when Sam started the station (WHER) he made it all female: all female air talent, all female executives and sales staff,” he told The Commercial Appeal.
At WHER, Becky was able to shine – writing scripts, organizing segments, managing the station, and presenting in her own beautiful way. She was in charge of approving each record that was played. Though her husband was a rock and roll legend, there were no rocking records at WHER. And there were NEVER to be any curse words allowed over the airwaves. Over the years, she hosted a number of radio shows and carefully curated every day’s segments. Becky told the Kitchen Sisters, “I played music to work by – all the beautiful music like Jackie Gleason and Doris Day, and I gave household hints.”
Phillips broadcast on the radio for over 40 years, until the mid-1980’s, always with her distinctive sign-off: “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice.”
Mrs. Phillips died in September of 2012 at the age of 87.
Becky Burns Phillips carefully preserved WHER’s record library for well over 40 years. Many of those recordings can be heard on the Peabody Award winning segment by the Kitchen Sisters, “Lost and Found Sound: 1000 Beautiful Watts.”
Listen to Becky Phillips talk about her husband, Sam, and WHER Radio for the TV Segment, “The Lives They Lived” here:
There were few like her, a true pioneer in her field. Her fearlessness and her devotion to her family and her profession are inspirational. We are proud to be part of a community that fostered a woman like Becky Phillips, a pioneer in spirit and part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
P.S.: I never met Becky Phillips. After moving back home in 2000, I was “busy.” Building a business and sorting through my own life, closed me off to some of the great treasures (and families) of my own community. My loss. Resolution: take time to work less and belong more. xoNatalie
*Photo above found on The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee
This post – part of our new “Real Women” series – is dedicated to two of the most “real” women I know: Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters. Without their dedication to telling the “real” story, I would not be the designer, or the person, I am today. Lost and Found Sound changed my perception of storytelling in the Autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a green square in Savannah, Georgia. Boom. Life changed.
Ira Glass said of their work, “The Kitchen Sisters have done some of the best radio stories ever broadcast. I know people who got into radio because they heard Nikki and Davia’s work, and had no idea anybody could do anything like that on the air.”
These women are my heroes. (Along with a slew of others you will meet this year.) They continue their storytelling on real women with their series: The Hidden World of Girls, and a new series entitled: The Making of…
Through a Peabody Award winning Lost and Found Sound broadcast, The Kitchen Sisters spurred my interest in this relatively unknown, yet groundbreaking group of women.
“1000 Beautiful Watts.” This was the slogan for WHER Radio – 1430 on your AM dial in Memphis, Tennessee. In October 1955, Shoals native and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips and his wife, Becky, took an original concept and made it reality: an all-female radio station. Though the station wasn’t technically the first female station to exist, it proudly referred to itself as the “First All-Girl Radio Station in the World.” As such, WHER broadcast for 17 years in the Memphis, Tennessee market.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, to view “Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial.” I spent forever moving from one quilt to the next – leaning as closely in as I could without being reprimanded. No matter how many times you see those beautiful pieces, they never fail to amaze and inspire. The quilts, while spectacular, were meant for everyday use and were made with whatever materials were available. The personal stories associated with each quilt drove that point home. Each was described by the maker in simple terms and plain language, as if what they produced was no big deal, as though anyone could do it. I was particularly taken by the quilts of Missouri Pettway, both intricate and simple in their constructions. One quilt, made from her husband’s work clothes, demonstrated the love that went into each and every one of these works of art. I felt a lump rise in my throat as I read the description, as told by the quilter’s daughter, Arlonzia:
“It was when Daddy died. I was about seventeen, eighteen. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, ‘I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.’ She take his old pants legs and shirttails, take all the clothes he had, just enough to make that quilt, and I helped her tore them up. Bottom of the pants is narrow, top is wide, and she had me to cutting the top part out and shape them up in even strips.” Continue reading
Last month, I had the incredible honor of hosting a studio visit from three amazing women who have inspired me for years. On a beautiful summer day, Rosanne Cash, Gael Towey, and Maira Kalman arrived in Florence for a two day sewing workshop and adventure. The idea for the trip was hatched on a spring afternoon in New York City and I can hardly believe that it actually happened. With incredibly busy schedules, these three women cleared their calendars, bought their tickets, organized their lives, picked up their daughters, and headed south. Gael Towey (an incredible woman who has shaped the look of modern life as we know it) wrote about their Alabama adventure for Martha Stewart’s “Up Close and Personal Blog”. I spent an amazing afternoon with Gael talking about all things design and inspiration… that post will be coming in the next weeks.
Magpie + RUTH, my son Zach’s catering company, made a fantastic lunch for us each day. The bread pudding recipe below was a favorite with the entire crew, our Alabama Chanin team, and the photo above a favorite with our Facebook followers.
When I was a design school student at the end of the 1980s, there was one name that you found in all of the magazines and on everyone’s lips: Donna Karan. She was changing the way women dressed. She wanted to “to design modern clothes for modern people.”
Karan became a presence in the fashion world as the women’s rights movement found its footing in the 1970s and women began working in the business world in greater numbers. Most designers didn’t know how to dress this burgeoning new population of professionals. You saw women dressed in double-breasted suits with tight skirts, wide shoulders, and, often, pin stripes. Virginia Slims adverts of the time showed images of women in suits – straight, lean, no curves, nothing womanly at first glance. The models could easily have been men.
From what I’ve gathered, Taos is a Magical Place. Natalie made a trip there not so long ago and came home breathless with tales of beauty and enlightenment. She was especially enthralled with the story of Mabel Dodge Luhan and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.
Her experience inspired a new series of workshops called Weekend Away.
Natalie wrote in the introduction to this series:
“I had the opportunity to visit Taos not so very long ago and, as much as I was looking forward to the trip, nothing could have prepared me for the experience. In a word: incredible. My stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, my time in Taos, the breath-taking mountain backdrop, all left me feeling rested, energized, inspired.
I have always felt that our workshops have a sort of healing property and, while we love hosting weekend workshops in our home @The Factory, we also feel that it is beneficial to visit the “homes” of others for an extended stay. We are beginning to seek destinations that nourish the soul and calm the mind. Taos seems the perfect place to begin.”
We all encounter bumps in the road, but with encouragement and tenacity, we persevere.
Back in 2001, I faced one in my life. I returned to New York to continue developing my life’s work into what is now Alabama Chanin. At the time, I was living in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street while I was developing the line, working with partners, and sorting out production issues. One Sunday morning, I woke up feeling extremely frustrated. Continue reading
I used to go sit at Tom Hendrix’ wall to think, particularly on days when I thought I couldn’t take running my business anymore. I would ask Mr. Hendrix over and over again, “Where do you find the passion and will to continue creating 25, 26, 27 years into your work?” He would patiently listen to me, laugh, and tell me to go sit in the prayer circle. It always worked. Eventually the wall came to change my entire life – but that is a story for later. Come back in a few weeks to read the rest. This is the story of “The Wall,” as I know it.
Most of you who follow this blog know that when I returned to Alabama in 2000, I didn’t have a grand plan to build the company that is now Alabama Chanin. Any plans I may have had seemed to fall away into something far larger than I ever anticipated. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in such a position and I readily admit that, at times, I was incredibly overwhelmed. However, as the initial “project” morphed into a business, I learned how to run it on the fly – one day at a time. I have often said that I am not a quick learner, but I finally realized that my community has such a wealth of knowledge as to the workings of cotton AND manufacturing. These two things had been part of the vernacular of this community for a century. So while it took time for me to understand, I finally realized I just needed to “go to the well” to draw upon that information. Here in Florence, Alabama, that “well” was Terry Wylie.
Rosanne Cash has become one our favorite clients, friends, and points of inspiration over this last year. (Yes, thank you, it has been a very good year and we have lots of reasons to be thankful.)
It seems that everywhere I turn these days, Rosanne’s name is attached to another interesting project. From America: Now and Here (read the NY Times Article about the project ) to Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit 2011, Rosanne seems to be singing, writing, and spreading poetry around the globe.
I made a flight to Berlin this year with her book, Composed: A Memoir, and could not put it down. There was a moment in the Berlin airport I was streaming tears, book in hand, and oblivious to the other passengers looking my way. Butch leaned over and said, “You okay?” “Yes,” I replied, “it’s just SO beautiful.”
Watch, listen, and read here: Rosanne Cash – Time Traveler
*Photo above of Rosanne sporting her Alabama Chanin coat @ Fortune Magazine’s Summit.
Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being, has spurred many conversations and thoughtful moments in my life. I listened to the episode, Civility, History & Hope – Vincent Harding in conversation with Krista Tippett – in August and I just can’t seem to get it out of my mind. On my recent trips, I listened to it at least four more times and each time it resonated with more clarity.
From the program:
“Vincent Harding is a wise voice of history — the history of civil rights. This hour, as part of our Civil Conversations Project, he helps us imagine how the lessons of that time might speak to contemporary American divisions. Martin Luther King’s vision, he reminds us, was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; he aspired in biblical words to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. And Vincent Harding possesses an infectious hope for the continued unfolding of that possibility, even now. He’s spent recent decades bringing the elders and lessons of civil rights into creative contact with new generations. As we navigate rancor in our time, he says, we can look both to history and again to the margins of society, to young people of courage and creativity.”
I come back over and over again to the thought of the “beloved community,” the feeling of Dr. King and Vincent Harding that the term “civil rights” is not enough – that we as humanity are bigger than that.
Our voice is big, and beautiful and strong.
The article made me sit back in my chair and I have been thinking of it randomly for weeks. Perhaps because I am raising two children across two very different decades, or perhaps because I am a working, single mother who is responsible (most of the time) for daily life or perhaps just because there is a small feminist (Charlotte Perkins Gilman are you listening?) ember somewhere inside of me, I find relief in Jong’s words.
Although I made the conscious decision this last year to take more time for family life, I am still the breadwinner AND the bread baker. And I stand by my decision and will tell anyone who asks that it was the best decision I ever made.
When my son was young, 29 years ago, I didn’t have that option (which is a luxury). Yet, I have shed many a tear and endured many moments of guilt and self-loathing in thinking about decisions I made. The last line of Jong’s article feels like an absolution to me: “Do the best you can. There are no rules.”
Read the Wall Street Journal article and tell me what you think: Mother Madness
And don’t miss the additional piece by Molly Jong-Fast: Growing Up With Ma Jong
*Raphael. The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna. 1500. Oil on wood. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
For a decade, my work at Alabama Chanin has been made possible by our artisans. Without them and our amazing staff, there would be no Alabama Chanin.
Many of the artisans working with us today are the very same women who sewed those first deconstructed t-shirts. I want to express my deep gratitude. Wielding needle and thread for a decade, they have brought beauty, laughter, amazement and joy to my life and company (not to mention all the garments, home-furnishings and projects along the way).
Over the decade, they have ranged in age from 20 to 80; among them have been secretaries, students, former textile mill employees, retired school teachers, and single mothers. They are mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands, wives and friends but above all, they have proven talented, committed and proud to do the work they do.
Thanks to each and every one of you who has passed through our door- it has been a wonderful (and still growing) adventure…
*Photos from Elizabeth DeRamus
Many of my regular readers know a bit about my history… but to sum it up for those of you that are new:
In the year 1999, I took (what I thought to be) a four month sabbatical from my life and loves in Vienna, Austria. Beginning on an island off the northern coast of Venezuela, my plan was to end my travels in New York City, spend one month, then go home to Vienna. That never happened.
I went to New York City, one month became two, two months became three and – obviously – I never moved back to Vienna. In the course of my extended sabbatical, I cut apart and reconstructed a t-shirt and a company called Project Alabama was born. The history of Project Alabama and my subsequent move to Alabama Chanin has been well documented – no need to elaborate. However, the simplified version above skips over so many, many people who are intricate to making Alabama Chanin the company that it is today.
Julie Gilhart from Barneys New York is one of these people. She came to a make-shift “showroom” in the Hotel Chelsea and that first collection of recycled t-shirts came to life. She consequently went out into the fashion industry and told everyone she met about the work. Julie and the amazing buyers at Barneys have bought, sold and paid for every subsequent collection since the year 2001 – including the difficult time during the transition from Project Alabama to Alabama Chanin.
I luckily have had the opportunity to get to know Julie Gilhart over the last decade and the honor to call her “friend.” And through this friendship, I heard the following story about a year ago:
It was the year 2000 and Julie had taken some time at the end of the year to hear a lecture from the Dalai Lama. After this amazing experience, she returned to her office at Barneys early in 2001 to be confronted with a pile of fashion week invitations and catalogs that covered the span of her desk and reached above eye-level. The sheer amount of information was overwhelming. She sat there looking at the pile, wondering where to start when a colleague from Barneys stopped by her office. The visitor picked up a brochure from the Dalai Lama that Julie had lying on her desk, thumbed through and remarked, “This is everything we don’t do.” Julie looked at the colleague, replied, “You are right. We have to get out-of-here right now.” She looked at the pile of invitations and catalogs on her desk, reached for a random item and pulled out a hand-made catalog from a new company: Project Alabama.
Consequently, Julie called the number on the catalog, took a cab to the Hotel Chelsea, and Alabama Chanin came to life on that day.
Amazing to me that a decade of work can come from one simple moment of faith and belief… stemming from a committed, brilliant, beautiful, rich, spiritual, whole, funny, light, surfing, friend of a woman.
Since those simple beginnings in 2000, I have had the opportunity to lecture and hold workshops around the globe on sustainability in design and to act as an expert in the fields of micro-economics and the use of local labor. Alabama Chanin and me, Natalie Chanin, are what we are today because of the unfettered belief and support of Julie Gilhart. I am deeply indebted.
Julie’s recent departure from Barneys New York marks a new milestone in her own personal journey; a journey that I am sure will be filled with richness and beauty.
Life is, truly, in the details.
P.S.: Listen to 200 One-of-a-Kind T-shirts
**T-shirt #90 “Sister Shirt” – shown above – was part of that very first collection and photographed by me.
Tune into PBS on MONDAY, AUGUST 23rd, 9PM CST
(AFTER HISTORY DETECTIVES)
for the National Broadcast of
CITIZEN ARCHITECT: SAMUEL MOCKBEE AND THE RURAL STUDIO
If you can not tune in, check out the website / or facebook page for theatrical screening updates / or buy the DVD online:
Bravo to our friends Sam and Jay… and, of course, to Samuel Mockbee – who inspired a generation.
Watch and then plan your road trip to Hale County, Alabama…
What to say about Anna Maria Horner?
Celebrate – verb:
To observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities:
Today we celebrate Earth Day and the joy of life.
To make known publicly; proclaim:
The newspaper celebrated the beauty of her life.
To perform with appropriate rites and ceremonies; solemnize:
We will celebrate the light that her life brought to Earth.
While today we begin our Earth Day Celebration @ The Factory, it is a mixed blessing as Tuesday of this week our friend, mentor and local hero Marigail Mathis passed away. While this is a sad time for all of us, Marigail was the kind of person who made life worth celebrating. Her vision, joy, enthusiasm, support, laughter and kindred spirit will be sorely missed in my life; however, what she has given to me – through her friendship – will be celebrated eternally.
Celebrate the life of someone you love today.
In 1999, at the tail end of the last decade, I chose to leave my life in Vienna, Austria, to spend what I deemed a “sabbatical” on an island off the northern coast of Venezuela called Los Roques. How I got there is a story for another day. What had drawn me there was a woman – Nelly – and “El Canto de la Ballena.” Little did I know that my entire life was about to change.
I credit the beginnings of the work I have done the last ten years with a few months spent on that island. It was a time when hurricanes and storms wreaked havoc and destruction to the coast of Venezuela. I was on this tiny island – due north – as the weather passed through for weeks on end.
I wrote this story in February of 2000 when I had landed in cold New York but still had the stories of Los Roques fresh on my mind… I hope that my translation of Nelly’s words from the original Spanish do her justice.
The point of the whole thing is food,” she said. “Good food. Real good food. A lot of people have forgotten,” she continued. “Three meals a day, sit down, take your time and eat warm food that is prepared with good ingredients and love. That’s the key,” she stresses, “love. It’s the way it’s washed, it’s the way it’s cut, it is the way one touches and it is the way one thinks as one touches. That,” she said, “is food and food is love.”
–Nelly Camargo, December 1999, Los Roques
Nelly made fish soup that day. I remember that is was one of those first days when the waves began to crash onto the porch. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I know that by that day, the beach was already gone, taken by the hurricane. And, I definitely remember that it seemed on that day like the waves were coming back for the porch. Soon after this day, we made sandbags because shortly after, the house next door fell into the sea.
The soup took hours. As the weather had been acting up again, everyone had the feeling of being wet and cold. Saying nothing, Nelly just went into the kitchen and started to work. In went the fish, the heads, the bones and just about everything else that could be found in the kitchen and on the island.
I guess that everyone who passed Nelly’s house that day could smell what was going on. So the soup cooked and the word spread, “Nelly is up to something.” And before I knew it, we were five people in the kitchen. Everyone was washing and cutting and chopping and rolling and laughing and talking. I know that I had never seen anything like it before that day. Music blared from the stereo and some were even dancing in the tiny, warm space.
In Nelly’s kitchen there is a window which looks down the hall and out to the sea. When you stand there and see the wooden spoons and the open window and the green-green sea in the background, you cannot help but stand still for a moment and breathe deeply. But that day, no one even looked to the window until about one in the afternoon, when the first faces began to appear.
The islanders were greeted with a big, warm smile and the question, “Are you hungry?” We went on that day to feed what seemed to be the whole island. Many faces and stories and laughter passed through my life that day. Nelly asked everyone, “Have you met Alabama?”
The feast went on into the night and here are a few of the recipes that were made. The fish soup was the best I have ever tasted in my life, but it remains Nelly’s secret. All I can remember is to put in everything you can find (plus coriander – the “spice of life”) and to do it with lots of love and laughter.
Fish in the Pan
Crush 5 cloves of garlic and salt in mortar. Add juice of two limes and a splash of soy sauce. Pour over fish fillets and let stand for awhile. Cook the fish on hot skillet with the marinade.
Grate zucchini with skins into thin rounds. Lay flat on a big plate. Cover with juice of lime, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. Finish by grating parmesan cheese to cover.
Cut cabbage into very thin strips. (The cutting is very important!) Crush garlic and salt in mortar; add roasted sesame seeds and crush a little bit more. Add vinegar, a little sugar, a little sesame oil and more roasted sesame seeds. Pour over cut cabbage and serve.
Mix salt (about one-half teaspoon) and warm water (about three cups) in a big bowl with a tablespoon of oil. To this mixture, add ”P.A.N” or Arepa Flour until dough is of a consistency to roll in your hand. Shape into 1/2” thick rounds and fry in hot oil. Cook until brown. When they are finished, you have to “thump” them. If they are really done, they make a kind of hollow sound.
This is just the basic recipe. You may choose to add white cheese, sesame seeds or just about anything you want to add.
Nelly moved El Canto de la Ballena in January of 2000, just after the storms had stopped. The new building is a bit further from the beach and behind the fishing pier.
I left Los Roques a few weeks after the Y2K panic was over and our world continued to spin; however, I don’t think that we would really have noticed any computer meltdown on that island. I have not laid eyes on Nelly since that time and have not spoken to her for much too long. I hope that she remembers me and will be proud when I say that the seeds for my work with the former Project Alabama and now Alabama Chanin were watered in her kitchen.
It is an amazing thing in life when your heroes become your friends. And so it is with friend Les Blank.
Don’t miss this great interview with Les @ Vice Magazine.
Robert Rausch just finished our final catalog and lookbook for The Songbirds…
The photographs are lovely – thank you to Russ Harrington and everyone involved. It was a beautiful process. We are working on updating our website and will soon have this and a slew of other new projects going up. In the meantime, here are a few of my favorites:
As you will have noted, I had taken a small break from posting here while we were working on our new collection.
However, during this time, my father suffered a stroke following his third treatment for Multiple Myeloma. I am bleary-eyed.
This has been a scary, trying, and intense time filled also with compassion, caring, and the strength of human commitment to heal my father.
We are thankful to the staff at University of Arkansas Medical Sciences for their support and expertise.
My father received a positive report this morning and he has a wonderful chance for complete recovery. I am extremely grateful and know that my life is filled with HEROES.
And visit Multiple Musicians Against Multiple Myeloma – An event to benefit the International Myeloma Foundation. I received this lovely “Myeloma Sucks” pin while on the Myeloma station at UAMS with my father.
When you are thinking about giving this year, consider the Multiple Myeloma Foundation.
I am sending a wish of health, happiness, peace and thanks to everyone who has helped us through this time.
May we remember to live our lives to the fullest each and every day.
Occasionally in our lives, a person comes along who changes the course of our destiny and makes us a better person, simply by having touched our lives. One such person in my life was a teacher who believed in me before I knew that one could believe.
I came to his studio as a naive, wounded young woman and his quiet guidance opened a path for me that I never knew could have existed. I am the designer, business owner, manufacturer, and person I am today because of the commitment of a teacher/professor and friend: Michael Pause.
Here is a portion of an email that I received from him today:
… Speaking of which, on 30 June I resigned from the faculty, after 33 years. Cleaned the office, put my keys in an envelope, put the years in a box, ribboned it and put it up on a shelf. It was a fantastic run; every student was a gift in some way.
I mourn for the legions of students who will miss his quiet guidance, commitment to pure design, and his struggle to keep a sliver of Bauhaus alive in education today.
Let’s take a moment today to thank all of those teachers along our way who have helped to shape us into men and women we are proud to be, walking paths we are proud to walk.
Thank you Michael. May your days be filled with family, joy, good work, and laughter.
I first became acquainted with Toni Morrison in 1987 when my childhood friend Wendy sent me a copy of Beloved in the mail. Throughout my life, this book remains one of my favorites. The image of “one off-centered orange square” in a quilt on a bed haunts me from time to time.
How can you not love and cherish a woman who has won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and recently received the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award?
The current Time Magazine features a reader interview with Ms. Morrison in their “10 Questions” section which reminded me why Toni Morrison continues to be an inspiration and a hero.
I love this question and, her answer:
Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
—Sarah Henderson, Loma Linda, Calif.
No, I always am most deeply impressed with the one that’s going on at the moment.
Her new book, a non-fiction, “collects three decades of Toni Morrison’s writings about her work, her life, literature, and American society:”
Photograph: Gregg Delman for TIME
Georgia Gilmore worked at the National Lunch Company in Montgomery, Alabama, cooking her renowned fried chicken for both white and black patrons. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, she brought home-cooked meals to mass meetings. This evolved into what became known as,“The Club from Nowhere,” an underground fund-raising effort built on her delicious cakes and pies. Georgia and her fellow bakers would sell fresh baked goods to local Laundromats,beauty parlors and cab stands. Montgomery citizens who supported the boycott could now contribute to the cause anonymously. Georgia always said that the money came “from nowhere.” Take what you have, do what you know to do and make use of it. The cost of change is mitigated by the cost of staying the same.
I once wrote a piece called, Hero, for the now-defunct Girl on the Street blog. The writing of that post led me to learn more about Alice Waters, her involvement in the Slow Food movement and commitment to all things sensual:
I received my copy of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee this week and started reading it on a series of flights/travels that seem to keep me away from my own kitchen these days. It continues to surprise me how inspired I am by people who love, grow and prepare food.
This story, from page 28 of the book, made me think about how I want to eat in my own life:
“… and, though Alice was raised loosely Presbyterian and none of them was Jewish, they also always ‘set a place for Elijah’ – a Passover tradition of welcome to an uninvited guest. In fact, as often as not, somebody would turn up just in time to occupy Elijah’s chair.”
I decided on the airplane last night – as we roughly bumped down to our landing – that from this day forward I will always “set a place for Elijah.”
“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” Helen Keller
Helen Keller was born and raised in Tuscumbia, Alabama, just across the Tennessee River from my home in Florence. Every year, my Grandfather Perkins would take us to see The Miracle Worker. My cousins and I always looked forward to going – not because of the content of the show – but because it was summertime and we were happy to be together. It is only since I am a grown woman that I understand the true accomplishments of this remarkable person.
This year, as part of our Alabama Studio Weekend, we will be hosting a dinner on the grounds of Ivy Green. Storytellers from around the south will grace a stage where, long ago, a small girl challenged the world, against all odds, with the steady guidance of her teacher, mentor and friend Annie Sullivan.
Learn more about Helen Keller here:
“Even the simplest wicker basket can become priceless when it is loved and cared for through the generations of a family.”
– Sister Parish
I had the opportunity to visit all the folks at Patagonia yesterday. What an amazing group of people, an amazing place, and an amazing company. From the ladies in the sewing room to their organic cafeteria, I was floored at the knowledge, care and passion that infuse their lives.
Patagonia has long been an inspiration to me because 1) it grew from an artisan/hand work base 2) they make clothes to fit the body, not clothes that you have to fit your body to 3) they make products that are designed to stand the test of time and don’t forget the fact that you can also climb mountains and swim seas in the things they make.
And aside from the fact that it is a GREAT company from the product side, it is even more outstanding from a perspective of social and ecological responsibility. The first things you see as you pull into their parking lot are the solar panels that run the offices and the playground for the daycare center.
Their mission statement could be a guideline for life:
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
The book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman gives a really beautiful vision of where they came from and where they are going. Be sure to visit the Footprint Chronicles to have a very serious look at manufacturing processes.
And One Percent for the Planet is just a very, very good idea.
I recently asked my friend Angie Mosier about brining chicken & her reply was that ”everything you need to know about brining chicken can be found in The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.”
I learned from Anige that you cannot write about the southern table without paying homage to the great Edna Lewis.
Her cookbooks remain coveted kitchen tools today:
The Edna Lewis Cookbook – Out of Print