Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Trove: Lynda Johnson
August 11, 2011

Living lovely in Harlem.

Lynda Johnson was born and raised in Syracuse, New York but her family’s roots are in Montgomery, Alabama and it shows in her Southern hospitality and colorful storytelling. Her people were part of the epic, 20th century migration of blacks from below the Mason-Dixon line in optimistic search of opportunity up North. Lynda grew up with relatives called “Chicken” and “Joe Boy” and if you asked about her father Jimmie by name she’d say “Who’s that?” As far as she knew, “My father’s name is Honey.” Everyone called him that, not just her mama.

Her parents first daughter and the fourth of their six children, she displays the leadership traits of a firstborn and assumes the mediator role of a middle child. Marie Johnson was seven months pregnant with Lynda when she traveled down home to lay little Billy, felled by leukemia to rest in Montgomery. “I was carrying one and burying another,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it,” Lynda marvels at her mother’s strength and stoicism, an inherited strength she too would have to draw from.

Little Lynnie flanked by her Auntie Dot and her mommy Marie.

Too young to legally wed, Jimmie Johnson fudged his numbers to marry Marie, seven years his senior. The factory foreman worked the graveyard shift but he’d “get up, make my mother lunch and take it to her job. She always had a hot meal,” Lynda smiles. Neighborhood kids lined up at the back door for a taste of his homemade ice cream. “He could throw down!” Though she made a great pound cake and could fry some corn, Marie was a distracted cook who told her kids “burnt food makes you pretty.”

Diminutive size be damned, Marie, like her daughter was not easily cowed. “She was tiny but feisty.” Lynda recalls a classic example, “Some man was outside our house fussing about something and waving a gun. My mother went out there, took the gun from him, said ‘Nigga don’t you be standing outside my house carrying on!’ and started hitting him with his own gun. She was tough.”

Jimmie and Marie Johnson.

She was also sharp. “My mother loved to shop. I have some of her sweater sets and pencil skirts from the 50’s,” Lynda says.” Their jaunts to Ebony Fashion Fair shows empowered Lynda. “I always knew that we as a people had an amazing sense of style and that’s what drew me to fashion.”

Besides playing volleyball and acing track, she took fashion classes in high school, and planned a future in the Big Apple. “At the breakfast table, where we always had family discussions, I told my parents I wanted to go to New York to study fashion,” Lynda says. “They looked up from their plates and Mom said They stole the hubcaps off our car in New York City, you are not going to school there, so you better find someplace else to go. Dad was always the quiet one, but I knew he agreed.”

She found someplace else in a magazine ad for Atlanta’s Bauder School of Fashion. It was exciting to be sixteen, on her own and zipping around the Peach in her “sky blue VW bug,” but it just wasn’t Seventh Avenue. She informed her folks that Atlanta was a wrap. Their response, “if you want to go to school in New York, you have to pay for it yourself.” She called their bluff, got a job at the factory where her father worked, and saved enough for the in-state tuition at FIT, a SUNY school. She went on the parental condition that she stay with family in Long Island. However, the tedious 2-hour commute became a bit taxing and she moved with roommates to a “teeny-tiny” affordable apartment on 24th Street, walking distance from campus.

“I set my five-year plan for what I wanted to be and do once I graduated and it all eventually came true,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a designer nor a buyer, I wanted to write about fashion.” An FIT mentoring program paired Lynda with advertising maven Yvonne Durant, a friend to this day. When an upset Lynda came crying over some slight, Yvonne listened then said “Now that you’re done, never do that again. There are no tears in this industry, that will be seen as a sign of weakness.” Whenever work situations threatened her equanimity, Lynda remembered Yvonne Durant said you cannot cry. And she didn’t.

Yvonne secured her an internship at Essence Magazine with then-fashion editor, Susan L. Taylor. “That was when Essence really had a voice for Black women. I loved Marcia Ann Gillespie’s editor’s pages, I read them religiously. Look at these black women, they are doing it! I thought. I was enamored with them, I stayed until I graduated in 1976.”

In 1978 she began a lengthy career with industry big Fairchild Publications. “I started as Assistant Fashion Editor of SportStyle magazine. My boss covered tennis, golf, ski– all the hoity-toity. I covered what she thought inconsequential,” categories which flourished: “bodywear exploded, everyone was running and the whole surf lifestyle took off,” she says. “I LOVED covering this market, I was in jock heaven. I interviewed and went to a baseball game with Dave Winfield.” She covered trade shows in  California, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. “I ran the Corporate Challenge race in Central Park and played volleyball on Fairchild’s corporate team.” Of her favorite sport, the petite dynamo says “I could get under the ball. Didn’t do much spiking but I had a mean serve.”

Fun at Fairchild.

Responding to the 1980’s baby boomlet and subsequent wave of products targeted to parents, Fairchild created Children’s Business magazine in 1985 with Atrium award-winning Lynda helming fashion. “I love that the children’s industry is real mom-and-pop and down-to-earth, not so garmento.”

She balanced this fulfilling career with a charmed personal life. Artist Earl Garrett, Jr. knew she was a “keeper” when she agreed to have dinner with him, no judgment, after he said, “I want to have dinner with you but we gotta go Dutch, I don’t make that much money.”

“I’m not one of those 26-point women with their lists who miss out on really good guys,” she says. Dinner and a Betty Boop film festival “was so much fun. We had the best time.” Though he didn’t cop a kiss, he went home and called her straightaway. “We talked on the phone for hours– about everything. Garrett was special, really special. “He was very creative.” (In photography, art direction, drawing and painting) He ignited her interest in art and introduced her to the Venice Biennale. It was in Venezia that he proposed marriage. They wed in 1986 on his birthday.

Her collection of works by African-American artists includes her beloved Garrett (left) and celebrated Alabama folk artist, Mose Tolliver.

Lynda ended the 1980’s with unexpected loss. One of the two most important men in her life, her father, suffered a sudden stroke, drove himself to the hospital and went into cardiac arrest.

With the nineties came a barrage of highs and lows. Both bibliophiles, Lynda and colleague Tracy Mitchell collectively read,”were riveted” by and discussed Steven Corbin’s No Easy Place to Be.” Soon, editor-in-chief Monique Greenwood joined their conversations. Tracy speculated that there were other kindred spirits who read and celebrate black literature. The three women founded Go On Girl! book club. Twenty years later, GOG! has grown to over thirty chapters in 13 states and holds an annual awards gala to honor established authors and encourage new talent. Lynda is National Chair.

Garrett created the GOG! logo.

Realizing a girlhood dream of living in Harlem, Lynda and Garrett bought a century-old Hamilton Heights townhouse at a great price during the 1992 buyer’s market.

Architect Clarence True’s rendering.

In August 1995, Lynda and her mom drove from Syracuse to Montgomery for a family reunion, talking all the way. “She revealed herself to me. All the things she’d longed to do (like becoming an actress) and what she’d wished for us kids. I had so much fun with her that trip.” It would be their last.

“My mother was no joke when it came to her cards. She always had a game going in the house: Poker, Black Jack, Tonk…just for fun with family” Lynda recalls. “The next thing I knew it was a full-fledged business. She served dinners (a guy named Teardrop worked the kitchen) she had somebody doing the bar and she took a cut on the table. She was not playing.”

Unfortunately some young men, “looking to rob somebody and get high,” knew there would be cash at the Johnson house.  Around the corner, a neighbor watched them park in her driveway, don masks and quickly run off. She noted their faces, the make of the car and license plate number then phoned the police.

Recognizing the voices of the masked men demanding money, Marie called them by name. She’d fed at least one of them before. Panicked, one shot her. Word spread quickly of the slaying and the four perpetrators, caught by police within a half hour, were “beaten mercilessly” in jail.

Lynda, her mother’s “Rock of Gibraltar” arrived in Syracuse braced to handle things, but her childhood home-as-crime scene was surreal. Where am I going to go? she thought, her “beacon” police-taped. Once allowed in, “the phone rang off-the-hook” for the venerated Mrs. Johnson. “I had no idea of the things my mother had done for people. We got calls from guys in prison. It blew me away.”

At the funeral many spoke of Marie Johnson’s legendary generosity. One woman shared that Mrs. Johnson gave her money to open a hair salon. A troubled young man disowned by his family said “Mrs. Johnson took me in like I was her own child. She fed and clothed me.” Lynda too remembered her mother’s compassion. A man once knocked on their door asking for food. Lynda’s sister shooed him away but their mother said sternly you never turn anybody away who’s hungry, if there’s something in this house to eat, you give them something to eat. “My mother fed that man.”

The neighbor/witness came forward and identified the accused men. “That was the saving grace for me. I knew who did it and it gave me closure,” says Lynda, who read a statement at the trials.” Addressing the defendants the judge said, “If you guys had her mother you wouldn’t be sitting on that side of the table.” The actual triggerman died in jail. “Talk about karma,” Lynda says.

Garrett was balm for grief. “He was there for me in October when my mother was murdered, then in February he was gone. Just like that.” He was beset by a viral infection that baffled doctors and shut down all his organs. “Having lost my mom and then Garrett, my cornerstones, so suddenly, I thought God I don’t know what it is you want me to learn but I’m not getting it. Will you please just tell me and not take anymore people from me?” she says.

“I threw myself into work, I went back to school, I had to stay busy. I thought that if I stopped I was gonna die. It took a long time to get past the sadness.” But as her therapist promised, she now thinks and speaks of them with a smile.

A memorial crazy quilt lovingly crafted from Garrett’s clothing by the women in his life reproduces the cartoon image from his business card and holds his brushes and paint.

After his passing, Lynda wasn’t thinking about romance. I had my soul mate, I’ve done that, she thought until she met Alonzo Wright in July 1997. Short in stature, he was long on personality. “I think Garrett sent him,” she laughs, “I’d always been attracted to taller men.”

They clicked at an Onaje Allan Gumbs performance at Sweet Basil. Alonzo phoned her the next day and invited her to view the sunset with him. With his saxophone in tow, they headed to Riverbank State Park, where he serenaded her, the sun setting gorgeously on the Hudson. Hungry, they went to her nearby home, made “a big ol’ pot of pasta” and talked themselves into slumber on the sofa. “I woke up, realized it was really late and said ‘you can’t stay here overnight.’ Realizing his journey would be more than an hour, though, she put him up in her guest room, retreated to her bedroom and locked herself in.

She later sent him flowers at work with a note that read “Thanks for the beautiful sunset and for being a gentleman,” amazing him. “We started hanging out a lot and next thing you know, he moved in,” she says. “He is not a replacement for Garrett, he is an addition” she asserts. She feels truly blessed to have had them both in her life.

Lyn and ‘Zo.

When layoffs left Alonzo without a job, Lynda’s response was “oh good, now you can focus on your music.” With her belief in him, he thought keeper. “I knew music was what he really wanted to do and he did it. Here we are, three CDs later.”

Alonzo wrangled music peers Will Downing and Ron Blake and their daughters for Lynda’s magazine shoot. Photos: Deborah Feingold

After thirteen years together they married last summer. “On my birthday, we applied for the marriage license and on his birthday it arrived.” She and her mother, both Taurean, married Gemini men seven years junior and fabulous cooks. She chuckles at the coincidence.

After 20 years, Fairchild shuttered Children’s Business in 2005, rocking her professional world. Her considerable experience and respect from the industry garnered her a successful freelance run; then the recession hit, budgets cut and her clients dwindled to two. Her adjunct professorship at FIT helped fill in the financial gaps.

KidStyleSource

Rebounding admirably, she and Tracy Mitchell were in the throes of their business plan when they shared with a vendor at a trade show their intention to launch another childrenswear publication. “We don’t need a magazine, we need news in real-time, online. Manufacturers also need a place where we can advertise to the consumer without paying a lot of money,” he said. Lynda and Tracy reconsidered their venture and created a dual website, KidStyleSource.com “for the retailer planning the season ahead and for the parent buying for the season at hand,” she explains. They are enjoying advertising growth and increased traffic with great vendor giveaways. She never aspired to be an entrepreneur, but Marie bequeathed her the gift for cultivating a passion into a business.

As we talked into the night, it was heartening to see and hear how healing has trumped heartache for this truly beautiful soul. Here she shares the things enlivening to her mind, body and spirit.

1. Living in Harlem. The rich history of the cultural mecca was magnetic. Fiercely protective, she’s rallying neighbors to save the once majestic PS 186 building from razing.

Her stately Hamilton Heights haven; historic subway signage; and the beneficiary of her advocacy, PS 186.

2. VW Beetle. “My first was a ’63 now we have a ’73.”

Their trusty Jazz Blue bug.

3. Books by African-American Authors. “My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Steinberg opened a whole new world to me with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. ‘It’s so important for you to know about your culture through your writers,’ he said.”

Her ” favorite of all time.”

4. Smoothies. “Interested in the correlation between food and healing,” she enjoys making the dense, nutrient-rich drinks.

A yummy, efficacious blend of organic fruits with rice yogurt, green tea and flaxseed oil.

5. Staying Fit. “I love yoga and I do cardio and weight training at the gym…my husband IS younger than me,” she chuckles.

Bikram Yoga Harlem is her go-to spot.

6. Art Deco Furnishings. Though her mom offered, “You don’t have to buy that old used furniture. I can give you some money to buy some nice new furniture,” the era’s streamlined forms appeal to Lynda.

The dining room buffet.

7. Freesias. “They’re pretty, dainty and I love the fragrance.”

Photo: Gypsie2

8. Miraval Spa. “Love that place! Alonzo and I have gone twice.”

The famed resort is nestled in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Clarita mountains.

9. Champa Incense. She burns both the classic and golden fragrances from Blue Pearl.

Wafting essences of frangipani and sandalwood.

10. Entertaining. She loves to host guests in her elegant home. Lynda and I hadn’t seen in each other in ages, so we had a girls’ night whilst Alonzo was on the road in Italy.

She graciously made a delicious, vegan meal for dinner and served homemade banana bread and smoothies in the morning.

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The Trove: Myles Carter
August 4, 2011

We’ve relocated!  View Myles’ updated profile at inthetrove.com.  thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The visual and culinary artist in Paris.

A highly sentient soul, Myles Carter loves fiercely, be it his family, mastery of the brush stroke or an elegantly prepared and plated meal. He lives in sensory call and response: he touches and is touched in return. The enamored husband, delighted father and adoring son revels in cherished exchanges with his loved ones. The artist takes great pleasure in the expression on the face of someone who truly digs his painting. The chef enjoys the applause of sated, grateful diners. The self-described “goofball” loves to laugh — his own a mischievous staccato — and to evoke laughter.  Though he is serious about his work, he doesn’t take himself too seriously

I spoke with the man of many gifts as he riffed from his backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts on coming of age in pre-sanitized New York City, his Paris years, evolving from expressing his creative impulse through tunnel crawling with aerosol colors to harnessing the power of the paintbrush in legal expression and his other and equal passion, cooking.

With a gallerist and Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH) founding trustee for a mother, an esteemed jazz bassist and distinguished professor for a father and a certain legendary trumpeter as godfather, he is certainly proud of his heritage but doesn’t flaunt his “pedigree.”

A member of Miles Davis’ famed 1960’s quintet, Ron Carter and his wife Janet named their second son after the celebrated bandleader. Baby Myles was born “right in the heart of Harlem at Sydenham Hospital,” but developed an early love of Francophone countries. “R.J. (brother Ron Jr.) and I had a Haitian baby sitter, Raoul who would teach us French whenever he watched us. We had a big slate table so he’d write the lessons in chalk. I guess I was fluent by the time I was five and I never forgot it.”

He speaks fondly of his mother’s impeccable taste, “from A to Z, from floor to ceiling,” and their art-filled home on the Upper West Side. “I remember going to my godfather’s house just a couple of blocks away on 77th Street and playing with McCoy Tyner’s kids and Freddie Hubbard’s kids,” he says. “If my dad did a gig nearby in Philly or DC or even Boston, he sometimes took me with him. Occasionally we went on tour with him out of the country.” He recalled an arcade in Senegal and the unsettling sight of soldiers with machine guns in the trees of Port-au-Prince.

Rocking the boots on a 1969 album cover with his Dad and R.J. 

Obviously music held a prominent spot in his life as did art, his late mother’s passion. She helped found SMH when he was a toddler and operated the Janet Carter Gallery as he was growing up. “My mom was a driving force in contemporary African art being shown at value,” he says proudly. She showed mostly paintings and some sculpture, championing the original work coming out of Africa to be as viable and as valuable as that of contemporary Western artists. Her commitment to art was hugely influential on her baby boy. Because his father toured frequently and “R.J. was older and away a lot, it was basically me and my mom,” Myles says.

Janet Hasbrouck Carter, Myles’ lovely mom.

After attending the Bank Street School, he was accepted into JHS 104 on East 21st Street which required a portfolio submission and passing an entrance exam for admittance. High school followed at Music and Art, the last class before the 135th Street school merged with LaGuardia. Additionally, he went to the Art Students League “for drawing nudes and still lifes,” he says. Closer to home, 74th Street provided commercial art classes in the iconic Ansonia building and pottery classes at Pot Luck.

A teapot for Dad.  

Of this foundation he says, “that was my artistic root. Parallel to all of that structured art instruction I also was a graffiti writer.” He had an early awareness of graffiti through the tagged subway cars of the early 1970’s. “From the IND to the IRT to the BMT, I started to recognize style, particularly calligraphy style which was what first attracted me; it was a whole different look at fonts and calligraphy. I was already doing my commercial art stuff with the presstype letters,” he says.

As a kid who lived for Letraset, I get his infatuation with letterforms and how they informed his writing as the youngest member of Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW) a graff crew known for their stylized lettering. The ambitious 11-year-old was introduced to an impressed RTW founder and president, BILROCK-161. Also the son of a jazz musician and a former classmate of R.J.’s, he was, at the time “writing SAGE,” Myles recalls. Some thirty years later BILROCK would contribute to a Skoto Gallery catalogue on Myles’ evolution to works on canvas:

“His works flow with images which spark all those memories of our old New York, our Upper West Side…He is still the incredible, spirited talent who used to sit in my room, doing his thing…rocking the blackbooks.”  Charles Harmon a.k.a BILROCK-161

Bilrock-161.

Though RTW were infamous for their “outside pieces,” Myles, writing METRO, then MET’S “concentrated on insides since I couldn’t take a picture of it anyway,” he says. “If my father had found a picture, it would’ve been all over.” So he watched his back, tagged the interiors of subway cars and “became king of certain lines.”

By the time he was 16 and into girls, he stopped “for the same reason I never was a breakdancer– I didn’t want to get dirty. You got your newest sneakers and you’d have your new pants all clean and ironed and creased and then to roll around on the ground in the cigarette butts and the spit and the dog doo somebody tracked in—no thank you.  As much as I love to watch it and appreciate it, I just wasn’t getting down in the dirt.”  Nor was he taking his girl out with ink under his nails and paint on his clothes.

And there were the consequences to consider. “I never got busted, but there were special graffiti detectives on the MTA and they had files.” His prolific tagging with one of the era’s leading crews put him on the radar. “I suppose at one point I was on their list and it just didn’t seem worth the consequence. If I do something stupid, who are they gonna look for? Ron Carter’s son.”

The spatter-free graduate of Music and Art went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia and then Pratt Institute before heading to the City of Lights, where he had spent his eighth-grade year living with family friends and attending bilingual school.

Met’s, 2010 acrylic on newspaper.

When he arrived in Paris in 1987, he returned to graffiti. “I saw that it was pretty wide open. It wasn’t written up all over the place, though graffiti was there and they’d developed their own Paris style.” So he entered this domain with an approach to differentiate between the strong writers already making their marks and what he was bringing to the table. He went freestyle, abstract, bringing it back to his painting and eventually using only a paintbrush. “A brush stroke is so strong, so powerful,” he says. No longer limited to “insides,” there were vast walls to appropriate and his murals garnered much respect.

The first-time dad tagged his son in many pieces; Nelson, then and now.

Over the course of a decade in Paris, Myles became a father and a graffiti legend. He’s not seeking accolades but he knows that he played a part in the history of the form in both 70’s-80’s New York and 80’s-90’s Paris.

Immortalized by his walls and by the pen of RCF1.  “Like” the MEO artist page on Facebook.

His tag METRO had evolved over time into MEO, Mathematical Equation Of… “In my art there’s a lot of mathematics.”  In rapid fire succession he runs it down:

“I can put a number on the level of intensity between each color. What’s the drying time between these colors?  How long is there between the times the police make their rounds in the train yards? How long do I have to run down the tracks before the next train comes?  Not to mention the outside influence of the Five-percent Nation on a young New Yorker…It’s all mathematics.”

It is no wonder then that the boy who spent countless hours in the kitchen with a mom who could burn (“She was accomplished, she took specialty classes at the New School.”) would also gravitate to yet another avocation that marries mathematics with a pronounced visual sensibility, cooking. We know that the formulas of time and temperature are paramount, but the art of the chef, he contends “is in the plating.”

Cooking in Massachusetts; painting in Paris.

His entrée to a culinary career was a position with a high-end caterer in Boston, where he settled after returning from France. “I soon realized I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t get a diploma.” So he got a culinary arts degree from Newbury College and spent a couple of years making the rounds in Boston with Todd English Restaurants.

He found his niche when he was hired as personal chef for an MIT fraternity. He  developed a balanced, healthful meal plan for the twenty-five young men and loved it. “That was a sweet, sweet job…doesn’t get much better than that,” he says. “But it’s a tough gig. Kitchen work is hard; stressful, physically demanding, hot all the time. I find it rewarding, though. It’s immediate gratification.”

He enjoys the challenge of presentation. “Not only does it have to taste really, really good, it has to look marvelous, to look sexy on the plate. That’s my strong suit, recognized by Todd English himself I might add… I like the marriage of colors and flavor. They must mix well,” he asserts. He prides himself on his consistency: “If it is supposed to be served hot, then hot it will come to the table—in a timely manner.”

The notion of owning and operating a restaurant is alluring, but the all-consuming commitment that a successful restaurant requires is not. He is unwilling to sacrifice neither his family life nor his art for 80-100 hour work weeks.  What does interest him however, is more work as a personal chef and perhaps an interactive TV show wherein he would prepare viewer-submitted recipes “not Peking duck with a Russian twist and fish foam,” he laughs. Are you listening, Bravo?

And in an ideal world, he’d continue to paint and provide outreach to under-served children “to teach them basic nutrition and introduce healthy foods outside of the cultural norm.”

The past year has been very busy for Myles with exhibitions in New York and Paris.  Last fall’s show at Skoto Gallery, Myles Carter Paintings 1989-2010 “was not billed as a graffiti show. There was nothing graffiti about it except for my history.” In an essay for the show’s catalogue, respected curator/arts administrator Lowery Stokes Sims of the Museum of Art and Design lauds his “renderings of individual cuneiform gestures” evoking the “calligraphic and hieroglyphic” work of abstract expressionist Norman  Lewis.

Works from the exhibit:  5’s, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 50 inches; 0’s, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 32 inches.

Concurrently he contributed to a sneaker show wherein legendary graff artists were asked to reproduce an earlier work on a Converse high-top Chuck and incorporate the New York Subway.

On the tongue, the “1” train and on the side, his celebrated wall.

And finally, he returned to Paris this spring for the first time since his late nineties departure. A fellow tagueur, Dominic suggested he come celebrate the renaissance in graffiti there. ‘You earned your spot and you should come claim it,’ Dominic said. The two mounted a show at graffiti gallery, Wild Stylerz in the eighth arrondissement. “It was a good show,” Myles says. “I put up 13 pieces and sold six.”

Of Paris legend.

“They treated me like royalty,” he says. Awestruck young graffiti writers approached their hero with comments such as I used to watch you paint when I was ten. “And they’re standing there with a mustache and beard and a kid,” he laughs. They were wowed by his palette of fluorescents: “hot pink, turquoise, baby blue, school bus yellow, colors nobody was using together. I showed them how to gain maximum contrast without using black and white. I taught them the color wheel, complementary colors and fading techniques.” Seeing his mentees successfully integrate his advice into their work was gratifying.

“My work is a reflection of what I see and experience on a daily basis. I can remember the giddy feeling of standing on 159 St and Riverside Drive at sunset and looking across the Hudson River to the amusement park and thinking Wow we’re gonna go to Palisades Park!” And now more than 30 years later, the park is long gone but he can recall the feeling and the colors associated with it: “ the red and yellow of a rollercoaster, white wood shapes in the distance and the shadows.” Without actually rendering the coaster, he’ll translate its essence, the anticipation and the setting sun onto the canvas.

He’s been told that his work looks like sheet music. “Well I grew up with music without being a musician.” Sound, or even its absence can influence his work. “It could be a Talking Heads record or maybe Bachman Turner Overdrive or Otis Redding, even The Jackson Five,” that he interprets through color.

And of course he has reverence for his father’s work. “My dad is the man. Proud of him? Pride is too small a word. Adoration. I put him on ten pedestals! He’s also my best friend. I can talk to him about anything and always look forward to it.” Now as an artist and father of sons, his admiration for his father has intensified “only as I get older do I further grasp what his life was like. What he moved through.”

Not surprisingly, Myles’ trove is filled with things which evoke a blissful joie de vivre.

1. Bonding with Seen. With his own father Myles enjoyed the simple things like sitting together, reading.  He too enjoys the simplest of pleasures–playing in the backyard or taking a walk with his youngest son.

With big bro, R.J., BFF Dad and “pride and joy,” Seen, now three.

2. Martinique.  He first visited with his parents as a toddler, and spent many childhood summers there, beginning a life-long love affair with la fleur des Caraïbes. “I love it, I love it, it’s heaven!”

A favorite activity while visiting is body surfing.

3. Alaskan King Crab Legs with Butter.

Plain and simple.

4. The sound of my children laughing.

Nine years of laughter in unison: handsome twins Ronnie & Myles.

5. A Funky Drumbeat With a Phat Bassline. Approached by Q-Tip to record on A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal sophomore album, Carter père deferred to Myles for the low down on the Low End Theory cats.

“Ron Carter is in the house.” – Q-Tip, Verses from the Abstract

6. Silence.

It’s a music he savors.

7. Paris in the late Spring/early Summer. “It’s wonderful. All the trees are in bloom and the colors contrast the grey of concrete.

He loves it just after the chill of early Spring.

8. Cuddling with Lena. “A hug, a kiss, a gaze, a joke. She’s my everything, ma raison d’être.”

With his beautiful wife as they awaited the birth of  Seen.`

9. Going airborne on a motorcycle.

No Evel Knievel tricks for him, but a skyward lift is thrilling.

10. A Standing Ovation. As a chef, “it’s the best feeling ever!”

Myles prepares an annual New Year’s four-course dinner that gets a standing ovation every time.

The Trove: Sienna Gonzalez
July 31, 2011

Sienna photographed by family friend, Charlotte-based Mary Ebert.

Sienna Gonzalez is in many ways your typical American tween: she likes Selena Gomez, she loves to hang with her friends, she shoos her little brother out of her room for privacy and like most born in the new millennium, she knows her way around a Wii console. Yet she’s also borne some atypical burdens on her eleven-year-old shoulders.

I first laid eyes on flower girl Sienna, then a toddler, when at the April 2002 wedding of dear friend Franchell Mack Brown, her parents and I were in the bridal party.  I remember thinking what a lovely family they were. Rafael and Oi Yin were a kind, good-natured couple full of light, love and gratitude for the blessings of each other, their daughter and angel-on-the-way, Derek, born later that year.

The loving Gonzalez family.

Just three years later, the otherwise fit, non-smoking Rafael was, at 36 diagnosed with and succumbed to metastatic lung cancer which had spread to his spine and brain. Though Derek was very young, Sienna has very clear remembrances of her father and was devastated by the loss.

Admirably navigating the waters of early widowhood, Oi Yin moved forward to instill a sense of stability and strength in her children, a sense upended by shocking news. She too was diagnosed with cancer in February 2010 and given a prognosis of seven months to live. She has courageously soldiered on, hopefully and aggressively fighting the malignancy while also preparing her children for the statistical odds. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Back in March Oi Yin and Sienna learned that PCAN (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network) was planning an Advocacy Day in Washington, DC on June 15 to seek legislative support of the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act. Understanding the power of petitioning, Sienna quietly conceived of an idea. “I asked my class to write letters to Congress to help pass the act, and they did but I didn’t tell my mom,” Sienna shared with me from her suburban Philadelphia home.

I also spoke with proud mama Oi Yin (sixteen months post-diagnosis, and tumor-stable I’m happy to add) as she shared her shy daughter’s journey to activism.

“She did it unbeknownst to me,” Oi Yin says. “And she thought if they did maybe I can convince the whole school, and if I can convince the whole school, maybe I can convince the whole school district to do it. And that’s how it became this letter campaign. At first she wanted to surprise me but then it got so big she needed my help and told me about it.”

“It was pretty amazing, I’m so proud of her,” Oi Yin says. “I think its her way of taking control of something. She’s had control over so little with her Dad’s cancer and now mine.  She’s this 11-year-old maturing faster than others because of all she’s been through. Is she angry? Is she sad? Is she scared? Major. She’s all of those things, but she’s trying to turn it into something positive and that’s the beauty of it. She’s not feeling sorry for herself, she wants to make a difference. I tell everyone it is a huge gift for me that I got to see this.  It’s just a glimpse of who she might become as an adult– a selfless, giving person. She already understands that the world is bigger than just her.”

The gravity of her circumstance has given her an empathy beyond her years. “I want to save my mom, but if I can’t save my mom maybe I’ll save somebody,” she said.

In May, Skyview Upper and Woodland Elementary Schools held a collaborative   “Purple Day” with students and faculty wearing purple, the ribbon color for pancreatic cancer awareness. Sienna spoke before her brother’s second grade class and assembled her letter campaign book. Photos: Gene Walsh/Times Herald.

“I feared that because of everything they’ve been through Sienna and Derek would have a victim’s mentality,” Oi Yin admits. They’ve worked hard to counter the possibility. “For her to do this project shows she doesn’t. I’ve always known that she’s a fighter, but it’s pretty cool to see her act on things and make things happen.”

Sienna joined her mother in Washington in June to present the over 1,000 letters she gathered to present to Congress. Some of the letters shared students experiences with cancer in their lives. Representative Patrick Meehan was moved to tears as Sienna read one of them.  Senator Bob Casey, in absentia, congratulated Sienna on her efforts and explained that he is a co-sponsor of a bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for a Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.

“It’s crazy because she’s so shy,” Oi Yin marvels, “that made it even sweeter, she pushed out of her comfort zone to do this.”  It’s been an empowering year for the girl who turned eleven on the magical date 1/11/11.

When your young life has been wrought with both great love and great loss, what do you hold dear? Sienna shares the things she cherishes.

1. Everything Disney. The brand that Mickey built is alright in her book. “Disneyland and Disney World are fun. Disney movies and shows have good characters and great plots,” she says.

She dreams of going on a Disney Cruise.

2. Talking to My Dad. Sienna knows that Rafael is with her always.

Daddy’s little girl enjoys a beach day. “He always told me to do what’s right, he was smart and brave and kind.”

3. My Mac. “I really like my laptop. I look up videos on YouTube, video chat with my friends, use it for research and make videos on it for fun.” She also uses social media to spread the word about causes important to her– fighting pancreatic cancer, rallying for aid to Japan, ending animal cruelty and saving the planet.

She loves the song “Perfect,” by Pink and finds the video very touching.

4. Hanging with My Cousin Miranda. They’ve traveled together as far as the Bahamas and the aforementioned iChat has bridged the distance between their New York and Pennsylvania homes.

“She’s like my sister,” Sienna says.

5. My Dog.  Chase, the black and white whir of fur and frenetic energy joined the family, including other Bichon Frise, Snowball just months ago.

“Bichons rule!” she exclaims.

6. Travel.  “I like to see the wonders of the world.  I’ve been to the Bahamas and Canada and a lot of places in the US, mostly the north.  When asked where else she ‘d like to travel she replies, “I just wanna see everywhere.”

“My dream in life is to travel around the world and do research to raise awareness about saving the earth and animals.”  

7. Performing. A triple threat, Sienna has shown her acting, dancing and singing skills in recent months. She sang the Miley Cyrus song “Climb” in an April talent show at her school and secured a role in a local staging of Willy Wonka. She just wrapped the July production and vows “I’m gonna keep auditioning in local theaters.” Her shyness is irrelevant in this arena she says, “It’s kind of scary to get up and talk in front of people I don’t know, but for theater it’s different. I don’t get nervous before going on stage. I guess it feels kind of natural to be on.”


The stage provides golden respite from life’s harsher realities.

8. Animals. “I love all animals. I just came back from Animal-lover sleep away camp. We played animal games, went on field trips to animal shelters and veterinary hospitals and we learned all about animal safety and what to do with strays. I was surrounded by animals:  horses, dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, hamsters, ferrets and bunnies.


In her element at Dolphin Cay at Atlantis Resort Bahamas. She wants to show à la fave TV program Animal Planet “all the majestic animals and cool locations, so that maybe it will make people interested in saving them.

9. Horseback Riding.  She loves horses and last year began volunteering with the local Werkheiser family organization, Flying High, which provides equine-assisted autism therapy. She “grooms the horses, plays games with the kids and walks them on the horses.


She’s been riding since age four.

10. Being with My Mom. She realizes just how precious time is with her mother, enjoying it from simple quotidian pleasures to fantastic trips.

“I’m glad to have my mom in my everyday life.”

For more information about Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, visit www.pancan.org.

To make your voice heard before congress in support of the initiative, visit http://www.capwiz.com/pancan/home/

The Trove: Erin Robinson
July 23, 2011

We’ve relocated! View Erin’s updated story at The Trove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With schoolgirls in Banda Village, Rwanda.
Erin Robinson loves summer thunderstorms and she got one as we chatted in her childhood home in Washington, DC over the July Fourth weekend, her sweeping gestures and sound effects underscored by the distant thunder and gentle rain. We noshed on fresh fruit and spoke of mutual travel glories: the spirit-lift from burning the Mexican tree resin Copal; houseboating in Kerala and bonding with rescued baby elephants. Her lovely mom Dianne played with Erin’s three-year-old niece Madison; her hospitable dad Harry made it back just before the rains after a round of golf. “We moved to this house when I was in first grade,” she says of the Tudor where she and sisters Kia and Leigh were raised. “I love the neighborhood we grew up in. All the kids would play dodge ball or foursquare or freeze tag and when the sun set we knew it was time to go home. I’d say 70% of the friends I have today are people I grew up with.” The Robinsons of Shepherd Park: Harry, Erin, Dianne, Kia Winlock and Leigh Warfield. When she wasn’t outside playing she was inside creating. From the age of two-and-half, her mom says “she would just sit and draw.” Erin recalls making shoes for her younger sisters out of the cardboard inserts from her father’s laundered dress shirts. “I would trace their feet for the soles, put labels in them and punch holes in the tops to lace them with ribbon. I was about eleven.” She declared she wanted to be a fashion designer, an illustrator or, like many children, a veterinarian. Her grandmother sent her to the Corcoran School of Art for Saturday classes from seventh to ninth grades. By high school veterinary science wasn’t a thought. “I had the Beverly Johnsons and Imans, the Gia Carangis and Janice Dickinsons pasted on my walls. I was obsessed with the movie Fame, saw it about 5 times. I really wanted to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts but my parents thought I was going to be dancing on the lunch room tables, so I got sent to the nuns at Academy of the Holy Names instead. Upon graduation, Grandma once again advocated for her as an artist, sending her to Parsons School of Design in Paris for the summer. “I lived in the dorm and took illustration with Albert Elia, one of my favorite teachers.  I excelled in it. It was amazing.” Erin is ever grateful to her grandmother who passed away just days after she returned. She attended her father’s alma mater, Howard University, where he has held the posts of Vice President of the University as well as Dean and Professor of Urban Design in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her parents may have been cautious in their schooling preferences, but as Erin says “they were insanely nurturing. Markers, papers, triangles, whatever I needed,they provided.” That included a summer program the following year at Parsons in New York, where she’d wanted to live since she was nine. Deciding that Howard wasn’t the place for her, she set her sights on attending Parsons full time. “I was thrilled when I got that acceptance letter!” she exclaims. She lived with relatives on the Upper West Side and eventually moved with a roommate to a tiny apartment on Waverly and Perry in Greenwich Village. “It was a four-story walk-up, I had a fold-out chair bed and a little half-refrigerator and we thought, This is fantastic! ” She would then establish a long relationship with the great borough of Brooklyn where we met long ago through our dear friend Barb Chennault. Erin’s professional foray into fashion was designing sweaters for the Jaclyn Smith Collection, a Kmart property. Over a storied career with stints at the likes of Kikit and Abercrombie & Fitch among others she came full circle to become the vice-president of the baby division of Kmart/Sears Holdings, Inc.
With an eye on costume design, she decided to move to Los Angeles in 1992. “When you’re in your twenties you’re fearless, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I was going,” she says. Armed with optimism and a $500 parental subsidy, off she went. Soon after, she secured a job building costumes on the popular sketch comedy In Living Color where Barb worked in the wardrobe department.
From Fire Marshall Bill to Wanda, making costumes there “was like Halloween arts and crafts, ” she recalls. ” I mean it wasn’t couture, it was more like where’s the stapler? Hot glue gun? Maybe a couple of stitches?’ she laughs. “It was a career highlight, that job. I am still very close to the people I met there. There was a very small black wardrobe community in LA, we’d always look out for each other. The hours were crazy, but it was a blast! She left behind the grind of TV/film production to return to New York where she began her career in childrenswear with Baby Gap. Why kidswear? “Women’s is so nit-picky with 5 million different opinions,” she says. “Baby is sweet, cute, a lot of fun. You don’t have to be so serious.” That doesn’t mean she didn’t work hard. “I worked my behind off. It exposed me not only to some amazing, talented people but also to travel: Hong Kong, Europe and Tokyo.” During her seven-year tenure she designed newborn as well, but managerial differences sent her packing, at least temporarily, to fervent freelancing and traveling.  “I was hustling. I was like you’re gonna work this then you’re gonna get on an airplane.” Hired to revamp the Kmart brand, former Gap Executive Vice President Lisa Schultz tapped Erin to update the baby division. They literally did from the ground up out of Lisa’s apartment until the Midwest-based company secured New York offices. “It gave me this opportunity to utilize all my skills. It was insane at times but so creative. I’m proud of what we established.”

Beckoned by the bay.

As the business grew, so did corporate intervention. “I felt myself getting swallowed up, like I was drowning there and I just needed a change.” While in Hawaii for a wedding, she saw people cliff jumping in Waimea Bay and decided to go for it. She fretted a bit but found encouragement in the voices of kids shouting “lady, don’t look down, just jump.” She did. “It was like a cleansing, a baptism. When I surfaced I was on an adrenaline high and I set a date in my head and a plan in motion: this time next year you are going to be out.”

“My home is special to me, it is my sanctuary, It took me a long time to get it just as I liked it.”  But she packed up her life, gave up her space, and lived out of bags as she plotted her sabbatical to decompress, refuel and serve– perhaps in the Congo. She remembers sharing her plan with her mother. “My mom is really strong, protective and stoic. The look I saw in her face –the fear– broke my heart, but ultimately she offered her complete support.” Her father didn’t take to the idea as easily but once he came around he jumped into action suggesting items for her pack. “I actually found it quite comical and endearing. He made sure I was set and “saw me off at the airport with my little orange backpack.” Banda Village, Nyungwe Rainforest. She flew into Kigali, capital of genocide-ravaged Rwanda. “You feel the veil of heaviness of what took place. It’s hard to come across anyone that was not affected in some way.” Thwarted by advisories to stay out of the region, her plan to serve in the DRC was reconfigured to join Peace Corps workers by volunteering with Kageno.org in Banda Village. Walking through town. Aware of and grateful for her life’s privilege she wanted to somehow give back and as an African American woman to dispel the notion of the white savior. With her light complexion and green eyes the villagers called her mzungu— white person. For a girl raised in 1970’s Chocolate City, to be considered anything other than black took her aback. “Nitwa Erin,” my name is Erin, she asserted. Sustenance. During her stay, she assisted in any way she could from serving nutrient-rich Susomna to the malnourished children to painting illustrations of vocabulary words on the walls of the schoolroom. As she painted she played Brazilian music, a Pied Piper’s call to a quartet of young village girls, who came and doodled on the blackboard as she worked. Moved by the rhythm, their tiny hips started to sway. Erin will never forget the children’s stories of survival, like that of eight-year-old miracle, Rebecca. The back of her head is deeply scarred from a long-ago baboon attack. She’d been in the fields with her older siblings when aggressive baboons descended from the forest. Frightened, her siblings ran to get their parents, leaving the three-year-old behind. When they returned to the scene, Rebecca was gone. The beasts had carried her off, mauled her and left her for dead. It’s incredible that she survived and that her parents were able to find her. Of her new friends Erin says, “I want them to know I care, that it wasn’t a one-shot deal.”  She plans to return with clothing, necessities and prints of the many beautiful images she snapped. Bandan beauty. Heading north to the Virungas, a cluster of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the trek was literally and figuratively breathtaking. The high altitude left Erin breathless as did the incredible vistas and the origin of the Nile. “We hung out with the gorillas– the original fam. They were picking and scratching and farting,” she chuckles. Up Virunga Mountain. Next stop, Nairobi, Kenya where she visited the animal orphanages, getting up close and personal with the endangered monkeys, giraffes, cheetahs and elephants. She then went to neighboring Kibera, originally developed by the British as a forest settlement for Nubian soldiers returning home after service in World War I. Today the impoverished residents live in squalid conditions. As Erin’s guide led her through the muck and filth to the slum’s center, she felt afraid for the first time on her trip.  He sensed her fear, looked at her very directly and said “Don’t be scared. We are not criminals, we are just very, very poor.” She was deeply moved and tried to hide her tears.  “Will you come back? “ he asked.  He found something on the ground to write down an email address.  She’s since written but received no reply. One of the many beautiful children of Kibera. From the motherland to Indonesia, the leg of her journey designed to “get balanced again… Bali is spiritual, so beautiful it’s ridiculous.” She began each day in meditation; on Mondays and Saturdays she took life drawing classes, something she hadn’t done since her Parsons days and she spent her first ever Christmas away from her family. “I stayed a month, but I could live there,” she says dreamily. In Bali, I cared for myself inside and out. I had an aura and I truly felt beautiful.” A morning prayer; a beautiful drawing. She left the calm for the cacophony of Delhi, teeming with people, livestock, dust and risky driving. “India is where I confronted myself and it was hard. A Delhi wedding. “They party!” She was glad to connect with her friend, travel writer Jonathan Yevin who traverses the globe with all he needs tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. They took the no-frills option from Delhi to Agra, the second-class train, made the requisite pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal and were invited to the nearby ultra-luxe hotel Oberoi Amarvilas for a tour and lunch. “ So we walked into the Oberoi, these two little raggedy vagabonds.” As at the Taj, there was a glaring juxtaposition of opulent beauty within the gates and extreme poverty just outside. Jonathan and Erin auto-rickshaw through Agra. A Brahman bull and petals at the feet of Ganesh at the Taj Mahal. In Jaipur, she felt a surge of creative energy. “It inspired me. Between the gold leaf and the textures and the walls, I designed a line of dresses. Jaipuri adornment on walls, domes even the camels. On the backwaters of the southern state of Kerala, home of “the nicest people ever,” she and a friend rented a houseboat under the palms as everyone back home in the eastern US was inundated with snow. Glimpses of Kerala. At the start of her adventure some questioned the wisdom of giving up her VP gig and fabulous two bedroom loft with Dad’s Eames chair, but the universe rewards the courageous. She’s returned to the team she loves at Sears Holdings and soon moves into a new apartment in the same beloved Brooklyn loft building…but with a firm commitment to giving back. Her Gemini twin selves seek beauty in the ethereal and the earthly, bound in loving sentiment by both. Here’s a look into some of the things she holds dear:  1. Daydreaming. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love to daydream.” The daydreamer and her untitled painting. 2. G10 Camera. An avid photographer and sentimental documentarian of life experience, she is seldom without it. The Canon Power Shot G10. 3. Tulum. It has become an annual ritual to visit the pristine beaches of the Yucatán peninsula for her late spring birthday or new year retreat. She looks forward to seeing the friends she’s made at Sueños Tulum, the eco-friendly Mexican resort. 4. Bali Rituals.  Fueling her pre-existing “incense junkieness,” she took on the clarifying morning practices. “They get up in the morning, gather the frangipani, the plumeria and they offer something to their gods whether it’s a Ritz cracker or a cigarette. And they light the incense and meditate with the Buddhas and the Lakshmis…” Aromatic, personal, spiritual. 5. Fragrant Florals. Her favorites are peony, tuberose and lilac. She tries to buy herself flowers once a week. She enjoys making her own arrangements.

6. Browsing Interior Magazines. Elle Decoration UK, Living etc. and the decor8 blog, Love these!” For inspiration…

7. Sasha Dolls. Introduced in the 1960’s by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler, the dolls were intended to depict a universal image of childhood. Dianne Robinson made certain that her girls played with dolls of varying skin tones, not just the blonde, blue-eyed offerings that lined most shelves at that time. Now collectible, the dolls can be found through sources like Ebay. Cora; and Palila from Allegro Melody Art Dolls.

8. My Mayan and Aztec Calender Necklaces.  “I like having the sun close to my heart.”

You rarely see her without one of the two.

9. My Sketch Books. Repositories of her incredible talent, they hold her inspirations, her imaginings and creative intentions.

The fruits of her Jaipur musings.

10. Daddy and Me at Dulles.  One of a couple of treasured photos with her Vietnam-bound father. “I look at that photo and thank the creator for the opportunity to experience my father and have him nurture me to who I am today.  I don’t have to make up stories or daydream about who he was because he came home.”

First Lieutenant Harry G. Robinson III returned from Vietnam with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to raise a beautiful family with wife Dianne and establish a long and illustrious career.

The Trove: djassi daCosta johnson
May 26, 2011

Mrs. Verini: djassi daCosta johnson, 2 months pregnant.

djassi daCosta johnson adores her “ridiculously amazing family.”  It is in the haven of their embrace and the freedom of their trust that she’s been able to move fearlessly through her life. Her educator parents Awolowo and Orundun, of whom she speaks reverentially, anointed their eldest daughter with the nom de guerre of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, (Abel) Djassi. Brought together by “the Movement,” the former SNCC worker and the former Black Panther secretary instilled in their four children a sense of activism, pride of heritage, hunger for knowledge, love of movement and spiritual grounding.

When we first met, djassi was a Bantu-knotted, hoodie-rocking Essence magazine intern rapturously in love with her tween sister, Yaya. An admitted “fool for a party,” the fly Virgo moved fluidly between the worlds of academia, professional dance, media and the clubs. More than fifteen years later she feels “blessed to have found my best friend in my little sister,” is planning graduate study and enjoying a dance career that has taken her around the globe, expanded her notions of her art and paved the way for marriage and motherhood.

I spent a recent afternoon with the new mom, her husband Corrado and their delightful daughter, Mirahl in their Brooklyn home as they prepared to summer in his native Rome. Sipping wine, we marveled over the body’s tremendous capacity for healing. Awed by the “wondrous abilities of the human body,” djassi the dancer bowed to djassi the mother. “I always thought I knew my body so well. I’m so proud of what it’s done and what it can do, but then I was also humbled by its limits,” she said recalling the arduous journey of Mirahl’s birth. Her infant warrior woman is a testament to the “strength that humans have and the will to survive.”

After a “normal” pregnancy, a love-filled karaoke baby shower and the full expectation that she, a mind-bogglingly fit woman would move through a water birth with relative ease, life-threatening complications arose. For 42 drug-free hours she labored, but sensing something was “off,” she resisted the urge to push and her midwife took heed. It was discovered that pushing risked strangulation of the baby by the twice-wrapped umbilical cord around her neck as well as uterine rupture and severe hemorrhage for djassi who inexplicably presented with Placenta Increta. Mirahl arrived via emergency Caesarean. Her name hints at the miraculous and its Turkish definition, “little gazelle” befits the daughter of a dancer/choreographer. In homage to Corrado’s grandmother Vera and djassi’s grandmother Lucille, Mirahl carries two middle names, Vera Lu.

Little Mirahl was born December 28, 2010.

Besotted with their baby girl, dja and Corrado are grateful for djassi’s protective intuition and honored by Mirahl’s having chose them. “My parents were very affectionate, I felt one hundred percent unconditionally loved,” djassi muses. “I hope I can pass that on.”

The striking DaCosta Johnson family: Orundun and Awolowo; first-born Mamadou, youngest Djani and…

Camara Yaya and djassi Camara, then and now. Their shared name Camara, means “comrade.”

The Johnson children were all educated in the Montessori tradition, at St. Michael’s where their mother taught. Djassi recalls getting “mommy practice” with Yaya and Djani (eight and ten years younger) when her mom spent summers away in Ohio pursuing Master’s studies in Montessori.  Mrs. DaCosta Johnson would eventually open Central Harlem Montessori, “the only accredited Montessori School in Harlem and the least expensive one in NYC for sure,” djassi says proudly.  Now retired, her dad was a Professor of Sociology at several New York City colleges. “My parents were very clear about being cognizant of our history and the importance of education as not just a privilege but a responsibility.” At the behest of their father, who valued his upbringing in New Haven, each of the children attended high school on the wooded campus of Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Massachusetts and went on to matriculate in the Ivies: Penn (Mamadou) Barnard (djassi) Brown (Yaya) and Cornell (Djani) Djassi is grateful for her father’s vision. “Aside from the obvious academic intensity and advantage it gave me in applying for and understanding the purpose of college, I really had such a formative experience living away from home…I don’t think I would have ever run track, swam, worked on a farm, or really seen myself as a multi-faceted individual. Boarding school let me grow into my own skin at my own pace and feel free to just be. As an adolescent that was priceless.”

Developing sound minds and bodies, the Johnson siblings excelled both academically and athletically. “We were always encouraged to be physical by nature, taught how fun it was to challenge and stretch the body’s capabilities. We grew up doing gymnastics, capoeira, all of us dance — my brothers are shamefully talented despite their lack of interest in training. I had school and ballet and modern classes all week and was able to ‘study’ the house and break-dance culture on the weekends. There are still guys who call me out when I’m uptown like, Ain’t you ‘Dou’s little sister who won that battle spinning on her head way back in da day?”

A 1970’s anti-nukes rally: “I want to GROW not GLOW.” And grow she did into an awesome command of her body.

Her parents have been on the board of DanceBrazil for most of her life. “Growing up, around and backstage with a dance company was amazing,” she says. Her first stage appearance was at age six: a samba with the company in “Orfeu Negro” at Riverside Church.

Junior high was pivotal. She chose as her Phys Ed elective, the dance class of Melvin Jones. The former Alvin Ailey dancer taught the Horton and Graham techniques. Through his instruction, she was ahead of the curve when she auditioned for and was accepted into the Ailey scholarship program years later.

“After boarding school I was hungry to get back to NYC and dance.” Yet she shunned the academic pursuit of dance. A local school would allow her to both train with Ailey and study English and Anthropology.  “A women’s college seemed empowering to me. With alumnae like Zora, Katherine and Twyla, I knew Barnard would be perfect.” Her nine-page appeal to overturn a denied housing grant was successful and though her parents lived only 23 blocks away, she was awarded housing for four years.

She initially found anthropology “daunting and too focused on the other,” but eventually realized that “there is a future in Anthro for participant-observers such as myself, that the preservation of culture can be enacted by those within rather than some extraneous observer.” This will be the crux of her graduate exploration. “I see ways to give back through my art.”

Among her impressive credits (view them and her performance reel at Dancer’s Pro) is her phenomenal performance in Moses Pendleton’s Passion.  A cornerstone of the MOMIX repertoire, Passion is a highlight of djassi’s eight-year tenure touring internationally with the company.

The mind-blowing Passion ribbon solo.

When djassi joined MOMIX, she and technical director/lighting designer, Corrado Verini, “gravitated to each other during after-show dinner to discuss the world, both yearning to talk about something besides dance,” she says.  On an Amsterdam tour they sparked an intense, see-each-other-on-tour, long-for-each-other-off-tour relationship. “We had cultural, linguistic, generational, not to mention the American/Italian, Black/White dichotomies that we both had to get over somehow.  We weren’t convinced right away that we were ready to deal with all of the work that loving each other might entail.” Nevertheless, “it was undeniable for both of us that there was something that kept bringing us back together.” In a yellow silk dress of her own design, djassi wed Corrado in August 2008 in Rome.

dja love.

“Soho Moods,” Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome.  Photo © Nina Contini Melis.

Apart from dance, she’s tapped into other aspects of her creativity through acting, writing (contributing to the book Transculturalism and TRACE magazine) and fashion.  Frequently complimented on garments she’d whip up, she during a tour break in 2001, created a 32-piece collection dubbed the eponymic dja. She sold the line at fairs in Rio and New York.  Inspired by her love of adornment, she has more recently launched the easier-to-produce earring line, Flights of Fancy by dja.

As Calpurnia in an Italian production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: A.T. Ambrosini

Optical party dress and Flights of Fancy earrings by dja.

As a brisk stroll through nearby Prospect Park rocked Mirahl to sleep, djassi spoke of “spoiling” their winter baby “with Italian summer love at the sea and countryside of Rome.”  Happy for my friends and smitten with their slumbering infant I bade the Johnson-Verini family farewell and buon viaggio.

Il tesoro trovato di djassi:

1. Fame (the 1980 movie.) “My father took me to see it when I was six and I made him sit through it twice. I was like ‘I wanna do THAT!’ I look back on the movie now and realize there were some really adult themes, it wasn’t a movie about dance and fairies. But I was pretty clear that I could be an artist at six years old, so there you go.”

The “Fame” trailer.

2. Aperitivo.  “I have always loved a good glass of wine and 9 years of bartending in New York gave me the opportunity to really understand it.  One of the things I love about Italian ‘time’ as it relates to food is the concept of aperitivo, the precursor to dinner.  In the best bars in Rome and Milan one can go, relax, pay for a glass of wine and feast on the ‘buffet’ offerings.”

“No matter where I am, I rarely have a night without an aperitivo.” Wine photo by Sara Rosso.

3. Languages.  At 28 she lived in Brazil with Yaya and learned Portuguese by immersion. On a tour in Spain, “I got my Spanish better with that guy,” she says gesturing toward Corrado, “He speaks it really well.” After having traveled and toured as an American, she knows that rudimentary English is spoken most everywhere. “So you take it for granted,” she says. “But I find that you get so much more respect by speaking the language and you can really break down so many more barriers by how you speak the language… to take on the culture and the understanding of how people speak the language because of the culture. My sister and I really assimilated into Brazilian life and took on the accent.  A similar thing happened with Italian while living in Italy. I still have a long way to go to perfecting my Português and my Italiano but the ‘way’ I speak fools people and so I learn that much more from each exchange…and the languages are actually very similar. Many words are the same, it’s just ‘sung’ a little differently.”

4. New Year’s Eve in Rio. She’s spent it there a few times with Yaya. “The most meaningful, beautiful, spiritual New Year’s Eves ever!” Once they spent it on the roof of singer Elza Soares‘ Copacabana house, looking down on the glorious sight of the white-clad Carioca multitudes making water offerings to Yemanja. 

Ano Nove: “It’s pretty special. I can’t wait ’til the next one we are able to make.”

5. Dancing With My Family. “You can’t take the six of us anywhere with good music and some space because we all love to partner dance. We are all Salsa-proficient improvisers.  My dad made sure the girls could follow and the boys could lead. Holidays are three couples on the dance floor or a few of us dancing while the others play the congas, bell and berimbau…and my mom can lead a good funga anywhere.”

The Sisters Johnson get their dance on.

6. Hats.  She often tops her look with one of the many chapeaux she’s collected in her travels.

Some faves include Trilbys from Spain, select vintage and a conical spire from Chile.

7. High Heels.  “I looove a good pair of heels, and I love to get good bargains on them. One of my favorite pairs is from El Mundo on 145th and Broadway near where I grew up. They are gorgeous.”


“Don’t they just make you want to Salsa?Carlos by Carlos Santana pumps.

8. Fearlessness. “Without that concept in my life I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. From thinking I could make a career of dance to traveling the world–something I wanted to do, but do with a purpose to meeting Corrado through work and believing in following my heart.”

Holiday Island, the Maldives.

9. Oasi Naturista di Capocotta. She loves the freedom of the nudist oasis in Rome. “I used to be a bit prudish about my breasts and then I realized I had to shed my Western issues and embrace my origins on this European beach. They have the most amazing restaurant with people eating on silver plates with huge wine glasses in different arrays of nakedness. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the summer.”

Easy atmosphere and the freshest catch.

10. gDiapers. “I just couldn’t fathom that in 2011, I should be complacent,” knowing that conventional disposables degrade in 500 years. “How is that responsibly leaving my child a planet she can thrive on?” An Earth-friendly diaper hybrid, gDiapers feature inserts (either washable cloth or flushable, biodegradable disposables) to absorb waste.  The new gMom has become an ardent brand evangelist: “no rashes, sooo much less waste and the refills break down in 50 days!” With an in-house washer during her Roman sojourn she’ll use the cloth option exclusively.

Good for the baby, good for Gaia (and they appeal to Mommy’s fashion sensibilities.)

The Trove: Malene Barnett
April 18, 2011

Malene and her limited edition “Tap Tap” carpet. Inspired by the colorful buses of the same name in Haiti, she donated the profits from the sale of this carpet to Aid to Artisans Haitian Artist Recovery Fund.

Since the 2009 launch of Malene b Custom Handmade Carpets, principal Malene Barnett has enjoyed enviable and well-deserved publicity including features in Interior Design and New York magazines, the Los Angeles Times and widely followed websites Design*Sponge, Apartment Therapy and The Selby.

It was the inclusion of the “Tap Tap” carpet in the catalogue for The Global Africa Project  (GAP) at the Museum of Art and Design which brought me face-to-face with the entrepreneur whose handmade carpets were generating considerable design buzz.  We’d been introduced virtually by artist Cheryl Riley but it was at the magnificent exhibit’s opening last fall that we actually shook hands and committed to meeting for a one-on-one chat (which would reveal we’d met many years earlier.)

Her own work imbued with illustrative motifs, Malene found herself in great company amid the artists and designers included in the GAP, such as Kehinde Wiley whose work graces the catalogue cover and interior designer Sheila Bridges (far right) whose “Harlem Toile” suite of home goods is featured.

An ardent traveler, Malene’s life and work are woven with the inspirational threads of her global journeys.  She collects local teas from every region she visits so when we sat down for tea in her inviting Bed-Stuy townhouse, the choices ranged from Jamaican Hibiscus to African Rooibos. Furnished with a refreshing economy of possessions, her home, designed by Henry Mitchell, is airy and expansive. Punctuated with the artifacts of her travels and just-enough furniture, the rooms, with their jubilant colors (turquoise, sunny yellow, relaxing lavender) evoke sunshine and trade winds even on the grayest of days.  She envisions an eventual return to her Caribbean roots; her mom, Cynthia is from St. Vincent, her dad, Franklyn from Jamaica. Her goal is to own a home high on a hill.  “I don’t have to be on the ocean, I just want to see it.”

Malene’s serene, sun-drenched master bath. Photo: Henry Mitchell Interior Architecture.

Though she is Bronx-born, Malene’s parents “wanted to raise the kids in the suburbs” and pulled up stakes for Norwalk, Connecticut, where she grew up near the beach.  Teachers discovered her creative leanings early on and selected her for the school’s artistically talented program when she was in the third grade. She recalls being instructed that artists sign their works with either first initial and last name or first name and surname initial.  She at age eight, proudly signed, Malene B. “Malene has something special, we need to cultivate it,” her mother said.

And a brand was born: Malene’s first painting –with colorful carpet– hangs in her mother’s home to this day.

After her parents’ eventual split, Malene and her two sisters were raised by their mom with love and high standards.  “I have to feed you and educate you,” Ms. Barnett would say. A classical pianist and educator, she required her daughters to learn violin. Malene played for 6 years, seriously considering its pursuit until tenth grade when she had to choose between violin and painting classes. “I was playing softball and volleyball and painting. I was into my sports and into my art,” she says. “I said, ‘Mommy, I’m not into the books, I’m into the paintbrush.” Nonetheless Cynthia Barnett expected her girls to excel academically and to contribute to their college funds with summer employment when they came of age.  As a result Malene was “into my hustle –designing t-shirts, always thinking entrepreneurially.  I had to come up with monies for my education, $1000 a summer.”

Dr. Cynthia Barnett surrounded by her girls, Debbie, Malene and Nneka.

Her personal criterion for college was clear: “I wanted to paint and play volleyball and Purchase had both.” Though the SUNY school had a reputable fine art program, she “decided that I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” and considered the commercial arts.  Her grandmother had been a fashion designer so fashion illustration appealed to her and she transferred to another SUNY school, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City where she soon realized that though she could draw, illustration was not her strong suit.  She chuckles as she recalls a conversation with her then-illustration instructor. Prof. Ishikawa: “Barnett, what are you going to do?” Malene: “A BFA in Textiles.” (she’d just discovered FIT’s Textile Surface Design program through hallway displays of student work) Prof. Ishikawa: “That’s going to be the best thing for you.”

Professor Ishikawa was right.  Given Malene’s love of texture and strong sense of color and pattern, she excelled in the major. Then her cultural heritage began to call: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X woke me up.  Public Enemy and X Clan were popular at the time.” She seized the opportunity for a three-week cultural exchange in Ghana. “It was my awakening, from then on every opportunity I had, I infused our culture, using our motifs.”  While still a student, she freelanced with the late Kerris Wolsky at Harlem Textile Works.

Her multi-disciplinary major introduced her to a variety of specialties, including rug and carpet design which suited her textural sensibilities.  One of the projects for an independent study was to create carpet designs for Carnival Cruise Lines. Ultimately, Malene received the department medal, graduated with honors and won the Stark Carpet Design Award for her design “African Folktale.” For graduation she treated herself to a trek through Ghana, Gambia and India.

Upon her return Malene began a two-year stint as Design Director of Afritex, designing African-inspired prints. (It was on a market appointment for Essence Magazine that I met Malene at the Afritex showroom) When layoffs ended her tenure there, she accepted a position as the first in-house designer at Nourison Rugs, one of the world’s leading producers of imported handmade rugs where she “stepped up my game with computer design.”  Her dormant entrepreneurial spirit re-emerged when on May 5, 2000, she boarded a plane to “backpack through Southeast Asia and find a manufacturer in India…At the time I was planning to launch a bedding line.” Realizing that she lacked import acumen, she shelved the idea.  “I knew how to draw a pretty picture but not the business side of production imports.”  When Nourison called her back to work on a project that would eventually last four-and-a-half years, she met Sales Manager Gary Shafran (who would later become her business partner.) Together they worked to build Nourison’s accent rug division, catapulting their business from $1 million in sales to $17 million.  “My design transformed their business,” but she ultimately hit a glass ceiling, “there would be no more growth…So I wanted to leave.” Gary found positions for them at another company, JLA, where they worked for two years before Malene proposed launching their own line focused on her design aesthetic.  Having created carpets filtered through the corporate points-of-view of the various lines she designed (Nicole Miller, Martha Stewart, Nautica, Liz Claiborne, Nate Berkus, to name a few) she was ready for her own expression.

Gary, also ready for a change, agreed and they spent the next nine or so months developing the business that would bring globally inspired, hand-tufted, hand-knotted and flat woven custom carpets to the marketplace. As committed as she is to sharing a design aesthetic shaped by her exploration of indigenous cultures and an ever-broadening worldview, she is equally committed to ethical production and trade:

It is important for me to be socially conscious in all my endeavors. To that end, I proudly support Goodweave and Aid to Artisans in their quest to eliminate child labor practices, provide education and preserve handmade crafts in Africa, Asia and South America. -From the malene b website.

A work in progress:  A Nepali weaver crafting the “Market Women” pattern in wool and silk.

She found an early champion in the editor-in-chief of Interior Design magazine, Cindy Allen. “I met her on a plane in 2009.”   They exchanged cards and arranged an office visit in New York. Malene recalls the meeting, I brought six strike-offs  (2′ x 2′ samples) and Cindy said  ‘I like what you’re doing. I want to help you out, help jump-start your business,’ and gave me a one-page story in the magazine.”


Editor-in-Chief, Cindy Allen and Malene at the celebration for Cindy’s 10th anniversary at the helm of Interior Design Magazine.  The “Wolof” rug which commemorated a trip to Senegal, garnered the first major press for the fledgling malene b and inspired the design of the custom iron gates at Malene’s Brooklyn home — they mimic the silhouettes’ small heads and elongated necks.

The self-described techie continues to get the word out by utilizing social media (“like” her on Facebook; “follow” her on Twitter and check out her blog) making appearances at trade shows and “networking like crazy.”  She’s reveling in recent press in House Beautiful and L’Officiel Paris. And though she acknowledges that publicity isn’t “necessary for sales, but it validates,” the company (represented in showrooms in New York, Miami, Vancouver and Calgary) is capitalizing on the momentum and “focusing now on building sales.”  Her “Masks” design has been commissioned for the ballroom of a Georgia college. She is looking forward to next month’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair where she’ll debut four new collections based where she’ll debut four new collections based on more subtle, open designs in hand knotted and tufted techniques. The thirty-four designs are inspired by such diverse iconic images as the paper fans of Kyoto, the colored glass of Murano, the Turkish pottery of Istanbul and the lavender fields of Provence.

The “St. Vincent,” so named for Malene’s mother’s homeland, provides the backdrop for a spread on Beyoncé in the March issue of L’Officiel.

In addition to growing her business, she plans, eventually to teach. “I like sharing and showing,” which she had the opportunity to do in January when she gave a talk about her design process at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.  What she has no plans of doing, however, is opening a store. “I don’t want to be tied to a physical space,” she says.

Over the course of a multi-hour visit with this vagabond spirit, we discovered a shared myriad of design pet peeves, a passion for travel (her “Kerala” and “Papunya” patterns pay homage to two of my favorite travel destinations, India and Australia) and a love of good food.  Vegetarian like her artistic father, she views cooking as “another form of art, another expression.” Her specialty is tofu. “I can rock the tofu big time…I love food so much it has actually inspired my design:” the skin of a coconut (“Bahia“) the hypotrochoid shape of star anise (“Anise”) and stalks of sugarcane (“Kingston.”)  She adds, “And I’m big on dessert.”  It’s no surprise then, that her voyager’s trove is bracketed with sweets…

1. Fudge by Burnt Sugar. Malene discovered the UK treat at New York’s Fancy Food Show in 2007.  She loves the tasty nibbles reminiscent of the fudgy goodness she purchases from “the lady on the side of the road, in the islands.”


Yum!

2. The Color Turquoise. When asked to name her four favorite colors in a 2010 feature on photographer Todd Selby’s wildly popular, The Selby, Malene responded 1) turquoise 2) orange 3) turquoise 4) turquoise.

Her absolute favorite color welcomes all who visit her chic Bed-Stuy home. Photo: The Selby

3. Fulani Earrings. The nomadic women of the Fulani in West Africa receive the bold yarn-wrapped gold earrings from their husbands upon marriage or by inheritance upon the deaths of their mothers. Malene frequently rocks her Fulani-inspired hoops in homage.

Malene at home; a married woman in Senosa, Mali © 2004 Don Gurewitz; Fulani inspiration adapted for the Western market sans yarn and with small ear wires.

4. Jo Malone Fragrances. She enjoys the modern, unexpected blends of the celebrated UK brand.

One of her favorites, Pomegranate Noir.

5. Travel. It nourishes her spirit and informs her work.

Clockwise: chilling by the turquoise waters of Barbados; dried hibiscus in Trinidad; sand painting in Senegal; Bajan boulders; steel pan drums and Trini produce.


6. Spice Market Candle. From restaurateur James Boyce, the spicy aromas of cassia, ginger and ground cloves in an alluring collaboration with candle maker, Voluspa.

She keeps a large tin at the ready in her living room.

7. Isabel de Pedro Dress. A sleeveless, body-conscious column from the Spring/Summer 2007 collection, Harmattan features the Spanish designer’s signature use of photographic images as textile design.

A detail of the marvelous silk screened images from Africa.
8. My Moroccan Slippers.  She actually bought the vibrant raffia and leather babouches of Morocco from the Sandaga Market in Dakar. Senegal. “I bought many pairs but this one has become my favorite because they make a statement with any simple outfit such as jeans and a t-shirt.

“They are so comfy and I love the bright colors!”

9 Teal Wood Floors. White oak stained with the cousin of her beloved turquoise.

The subtle touch of teal graces the flooring throughout the parlor level of her townhouse.

10. Frosting from Butter Lane Cupcakes. Though she likes the cupcakes just fine, it really is all about the frosting and luckily for her, Butter Lane sells it by the shot, a buck a pop. A sweet, quick fix.

“I love pretty much all of their flavors but I will take a peanut butter or coconut shot any day.”


The Trove: Nicole Landaw
April 5, 2011

WE’VE MOVED! Check out this story at  THE TROVE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mover of Metal: Goldsmith & Jewelry Designer, Nicole Landaw.

A few weeks ago, gloriously pregnant and furiously nesting, the lovely Nicole Landaw welcomed me for lunch at the Williamsburg home she shares with her handsome hubby, architect Mark Maljanian.  I’d been introduced to Nicole and her gorgeous jewelry designs a few years back by our mutual friend, Elsa, and have called upon Nicole Landaw Jewelry (NLJ) whenever the need arises for statement jewelry for clients.

Over a healthful meal of homemade Vietnamese crab and asparagus soup, veggie burgers and beet salad, we talked shop, suburban longings, the genesis of NLJ and the six-year relationship that would culminate just days later in the eagerly anticipated arrival of the son they nicknamed Roo. “We are superstitious,” she says. “We have a name in mind, but we won’t announce it until he’s actually here.”

Nicole was born in Northern California, where her hematologist/oncologist father completed his PhD in Nuclear Medicine at UC Berkeley.  When a research position called three years later, the clan relocated to Syracuse. A family of “do-it-yourself-ers,” they were a “crafty household during a very crafty time,” she recalls. Nicole had a solid grounding in suburbia until her folks split and her mother decamped to New Jersey. “The love of going to the movies in a car, going through a car wash, having huge basements and garages, that sensibility never left me even after moving to a high-rise apartment building with an elevator.” She enjoyed the duality of both “metropolis living and life upstate,” as she and her brother lived the school year with Mom and spent holidays and summers in Syracuse with Dad.

Her earliest memory of creating something was that of a Play-doh figure: “a two-dimensional, clumpy pancake of a man.”  When she found a curled Polaroid image of it, “it chilled me,” she says, taking her back to age four and the smells of its creation.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.

“The resonant power of the handmade in my life was laying low for a long time. In high school, my best friend and I made beaded jewelry,” but she insists there was “no scintillating prophecy of what was to come.”  The real epiphany would come later in her first days as a Dartmouth College undergrad. A new friend, Betsy, showed her a box she’d made: a flanged silver marvel topped with a cabochon. Nicole was stunned. “I asked her ‘You moved metal? You made this?’ The fact that she could work metal and change its shape at will totally rocked my world.”  The discovery of Dartmouth’s own jewelry studio was a revelation. “It has an incredible endowment of tools in a super organized space; a full facility for soldering, casting, forging, you name it.” Though the study of economics suited her nature, the econ major found herself spending as much time as possible in the jewelry studio.

In time, Nicole began to question, “How are people using these techniques to express themselves and affirm the body?” But it took a while to realize this was her calling; she still felt her destiny was to become a lawyer.  By her junior year, however, she’d worked in a law firm and hated it. When acceptances came in from Columbia and NYU law schools she turned them down much to the chagrin of her family. “My family wanted self-sufficiency and I was thwarting a possibility. It would have been a really safe choice to pursue law,” she reflects. She was certain, though, that she’d “wake up ten years later to discover I’d done myself in.”

“I took an inventory: what do I want to do with my life, what would satisfy me, what I’d be happy to be paid for.” She realized that in moving metal, “I wasn’t just regurgitating for a grade, I had passion. It took a long time for me to believe in myself, but finally I decided. ‘I’m going to be a goldsmith!’  After I graduated Dartmouth, I volunteered as an instructor at the jewelry studio so I could have keys to access the center at night.” The low cost-of-living in New Hampshire helped. She was able to save, purchase supplies, put together a portfolio in a year and apply to grad school to pursue a Masters of Fine Art in Metalsmithing.  She selected suburban Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, about which she waxes rhapsodic. “The Academy is a master work of art, architecture and environment. It’s incredibly beautiful. There are more gardeners on campus than students in the grad school.”

“Cranbrook is a complete and holistic view of form and function. It’s paradise.” She was able to “work on my skills, find a voice in a safe, away-from-it-all environment where I could focus.  The skies parted and opened with blessings for me.” After Cranbrook she honed her skills further at the School of Design, Hochschule Pforzheim University in Germany. In contrast to her experience at Cranbrook, Nicole recalls “my life there was extremely German and rectilinear and controlled.”

Soon after her return to the United States, Nicole entered “the corporate bastion of jewelry marketing,” spending the next several years as a Creative VP fostering the design and production of mass-market jewelry in far-flung jewelry factories. She put in her time “seeing tradition being tossed out for a watered-down American aesthetic,” yet she offers that those pieces were “the best that they could be at their price point” allowing her designs to be broadly affordable to the public. Though the experience was draining, there were moments when she was “left alone to see incredible art and craftsmanship native to the local cultures.” Nicole credits this experience as having affirmed the value of a handmade object, increasing her production knowledge and offering her the experience of global travel on someone else’s dime. “And anytime I wasn’t traipsing around the world, I was making my own work.”

In 2004, when HBO’s The Sopranos borrowed pieces from her corporate collection, Nicole pulled the costumer aside noting, “I have my own things, too,” and through this connection was able to submit pieces for Sex and the City.

Sarah Jessica Parker fell in love with the Gold Beaded Spiral Hoops she wore as Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex and the City episode, “Splat.”

Later that same year, with numerous placements of her jewelry on television and film and having won GenArt’s prestigious Design Vision Award in Accessories, Nicole launched Nicole Landaw Jewelry.

Some NLJ beauties: Her Aerin Cuff; Amethyst and Diamond Double Leaf Barnaby Drop earrings; North South East West Amethyst Ring and a special objet d’art, the willowy, Pearl-bodied Spider.

Eight months after returning to her dream of hand making jewelry, Nicole met Mark, whose Piscean father George, in charming coincidence shared both her birth week and passion for goldsmithing.  On their third date—on Valentine’s Day– Mark gave her a corrugated box he’d made which perfectly enclosed two bars of dark chocolate. “I was delighted with its craftsmanship and the thoughtful care he took to make an enclosure for his simple gift.” It was a pivotal moment. “I knew right away that he was the one,” Nicole says, “and that cardboard box sealed the deal.” Mark notes, “I’m allergic to anything that sounds too saccharine,” but he too knew fairly quickly and canceled other dates after their second meeting. “I was ‘in’ early,” he admits.

They moved in together a year and a half later, buying the building in which they now live. “Our relationship was forged by this property.” Nicole says.  “The logistics of buying and renovating it used both our skill sets to the max.” During this same time Mark lost both of his parents in quick succession George’s illness precluded the opportunity for Nicole to ever “talk shop” with him before his passing yet she says, “I have an active dialogue with George because I have all his tools and equipment.” The family asked her to breakdown his shop after he passed and gifted her his stones and tools.  She showed me the lovingly stored pieces, including an assortment of meticulously crafted cameos and garnets from India. Nicole realizes the good fortune of this inheritance: “having all these pieces to play with…who would ever have that much? His tools are treasures–like a beautiful old wooden-handled saw frame that will last forever.”

George’s cameos.

George’s tools.

“Through George’s tools, I am in rapport with him to slow things, to be mindful of our history as goldsmiths,” Nicole specializes in custom-made wedding rings as her late father-in-law did before her. “It’s a great honor for me to help affirm a couple’s union through their rings. I take that responsibility very seriously.”

His and Hers wedding bands commissioned by a Seattle couple. Photo: RSP Media

In a brilliant proposal of marriage, Mark presented Nicole with a “Make Your Own Engagement Ring Kit,” comprised of a wooden box that he crafted in his woodshop.  Within the box, Mark carved niches to cradle three diamonds and a bar of 18 karat gold.

Once again, he got her with a handcrafted box. After months of contemplation over the design, Nicole created her bridal rings and Mark’s band. They married in August 2008.

And on March 2, 2011, the beautiful boy arrived, Jack Calder Maljanian. Family photo by Urbanito.

Gifted with a healthy newborn the day before her birthday, Nicole has a living, breathing, nursing fave, but she shares some of the “stuff” she loves…

1. My studio. “I get an itch to be there and when I’m working away, I’ll completely lose track of time. It’s my sanctuary.”

George’s trusty wooden saw; her tumbler, “the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever been given”; the wintry garden as seen from her workbench; signage from George’s shop; with a mini-torch, she solders ear wire to a hoop casting. View the step-by-step process on Flickr.

2. ¿adónde? Stoneware. Gifts from their wedding registry, she and Mark love the brilliant combo of form and function in the modular dishware.  Versatile stoneware makes each piece microwave, dishwasher and oven safe.

Stackable stoneware, the plates fit on the bowls as lids– storage perfection.

3. Custom Cutting Gemstones. She has a “total addiction. It’s a labor of love.  It’s really exciting to approach and re-approach a piece until you get it exactly right. By designing both the stone’s cut and its mounting, I control the entire vocabulary of the piece. Getting into custom-cutting stones changed my work entirely. I can never go back to pre-cut stones.”

George’s influence is evident in the Sheri Ring’s custom-cut Rutilated Quartz with its cabochon top and faceted underside. The ring is featured in Lloyd Boston’s “The Style Checklist.”

4. Metropolitan at Diner. While the famous Williamsburg watering hole no longer offers its variation on a black currant Cosmo, Nicole insures “When I come back to the bottle, I’m gonna make it come back, it’s so good!”

“It’s perfection in a glass!”

5. Braun Multimix (immersion blender, mixer, chopper and kneader all-in-one) “My longing for suburbia is greater than me. With this I can make soup by the boatload to fill our new basement chest freezer with little effort. I became a smoothie queen during my pregnancy and with this it’s a no-brainer to whip up something delicious in a heartbeat.”

Multimix: “It’s stupid cheap, cleans in a jiffy, I’ve had it forever. It comes with a pile of attachments, too, so you can basically do next to everything with it.”

6. Supermarkets, Drugstores and Flea Markets Abroad. ”I love the sensory overload of patterns and smells and the strange novelties of new places. I get lost in the bliss of it all”

A Cheng-du supermarket via Maxxelli-Blog.

7. Adidas Santiossage Slides. The nubby massage sandal is “one of the very few branded things I wear. As soon as the weather gets warm, I’m in them constantly.”

With its massaging footbed, the Santiossage is a perennial best-seller.

8. Lip Goo. “I’ve always been a goo addict, a total junkie. I always have it around.”

Her current obsession is Kiehl’s #1 Lip Balm. Photo via Flickr: Elizabeth Taylor

9. Vinyasa Yoga. She practices at Go Yoga Williamsburg under the instruction of Stephanie Sandleben and Michael Hewett.

Photo via Flickr:  all rights reserved by Bendyburg.

10. Drive-thru-Car Wash. Again, suburban nostalgia. “There’s nothing that can completely reset me like that. It would be impossible to not to forget myself while going through.”

“The dark and misty sudsing and the right, rocking song on the radio…what could be better?”

Since launching, NLJ has garnered major press coverage including W and Harper’s Bazaar to UK Telegraph. Nicole’s work is available at arp in Los Angeles, Quadrum Gallery in Boston, Egan Day in Philadelphia and select designer jewelry retailers. For more information, visit her website http://nicolelandaw.com and “like” Nicole Landaw Jewelry on Facebook.


The Trove: Cheryl R. Riley & Courtney Sloane
December 2, 2010

An invitation and homage: Courtney Sloane & Cheryl R. Riley.

Gotta love a woman who whips up a few baubles to wear on her opening night from the discards of  “yesterday’s soup.”  And so it is that interior designer Courtney Sloane adores such a woman, her wife, Cheryl R. Riley. Cheryl, one of the artists included in the massive Global Africa Project now on view at the Museum of Art and Design, gilded 3 neck bones, suspended them from black cord and wore them–like funkified Olympic gold– to the exhibition opening on November 16.

The golden girl.  Elevation Mirror I: Arizona/New Mexico, 2000, Honduran mahogany, beveled mirror, brass tacks, found and made objects 85 x 48 x 12 in. Photo by Robert Baldridge.

Just a few weeks ago, with a similar burst of spontaneous creation, Cheryl, bearing a glue gun and materials found around the house, crafted five crowns for Cheryl and Courtney’s Artful Halloween Dinner Party should extras be needed. Guests had been asked to create a crown, in lieu of full costume, to don during the Basquiat-inspired festivities in their art-filled home. Upon entering the spacious loft in my coronet of autumn leaves, I missed the fluffy presence of Pia Zadora, the beloved Chow-Chow who held court in Courtney’s life from 1992 to her passing in 2009. And I smiled as I perused the space, an eclectic mix of personal treasures including Cheryl’s own beautifully imposing, “shamanistic” mirror, a piece I’ve always loved. Courtney speaks of design as conversation, a vehicle for telling stories. The story their home reveals is one of travel and exploration, honoring family and the passionate creation and collecting of art.

Visiting from San Francisco, fantastic chef and dear friend Cassandra Miles was putting the finishing touches on the delectable feast (including a tender pot roast and Cornish game hen with garlic orange-chili butter) as the hosts readied themselves to receive guests. Courtney selected one of the Cheryl-crafted crowns: a corrugated band decoupaged with Mbuti-patterned paper and topped with glorious blue and green tail feathers molted by a friend’s Macaw. Cheryl chose for herself the “Lady Gaga-inspired” clear acrylic spire she’d painted silver and accented with corkscrew willow.

A quiet moment before the revelry.

As the guests arrived, Courtney mixed pre-dinner cocktails with the refreshing, lightly grassy Żubrówka, or Bison Grass vodka she prefers. Its single blade of buffalo grass, she explained, is akin to the worm found in bottles of mezcal.  Soon delighted dining and lively conversation commenced. Desserts of apple spice cake and sweet potato chocolate-pecan pie followed. We rounded out the evening continuing the vodka theme but appropriately with the ambrosial, chocolate-infused vodka from renowned chocolatier, Godiva. The C’s really know how to host a salon: mixing it up with fascinating people (including established artist Ben Jones and emerging artists Nina Chanel Abney and Hiroshi Kumagai) fabulous food and relaxed fun.

Floating flowers and an acceptance speech. “We are shocked, and so humbled,” said Cheryl of she and Courtney’s first and second place win in the crown contest.  She offered thanks and praise to competition judges Riley and Sloane.

Chef Cassandra and Hiroshi.  The evening’s menu.

Organic Costa Rican coffee was served in the familiar stripes of Paul Smith. One of Cheryl’s “Legacy Bags,” personalized with her childhood cowgirl snapshot.

Strongly influenced by their fierce and fashionable mothers, both Cheryl and Courtney give props to Mom for inspiring them to become the highly accomplished women they are today. “When I was a child,” Cheryl says, “my mother was called the most beautiful colored woman in Houston. She was intelligent, talented and adventurous.” Cheryl’s earliest memories are of her art student mother’s supplies:  “clay, oil paints, turpentine… She allowed me to paint and draw on a wall in my room and taught me to read before I started kindergarten.”   Aesthetics were paramount in the Sloane household as well. “My mom always had a great sense of style–both fashion and interior, ” Courtney says, ” In fact, while I was growing up she actually worked with a decorator on our house.  I would get to tag along and be a part of those conversations.  Those experiences lead me to consider interior design as a career path.”

Texas beauty, Gladys Mae DuBois.  Ever stylish, Ruth Sloane with a serious little Courtney.

Gladys Mae DuBois surrounded her daughter with beauty, ignited a creative spark and sense of boundless possibility, Bennie Riley hoped to instill in her a sense of bootstrap pragmatism. Embracing a bit of both, Cheryl attended a private community college in Missouri, Columbia College but left after receiving her Associate’s Degree to pursue life “on her own terms in a new city.” She chose San Francisco “because I am good at making lists. I wanted a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city with a strong city center, on a coast, no snow but a maximum three-hour drive from it, nature nearby and a public transportation system. I was right because the minute I saw that fog-framed city as I entered via the Bay Bridge, I was head over hills in love.”  She launched an executive career that would take her from positions with luxury retailer I. Magnin to advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi and Levi Strauss. Directing her creative energy toward her own home, she began designing furniture for her apartment. Her professional peers took notice and became her first customers. In less than a decade she went from corporate exec to fulfilling her artistic passions in 1986 with the launch of Right Angle Designs.

In 1999, with a dream collector’s list (Danny Glover, Terry McMillan, Denzel Washington, Robin Williams, et. al) several awards and exhibitions under her belt, inclusion in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, Oakland and Mint Museums, multiple public and corporate commissions (including Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport) she moved to New York.  “After living 22 years in San Francisco, I wanted to experience another city while my career was still in full swing. Having served on several arts-related boards, she most recently was a board member of the Museum of Art and Design — formerly the American Craft Museum– where she was instrumental in re-imagining the scope and re-imaging the brand. Her power to connect to an audience with her genial manner and engage them with her expertise has made her a highly regarded lecturer and panelist, speaking across the country from Stanford and Lehigh Universities to the Bellevue Art Museum. As a teacher, she’s conducted classes in respected craft schools such as Penland and Haystack Mountain.  She’s enjoyed the embrace of the East Coast with commissions: furnishings for Judith Jamison’s Alvin Ailey office and wall murals for the Walgreen’s Corporation; exhibitions in group shows at the Newark Museum, Pittsburgh’s Society of Contemporary Art, the Tampa Museum of Art and a solo show at Peg Alston Fine Art in NYC; curating the art collections of the Washington, DC offices of BET and Harlem’s luxury condominium, Kalahari; art commentary in several publications including the current issue of Jersey City Magazine and in February 2007, marriage.


 

Before family and friends, at Cala Luna in Costa Rica, the blithe spirit wed the lithe athlete.

In Jersey City, where she and Cheryl have resided in the Powerhouse Arts District since 2005, Courtney was born to and raised by John and Ruth Sloane. She donned the maroon and gold of St. Anthony High School, playing point guard on the girls’ varsity basketball team.  Initially she majored in marketing at Rutgers University but a job at Formica was a turning point for her and she convinced her employer to subsidize her further studies in interior design at FIT and Pratt. She covered the academics in class and got the immersive knowledge of the business at work, all-the-while rocking a side hustle with friends–catering and events in a small JC loft. They outfitted the space with furniture she’d designed and hosted art shows. If Formica was the turning point, then Ms. Dana Owens was the tipping point. When Dana a.k.a. Queen Latifah, full of confidence about her own trajectory, rolled through the impressive space she told Courtney “when I really blow up, you’re going to do my place.”  Three years later, Courtney did in fact, hail the Queen, creating the executive offices of her Flavor Unit in Jersey City, which led to commissions on the other side of the Hudson.

The house music fan and her company Alternative Design (AD) became the go-to designer for the hip-hop élite: Vibe Magazine, Sean Combs (through various name changes), Jay-Z, and more recently, the executive suite of Damon Dash. As word of Courtney’s gift for spatial storytelling spread, so did the interest of major corporations. Sony Music, Disney and Viacom, to name a few, came calling, commissioning AD to create their environs. She designed the flagship of natural body-care emporium, Carol’s Daughter, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Roots, Rhymes and Rage exhibition and the living quarters for the first two seasons of America’s Next Top Model.  With such an illustrious client roster, it’s no surprise that she’s become a design pundit: contributing to Essence Magazine, appearing on several design shows from CNN to BET to HGTV to a starring role on TLC’s Material World and speaking around the country (notably giving the esteemed Hiller lecture by the Design & Environmental Analysis Department at Cornell University.) She is now part of acollective working with AF Supply to develop the Signature line of plumbing fixtures and bathroom accessories– “a huge project” to be launched in 2012, mining “New York design talent of both architects and interior designers. Since most of the plumbing design innovation comes from Italy, this project specifically will bring focus on the talent pool that exists here in NYC.” Grateful for her success in both residential and commercial design in the States and abroad, she is an ardent advocate of mentoring and honoring her obligation to give back.

Courtney and the fabulous Pia Zadora.

Together Cheryl and Courtney are launching a new venture, Riley Sloane, a socially responsible design and production studio specializing in licensing, private label and production in the Home and Lifestyle categories. Their first line, launching in 2011, is the Pura Vida collection of  decorative wall panels made from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified solid indigenous woods of Costa Rica.

Cheryl on Courtney:

“About a year before I met Courtney, I made a list–again with the lists–of the qualities I wanted in my lifetime partner.”  Living on separate coasts for “the first two years of our relationship, we had a lot of time to have in-depth conversation and get to know each other on the phone. Otherwise, we saw each other every 4-6 weeks in our respective homes, traveled together elsewhere and even worked on a project together for Disney. I had 45 attributes on the list and Courtney scored 37.5!” And as any self-respecting Southern esoteric would do, she sought a reading from a cousin with “the gift.”  The reading suggested that though they are not soul mates (sometimes that is one’s best friend, business partner, etc.) they are as “highly compatible as she had ever seen–and it proved true.”

Courtney on Cheryl:

“Well I knew that there was something extraordinary about her the first time we met.  I was absolutely thrilled to meet the sister that I had read about who was doing all this bad ass furniture on the West Coast, I mean really making noise! Once we began to speak over the phone I think it was inside of about 3 or 4 weeks that I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with.”  And on her wife’s inclusion in the GAP show,  “I’m so excited and proud of Cheryl for this major accomplishment! It’s great for her to be a part of the new history of the Museum and [exhibiting] again since showing her Bakuba Griffin Dining Table in 1994 when it was the American Craft Museum.”

Born ten years apart, Cheryl’s an analog girl whose tech comfort level ends somewhere around email and Courtney’s a “gadget geek” prone to early adoption of the latest technology. They are alike in the ways that matter and different enough to keep things interesting, a great couple.  Though it was difficult for them to pinpoint only five things each, here’s a smattering of the things besides each other that they love…

Cheryl’s Fave Five:

1. Custom Cowboy Boots. “I was born in Houston in the days of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and there is a picture of me at 4 years old on Christmas day and I am wearing full cow girl regalia and my rifle and first cowboy boots.  I danced through the kid leather gun-metal gray and camel Italian cowboy boots that Wilkes Bashford, the luxury retailer of San Francisco gave me when I was his house model in the late 70’s. My favorite and oldest pair of cowboy boots were made by Austin-based Tony Lama.  The more rows of stitches, the better the quality of the boot,” and I love that the more worn they are, the better to mold to my feet.”

Rocking the Tony Lamas in a 1990 profile in San Francisco Magazine featuring her “Talking Head” media cabinet and “Zulu” tables.

2. Paloma Picasso Perfume. Melding perfectly with her body chemistry, it’s been her fragrance signature since its eighties debut. “Everyone loves the way it smells on me,” she says. “I love its rich, exotic, incense-like scent and that it holds its ‘color’ all day. Its namesake, daughter of Pablo Picasso and writer Francoise Gilot, is an artist ( jewelry design) in her own right, a fact not lost on Cheryl. She enjoys the aesthetic connection.

She chuckles at the long-ago memory of being followed by La Paloma, “her entourage a few paces behind” around the jewelry department of I.Magnin in San Francisco.  “When I looked at her directly once, she clearly did not want to communicate, just smell–probably did not want to break her spell.”

3. Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora. No surprise here.  It is evident in her own work, in her home, in her enthusiastic writing, in her exhaustive knowledge of the canon.   Given the breadth of the genre she’d be hard pressed to single out a favorite among the multitudes of diasporic artists, many of whom she feels “lucky” to count among her friends. She does share, thowever, a few artist friends with whom she’s had recent — and inspiring contact. Carrie Mae Weems is a “font of inspiration, constantly expanding beyond our concept of photography, her predominant  medium.” Cheryl, in awe, viewed the October rehearsal of  “The Venus Project,”  Weems’ collaboration with composer Phillip Miller and director Talvin Wilks. Shinique Smith’s first solo museum exhibit just closed at MOCA in Miami. “It was fantastic to see so much of her work together…My favorites are her site-specific wall murals. They dance with her calligraphic graffiti swirls that she paints with brushes and her body (the piece, Red Rose, is in Cheryl’s collection.)  Celebrated artists, the  Bronx-born Fred Wilson and Whitfield Lovell, “are the only couple in the world to have received the highly prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant [Wilson in 1999, Lovell in 2007]  Their styles of making art are completely different–Fred is an intellectually-challenging conceptualist while Whitfield’s drawings and sculptures are grounded in our authentic collective history.” She is particularly proud of Fred, who represented the US at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and has been a friend “since his 1993 Artist In Residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco where I was on the board.”

From left: Carrie Mae Weems, from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990  (the entire series was recently acquired by The Chicago Museum) Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009 (now on view in the Global Africa Project directly across from Cheryl’s mirror;) Shinique Smith, And The World Don’t Stop, 2009 ; Whitfield Lovell, After an Afternoon, 2008 (from Kith and Kin.)

4. Turquoise and Pearls. Others may crave bling but Cheryl enjoys a little opacity in her gems. Her birthstone, turquoise, with its spectral range of blue to green reminds her “of vacations in a tropical paradise or the native American jewelry in the Southwest. And pearls “are so classic, sexy, warm and modern,” complementing everything and available “in endless variety.  I love abundance strands à la Chanel or a Wilma Flintstone choker.  I am designing pearl charm bracelets, pins and necklaces with a friend in Shanghai so I can have even more!”

Detail from a charm bracelet she had made by a Native American artist in Santa Fé. She wore a single strand of black pearls on her wedding day.

5. Travel. She especially enjoys exploring Costa Rica, where she and Courtney married and her beloved Italy. “The food, the fashion, the furniture design…If there are past lives, Italy is where I [once] lived,” she believes, having felt “totally at home my first time in Rome. I took Italian lessons before I ever went there because I loved the musical sound of the language and my favorite Italian operas… I would live in Venice now if given the opportunity.”

Costa Rican footbridge and Venetian canals.

Courtney’s Fave Five:

1. Dahon Bikes. Her Speed D7 is “great for cruisin’ around the ‘hood or in the city.”

The quick-folding bike makes for “easy in and out of cafes, restaurants etc.”

3. Vibram FiveFingers. She rocked a Mary Jane version of the barefoot shoes all summer, but now she’s fiending for the camouflage soles.

The FiveFingers Sprint.

3. Geodesic domes. The tessellated structure created by Walther Bauersfeld and later tweaked and popularized by Buckminster Fuller holds a place in her heart. There’s one she and Cheryl enjoy time and again near their summer home in East Hampton, frequently taking friends like artist Nanette Carter to share in the experience. The Fuller piece Fly’s Eye Dome, is on the grounds of LongHouse, founded by Jack Lenor Larsen, one of Courtney’s “all-time favorite textile designers,” and is part of their permanent collection.  “It is just awesome,” she exclaims. “I love the volume, air and light. There is a sensational feeling when you are in a space that wraps around. I find it super liberating!”

Clockwise: Fly’s Eye Dome, photographed by © Ron Cogswell; Photo © Visions of America, Joe Sohm/Getty Images; Geodesic Dome Treehouse by Dustin Feider.

4. Chris Craft Boats. She prefers the wooden-hulled vintage models from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. “Absolutely gorgeous!”

1954  20-foot Riviera. From ClassicBoat.com.

5. Paul Smith London. She loves the quirky spin on classic English tailoring.


Looks from Paul Smith Spring/Summer 2011.

The Trove: Fanon Che Wilkins
October 20, 2010

The polymathic professor.

Since meeting the powerfully named Fanon Che Wilkins over a year ago while dancing Michael Jackson’s memory to the skies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have seen him only twice: ringing in the new year at the Harlem home of mutual friend, theHotness Grrrl and just last month as we enjoyed pristine September weather in the Prospect Heights garden of Le Gamin. Though I’ve kept up with the Kyoto-based scholar/lecturer/photographer/curator/DJ/hip-hop head/hardcore Lakers fan and his travel exploits via Facebook (snowboarding in Aspen, visiting his Pops in Belize, surfing in Costa Rica and Second Lining in NOLA) it was good to have an unhurried sit-down to catch up as the old folks say, “proper-like,” Over salmon crêpes and merguez omelets, we covered the gamut — the wisdom of our sages from August Wilson to the RZA, the merits of non-conformity and beauty of serendipity.

In fact, our having met in 2009 had a delightfully serendipitous consequence. Fanon, strapped with a long-lensed Canon shot the MJ park celebration and posted the pics to Facebook where his mom, Akiba Kiiesmira saw them and recognized me. She, an incredible textile artist and designer whose work I’d used in the pages of Essence, and I had been friends in the nineties but we’d lost touch.

During the final year of the sixties, twenty-year-old Akiba (then MaryAnn) gave birth to her first child in Los Angeles.  She and her partner, Ron Wilkins, poised for revolution, named their manchild after revolutionaries Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. A member of the Slauson Village gang in the 1950’s, Ron was at the center of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “a politicizing moment for him.”  Akiba was reading voraciously: “dialectical historical materialism and Marxist theory.” Both were members of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) Organizing was the young family’s lifeblood.  When Fanon was six-months-old, Akiba ventured to Cuba for a month to join the Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane and showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution while “Pops held it down” in Cali.

By the time he was two-years-old, Fanon’s folks amicably parted ways, sharing custody. He bounced between parents and cities. His mom relocated to Atlanta to work in a shirt collar factory with the goal of  “organizing the workers at the point of production.” They lived in a collective house and Fanon attended the independent liberation school, Learning House, where the children pledged before each meal, fists proudly raised, “I will eat all my food to grow big and strong to work in the struggle for African people.” At some point during the early years a decision was made that Fanon would alternate years with each parent.

He returned to Los Angeles and a father who was serious about working outside “the system.” For a kid, “no Disneyland, no Christmas, no frivolity,” was a drag, but his grandmother and aunt “brought balance. They made sure I had a rib,” he smiles. “That was their resistance.  In a lay-down-the-law move, G-ma had him photographed with St. Nick and hung it on the wall. “He was a big, pink-white Santa…the penultimate, and I’m sitting on his lap.” He speaks lovingly of her clear-headedness, “she wouldn’t fly,” her refusal not from fear but rather practicality; she’d witnessed many pilots tippling the cocktails. “I see the world from the ground up. I ain’t no fool,” she’d say.

The journey from South Central to the halls of academia has been an interesting one. Six-year-old Fanon was stymied by stage fright when his Dad took him to audition for the Jackson Five Variety Show in 1975. As they exited the studio set, teen idol Michael consoled him by getting down on one knee, wiping the tears from his eyes and offering some words of encouragement.  “A beautiful brother,” he fondly recalls.

In esteemed company: with the future “King of Pop” and the good doctor “Brother West.”

Amid “radicals, pimps, drug dealers and scholars,” he had an “irreverent, sacred and secular upbringing.” He was “partially raised by Richard Pryor,” he says. This resonates in his endeavors now, from his academic pursuits to his lush photographs.  “To do what Romare Bearden did, what August Wilson did. In an unalloyed way, to see the beauty of the real. Its tragic, sacred and profane beauty.”

Though he’d been introduced to photography through his dad, he didn’t realize that “you could go to school to get a BFA.”  The cerebral high school athlete (basketball and football) became a Morehouse man, returning to Atlanta to embark upon what would become an accomplished career in the study of history (with a concentration in African American Studies.) The summers of his early twenties were spent hosting and bonding with his younger (by ten years) brother Kamari. Graduate school would take him to the eponymous university in Syracuse, NY, where he would live for nine years–the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He did, however, take a year off to travel to Cuba and Southern Africa, spending much of it in Zimbabwe. In one of the many providential experiences of his life, he met author/scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and set his sights on a doctorate, exploring (at NYU with Kelley as his adviser) the global liberation struggles of oppressed and marginalized people –particularly in African nations– and their profound impact on the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the US.

Fit and fabulous: the gorgeous, ageless Akiba and her sons, Fanon and fitness trainer Kamari.

Upon his return from the continent, he committed to being “a real black man…settle down, raise a family.”  He married fellow academician, Assata and in 1997 they became the parents of a daughter, the creative, oboe-playing Coltrane.  In 1999, joyful, “extremely laid-back” son Irie followed. Though the couple divorced, just as his own parents were “totally cool, not together, but fully functional,” Fanon and his former wife lived near each other, peaceably co-parenting in Champaign where they both were graduate professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Fanon met Lashanda, who has since relocated to Japan with him where he was offered an Associate Professorship in African American History and Culture at the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Used to a very hands-on relationship with his children, Fanon has felt anxiety over his newly peripatetic fatherhood, but given his own childhood, he realizes too what a broadening experience it can be for the children to spend the school year in Champaign and summers in Kyoto. He of course, visits the children stateside a few times a year and maximizes every moment.  Though he definitely gets his travel on, when in Kyoto he lives “a simple life. No frills. I don’t have a car. I ride my bike or take public transportation.”

Fanon invites us to “see what eye see” on his photo blog— the beautiful Lashanda, his kids in flight and glimpses of life in Japan.

He recently co-edited From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, a 2009 collection of scholarly essays on black internationalism and contributed the fifth chapter, “A Line of Steel: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974,” to the just released The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism edited by Dan Berger.

Recent publications.

In spite of the rarefied worlds he’s found himself in, Fanon remains incredibly grounded and grateful. His Mama, Daddy, village raised him up right. He’s an intellectual who’ll drop the knowledge without pedantry, a cat you can kick back and have a brew with. Of academia, he says, “I’m with people who posture all the time. I’m trying to live as authentically as possible. Life happens in the blur, the grey areas. I can’t front.” So from this authentic life enthusiast, a few things he enjoys in the blur…

1. Fragrance Oils. He hasn’t worn cologne since high school. “It’s all oils.” He got hooked after he was given and advised to sell a “hefty supply of Somali Rose and Arabian Sandalwood to make some money for books and supplies.”  The “terrible businessman,”  got a little too hooked, breaking one of the “Ten Crack Commandments and ‘got high on my own supply’ by keeping it all to myself and wearing it on a daily. I have come to fashion myself a connoisseur of fine oils.”

“Uncut and as pure as they come,” a quartet in his fragrance cache. “Gold Dust is sick and I can generally rock any Musk, especially when it’s hot and my skin is moist.”

2. Deejaying. “I live for music and have been deejaying for a while out of necessity. I’ve lived in more than my share of backwater towns and have had to resurrect the good old house party just to keep my sanity. I have done a few clubs in my day, but I mostly get down for fun and push my friends to throw parties and hire me.”

“My music equipment and untouched clutter. I figured I had to be a real DJ and keep it all the way real.”

3. Shirley the Surly. “I ride every single day. Big Shirley takes me all over the streets of Kyoto. She’s a simple fixed-gear Surly Steamroller that has never failed me — aside from a flat or two or three.  Everybody should own a bike and ride it.  Bike lanes need to be mandatory.”

Big Shirley keeps him fit, saves money and is eco-friendly.

4. 35-pound Kettlebell. “It’s the most important piece of exercise equipment I own. I love to go hard and keep it simple and safe.”

“Join the revolution and buy one,” Fanon enthuses.

5. Sneakers. “Like the great philosopher Nasir Jones, ‘I’ma addict for sneakers.’ I truly believe that Hip-Hop’s greatest contribution to civilized behavior was making sneakers high fashion because I prefer a nice pair of tennis (a nod to the Left Coast vernacular) over just about anything that goes on my feet.”

 

“I copped these [Puma] joints in Kyoto about a year ago, but recently pulled them out and I think they look better than when I bought them.”

6. Leica Digi-Lux 2. “I am a camera gear fanatic. I love photography. I lust and salivate for the tools of the trade. This Digi-Lux is my first ever purchase on Ebay and I am having a blast with it. One day I will own an M9, but for now I am getting my Leica on with this trusty little throwback that was made way back in 2004.  In digital camera years that’s like 20 years ago.”

“You just can’t front on the seamlessness of Leica design — sleek, simple and uncluttered.”

7. Blendtec Blender. “I pretty much make a smoothie of some sort every single day. When I was in search of a trusty blender, it was between the Blendtec and VitaMix.” The Blendtec won him over. Three years in, he hasn’t been disappointed.

Even though he ordered the black model but received the white, “he got over it and made a smoothie.”

8. Skype. “People often ask me how difficult it is to live abroad. ‘Don’t you miss your family and friends?’ they always ask. Yes and no, thanks to a wonderful invention called Skype. I got put up on it when I was in Brazil in 2006 and it has made my life abroad a cinch.”

Modern technology: Coltrane and Irie can pick up their home phone, dial their Dad’s “Skype in” number and it rings on his computer 6000+ miles away.

9. Eyeglasses. He’s worn them since his sophomore year of college. “I jokingly tried my buddy Arshad’s on and damn near lost my mind because I discovered that blurred chalkboards were not actually blurry at all. I used the first credit card I ever got — a Sears jammy — and bought my first pair of eyeglasses.”

“Simple, elegant, timeless and nerdy as f***, but in a hip way, he says of his artisanal frames from French eyewear company, Vue dc.”

10. Snowboarding. He’s been surfing the slopes for about eight years (Nagano, Aspen, Whistler, Tahoe.) “When it comes to something I live for I don’t think anything tops the list more these days than snowboarding. Ride a snowboard, you will live longer,” he opines.

“When the mountains are steep and the snow gets deep,” he uses his (left) Tanker 200 by Rad-Air—a long board only built for Cuban Linx.  His “go-to board for all-around conditions” is the Prior All Mountain Freestyle with hybrid rocker. “I had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Prior plant and taking a tour of the factory in Whistler, BC.” The gear geek admits the tour got a “rise” out of him.

*Excepting Blendtec and Skype, all photos of Trove items courtesy of Fanon Che Photography.

The Trove: Aashumi Shah
October 7, 2010

Aashumi, at home.

On a blazing early summer Saturday I, in my infinite wisdom set up temporary shop at Silver Spring, Maryland’s answer to Brooklyn Flea, the Fenton Street Market, without benefit of a tent.  In this “babies and fools” moment I had the good fortune to be placed next to Aashumi Shah. I was selling vintage goods, she her wonderful, whimsical, eco-friendly line of handmade kids toys, pillows, gifts and accessories, mirasa design. Though I initially enjoyed the caress of sunshine, when Helios’ kisses became a little too intense, Aashumi kindly allowed me to sit in the shade of her beautiful, canopied booth. In vendor camaraderie we chatted and soon discovered we share an alma mater.

Aashumi (“Tears of Joy”) was born the youngest of three daughters to Anju and Kishor Shah and raised in the bustling city of Bombay (now Mumbai.)  She attended J.B. Petit High School for Girls, where Principal Shirin Darasha “encouraged independent thinking and empowered us to dream high. Our school badge and slogan is ‘Ever Forward’ which I think is beautiful and powerful,” she says.

The Shah girls, Aashumi, Manasi and Shivali.

Upon graduation, the honors student planned to take the exams for Law School in South India. “I love analyzing,” she says.  In an ironic twist, her older sister, who’d planned to become a fashion designer, didn’t make it into art school and is now an attorney while Aashumi shifted to art–she had been, after all “very industrious,” creating handmade cards since childhood.

She settled on Sophia Polytechnic, though she was not very happy there. “I felt the grading system for art and design made no sense; not enough creative space to grow and be different.”  Nonetheless, she met the first of two important mentors with whom she remains friends and sees whenever she returns to India. Professor Snober Mistry of the textile design department, introduced her to woven design. “She understood me and encouraged me through my textile specialization.”

The second mentor was entrepreneur Neeru Nanda, for whom she began working at 19 as she neared the end of art school. “I did design, product development and managed production for lifestyle products such as placemats and pillows. It was a great learning experience and I loved working with Neeru. She understood my need to grow and spread out into the world. I wanted to be independent in every aspect of the word. I wanted to live on my own, pay my own bills, make my own decisions…I love my family and so it wasn’t about running away from home. It was just me and I had to live it, express it and prove it to myself, that I can.”

In 2002, with family living in New York City, her parents were comfortable with allowing their youngest to pursue her artistic passions in the United States.  She spent a month studying graphic design at Parsons, “just to make sure,” before majoring in textile and surface design with a concentration in woven design at F.I.T.  Admittedly her U.S. college years were “very spoiled,” as she lived with her mother’s brother Nitin, his wife Sunanda and cousin Bijal (a Master’s candidate at Columbia) in a spacious 5-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “I am so grateful,” she says of that time.  Though being welcomed into their warm and loving family “made my transition to a new city, culture and country very comfortable,” she immersed herself in school and spent much of her time on campus. “I totally loved it,” she says.

A year later, she would meet her dearest and most influential friend at her cousin’s birthday bash.  Bijal’s good friend Paresh drove up from Washington, DC with his buddy, attorney Carlos Vanegas in tow to attend the festivities. Carlos, spilling wine on the white carpet, could be said to have left an impression. Though he was terribly embarrassed, it was a “cordial party atmosphere,” Aashumi recalls and all was forgiven. It would be six months until  Carlos and Aashumi’s paths would cross again in Washington, DC, where he lived and worked as a Public Defender and she and Bijal were visiting Paresh.  When Aashumi mentioned that she’d like to go running, Carlos offered to take her and she was taken by the “amazing music,” he had playing in his car.  Upon her return, she shared with her cousin that she felt “a real connection,” to Carlos. On her November 18 birthday just weeks later, she received a Fed-Ex package at her NYC home filled with glorious music. Carlos had sent sixteen compact discs: Poncho Sanchez, Alpha Blondy, pre-Wailers Bob Marley, Carmen Sings Monk, Cachao’s Master Sessions 1 & 2 and an Afro-jazz mix that he’d compiled among the birthday booty.  She was elated and the two became the best of friends, speaking daily across the miles.

Los and Shumi.

Graduating Summa Cum Laude from FIT in 2004, Aashumi took an invaluable post at Britannica Home Fashions, doing design and product development. She was responsible for production artworks and followed up with the overseas factories for product eventually sold at retailers such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, JCPenney and Fortunoff. She’d secured the career, so it was time to “make it on her own.” She moved from the comfy family digs to an affordable apartment in Queens.

On a March day in 2008, she asked Carlos, visiting from DC and with whom she’d had general conversations about marriage, if he wanted to marry her.  He said yes.  She cried.  Months later whilst enjoying celebrated chef José Andrés’ DC mezze hotspot, Zaytinya on July 4th, youthful-looking Aashumi hadn’t brought her identification so she was refused alcohol. “Los got up to go to the restroom. Then there was a random tall glass of lemon fizz in front of me. He suddenly appeared with a ring and proposed.”

The year 2009 brought exciting change; the two married in a traditional Jain ceremony in Mumbai; she moved to DC and she launched mirasa.  Of her supportive husband, Aashumi says, “he has no expectations of me other than to do what I feel passionate about.”

Above Aashumi’s desk, she and Carlos radiant in brilliant color at their wedding alongside a long-ago black and white portrait of her beautiful parents.

As a gift for Atia, Bijal’s one-year-old daughter, Aashumi created some “soft toys with tactile elements to stimulate Atia’s sense of imagination and play. The toys were bundled into a cloth bag that Atia could easily carry around with her.” After having toiled long and hard for Britannica, Aashumi decided to put her experience and energies into her own product line inspired by Atia’s gifts and named mirasa–Hindi for “heritage”–in homage to hers. Incorporating the colors of the Indian landscape with kantha and ari style embroidery, she honors the traditions of  the sub-continent and creates gender-neutral items uninfluenced by western notions of pink and blue.  A socially responsible venture,  mirasa design utilizes fair trade practices, employing artisans in Mumbai to hand craft Aashumi’s designs in eco-friendly, azo-free, dyed cotton.  In a gesture of “giving back what I was so lucky to receive,” a portion of the company’s proceeds are donated to Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to creating educational opportunities and encouraging literacy among girls in the developing world.

The wonderful world of mirasa design. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.  “Like” mirasa design on Facebook.

The mirasa animal kingdom, now on tiny onesies. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.

“Designing for kids is fun, freeing,” she says. Though her entrepreneurial foray has its challenges, she enjoys nurturing her young business.  “It’s like a baby.”  The delightful products are available online, but she garners most of her sales while vending at markets and art fairs, which provides valuable and deeply satisfying feedback. “What brings me the most joy is when a child attaches to a particular animal.” I’ve borne witness to and been as charmed as Aashumi by the decisive selection process of the wee ones.  The choices are definitive–and enchanted.

As we had coffee in her lovely Columbia Heights home, her absolute enchantment with her Ecuadorian-American husband was evident.  “Is it okay if I put Carlos on the list? I know he is a person, not a thing, but he influences me a lot.  He is a big part of who I am.”  When I complimented her on their home she said, “it’s Carlos,” his visual sensibilities aligned with hers, “he’s aesthetically-driven.”  True to the shy aspect of their shared astrological sign of Scorpio, they aren’t horn tooters but they are each fervent in their passions.  Here are a few of hers…

1. Hand-thrown Coffee Cup. She enjoys her morning joe in a ceramic mug bought from Contemporary Arts and Crafts in Mumbai.  From age six to twenty-three she lived near the emporium of “real treasures of handmade product” and brought her beloved cup with her when she moved to the United States. “It’s a very easy, very pleasing shape to hold; a wonderful color to wake up to. I love the contrast of the matte dragonfly and the glaze and I love the imperfection of the inside.”

The perfect cup.

2. Her Bike. The first bike she’s owned, it is “really empowering. It meant a lot. I’d worked really hard and used my bonus money to buy it.”  She enjoys its smooth, comfortable ride.  “Riding is addictive.” She squeezes in a 20-mile ride through Rock Creek Park whenever she can.  “It’s the best way of escaping.” 

“The best thing in the world after Carlos,” her Giant OCR model .

3. Mauritian Coconut Handbag. On a family trip to celebrate her father’s 60th birthday on the island of Mauritius, Aashumi’s parents wanted to gift her with a memento.  A handbag in the airport there caught her eye. “I love that it is a coconut, the yellow cross stitching and that it’s leather-free.”

Aashumi eschews leather goods, so the coco-purse is an animal-friendly option.

4. Carlos’ Pesto. “It is the best thing he can make — and he’s a very good cook.” But it’s the lack of cooking that makes for an easy Sunday quick mix. “No flame required, he can mix it up, watch the game, have his Guinness and make me happy all at the same time. He always has it ready for me after the market, little sandwiches he makes with love.”

Carlos enjoys making pesto. “I think he enjoys the smells of it,” she says.

5. Swatch Skin. I love that it is so clean in its design, and it’s thin.”

From the Swatch Skin Collection, Ligne de Vie, Aashumi’s favorite watch.

6. Monsoon Vermont. Carlos’ friend Julia Genatossio founded this company which produces home and fashion accessories of non-recyclable plastics in Jakarta. Aashumi uses her Monsoon Vermont passport wallet every weekend to hold her monies at market. “I think it’s incredibly fun.”

She owns several of the colorful, eco-friendly offerings from the socially responsible Monsoon Vermont.

7. FabIndia Soap. She’s formed a real attachment to these natural soaps and the refreshing ritual of bathing with them.  They scent her home with fragrance and transport her (particularly the Jasmine bar) “to the smells of India,” where children sell garlands of jasmine blossoms strung together at nearly every traffic stop. “My skin feels really soft and smooth.”  She snaps up several bars (in various fragrances) every time she goes to India.

Her favorites among the many available FabIndia scents are tucked in ceramic bowl made by her Aunt Sunanda.

8. Yoga.  Practicing Vinyasa mostly,  “it is a recent obsession,” fostered by the “great teachers” of the studio Past Tense, just blocks from her home. She volunteers as a studio assistant three days a week and incorporates practice four times a week.

Aashumi joins fellow yoga devotees in an outdoor Past Tense class in Lamont Park.  Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography for Past Tense Studio.  

9. Frida Kahlo. During a trip to Mexico City, Aashumi visited Museo Frida Kahlo, the house where the revered artist was born and died. She was stunned by the number of people who spoke of her resemblance to the icon. “Frida was so inspirational, so dynamic, so talented, such a woman…and of course, her work is amazing.  It is such a clear expression of what she’s feeling and who she is.  To express with such honesty takes a lot of courage.”

A gift from Carlos, Aashumi treasures the published diary of the iconic Mexican artist.

10. Music. “Carlos is so passionate about music, he opened a window to a world:  jazz, reggae, bossa nova, Fela Kuti…They all came alive for me through him.” From tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Lincoln Center and Mexican-American conguero Poncho Sanchez at the Blue Note in New York to Brazilian singer Gal Costa at George Washington University in DC, Carlos has gifted Aashumi with the wonder of live performance.

Gal Costa lent her voice to this charming animated commercial for Brazilian skin care line, Natura.