Mosaic Madness

The July First Fridays Ypsi event at FLY, where I work, was quite fun! Our project this month was a pop-cap mosaic mural that we will display at the Creativity Lab (40 N. Huron, Ypsilanti, 48197), and take with us to some special events. A good time was had by all our visiting artists, young, younger, and grown-up.


We had some families come in, and as the evening waned, a stream of couples and singles who stopped to chat. It is great to get to know people in our community. They let us know what’s going on, and we can share with them so we all become involved with one another. Go Ypsi!

Just about all the materials were from generous donors. Since bottle-caps are usually not recyclable, people saved them up and gave them to us. The canvases they’re on were also a generous gift from someone.

We are most impressed with the detail orientation and hard work by our supporters, particularly the young people who did the bulk of the work. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and be sure not to miss the August 1st First Friday, which will include the Washington Street Ypsi Art Fair.

Cinderella’s Birds

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The next play is Into the Woods, which is a fairy-tale mash-up. It goes up in a couple weeks, and so we are in construction mode. Not all costume design is done with a needle and thread, and as you have probably guessed, I like building things that people don’t expect.

In the play, Cinderella has birds that help her out, and in most productions, they are flown in. Our theatre doesn’t have flys to move in trees, birds, etc, so our trees and birds are puppets instead, making them my job instead of the scenic artist’s.

It means I get to play with power tools!

These were cut from insulation using a bandsaw, then sanded with a big belt-sander, and glued together with liquid nails.

Brecht, Aelita, and other Inspirations

Natella Abashwili in the CourtroomOne of my other recent projects was at the same school where we did Charlie Brown, but with the “Upper School” students (Grades 9-12). It was the play by Bertholt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It takes place in the Caucuses region in what is present day Georgia. It is not about “white” people, though if one did it as a period piece, set in the 1940’s and the 1920’s, I suppose people in that part of Western Asia are white.

The play is a parable based somewhat upon Solomon’s Judgement, but also focusing on the political situations in Russia and Germany at the time. That is, the Historical framework upon which the play sits is that of the Bolshevik Revolution in the late 1910’s, the ensuing chaos, and political drama.

The director, Emily Wilson-Tobin chose to use the current influence of The Hunger Games as a lens to help the students relate to the sideways angles of Brechtian drama, and make the underlying unfamiliar history relatable. The costumes in The Hunger Games, by Judianna Madkovsky have crazy lines, beautiful high-end construction, and a finish that in 9 weeks with 2 plays going at once weren’t going to be possible.

Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow

To solve this quandary from the beginning, we planned to use non-traditional materials which don’t need to be hemmed, can be glued rather than sewn, and theoretically are cheaper than fabrics, since many of them can be got for free. For example, the Balloon Dress above, or the wild pink-ribboned farthingale.

The Balloon Dress was actually one of the more expensive pieces because it went through several iterations and in order to allow the actress practice time with it, we had to re-inflate and add balloons at a few points. We made it modular rather than all taped together so that this would be possible.

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First, looking at the costumes in The Hunger Games, I realized there was some relationship to the costumes in Fritz Lang movies, and in a Russian Film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a film which drew my gaze while browsing in Paris at a DVD shop because it holds my namesake, and held my attention because it had such wonderful sets and costumes.  It is a silent film, made in 1923.

So in the costumes for Greenhills’ production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, as well as the set, we were most influenced by Russian and German Avant-Garde Cinema and Constructivist painting between the Wars than by the real clothes people in the region would have worn.

It was fun to work with students, and many of them helped with the design process, or just came to help out a little here and there. They learned a little about how we would do things in a larger scale professional production, about how to make design choices, and how some things are good on paper but less so on the proverbial boards.

For those who were interested, I also talked a little about my own family’s history and experiences at that time in Karelia, on the other side of Russia; the social connotations of dress and how to manipulate the audience’s perceptions; and how the history and social connotations of clothing and fashion are still present today, though in a different form.

Director: Emily Wilson-Tobin

Music Director and Composer: Benjamin Cohen

Tech Director: Laura Bird with assistance from Tim Ebeling

Assistant Costumers: Sarah Ceccio, Luena Maillard

Assistant Makeup Designer: Cat Bonner

(All Photos except Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow, are by Gabe Linderman, Greenhills student)

Contemporary Costumes

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The next play was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. These photos show everyone onstage at once, during the baseball game. There was a cute bit where the “Woodstocks” rearranged the letters of the word “TEAM” to spell different things, concluding with the actual real spelling.

As you can see we did not go with a super cartoony set of clothes, but rather contemporary clothes against a cartoony scene with movable pieces. The set and Direction again by Laura Bird, Musical direction by Ben Cohen, and Technical Direction by Ben Ebeleing.

Since it was done with middle-school students, this is a blurry photo so you get an idea of the design, but the students’ privacy is not compromised.

Concentration

Summer Sun Rug (in progress)

Started a new rug to consign at a local boutique, more about that when I put the rugs and purses in progress into the shop.

Though I love drawing and sketching, often it is not the place where I make breakthroughs. The materiality and spatial relationships of things are somehow distant when they are on paper, and I can visualize something bigger and better, so at some point I just have to “waste material” and make it three dimensionally.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that recycled materials are so fascinating for me. They are cheap, sometimes discarded, sometimes just re-claimed and re-purposed. They are usually cheaper, so if something gets screwed up there is little risk.

Last year I did a series of drawings that were colorful concentric circles, inspired by a variety of sources, not least my own childhood attempts to do Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”  This year those drawings have inspired or perhaps influenced the rag rugs I’ve begun to produce.

I’ve been reading a book put out by the Michigan State University Press about research done on a collection of Finnish American Rag Rugs. Though I never associated my hatred of waste and love of creative re-use with my Finnish Cultural Heritage, the more I read of this book, the more think that it, along with certain habits of humor and prosody, were inherited from my Finnish family.

The book contains stories about how the women, mostly from my grandmother’s generation or older, learned to weave, where they got their looms, whom they taught, and why they wove.

Although my rugs are crocheted rather than woven, it is interesting that, as a 4th generation Finnish American (mixed with other things, though also not more than 4th or 5th Generation on any side), some of the Suomilainen traits have trickled down.

I’ve written elsewhere about going to Finland while living in Spain, but I’ll briefly re-state it for you here and now:

It was half-way through my second year in Spain. Though at this point I still have an American Accent (can one ever really lose it entirely?), my Spanish is otherwise perfect. Nevertheless, every time I go someplace where they don’t already know me, people try to speak to me in absurdly broken English.

So I go to Finland, for a little more than a week, and within hours, people are speaking to me in Finnish, by default. They do not speak to the Germans in Finnish at the cyber cafe where I go for a late night cup of tea. To me, I look just as much like them as I do like a Finn.  When she goes before me in line to buy a pack of gum, they speak in English to the Chinese girl who lives in Oulu and actually DOES speak Finnish.

Finally in exasperation, I teach myself, trying to remember how my grandmother would pronounce things, how to say “I do not speak Finnish,” and “Do you speak English?” At a book store when my oil pastels set off the alarm, I try the first one, and the lady looks at me funny and switches without a beat into English. I explain I’m looking for a bilingual Kalevala. Then at a yarn shop I use the second. This time the girl looks much more confused and starts to reply in Finnish, catches herself, and asks, “But, don’t you speak Finnish?”

A year later, in Brussels, we stumbled into a Finnish Cultural Center. To my Belgian Tour Guide, they spoke in English, to me in Finnish. (It was simple, “Hei Hei” “kaksi euroa, kiitos” “takemiin”). I passed rather than point out that I wasn’t in fact a Finn. They heard me speaking to him in English spattered with French.

Ethnic Identity is funny. At some point in my life it was very important. In 5th grade I did whole projects of study on nothing but Finland and Jewish-ness. As I’ve gotten older, though I appreciate and better understand some of my roots, I also appreciate the freedom of being an American. I pick and choose. I adopt Spanish table manners, and Persian cooking; Japanese paper-folding, and French radio.

But somehow, despite all my picking and choosing, some of my heritage shows through.