Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

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.

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The Trove: Ludlow Beckett
July 10, 2011

The distinguished proprietor.

Back in 1999 one handsome, stylish LB, Lloyd Boston, hipped me to another, Ludlow Beckett. Ludlow had just opened his Fort Greene shop, Yú Interiors and Lloyd was spreading the word about his friend’s new venture. Given Lloyd’s clean, modern tastes I knew it would be good. Since then the emporium of “home accessories for modern living” has become my go-to spot for everything from scented candles to vases, lamps, art books and my mid-century glass-topped Danish coffee table.  It’s always a pleasure to browse the inventory for something new and chat with the mellow-voiced Ludlow. We spoke recently of the challenges and rewards of caregiving, how he’s survived in a faltering economy and as the somber anniversary looms, reminisced about the island lift we got when just weeks after the horrors of September 11, 2001 we were both in Kingston, Jamaica for the inaugural Caribbean Fashion Week.

Kingston born and raised, Ludlow “grew up with parents that were very conscious of style,” he says. “My mom started coming to the states in the sixties and would bring back American stuff.  When I look back at the furniture, I think Wow, that was pretty cool!”  Though the seed was planted then, it would germinate for quite a while.

“I never thought of it as a career. I came to the US at twenty and went to college, two years at City College for accounting then Pace University for finance,” he says. He spent 27 years on Wall Street but ultimately left banking when his mother became ill. “I didn’t want to travel as much, so I took time off.” While caregiving, he pondered what business he could open in Brooklyn.  Given the onslaught of gentrification in Fort Greene, he thought home goods would be a viable local option to big box stores.  In keeping with his modernist aesthetic, “It was about providing the things I would like in my own home. I operated under the premise that if I liked it, someone else would like it too whether it’s a Votivo candle or a vintage serving tray.”

About the store name he says “It’s everything YOU need,” and with a considerable Asian influence on much of the merchandise, he spelled it Yú. He incorporates new with vintage pieces, mostly mid-century modern. He loves that era for its “gorgeous woods” like walnut and rosewood; simplicity,”great design without being ornate” and functionality “mass produced for modern living, but still beautiful.”

Yú’s interior.

He’s kept his doors open through the economic downturn armored by his banking experience. “Having managed people (a group of eighty) having run a call center for Chase where you understand customer service, how to recruit, how to train, how to run reports to check progress…all the pieces that come together to run a business. I learned that if you can’t increase your revenue you can still be profitable if you keep your expenses down.”

And most importantly he acknowledges his life partner of 24 years, tax accountant, Allen Harvey, “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

George Mulhauser for Plycraft chair; gold leafed Sea Urchin bowl; spider clock; Quistgaard ice buckets; Tozal ceramic boxes and trays; Zwelethu Mthethwa book; Ridley’s classic games and mid-century Danish teak mirror.

Lean or flush he absolutely enjoys his entrepreneurial endeavor. “When you do something you love, the rewards can come in ways that are unexpected,” he says. An elderly Latina woman, a resident of the local senior center has supported him from the beginning. Though his modern sensibility differed from hers, she wanted to patronize his business and made a concerted effort to seek out items she related to like scented candles. They have become friends. Another customer “came to check on me during the blackout with a flashlight and a beer. So it’s not just about making a dollar, its about making relationships far beyond a transaction.”

Similarly, a look at his Trove reveals a quest for the simple pleasures; his favorites experiential, the stuff that creates quality of life.

1. Entertaining. “I love cooking and love being with my friends over a home-cooked meal.”

2. Great Espresso. “Made in the morning, with my own espresso beans.”

Bialetti stove top espresso maker.

3. Negroni.  “I love cocktails but a good Negroni is the best!”

The classic Campari aperitif via SeriousEats.com.

4. A Bath. He enjoys a good ole tub soak with aromatic botanicals like eucalyptus, lavender and sage. “I’m a product person when it comes to baths.

A Yuma bathtub from BluBleu.

5. Farmer’s Markets. “Brooklyn’s are great, but the one at Union Square can’t be beat, especially in the Springtime.”

Photo via: The Untrepreneur

6. Sag Harbor.  The Hamptons village is home to several historically black enclaves including Chatfield Hills, where Ludlow and Allen purchased a home in 1998.

The pool at their home.

7. Kobo Candles. Clean burning soy wax and unusual fragrance combinations make the scented candles a fave in the shop and his home.

In-store, he carries a full complement of fragrances, but at home he burns the green yet spicy Jalapeño.

8. My Shop. “Gives me the opportunity to meet some great, really interesting people.

Keeping shop: Ludlow and his wares.

9. Vintage Wittnauer Watch.  He loves the 1940’s timepiece inherited from his father.

Launched in 1872, The Wittnauer brand graced fine Swiss watches until it was bought by the Bulova company in 2001.

10. Complexions Contemporary Ballet.  Ludlow truly enjoys the performances of Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson’s dance company.

Complexions Co-Founder Desmond Richardson.

The Trove: Marcia Jones
July 7, 2011

The artist at her recently opened exhibition, Live and in Stereo(type) Photo: Gantt Center.

In 2009 visual artist Marcia Jones chose to inaugurate her brave and unabashedly personal blog, untitled 1972 –truthBE told on December 12, the anniversary of her conception.

 Teens Paul Davis and Christine Jones with their infant daughter; from “Open letter to self.”

And with miraculous will, she’s moved along. From her birth during Mercury retrograde at Chicago’s Little Company of Mary Hospital, her home for her first three months as her tiny body was incubated to her sixty-hour labor to bring daughter Saturn into the world in 1996 to birthing a new vision of and for herself as she juggles the excitement of her career momentum as an artist with the unpredictable challenges of living with chronic illness.

Marcia and I spoke at length by phone on the eve of her exhibition opening with fellow Atlanta artist, Fahamu Pecou at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, NC. The culmination of her residency (a collaboration between the Gantt Center and McColl Center for Visual Art) her works for the show are from the series, The Displaced Oshun Theory created “to examine the purposeful patriarchal division of The Divine Mother (Mary the Virgin) and The Sacred Whore (Mary Magdalene.)”  She and Fahamu celebrated their shared June 25 birthday at an artist’s talk  at the museum.

“Wonder Twins,” Fahamu and Marcia (in a glorious vintage find) flank Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe whose Gantt exhibition opened the same day.

The show raised a few questions and eyebrows so Marcia has been invited to address the controversy in a discussion on July 21 from 6-7:30pm.  Of her return for the artist round table she says, “curator Ce Scott has been an amazing advocate of my work. I’m very much looking forward to the dialogue with the community, the staff, and the patrons of the Harvey B Gantt Center. I feel like my work is doing exactly what great Art should do… raise discomfort and questioning. I am extremely happy that they are inviting me to come back and answer these questions with valid answers.”

She is grateful for the entire Gantt/McColl opportunity “I sat on a panel with the NEA chairman. Who gets to do that?  The McColl Center catapulting me in the spaces that I would never be in otherwise. So I’m completely appreciative of that. They chose me to speak on behalf of the arts community. I am honored.”

Another part of her residency obligation was, of course, community outreach. “I was really into the advocacy work I did at a battered women’s shelter. That was so healing for all of us there.  I haven’t been physically abused but metaphorically we’re all a little battered we’re all a little wounded in some way. I’m not comparing mine to theirs by any means, but it still resonates in an emotional place in women: trauma, regret, hurt, shame or what not.  I want to move into this arena. I want to help people heal. At my studio at the McColl, women would come in and leave crying. I realize that emotion is very repressed these days, I mask too.”

We spoke of her bohemian childhood, the smile-as-mask that women often adorn, the Kahloesque honesty of her work and her periodic need to pick it up, pack it up and start anew–elsewhere.

Declaring “I’m taking my baby, I’m gone,” Christine and two-year-old Marcia left life in Maple Park and the Southside for Atlantic City, NJ and a cross-country odyssey alighting in Arkansas, Texas, and finally Southern California when Marcia was nine. By the time Marcia was elected president of the Marshall High Black Student Union,  they’d bounced from Silverlake, Venice, and Leimert Park in Los Angeles alone. One of the grounding forces for Marcia was their embrace of Buddhism when she was eleven.

From holding hands (with Mommy) to shaking poms to wielding fire.

Her father, who hadn’t been allowed to take part in her life past infancy, called her on her 18th birthday. “He was like, okay, now we can talk…and we were inseparable from that day forward.” Though she loves her mother, she considers her father and her Chicago aunt, “Aunnie” Lavan Morrison her parents.

With a goal to become a journalist she headed to historically black Clark Atlanta University, where she discovered her writing lacked the necessary objectivity for journalism (Subjectivity was a theme that would pop up again during her graduate study.) While there the young woman who’d filled countless childhood hours coloring books from back to front with crayons, switched majors to fashion, embracing her natural affinity for the visual. She enjoyed the foundation classes, art and drawing. “Conceptually, I liked the idea of being an artist,” she says.  She’d seen the then-emerging artist Radcliffe Bailey around Atlanta, his work, the first show she ever saw.

Armed with a fashion portfolio she headed to New York after her 1995 graduation and camped with friends on Avenue A. While styling a photo shoot she chatted with djassi daCosta johnson who said “I’m going abroad, do you want to interview for my job?” (as personal assistant to harriette cole) “Hook it up. That’d be cool,” was Marcia’s response.  Later at an event she a noticed a woman in the restroom and said, “Ooh, I love your hair.” That woman was harriette, she discovered when she went to the interview.” She got the gig and when I met her, an Afroed angel in the halls of Essence, full of optimism and a smile to melt glaciers, she seemed a blithe spirit, energized by all the possibility that lay before her. “That’s one of the things I miss about being young and vibrant and excited about things, you attract stuff,” she says.  And attract she did: a job, a love, a child and a calling in short order.

Inspired by her painter roommate and drawing on her own innate gift, she began painting. Her first was a tree woman with a hollow womb and which she gifted the man who would give her both love and a baby girl, poet Saul Williams.  “Yeah we conjured up that baby. There was a full moon and a group of us on the Brooklyn Bridge reciting poetry: Mike Ladd, Mums, Mos Def, Wood Harris, Bahiyyih Maroon, Saul and me. It was a magical night…”she recalls fondly.

Sun and Sea and Saturn.

Brooklyn Moon Cafe was buzzing then, poets making noise and making names and I helped bring local visual artists to the space to mount their works.  “When you approached me about that it came at a beautiful time. Thank you. That was really major for me. It solidified my presence in that whole movement–Brooklyn Moon when all this history was taking place.”  She began doing performance painting, raw and in-the-moment, which has taken her from touring England and Scotland with Saul to touring Turkey with band Wax Poetic to solo “performances” in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

The Unscene: Marcia Jones directed by Pierre Bennu/Exit the Apple.

After she and Saul parted, she returned to her LA “hometown” and accepted a position at Ikon Secondary Art Gallery in Santa Monica, an immersive experience in the art world.  She noticed that the exhibiting artists all had master’s degrees thought that she too needed an MFA to be taken seriously as an artist and to begin to exhibit her work. “That’s how I ended up in grad school.” That and the joy she knew it would bring her dad.  She was accepted and enrolled in University of North Carolina at Greensboro, studying transatlantic slave trade for her thesis.  She studied the work of Robert Farris Thompson, Orisha studies and slave culture. She was moved by the slave practice of using cooking pots as tombstones. “My father passed away a month after I got into school. It devastated me.  The night she learned of his passing she painted out her sorrow in the wee hours on a vast canvas she submitted for the next morning’s critique.  Tear-streaked and puffy, she donned sunglasses and was reprimanded for it. “I said look, I found out my father died, I painted all night, please don’t make me take off my glasses.”

Her father, Paul Davis and the memorial pot she created in his honor.

At the funeral her father’s best friend told her, “you don’t understand how happy he was you were getting your master’s; he bragged about you all the time.” The grad school experience was, however, brutal. “It tore me to shreds emotionally, spiritually, physically.  I didn’t see it coming. I’d never been so harshly critiqued.” The issue of objectivity (like in undergraduate journalism) reared its head again. From an artist whose work is deeply personal, the criticism your work is too subjective, yields a bored, “yeah, and?…I muse off of my relationships. And the more they fellow in the arena of dysfunction, the grittier they are. I heard the gamut from ‘no painterly technique’ to ‘the work is a little contrived.'” Her champions at the school, Susan Page and Cora Cohen had left, but instructor Juan Logan and artist Kojo Griffin encouraged her to continue — What you’re doing, there’s a place for it. Don’t stop.

Death of New York, circa late 90’s; the artist at work; I Am the Difference, 2002; Displaced Oshun Theory 2; Perfect 2, 2006; Untitled 2004.

She’d chosen her thesis chair because he’d written a book on Atlantic triangular trade, a seemingly good fit but in the last days, he hedged on signing off for her, asking “If I realized that his signature is a green light. I was like what do you want to hear from me, that I won’t end up at the Whitney or MoMA unless you sign this paper?  Everybody else is out celebrating because they’re done and I’m sitting here in your office.” He critiqued and found value in her portfolio and they had “a very long conversation about my position on art, contemporary art specifically.” He signed.  Three days later she was in the hospital. She thought it was exhaustion from all the stress. It was Multiple Sclerosis.

My Body, 2008.

“I kept going. I came back to Atlanta.” Holding a Master of Fine Arts, she “called on my department chair at Clark to question how to get into this [education] industry. How do you get the three years of experience they want before they hire you? What do I do now?” she asked.

“You come here,” he said.  “Someone’s going to have to take over my classes, are you interested?”

“’Hell yeah!’  That’s how I became a professor at my alma mater.  It was awesome. I walked in to ask for advice and walked out with a job,” she exclaims.  “I love teaching. I’m a really good teacher. It was the only time I’ve ever felt totally in my divine purpose–the mother, the artist, the oracle, all of it. Everything about me fell in place.” She was highly ranked among students and in end-of-year department evaluations, but when the ax swung during massive school-wide layoffs, she was the only person in her department to receive a pink slip.  An aunt in the HR industry suggested that perhaps with her illness, she was simply too expensive to insure, as she was offered an adjunct position without medical benefits.

She takes it day-by-day. She received a 2005 Caversham Printmaking Fellowship in South Africa and attended the Spelman College Taller Portobello Artist Colony in Panama in 2006. Though uninsured she says, “Everything has been blessed and taken care of.” Timing has been crucial.  As she needed to heal and focus, Saturn was beginning to spread her wings. Years ago through a reading she came into an early awareness that Saturn is “Saul’s baby,” which has allowed her to “surrender the reins. I have to let her develop in that way, in compliance with the universe because her dreams are going to come true through her interactions with him, witnessing his life. Her father is the vehicle and it all makes sense now.”

“She came to me one day and said ‘I’d like to go to California and live with my dad.’ My diagnosis was relatively recent and I thought This is no life for a twelve-year-old, to have to care for a parent. Go live a life. Her father was in the epicenter of what she wants. I knew what it was like being a child with restraints based on a parents wants, desires, even fears.  I had to let her go.”

“I’m her grounding mechanism. When she needs to talk with her mother, I am there. I’m her advocate, but she and Saul are in the trenches doing the work.” (They now live in Paris) “She comes to me in summers and it’s great. She’s great.” Her bilingual daughter now wants to study German. “She has an ear for music and language.  She taught herself to play Adele’s Hometown Glory on piano and it was flawless.  I was so impressed.  Same thing with guitar.”

“She talks like Saul and looks like me. I call her ‘Spawn,’ she chuckles. “Sat was powerful from the beginning,” she muses about realizing she was pregnant. “We were terrified.” As they discussed the test results, the sunny sky gave way to a deluge that matched their tears.  Once they made a choice: “I guess we’re going to have this baby,” the rains stopped. Two weeks after her due date, Marcia went into labor on Sunday night and Saturn River Renge arrived Wednesday afternoon. “I went to a birthing center to have a water birth and ended up at St. Vincent’s with an epidural-but it all is what it is.”

When your wonderful daughter is a Transatlantic flight away, it helps to have Skype.

“As a parent you’re supposed to make your child better than you are. And she is already,” Marcia says. “We’re doing a good job. I’m so proud of her. I could talk about her forever.” Saturn’s teacher commended her on an abstract painting she’d done: “This is amazing, how did you learn this?” Her reply delights Marcia to no end. “My mom.”

That Saturn’s children may one day read about her she says, “that is a dream of mine, that they’ll say ‘oh that’s my grandmother.’ I’m not trying to be an art star right here, right now– I want history. Frida Kahlo legendary.” She wants socks made in her likeness, “handbags at the flea market, beaded curtains.  That’s what I think about. But if the Whitney calls tomorrow I wouldn’t say no.”

The “visual learner” shares without commentary, but rather a curation of defining images, her ten favorite things.

1. Filbert Paint Brushes.  

Photo: Meadow Overstreets

2. Poets.

Poetry was a powerful springboard for her — into becoming an artist, into motherhood. It’s entwined with her adult life in collaborations with poets from Saul to jessica Care moore to her soulful exchanges with the “phenomenal” Stefen Micko. Video: Notorius Productions.

3. Kissing.

baciare. baisers. beijo. besarse. jiewen. kisu. kumbusu. kussen. kyssar.

4. Aesthetic Discernment.

From group Rising Appalachia, “SUNU.”

5. Boots.

The knee-high, fringed Minnetonka is a fave.

6. Creative Critical Thought.

The LA-based blog, Galaxy/.09, offers an amalgam of her eclectic interests.

7.8) Universal Sacred Geometry.


Diagram: Il Triangolo Sacro e La Piana di Giza. (The Sacred Triangle and The Pyramid of Giza) © 1998 Alfonso Rubino.

8. Newton’s Laws mixed with String Theory.

A  quantum primer.

9. Liquitex Soft Body Acrylic Paint.  


She specifically uses the light blue and soft pink shades.

10. Authenticity.

Ezili, dancer/choreographer Adia Tamar Whittaker’s collaborative video project with filmmakers Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel and Joshua Bee Alafia.

Join the Marcia Jones artist page on facebook.


The Trove: Eisa Ulen Richardson & Ralph Richardson
July 2, 2011

On the Fundy Trail. On each other: “He is my rock…She is wonderful, loving, giving.”

Capricorn hip-hop heads Eisa Nefertari Ulen and Ralph Richardson, Jr. lived parallel lives near to, yet unaware of each other. Born in the city of Brotherly Love, each eventually moved with their families to idyllic Columbia, Maryland in the 1970s. As young adults, they both lived in the Nation’s Capital. For years, their worlds hovered close, threatening to collide–their cousins were good friends; they attended some of the same memorable events; they both considered law careers until the Muse called and each followed her to Brooklyn. In 1999 at the junction of Fulton and Flatbush, defying the laws of physics, their parallel lines converged.

“He saw me walking ahead of him and he liked my posture,” Eisa says. They did a bit of a dance — he walking alongside her then dropping back in the cut when she failed to notice. Undeterred, he finally strode forward offering a bright smile and a hello. “We started talking and he told me he was a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like yeah and everybody else in this neighborhood.

“No, no, really I am,” he said and dashed into his nearby apartment emerging with a VHS tape of his first film, a black and white short called Kharja which they promptly viewed in the local video store.

“Absolutely, stunningly beautiful,” Eisa says. “Very well-done. So we talked about that and I told him I was a writer and he walked me home.” Since she’d just met him on the street, she was initially hesitant to give up the digits when he asked for her phone number.  “He said, ‘You know you’re going to give it to me’ and actually I did know. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, when I looked at him, he felt really familiar. I gave it to him and about 10 minutes later he called and read me a poem he’d composed about our meeting.”

“Off the top…I only make fresh-baked bread,” Ralph laughs. From that day on, every day they were in the same town, they saw each other. There was no singular moment when it crystallized for either of them, “other than just meeting,” he says, the infinity line touched in Fort Greene. “Things evolved organically,” Ralph says and they married July 5, 2004.

“We are committed to each other as loving partners but both having divorced parents we’re even more committed to the institution of marriage,” Eisa says. And now since the 2009 birth of their son, Ralph Everett Hooper Richardson III, their entangled roots grow deeper.

“Ralph is the one I knew was out there. I had opened up a space in my life for my husband to walk in and that’s when he came…and gave me a son.”

When I visited the Richardsons in their Fort Greene home last week, Ralph talked time theory while Eisa readied herself in the bedroom. “Time drags for the young. The older you are it seems that time quickens. I think it’s because you’re denied things when you’re young: I can’t wait to be this, I can’t wait to do that.  Anticipation elongates time and I think adults need to incorporate that anticipation to extend time.”  Two-and-a-half-year-old Ralphie popped out to give me status updates on Mommy. Astrology buff Ralph explained that their son is an Aquarius, the water bearer, “he pours the water into the river, conducting the flow.” When Eisa emerged she thanked her baby boy for keeping the communication fluid.

As I sat down with the writer and filmmaker to chat life, books and movies, the ridiculously cute Ralphie (a.k.a. Hoop) shared his artwork: mixed media on paper and a Cheerios butterfly which I awkwardly broke “Ooh Miss Sharon destroyed the butterfly,” Eisa laughed and quickly reassembled the pipe cleaner-clothespin-breakfast cereal creation.

Eisa holds dear the sense of place, lineage, history, being. She is fiercely proud of her stunningly elegant “Grandmom,” Carmelita, “the Philly fashionista,” and first black woman to become a nurse-anesthetist at the University of Pennsylvania. There are traces of her in Eisa’s graceful comportment. She is grateful for her bright, beautiful mother’s staunch support. She knows she stands on the strong shoulders of remarkable women (and men) and revels in “who I am as a woman right now.  The identity of being a mom, a wife, a writer… that’s really special to me.”

Ralph is a take-it-as-it-comes guy moving through life’s triumphs and challenges in good humor with an open mind, hearty laugh and belief in the power of dreams and embracing the fortuitous moment.

Not surprisingly, womanist Eisa’s favorite films are black woman-centered and directed, Daughters of the Dust and Eve’s Bayou. Ralph’s top three are The Godfather, 1 and 2, (“bar none, together they are my number one,”) Blade Runner and Scarface.

“I used to think of The Godfather as a gangster movie and what my husband taught me is that it’s a narrative about immigration,” Eisa chimes in. “And so it got me thinking Scarface and Godfather are really rich immigrant tales. Scarface had a lot of exploitative elements but it was riveting; that opening montage with the Mariel boatlift anchors the film in a powerful way. Ralph helped me differentiate between these immigrant tales and narratives of containment like Boyz in the Hood or Menace II Society. My favorite in that category would be City of God.” 

“Yes, awesome film, awesome,” Ralph agrees. “Probably my fifth favorite, with Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious at number four. I’m all into the conspiratorial, claustrophobic, paranoia-type thing. I’m a big fan of noir and it has those elements. My favorite books are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner. Ellison has those elements of claustrophobia and being oppressed …gravity, tremendous amounts of gravity.” Of his two favorite authors he says, “I’m gonna make a movie combining those two sensibilities and smashing them together.”

Eisa’s favorite books are all seminal works written by black authors: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Jean Toomer’s Cane and South African writer, Bessie Head’s Maru. Her own first story–written at about age four–on tipis and tulips, remains in her mother’s library.

 The gorgeous Ulen family in 1970s ubiquity: the Olan Mills portrait.

Eisa’s activist parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen met as students of historically black Lincoln and Cheyney Universities.  They raised their infant daughter in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, they’d divorced and Eisa’s grandfather admonished, “get my granddaughter the hell out of there.”  Her mom, ready for a fresh start, took her ten-year-old to the relatively new planned community of Columbia, Maryland.

A proud alumna of Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, Eisa “always did well in English class, contributed to the literary magazine and even wrote for the city youth newspaper.” Though black literature was prominent in her own home and her granddad was a journalist, she planned to become a lawyer. When a friend explained that she wanted to attend Oberlin College because they had a great writing program, she “opened a door of possibility for me,” Eisa says. “It was like ding ding ding ding…you can make a career of being a writer.”

A presentation at Western on Sarah Lawrence College (which also has a stellar writing program) sold her. “I was in love. The recruiter talked about the philosophy of the school, the culture and the school community.” The location,”right outside New York was ideal because I knew I didn’t want to be in the city, but I wanted to be close. I got the best of both possible worlds.” She wrote throughout college, contributing to school publications. She spent her junior year at Howard, “when DC was the murder capital. We lived at 111 Bates and I was sitting on the stoop when these two girls walked by who were about my age. I overheard them talking: ‘I’m gonna just go on and have this baby before he gets shot up or locked up’ and that stayed with me. It’s not like I went inside and started writing but I held onto the line,” she recalls.

During her senior year, she wrote her first nationally published story, “a remix of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for Urban Profile magazine.” She went home for a couple of years and taught school until she returned to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and education at Columbia.

Upon examining the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston she realized that she didn’t have to be pigeonholed into one genre of writing. “I knew Langston as a poet and Zora as a novelist,” she says. “But there was so much more, especially Zora. She did the Bohemian Fire Dance; she studied anthropology, so she created scholarly work; she was writing essays; she did some freelance journalism; she taught; she worked on the play, Mule Bone; and her fiction, so many short stories and novels. It became very clear to me that I didn’t have to limit myself. Instead of saying I’m a fiction writer or I’m a poet or I’m a journalist I could just say I am a writer. I could be free to do all that.” And so she has, contributing to everyone from The Washington Post to Ms. to The Source to TheRoot.com while keeping her eye on the fiction prize. As a former fellow of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center’s Young African American Fiction Writers, she will be “eternally grateful to Fred Hudson, may he rest in peace for establishing a place for black writers in New York to really nurture creativity in black literary art.”

Her beautiful debut novel, Crystelle Mourning is not autobiographical yet it is imbued with the sensitivity of collective generational experience. “Even though I grew up pretty much middle class and had normal teenage stuff in my life, Baltimore had the highest assault rate then. It was the eighties and I’d go to parties and somebody would get shot and killed; I’d go to the Inner Harbor and somebody would start shooting in the air and everybody would be running.  I’ve had those physical experiences with what was going on statistically all around me. Our generation is not so different from generations before in that we had to learn to process terror.”

The response of the Afrocentric movement was, she explains “very male-centered, there was a gender-specific way of looking at what was going on, which makes a lot of sense because it was boys and men who were killing each other.  Girls weren’t out shooting each other, so I get that, but what became an interesting question for me as a feminist and black woman, a womanist was Well what about the girls and women left behind? How does their pain get expressed?

When she started writing Crystelle Mourning, Eisa thought it was a short story collection. She’d won the fellowship and joined a writers’ group with Brooklyn writer Grace Edwards. “Grace was the one who told me that what I was writing was a novel,” she says. “What became clear is that I was writing about the experiences of my generation and I thank that woman whose name I’ll never know from Bates Street that night because her voice guided me to this work. It’s really about these women: Crystelle, the title character, her mother and the mother of the boy she grew up with who lived across the street. It’s about what happens to these women after he is shot and killed their senior year in high school.”  

The story resonates deeply: “I’ve had women cry and come up and hug me after readings.”

In anticipation of Ralphie’s birth, Eisa quit her collegiate gig teaching English at Hunter. She’s now focused on raising him and throwing herself headlong into writing. Keep abreast of her insightful, incisive work at EisaUlen.com.

Boys to men: the Brothers Richardson, Ralph and Anthony with mom Diane and dad Ralph, Sr.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Diane Richardson sowed the seeds for life-long passion in her first-born. “My mom used to take my brother and me to the movies every weekend.” His first memory of seeing a film is from age three: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “That was the time of double-features for a buck. So I’ve seen all the blaxploitation movies in the theater, when I was like three, four, five-years-old– Shaft, Blacula, Rosey Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, Mandingo,” he says.I saw Jaws at seven.”

“I saw Bad News Bears,” Eisa interjects. She recalls loving the wholesome ET, Ralph has a different take: “Spielberg’s a great filmmaker. It’s cute, but I was like there’s no black dudes in the cul-de-sac and yet everybody loves this strange creature, I don’t see Julio from down in the schoolyard in there. About his adult-themed viewing he says, “it didn’t blanket my innocence, but it made me astute. I had an acute sensibility about what I did like.”

Although he and Eisa aren’t likely to allow their child to watch movies with mature themes, Ralph “wouldn’t change a thing” about his childhood. He was in no way traumatized, in fact he is ever grateful to his mother for the weekly cinema ritual. “It had to have inspired me,” the Widener University grad says. “I didn’t realize until I was 25 and had decided to go to Georgetown Law School that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked myself if I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I do? And this voiceless voice inside said film. Then all this stuff started pouring out. It was a very latent talent I hadn’t realized I had. I never hesitated, I packed up and rolled to New York.” Learning by doing, the self-taught filmmaker began his quest.

His roommates were all Philly transplants: stylist Debra Ginyard, model Belinda Sawyer and actress Yvette Ganier. “I was like Jack Tripper up in that piece,” he laughs. Debra suggested he get a headshot for acting opportunities while trying to establish himself.  On the day Tupac Shakur died the hip-hop fan co-directed his first film with a cast of friends, roommates and himself in the male lead from a script he’d written in 20 minutes (“it flew right out.”) His partner, a film school grad backed out of the project in post production, leaving Ralph to his own devices. Serendipity would have it that he found an editing bay made available for free during certain hours. By immersion, the novice learned to cut film the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed Steenbeck. The film won a New York Short Film award and ran for six months on Starz. “So I knew I could do this,” he asserts.

Shortly after moving to New York he had a vivid dream. “It was so visceral. I was in China. I was really there and had the greatest time.”  Two weeks later he heard from a casting director, We have your headshot. We want you to audition for this part shooting in China. “I don’t even know how they got the headshot,” he says.  He went in of course, to audition and when he blurted out about his dream he got the part. “The Chinese are very into fortuitous luck, so if you dream something like that, it means something.” Off he went to China, shooting for four months. “It was one of the best times of my life, it was incredible, I loved every moment of it,” he remembers.  “By six weeks I didn’t need an interpreter because I love people and being able to communicate with them.”

“Then I worked with RZA on this film I wrote, When Tyson met Tyra. It was my first feature, an urban Bonnie & Clyde.”  He has since directed and/or edited numerous filmed projects and additionally he covers film, television, and popular culture as a freelance writer for TheGrio.com, TheDefendersOnline.com and Time, Inc.

Posted today on theRoot.com is Ralph’s article on Video on Demand (VOD), the game-changing approach to film distribution he’s utilizing for his latest film now available via Amazon as well as VOD.  Sex, Drugs and Comedy, “is a wonderful trip on the road with some of the most brilliant comedians in the country.”

He runs down the first day of production: “I’m shooting on the bridges getting b-roll stuff for the road and this cop at the toll booth wants to confiscate the camera… on the path of the hero there’s always an immediate obstacle to overcome. Then we run out of gas and literally push the car to the gas station.  Then the car breaks down completely. We borrow a car, get lost and finally make it to the place with 15 minutes to get set up. We put the key card in the door to our hotel room, it opens, but it’s bolted. The promoter is having sex with a groupie. You can’t write this stuff…and that was the very first day.”

It’s a rough journey to the A-list. “The crux, the core of being a comedian is the hustle,” he says. “They’re like truck drivers, it’s a hard road.”

“They are the funniest comedians you never heard of,” says Eisa of the comics-on-the-cusp in the film.”Sex Drugs and Comedy is funny, but it also has a real heart and soul that’s poignant and makes it special,” she says proudly of her husband’s work. “Comedy is a brutal art.”

Before I left them to settle Ralphie into naptime, they shared a few favorite things: for Eisa, the stuff of memory, reflection and nostalgia and Ralph’s all kinetic energy: moving pictures, moving sound, moving the body.

Eisa’s Fave Five:

1.Old Family Photos. Represent, represent. Ralphie will know from whence he came surrounded by the faces of  family adorning the walls.  Years ago Eisa discovered a cache of photographs — from snapshots to formal portraits in a bag at her grandmother’s house which she painstakingly mounted for her in a leather-bound archival album. Now that Carmelita has passed on, she treasures the collection.

A few of the many priceless photos: Ralph’s mom Diane in her confirmation portrait; Eisa’s grandmother Carmelita in 8th grade; Eisa’s Bermudan kin evoke Daughters of the Dust; Ralph’s paternal grandparents, Doris and Gene Richardson; Ralph’s maternal grandparents, Cat and Sonny Jones and the treasured album.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God. She cherishes her dog-eared copy of fellow Capricorn Zora Neale Hurston’s classic.

Notes scribbled in the margins are clues to the person she was when she first read the seminal text.

3. The Blue Chair. A touchstone from her mother’s childhood home, it is one of many pieces of heirloom furniture which now grace her Brooklyn apartment.


It’s a Ralphie fave as well, a place to sit with his mom and drum on the djembe.

4. My Paternal Grandmother’s Portrait. Millicent Hooper Ulen was a cellist and pianist and like her father before her she was for many years the proprietor of Hooper Memorial Funeral Home. Her husband, Eisa’s “Pop Pop,” was a writer, the Capital Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier with an office at the Capital dome in Harrisburg. “I used to like to visit there with my dad, it was very exciting to me.


Millicent’s son, Lance now runs the family business and created this painting.

5. Composition Books. The classic ruled notebooks with their black and white mottled covers have housed her words from childhood on.

When writing non-fiction, Eisa types directly into the computer, but for her prose, it’s pen to paper.

Ralph’s Fave Five:

1. Great Underground Movies. Two that he likes are Shanghai Triad.  “Awesome, awesome movie, like The Godfather but set in 1930’s Shanghai. Beautiful!”  And Layer Cake, the British film with a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. “It wasn’t as popular, but just as good as Snatch.”

2. Snowboarding. “I love it because it makes me feel like the Silver Surfer.”

Via Lindsay Fincher.

3. Hiking. The self-described “transcendental mountain man” enjoys a good hike.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

4. Music.  Specifically, “this mixtape I’m still bumpin’ from last year called Radical by OFWGKTA , Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All…The essence of the music stems from an anarchists’ upheaval, Odd Future embodies that.”

“They’re like The Clash-meets-Wu Tang-meetsOnyx. Incredible. They’ve got gnomes as part of their staging. Gnomes! and a lot of smoke and zombies…totally cool.

5. Adventures with Ralphie. We just walk around and observe things. We don’t go to the playground, we don’t have any stress.  So he can not be on the same path all the time, we mix it up, find new things and explore ’cause kids love to explore. I’ll carry a ball, a basketball or a soccer ball and we’ll run the whole time, kicking it along the street.  But then we’ll stop at a sculpture garden…Look at flowers, identify them and I’ll put caterpillars in his hands… He’ll watch people play tennis at the park.

He enjoys the vicarious thrill of the excitement of being two. “You get to relive what you don’t remember.”

The Trove: Anu Prestonia
June 16, 2011

Advancing the acceptance of natural beauty, the radiant hair care icon.

So certain that their first-born child would be a boy, Barbra Jean and Preston Newsome awaited son Preston, Jr. When their Aries daughter arrived, they named her Prestonia and called her “Toni.” She would one day become “a new” Prestonia when spirit would dictate that she assume a name to “help manifest the qualities needed” to reach her “incarnation objective,” or purpose in life. As a new member of the spiritual community, Ausar Auset, she was dubbed Anu Kemmerå, one who sees beauty in serving and having correct behavior. Nearly thirty years later, “I’m still working on the behavior part,” she chuckles. She indeed sees the beauty of serving and has crafted an impressive career in the service of healthy beauty – one that has its genesis in her childhood. At ten-years-old, a too-strong perm left her with badly damaged hair that was then cut into a tiny Afro. “At the time, the only people with Afros were in Ebony or Jet. They were celebrities.” Heartily embraced, the reaction to her natural hairstyle surprised her, as she became a celeb among her peers for wearing the “new Afro hairdo.” She’d always “played in other people’s hair,” so by the time she entered her teens she was the go-to girl for all the basketball-playing boys who wanted their hair cornrowed. Her love of beauty is deeply ingrained, from her hairstylist grandmother to her own mother who affirmed Toni’s beauty at every turn. She entered her daughter in several beauty contests, including the famed Hal Jackson’s Miss Teenage Black America Pageant. “We rehearsed at Harlem Hospital’s auditorium: walking and charm taught by the popular models of the day and our talent routines. I chose poetry because spoken word was popular then.” She walked the stage to the strains of Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming.”

The music-loving contestant asked for a pic with the Queen of Soul backstage at the 1972 pageant.

Reciting Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” she intoned, “…Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.” It was a fitting poem for a girl whose bucolic beach existence in Norfolk where her dad was a naval photographer was interrupted by a parental split and relocation with her mom and siblings, Linda and Butch to gritty 1970’s New York City. “In Virginia we could go outside whenever we wanted to. I could just get on my bike, go exploring, get lost, try to catch June bugs and butterflies…or walk, long distances. My mother allowed me the freedom to walk wherever I wanted to. My grandmother’s house was about a mile and a half away and my great–grandmother’s was three miles!”

“When we moved to Brooklyn, everything was on the shutdown, we became prisoners in the apartment. We couldn’t go outside unless an adult was home. It just really changed things.” However she loved their apartment in a huge Pre-war building in Brownsville. “It was really big, had French doors and a sink in our bedroom, which I thought was just the grooviest thing.” The art deco bathroom had a floor-to-ceiling tiled shower stall in addition to a bathtub. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In Virginia we’d only had a tub. So once we got to New York, I thought every day should be a shower day.”

Because of her frequent indoor confinement she “really got into WPIX’s Million Dollar Movie on TV” and remains a film buff to this day. Watching television also introduced her to pioneering African-American news anchor Melba Tolliver and when she traveled to DC to visit an uncle, the numerous black broadcasters there encouraged her as well. “I thought, I can be a broadcast journalist.

Enrolling in the communications program at SUNY Brockport, she “couldn’t even believe how far away it was.” The eight-hour, intra-state trek to the quaint college town was longer than the drive from NYC to Norfolk. It was another world to the brown girl from Brownsville, a one-cinema town with no place to “get hair grease.” She was, however, struck by its beauty, its dramatic seasonal changes and its night sky. “It would be so full of stars and seem so close like you could just reach up and touch them. But when I came home for Christmas, I realized how much I missed being around my people.”

She transferred to historically black Howard University, “a more nurturing environment.” Those days truly shaped the woman and entrepreneur she would become. “Many pivotal changes happened in my life while I was there. I stopped straightening my hair, I became a vegetarian, I discovered yoga, and I learned how to put in an extension, so my career started at Howard.” The summer before her senior year, she started braiding hair at the popular salon, Shelton’s Hair Gallery, took a semester off and never went back, eventually returning to New York. An impetuous move to Jamaica West Indies without enough money to live on yielded “a few weeks of starving” and a need to relocate. She joined her sister, a University of Miami student in South Florida. Doing business as “Have Comb, Will Travel,” Prestonia made house calls to local clients as well as those in DC, New York and eventually the Bahamas. Disenchanted with both Miami’s monotonous climate and Floridians who didn’t “get” the Afrocentric yogi, she moved back to New York and found a sense of community with the Ausar Auset Society. “It felt like home,” she says. They offered yoga, meditation, breathing and African culture based in the sacrifice of the lower parts of your spirit, as opposed to the sacrifice of animals” found in some other African practices. They embraced vegetarianism. “They had all the components I was seeking at that time.”

Tying her mother’s gele in 1987. The yoga devotee in 1979.

After having been raised as a Christian, she embraced the precepts of Kemetic religion and dreamt the name her thriving business would take, Khamit Kinks. Although she left that practice 21 years ago, she remains in loving community with many former members. “My practice now is to be in truth with myself and others,” she says. Part of that truth is to awaken the “hoodwinked, bamboozled“ masses to the myths of popular culture. “I am a crusader for women to help them move from destroying their hair to accepting their own beauty, their own culture, their own aesthetic. What you were born with has value, all you have to do is love it, appreciate it and learn how to work with it or know where to go to have it treated with respect.”

She worked at legendary Kinapps African Groomers for several months until the entrepreneurial impulse resurfaced and she returned to working out of her home. When her friend Maitefa Angaza included pictures of Anu’s work in a pitch on African hairstyles to Essence, the magazine hired them both. Anu created looks for the professional shoot, her styles illustrating Maitefa’s text. Once the double-page spread ran “the phone started ringing off the hook.” Her business grew and she established a longstanding relationship with the magazine styling/braiding models as well as celebrities for editorial shoots. (Khamit Kinks is featured in “Super Naturals,” a beauty story in the July 2011 issue) From Angelas Bassett and Davis to Terry McMillan, Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey she’s covered a broad swath. In 1992 her client, radio deejay Imhotep Gary Byrd referred Stevie Wonder –in need of a quick shampoo– to her. She excitedly accepted but on a three-way call a few weeks later with Stevie on the line to schedule another shampoo appointment Anu replied in mock indignation, “What does he think this is, a laundromat? We don’t shampoo other people’s work!” Stevie remains a client nearly twenty years later, “Yeah Stevie is very relaxed, he thought that was pretty funny.”

Braids on Oprah, locs on Stevie and a head-wrapped Anu flanked by Nigerian thread-wrapped Angie and Alfre.

Her business has grown from girl-on-the-go to a single chair in a basement apartment to many years in her own Tribeca salon and back to her home borough. She and her team of natural hair care specialists/stylists move from her massive Downtown Brooklyn Gold Street space to a very well situated new space in the bustling Atlantic Avenue corridor later this summer. Among her most sought after services are consultations on damaged hair, a task she takes very seriously. “Having had the experience of losing my hair as a girl left an indelible impression.” She wishes for everyone pristine health from their follicles to their toes. “I’ve always had an interest in health having come from a very sickly family—my grandmother died when I was eight from diabetes and stroke, she was only forty-seven. My mother was in and out of hospitals all my life. The things that we do affect our health.” She highlights Diabetes as an example, “people used to just think its inherited, but no–what’s inherited is the diet that leads to it.” She is very mindful of how she moves through the world, from the energies she surrounds herself with to the foods she eats to creating “me’ time to the aromas in the air she breathes. She shares her knowledge through her services, her carefully developed product line, events she holds in-shop (like Zumba class) her blogs Ask Anu and Anu Essentials and the documentary she produced in 2009, In Our Heads About Our Hair.

From her lovely sister Linda in the early 1980’s to Nikita today, Anu features everyday beauties, not supermodels in her promotions.

Is no surprise that her innate love of and “nose” for fragrance would find its way into her business. She first used botanicals in her hair oils and years later introduced fragrant body butters and natural soaps. Upon reading master perfumer Mandy Aftel’s book, “Essence and Alchemy,” she was turned on to and turned out by natural perfumery. “It was so enchanting, it took me to another planet,” she says fervently. “It’s sacred art, really. Just the other day, I thought Wow! I wonder what God was thinking about when he made this smell this way.” The fragrances of nature have intrigued her since childhood: cut grass, soil after a rain, pine. For young Toni a fresh pack of unburned cigarettes was a nosegay as pleasing as any cluster of small flowers. She’d bury her nose in it and inhale deeply. Though she abhors cigarette smoke, as an adult Anu finds tobacco essence “hypnotically beautiful.”

This summer she launches her first perfume, the herbaceous, floral-kissed Meadowlark, a “green” blend of oak moss, clary sage and her beloved rose. “I am new to this industry, there’s quite a learning curve,” but she is very excited by her foray. As she expands her hair care line to include shampoo, conditioner, styling crème and a gel she incorporates her growing knowledge of the vast repository of botanical essences.

Rosemary-infused medicinal hair oil, glycerin-rich, hand crafted soap, and my favorite body butter, Sultry.

A long ago Essence photo shoot initially crossed our paths, but Anu and I have over the years come to discover several shared delights, quirky to sublime from the wafting aromas of laundromat exhaust to the wistful vocals of Madeleine Peyroux to the evocative treatises on fragrance by Mandy Aftel. Server and sybarite, Anu is a woman in balance. She works hard, plays hard and truly enjoys being in her own luminous, sweetly scented skin.

Before the Kemetic, yogic, Reiki certified, fragrance-loving, would-be pool shark headed to her billiards league, she shared some of the things besides lush, healthy heads of natural hair that stoke her Arian fire:

1. Natural perfumery. I love the botanical essences: how they smell, look, and feel–from very thin and light to thick and viscous.” Though Mandy Aftel is her primary mentor, she’s also been inspired by Amanda Walker of “A Perfume Organic,” master perfumer Sarah Horowitz, bloggers like Monica Miller and reading Chandler Burr’s books.  “And I have a guardian angel in Marian Williams who has generously offered contacts to exclusive suppliers.”

A detail from her perfume organ, the natural perfumer’ organization system of raw materials, sorted by note.

2. Jewelry. “I love the gamut. I have a collection of pearls. I purchase them from a sister in the jewelry district on the Bowery. I fell in love with black jet beads a couple of years ago and bought some most precious finds on EBay.

A unique EBay offering: a Victorian Whitby jet watch fob.

3. Billiards. “This is my third season on a league at Amsterdam Billiards in NYC.”

Her “sweetheart,” entrepreneur (and billiards aficionado) Henry Rock, gifted her with one of her two cue sticks.

4. Spa Services. “My first spa experience was in 1993 at the Burke Williams Spa in Santa Monica. My favorites are Dr. Hauschka facials, salt exfoliation in a wet room with Vichy showers that hang above the table, deep tissue massage and all the ayurvedic spa services–especially at Kripalu Yoga Institute.”

Vichy shower: “a nearly orgasmic experience,” she says.

5. Gardening/Flowers. “I love all flowers, my faves are peonies, poppies, all lilies, bearded irises, hydrangea, hollyhocks, gardenias, roses of course, clematis, lantana. I could go on and on with this one…”

The fruits of her gardening labors.

6. Yoga.  “Though I’m not teaching right now, I am a certified Yoga instructor trained at Integral Yoga Institute.”  Its founder, Swami Satchadananda was “my first inspiration on my road to seeking my spiritual path.”

She has practiced Hatha Yoga for thirty years.

7. My Home. “I purchased my 1897 Brooklyn brownstone exactly one hundred years after it was built.”

“It took me about 5 years to get it where I was truly comfortable.”

8. Foreign and Independent Films. From Jules Dassin (Rififi, 1955) to Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) she enjoys bold, visionary cinema from around the globe.

Set in South Korea, Ki-duk Kim’s elegiac 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a favorite.

9. Fine Dining. “I love to eat! I really enjoy fresh, quality and organic food.” She has unforgettable memories of a small Italian restaurant on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. “They bought out cheeses on a chunk of tree trunk, an array of olives and delicious bread to start the meal. There’s no menu, just absolutely great food.” She fondly recalls “the simply exquisite pleasure of dining at the illustrious Babbo Ristorante, and Dirt Candy, love their food.” Son Cubanois another haunt.

The humble vegetable as delicacy at Dirt Candy, and two all-time restaurant faves.

10. Birkenstocks. From shoes to sandals, her tootsies are happy in the famed Birkenstock cork foot bed.

Of her large collection of Birkis, many are Gizeh thong sandals.

For more on Anu, her services and products, check her websites: Khamit Kinks and Anu Essentials.

The Trove: Reed Morano Walker
June 7, 2011

Shooting the Oscar-nominated, Sundance hit, “Frozen River.”

The year 2008 was a busy one for cinematographer Reed Morano. In January the exquisitely shot Frozen River (starring Melissa Leo who scored an Oscar nom for her performance) premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance (Reed’s first festival entry.) In June she gave birth to her remarkably beautiful first son, Casey. In September she married her “true love,” fellow cinematographer and gaffer Matt Walker.


Reed and her “lighting soulmate,” Matt.

Just days after their Fire Island beach wedding, Reed and Matt reported to set for the first day of shooting on Closet Cases. As wardrobe supervisor of the Lloyd Boston makeover show, I was excited to learn that a woman headed the camera department. Over the course of several weeks I saw first-hand the focused yet easy-going Reed balance the demands of work and new parenthood with aplomb.  The beloved baby–welcome amid a tight-knit crew that included not only his dad but his Uncle Justin—was a frequent set visitor allowing mommy the opportunity to nurse on breaks.

Since we wrapped in late 2008, Reed has continued at a frenetic pace, shooting steady TV work between feature films. Yelling to the Sky (Victoria Mahoney, dir.) was her first feature post-Casey. She shot the films For Ellen (So Yong Kim, dir.) and Little Birds (Elgin James, dir.) during her next pregnancy and shot Free Samples, starring Jesse Eisenberg and “Hitchcock Blonde,” Tippi Hedren, a few months after the August arrival of second son Fletcher–another cutie–last year.

I caught up with the busy Bed-Stuy resident to talk about her influences and her trajectory. We share a love of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of Charles Bukowski. Marquez’ “writing is so visual and really immerses you in another world. And I love Didion and Bukowski for how authentic/honest a picture they both paint,” she says. With the naturalist lighting and hand-held camera work she often employs, she brings an authenticity and honesty to her work.  Cinematographers Conrad Hall, Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeszki, Wally Pfister and Rodrigo Prieto are on her shortlist of influential Directors of Photography.

She looks forward to tonight’s New York première of Yelling to the Sky, a film she’s quite proud of. Of star Zoë Kravitz she says “Zoë is not only an amazing actress, she is an amazing person.” Reed calls director Victoria Mahoney “an absolutely brilliant writer/director with an infectious enthusiasm for film…Zoë, Victoria and I really bonded on this film.” The trio got tattooed with tiny hearts crossed by a line, a nod to the heart-shaped doorknocker earrings bisected by the name “Sweetness” and worn by Zoë’s character in the film.

Reed has been lovingly inked before. On her right wrist are the initials of her beloved dad, Casey, for whom her first-born is named; on her left elbow is “Lyn” scripted in her mom’s signature and commemorating one year of marriage to Matt is a how-to diagram for tying the only nautical knot named for a man (a sailor)—the Matthew Walker Knot.

The body as homage: dad’s initials, on “tying the knot,” a sorority of three, mom’s signature.

Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of two children (she has a brother, Justin) to Lyn and Winslow Mankin and the family soon moved to Minnesota. When Reed was three-years old, Lyn divorced Winslow and moved the children back to her family in Long Island where she’d meet, marry and have three more children (Jordan, Morgan and Ali) with Casey Morano of Fire Island (who had 2 older children, Lana and Cos.) When it was suggested to the entrepreneurial Casey that Albuquerque might be a good place to live, he packed up the wife, kids and extended family and caravaned to a new life in New Mexico.  They spent a few years there before returning to Long Island, then off to New Hampshire and Vermont.  Of her nomadic upbringing Reed says, “It was great because it taught me about all kinds of people and taught me to be adaptable as well as open to new things. If I had grown up in the same house all my life, I wouldn’t have nearly as much material in my brain for storytelling.”

The Moranos.

She clearly admires her parents.  Her mother, “a perpetual scholar” studied anthropology and archaeology variously at the University of New Mexico, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard as she raised her children. She now heads the history department at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. “When I was young, I watched my mom study and get her PhD all while raising 5 kids!  I remember her writing 20-page papers while breastfeeding my youngest sister and all of us other kids running around wreaking havoc on the house,” she recalls. Though her father’s entrepreneurial endeavors yielded mixed financial reward, she is impressed by his bold pursuit. “My dad was involved in every kind of business you can imagine. He opened restaurants, he had a landscaping company at one point. He even opened Long Island’s first head shop back when he was in his hippie years. He had an international mergers and acquisitions company before he passed away and he was also developing a TV pilot for a travel/reality show.  He definitely dabbled in a little bit of everything. When I was in high school, he turned our barn and property into a horse farm with a horseback riding school.  He always had a new idea and always dreamt big.”

“I was a nerd.  I read a lot.”

As a child, “I was always making books, even before I wrote I drew pictures and would staple them together,” she says. “When I finally learned to write, I wrote every day until I entered high school. Everyone thought I’d be a writer.”  Her father took note of her leanings and presented her with an early video camera (with VHS tape) upon his return from a business trip to Japan, remarking that she should be the family documentarian. And so it began, she shot footage of her siblings, made small films and commercials and when the time came for college, Dad again intervened to suggest film school since she’d embraced a visual form of storytelling.  Off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she’d eventually receive department awards for cinematography and later serve for two years as an adjunct professor.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a spiritual person, she believes there was a mystical connection with her father surrounding her career choice. On the very first shoot she worked on, she took note of the DP.  She “became fascinated with what he was doing and I knew that was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to look through the viewfinder and create the world the audience sees. I consciously decided to pursue cinematography.”

Post-shoot she returned to her dorm and to several phone messages from family. “My dad had had a heart attack. I rushed up to New Hampshire to be with him in the hospital where he was in coma and the next morning, he passed away.  He had been so obsessed with what I would do and what path I would take in life and I still find it interesting that right before he passed was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she reflects.

“I never considered myself a technical person, in fact I used to joke that I couldn’t set the time on a VCR! But once I put my mind to this craft, it seemed I actually had a knack for it. I do approach shooting in a very creative way that revolves a lot less around technical information and more around the feeling I get in a particular moment.  Everything I do, I usually take a cue from my gut. As a DP, you’re an artist, but you do have technical information you need to know in order to achieve whatever look you’re going for. So I absorb the technical stuff I need and then I just kind of go with the flow and rely on the emotion in the story to inspire my shots and lighting.”

Reed on the sets of “Megafauna,”  “Frozen River” and ” Little Birds.”

When the Coen Brothers’ (now a Reed fave) released Raising Arizona the pre-teen Reed took note. “It was the first film I can remember really noticing the cinematography on. That was when I realized the power of the camera as a tool for storytelling.  Everything about it, the camera moves, the lenses that were used all served the story and enhanced the tone of the movie.  It’s a huge part of what makes the film so memorable.  It was the first time I became aware –in a good way– how much a lens choice or a camera position could affect the way the audience reacts to the story.”

From the 2007 documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa to today, she is garnering major recognition for her work. Earlier this year she was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch. Next week she’ll head to Los Angeles for the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (other honorees include Annette Benning and Katie Holmes) to receive the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography.  “All the women who have previously won the Vision Award have really paved the way for female DPs like myself. It’s pretty amazing to be in the company of my idols. The thing I am most proud of, though, is the fact that I am able to make a living doing a job I absolutely love at the same time as being a mom.  I never knew how I was going to pull that off!  Like everything else, I just jumped into motherhood headfirst (right when I was getting really busy at work) and I was forced to make it all happen.  It’s not easy, but it can be done!  Between my mom and my dad, I guess I had some really good training from a young age on how to multitask and how to follow your dreams. Being with Matt was really the key to making it possible–he keeps me going and is so supportive of my working.”

A gorgeous mom, a handsome hubby and two beautiful boys: one stunning family.

In meeting Matt, a gaffer and DP years ago, she found her “lighting soulmate.” He knew what lighting she wanted in each scenario before she spoke a word, they “shared the same aesthetic and his style of working was exactly what I’d been looking for,” she remembers.  So she began working with him exclusively.  Professional admiration eventually became personal. “We both realized we wanted to be together in every way, not just at work.  I never thought I’d find someone who matched me so well and that’s who Matt is.  He definitely exceeded my expectations for who I would spend my life with.  He is the smartest person I know. He is brilliant, creatively and otherwise and he takes such care in every task he does, big or small.”  Her Aries impulsiveness is balanced by his Aquarian intellectual approach. “He continues to amaze me every day and there’s nothing he can’t do. I have never met someone so devoted to the ones he loves. I can’t believe that he chose me.”

She is feeling a tremendous sense of good fortune these days from marriage and motherhood to a recent reconnection with her biological father and “discovering a whole new side to my family” to a career in full blossom. She’s currently in pre-production on her biggest project to date, the Rob Reiner-helmed Summer at Dog Dave’s starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen and shooting in Rockland County next month.

Before heading upstate for pre-pro, the gifted and grateful visionary shared some of the things that bring her joy:

1. Kisses from Casey & Fletcher. “They are a constant source of joy and amazement. every day, at least once I stop and think, in awe, how did I get so lucky?”

Bussing baby Fletch and big boy Casey.

2. Dancing.  “All night long in a flowy dress in Fire Island with my girlfriends.”

“It’s the feeling of freedom.

3. Steel Pulse. “Especially the albums Tribute to the Martyrs or True Democracy. It’s one of the bands I have listened to since I was in elementary school. It’s great music to have echoing through your house with the windows open on a warm day.”

Live in Germany, “Babylon Makes the Rules,” from “Tribute to the Martyrs.”

4. Reading a new script. “When I work I get to go on a new adventure each time and all these new visuals and ideas fill my head. I get super excited whenever I see an attachment in my email…”

From the Frozen River script.

5. Estee Lauder Tom Ford The Body Oil.  “All my life I was looking for my favorite smell, the smell of your skin after a day on the beach. Finally, I found it in 2006 and it is now discontinued! However, I still have several bottles.”

The coveted fragrance.

6. My Uncle Matthew’s Lobster Bisque. From the family-owned Matthew’s Seafood House in Fire Island,  “it tastes like my childhood and it’s still my favorite soup.”

Tucked away on Ocean Beach, the restaurant feels like home.

7. My Light Meter. “When I’m using it, that means I’m shooting film and when I’m shooting on film, especially 35mm, I’m happiest.”

Photo: CAGATOTA

8. My Sister’s Morgan’s Gelato. “Her stracciatella gelato mixed with her strawberry sorbet is incredible. She has her own shop in Hanover, New Hampshire, Morano Gelato.”

Gelati in raspberry and egg cream flavors.

9. Scuba Diving. “It’s as close as I’ll probably get to walking on the moon.”

“It’s another world!”

10. Cocktails with my Husband. “Preferably a Bloody Mary or a Cava on a beach somewhere far away.

Salut!

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: Aisha Cousins
February 17, 2011

Aisha Cousins: Capricorn from the Sun to the Moon.

In 1990’s Fort Greene, amid a flourishing poetry scene at his Brooklyn Moon Cafe, proprietor Mike Thompson began showcasing the works of visual artists in his popular venue. I became the curator of those exhibitions and was introduced to the joyful Aisha Cousins, then studying Studio Art with a concentration in Black Studies and Sociology at Oberlin College. We presented her first solo show, (of works on paper) at the café and I’ve been glad to bear witness to her evolution as an artist.

Born in Boston, she was raised in South End and Mattapan, Cambridge and eventually Brooklyn by her scholarly mother, Dr. Olivia Cousins who holds a Master’s in Black Studies and a doctorate in Medical Sociology. “I think I inherited my curiosity about human behavior and my love of black studies from her,” Aisha says.  The works she creates today reflect these themes.

Oddly enough, the genesis of her path as an artist was in was seeing the animated visage of Mr. T when she was in the second grade. “Yes Mr. T of the A Team once had his own cartoon. I liked it so much, I decided I wanted be an artist so I could make more Saturday morning cartoons with characters in them who looked like me.”

Early inspiration, “Mister T.”

The graduate of Fiorello LaGuardia High School nearly failed Advanced Placement Art History in her senior year. An A/B student since 1st grade, she faltered when incensed by the meager coverage of African art in her class, she mentally checked out.  “I had been waiting and waiting for us to get to the chapters on the things I had seen in my mom’s art collection. I wanted to understand their history and the aesthetic beliefs of the artists who made them. When we finally got to that part of the book, all this art I had grown up with and been inspired by was lumped into this itsy- bitsy section called Arts of Africa and Oceania. I was so vehemently offended, I spent every class afterwards tuning the lessons out and fuming mentally. My grades plummeted.”  Her teacher, Ms. Goldberg, though in agreement about the paucity of information on artists of color, was unable to alter the curriculum. “So she got me into a docent training program for the massive Guggenheim exhibition, Africa the Art of the Continent.  I got paid to research African aesthetics. I don’t think my grades got much better, but I was in heaven.  Suddenly aesthetics became a living breathing thing to me, not just an idea in a book. And the people around me became textbooks that I could study and get answers from, with or without a written textbook to make their beliefs official.”

“I’ve done contour drawings in some form or fashion for most of my life. First on paper, then as part of public murals. I thought I would do them forever, but I decided to experiment with other ways of making art. I made sculptures and collages inspired by the many teaching artist gigs I was doing at the time. She found herself at a crossroads: “As much as collectors liked the work I was making, it didn’t live up to my internal standards. I spent a year or two trying to figure out my philosophy as an artist. Then one day I just came up with this piece called Diva Dutch, sort of organically... it was my way of exploring the aesthetics of the black women around me. Everyone was getting extensions.” She gave it a try and discovered that “the length and consistent thickness of synthetic hair allows black women to make these living works of art that are impossible to create with real hair.” So she got “a 15-foot braid and jumped rope with it on her stoop.” That simple act has grown into Diva Dutch, its scores (performance art scripted instruction) performed at MoCADA, the Brooklyn Museum, Houston’s Project Row Houses, Tennessee State University’s Hiram Van Gordon Gallery and historically black neighborhoods ranging from Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn), to Brixton (London) to Barbès–Rochechouart (Paris.)

Ironically, the Diva can’t Dutch: “I can’t jump it. I turn ‘double handed.’ If you can’t turn, you can’t earn a jump. I was banned from playing double dutch back in 4th grade.” Photo: Alexis Peskine.

“I’ve been hooked on performance art ever since,” she says. “And now that I’ve seen the philosophy lived up to, I am getting better and better about making it happen again and again.”

And happen again it has. Taking inspiration from sartorial campaign tactics (voters proudly wearing garments emblazoned with their candidates’ portraits) she observed on a trip to Senegal 15 years ago, she set out the commemorate America’s first Black president with the Obama Skirt Project (OSP). Embraced by Africans throughout the continent, Barack Obama’s image has been printed on fabrics with the fervor typically reserved for regional politicians. Aisha’s daily wardrobe from July 2009 – July 2010 would include a skirt or dress, bearing the 44th president’s likeness in fabrics gathered from Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa. She invited others to join in on the celebration/exploration, and now the project moves into its latest phase with a month-long display at Harlem Textile Works and this weekend’s OSP Black President’s Day festivities in collaboration with printmaker Shani Peters and designer Hekima Hapa of Harriet’s Alter Ego. Advance registration required.

The Black President’s Day promotion.  To learn more about the project visit http://aishacousins.com/.

“People don’t always know exactly how to put their beliefs into words. But they know what they think is beautiful. So now, I ask the people whose aesthetics I want to study to help me make things. The process of creating leads to a dialogue, both verbal and visual, about their beliefs. I get to learn what I always wanted to study. And hopefully someday a future generation of artists will be able to look at my work just like they would a textbook and learn about black women’s aesthetic beliefs, just like they would anyone else’s.

As she prepares to acknowledge the first “Black President’s Day” on the anniversary of Nina Simone’s birth, she took time to share with The Trove her favorites.  Fitting that the first is a celebratory memento.

1. Champagne cork. “One of my heroines, Kara Walker, gave it to me. She opened an artist-run exhibition space called 6-8 months and agreed to let me hold a mini exhibit and artist talk there to mark the end of my one-year performance art piece. I was overjoyed just to have a black-woman-owned contemporary art space in which to hold this particular event, as the score was very much about exploring black women’s aesthetics and experiences.”

Ms.Walker surprised Aisha by attending the show bearing a congratulatory bottle of champagne.

2. Shani Peters Battle for the Hearts and Minds. “I’ve told any and everyone about Shani’s videos ever since I saw them. There’s one where she merges the casts from Good Times and the Cosby Show into a single family. Their neighbors, who just happen to be famous Black Panthers stop by each day to teach them life lessons. It’s funny, it’s thought-provoking, and it has a seamless blend of pop culture, black history, and common sense wisdom.”

From Shani’s Vimeo channel.  For more information, visit her website.

3. Paris Subways. “The subways are so graceful. I still don’t understand why there’s a latch on the doors inside of the car, but I absolutely love the look of it.”

The Paris Métro in all its Art Nouveau glory.

4. Tom Otterness’ Life Underground. A multi-sculpture installation in NYC’s 14th Street subway station, “they’re all over the place, from the A train to the L line, up the steps and along the platforms. They’re comical, completely touchable, and just a size or two away from being Lilliputian. There may even be some underlying ‘moral of the story’ in their actions. All of which appeals to the urban fairy tale lover in me.”

An MTA video highlighting Life Underground and sculptor Tom Otterness.

5. Steve Harvey’s Morning Show.  “I know, I know he has his issues. So many. But I love when people call in from a little town and say ‘Steve I’m from — , you’ve probably never heard of it.’ And Steve says ‘Yes I have. It’s right off of route —‘ and then proceeds to break down where to get the best BBQ in town and how he made friends with the owner. He’s probably one of the few people who has seen every little nook and cranny of black America and knows it like the back of his hand. The sociologist in me would absolutely love to have his knowledge.”

The well-traveled radio host.

6. Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. “For the uninitiated: two Afro-American sisters travel the country in the mid 1970’s documenting their family history via recipes. The stories they gather to accompany these recipes double as fun and engaging black history lessons. Plus there’s a whole chapter on things to make with sweet potatoes: sweet potato bread, sweet potato casserole, sweet potato pancakes.”

Former model Norma Jean Darden and her sister Carole grace the cover of a well-loved copy of their cookbook.

7. Injera. “I’m addicted, but it’s full of vitamins and trace minerals, so I don’t feel bad.”

The spongy flatbread of Ethiopia is a favorite.

8. The Chicago Obama Skirters. “The fabric for Ni’ja’s dress, called a kanga, came as a set of two. Women in Tanzania often wear them in pairs and give them as gifts to other women. I made two dresses and shipped one to a female friend as a way of re-mixing them into American culture. Ashley volunteered to do the Obama skirt score and decided she was going to try to do it for a whole year, like I did. She does wear it on key dates and sends me photos. Having two women doing this particular score on Obama’s home turf is one of my favorite aspects of the project. I’m always inspired to know that they thought enough of my work to make that happen.”

Aisha’s “kanga twin,” Ni’ja (on the El) wore her dress from 2009-2010.

9. Ben Vautier’s Don’t Follow Instructions. “Ever since switching over to performance art scores, my biggest challenge has been finding effective ways to visually document my work. I came across an old film by Ben Vautier not long ago and completely fell in love with both the form and content of it.”

“Last month, I somehow got invited to be in a fluxus concert (a series of short performance art scores) with him at MoMA. This is one of the performance art scores from the concert.”

10. Nikki Giovanni’s “Thug Life” Tattoo. “It challenges me. I banned Tupac from my record collection when he released Keep Your Head Up and I Get Around back to back. At age 15, I didn’t appreciate the sentiment. Or the way I saw it mirrored back in the behavior of the boys around me. I’m still not a Tupac fan. But I saw her speak about her tattoo after she got it and it challenged me. I like the fact the she challenges me now, in the present just as much as her poems challenged my view of black history when I was a child. It’s one of my favorite ‘everyday’ performance art pieces.”

The esteemed poet, inked in commemoration of the life of the slain Tupac Shakur, whom she claimed as her “literary son,” wanted to demonstrate to the “hip-hop generation” that they did not mourn alone.