The Trove: Craig Wallace

May 11, 2011 - 7 Responses


We’ve relocated!  View our story on Craig at inthetrove.com.  Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Craig Wallace before his performance in Jennifer L. Nelson’s “24,7, 365” at The Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Though I met Craig Stephen Wallace, he of the resounding voice and commanding presence, about twenty years ago, I’ve seen him more in the past year than in all the years before, owing to seeing the respected thespian in multiple productions. I’d heard of the DC-based actor’s ascent over the years through our friend, filmmaker Kelvin Phillips, so when familial responsibilities brought me back to my native Washington, I checked out the prolific performer as he robustly embodied embattled arts administrator Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” doting father Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair” and bourgie bro’ Beau crossing the tracks in “24, 7, 365.” 

Fresh from an end-of-March appearance with John Lithgow in “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” at the Kennedy Center, Craig went straight into rehearsals for a unique Folger Elizabethan Theatre adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. We caught up for a very quick, but yummy bite at Capitol Hill lunch fave, We the Pizza to discuss his journey from an only child, “a shy kid who loved books, TV and music” to a confident, respected member of a thriving theater community.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York Craig stumbled upon his calling in high school when given a choice to take American Literature or Drama: A Practicum. He selected the latter thinking it was the easier of the two.  The instructor, actress Betsy Bourcy “saw something in me. I fought her tooth and nail but she forced me to audition (for the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.) It was a watershed moment in my life, I never looked back.”

He spent his undergraduate years at Howard University deejaying frat parties and hosting college radio under the moniker Synbad Starr. “Truth was,” he says, “I was an egghead nerd trying to find myself.” He relishes those days. “College taught me how to have an opinion. At Howard I learned how to think, graduate school taught me how to act and in that progression I found myself.”

With fly folks, though shy, the future Funkateer always had presence.

An internship at The Folger was a career-making move. “I was watching the actors tackle the language and I knew that I wanted to learn the skills to tell classical stories. I also love the music of poetry and how rhythm plays such a vital part in speaking verse text. I did my first Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 1987 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company was at The Folger.” He has since then covered most of the Shakespearean canon: from comedies “Twelfth Night” to “Troilus and Cressida;” tragedies “Hamlet” to “Coriolanus” and histories “Henry V” to “Richard II.”

Bardic: Caius Ligarius in “Julius Caesar,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) Othello in “Othello,” (Folger Theatre) Brother in a Caribbean-set “Much Ado About Nothing,” (Folger Theatre) Escalus in “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Upon receiving his MFA from Penn State, he might have headed north with Broadway dreams but he returned south to the Districtbecause of a job opportunity. I stayed because I kept working. There was, for me, no real reason to leave. This is a flourishing theater community. I believe there are 80 professional theaters in the DMV region. I’m not sure it’s as diverse as it could be. I’m not saying there is racism involved, but in region where there are a lot of people of color, there should be more of us onstage….and I’m not sure if that’s our problem or theirs….probably both right?

Though he works steadily as an actor, he “began teaching acting at George Mason University just to supplement my income. These days, in addition to GMU, I also teach for The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Theatre Lab and serve as a Folger Theatre teaching artist at Cardozo Senior High School.”

His passion for theater is shared by his girlfriend, Kimberly Schraf, whom he met when they both appeared in a 1994 production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” They once again graced the same stage in last Fall’s production of “Sabrina Fair” with Kim in the deliciously witty role of Julia Ward McKinlock. She has also narrated over one hundred books on tape including Little Altars Everywhere, Bee Season and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominee (for “Show Boat) Kim and Craig at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards.

When asked about his influences he says “I have always been inspired by Malcolm X. He is discipline personified. Just got the new book on him, can’t wait to crack it.” He adds, “I do have directors and professors in my life that have given me insight on myself and my acting and I found them to be very helpful in my career.In that career he’s breathed life into the words of not only Shakespeare, but such esteemed playwrights as Anton Chekov, August Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Howard Sackler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner (whose “Angels in America,” secured Craig a 2000 Helen Hayes Award nomination for his portrayal of the nurse, Belize.)

Clockwise from left, an illustrious career: Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” (Everyman Theater) Usumcasane in “Tamburlaine,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) “The Underpass” (Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University) Beau in “24, 7, 365,” (Theatre of the First Amendment) Flip in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)The Mayor in “Fucking A,” (Studio Theatre) Brother in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson” (The Hangar Theatre)


Clockwise: Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” (Round House Theatre) Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair,” (Ford’s Theatre Society) The Aviator in “The Little Prince” and Booster in “Jitney” (African Continuum Theatre Company)

Craig was invited in 2006 to join a coterie of esteemed speakers at a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. He honored the 16th President of the United States by reading  an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the staging of “Cyrano” he says rehearsal has been intense, “we started blocking the first day…As all good art it’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty.”  Of his role as the villainous DeGuiche he says, “I just want him to be full-bodied and complex. If we do it right, you will hate him at first, but come to an understanding about him by the end. Phew!”

De Guiche taunts Cyrano (Eric Hissom)  Photo: Carol Pratt

What’s next on the horizon? “I’ve got some upcoming acting and directing jobs after Cyrano closes. Looks to be a busy summer and fall! I’m just beginning to direct. I’ve already directed a couple of things (“Tommy J and Sally,” “Mio Cuore – My Heart” and “Children of Medea”) and I’m still learning.

As I finished my ginger root soda, he bounded off to rehearse the show I look forward to checking out next week.  (The Folger Elizabethan Theatre production of Cyrano runs through June 5th.)

And without further ado, Craigslist:

1. Storm. Craig and Kim fell deep in doggie love eight years ago with the arrival of a gorgeous Husky mix in their lives. “Together we are three the hard way! And I love every minute of it.”

Snow Storm: in her element, achieving canine Nirvana.

2. Funk. “The music, the way of life.” On his Facebook “About,” he says simply,  “I’m just livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin I’m in.”

Classic funk: the landing of the Mothership.

3. Watching TV. As a child, it was “cartoons, of course and all the PBS fare–Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc.  As a teen, I was big into Twilight Zone, then 60 Minutes. For years I never missed it.” Some other faves include Treme, the Law and Order franchise, Dexter, Damages, The Wire and Flight of the Conchords.

The Treme opening sequence. Music by John Boutté.

4. Newspapers. Especially the Sunday papers.

He consistently reads the The Washington Post, natch, and the Sunday New York Times.

5. Shakespeare. The work of the Bard has been integral to his double-decade career.

Once you get the hang of it, it is really a wonderful feeling to have his words roll off your tongue!

6. Getting to know a new city when I work outside of DC.

His role last year in the pivotal role of “Boy Willie” in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson took him to the Hangar Theatre in the college town and gateway to the Finger Lakes, Ithaca, New York.

7. Cooking. “I look at the food section of The [Washington] Post every Wednesday. If something looks good, I’ll make it.” 


“My specialty is roasting whole chickens on the grill.”  Photo via Healthy Delicious.

8. Collecting music. The former DJ still has vinyl and says, “When I get time to find some room in the house, I’m going to set up me stereo, pull them out and have some fun.”

Some of the albums which “changed the way I think about music.”

9. Having Cocktails. He’s not beholden to any particular watering hole. “It’s more about the company than the spot.”

Photo Morgan Sheff via Cocktails and Cologne.

10. My Home.  After intense immersion in scripted lives it’s always good for him to return to his own.

Photo, Chris in Plymouth.

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The Trove: Lois Samuels

April 28, 2011 - 9 Responses

The delighted designer: “I really like myself; If I didn’t know me, I’d want to know me.”

When I first met Lois Samuels, she was a carefree 21-year-old giddily dancing her way through fittings in Barbados for a Ruven Afanador photo shoot.  A cavalcade of fashion to a jungle music soundtrack, the seemingly endless try-ons went into the wee hours with Lois remaining bright and cheery as the Bajan sun. Fast forward to 2011 and the ever-beautiful thirty-something remains upbeat, tempered with the wisdom of life experience.  We met in her Upper West Side apartment to discuss her journey from model to mom to fashion designer of the sumptuously crafted the Vessel. by Lois.

We spoke of our love of Grace Coddington, the brilliant heart of Vogue fashion in the film, The September Issue, and our shared disdain of cigarette smoking. “I want a clean cough,” she says. We then got down to the business of viewing the collection: clean, simple silhouettes in lush fabrics: wool twill, baby camel, silk lurex and silk twill. She loves jumpsuits, “they’re like a one-pot meal,” and she enjoys the ease of both. She’ll always have a variation on the theme in each collection. Many of her looks have detachable details like modesty panels for cleavage, cuffs, collars even bustles to make each multi-functional. “I think a woman can have five looks for the month.” Her longing for simplicity has its roots in her schoolgirl days donning uniforms in her native Jamaica and has influenced her aesthetic.  Those days also fostered a sense of respectful decorum that she “didn’t particularly like” as a student. “I appreciated it more when I got older and sought some sense of calm and structure in my life and my wardrobe. I saw how much structure it brought in the chaos of life. There is already so much to think of and plan. Clothing shouldn’t necessarily take so much of that thinking time.”

She speaks lovingly of her country upbringing. “I spent most of my younger years on my father’s farm in Manchester. It was a beautiful, old, wooden home in the mountains of St. Paul’s supposedly once owned by the English. At that time we harvested pimento, picked and dried coffee from the land on the barbecues before sending the products off to the various factories for export. There were always fruits: mangoes, tangerines, bananas, papayas and on any given day you could find me seated in an orange tree peeling up to a dozen sweet oranges at a time.  I dreamed of becoming a farmer. Loved the smell of cows, the soil after a rainy day, the muskiness from the trees.” She has a particularly fond memory of “planting a small patch of carrots and pulling the little ones from the earth and consuming it with the dirt. What a lovely combination that was. I couldn’t imagine eating the dirt in America.”

Uniformity: the sweet-faced Lois (center) with her classmates from the Hampton High School for Girls in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.

Eventually she and her older sister (they would learn of their older half brother as they grew older) went to live with their mother in the town of Santa Cruz. “It was more convenient for schooling for both ourselves and my Mom who was a school teacher.”  She credits both parents for being “exceptionally supportive” as they co-parented. Her Mom, as primary parent, “was always present and stood by my sister and me…I always had great interest in the arts. From ensuring I was in ballet classes to making sure there was a piano when I expressed interest in music,” her Dad made it happen. “When I was scouted by the Jamaican agency, Pulse, to become a model, he strongly encouraged it.” There was a local competition and a delegation was taken to the USA and Europe.  She signed in the US with Bethann Management where the sprightly Tyron Barrington nurtured her early career. She’s lived in both the US and Europe ripping the runways of Christian LaCroix, Issey Miyake and Thierry Mugler and alighting under the photographic gaze of the likes of Steven Meisel, Ellen Von Unwerth and fellow Jamaican, Walter Chin.

The Barbados shoot for Essence Magazine; one of the “hip kids” cast to launch the Calvin Klein fragrance ckOne.

Graceful beauty.

Though she continues to model occasionally, Lois has over the years pursued other passions including writing (her model memoir, A Glow in the Dark was published in 1999) creating a family (she and former husband Mark became the ecstatic parents of son Malo in 2001) photography (Jamaica Through My Eyes, a photo homage to her homeland was published in 2007) painting and fashion design. In fact, her Fashion Week debut would be inspired by the paintings of Jacob Lawrence.

A collection of photography, Lois’ second published book.

After several years of living in London, she returned to the states and assisted bespoke designer Jussara Lee briefly before becoming Account Manager at menswear designer Thom Browne, both positions offering invaluable lessons about quality control in the production of high-end fashion. She’s wanted to design fashion since she was about 14-years-old, “But the journey took me in many different places until almost three years ago when I felt it was the time.” So in September 2009 she unveiled her new line, the Vessel. by lois, to critical acclaim during New York Fashion Week. The significance of the label’s name? “I see us all as vessels of life and love. I also see clothing as vessels that uplift and protect the wearer,” she says.

the Vessel. by lois  Spring Summer 2010 collection.  Video: Grand Central Videos

When asked about her inspirations she replies, “Life inspires me. I never follow trends.” She notes that she respects indie designer, Lola Faturoti and wishes expansive growth for her. She also is heartened by the success of African-American designer Tracy Reese. “I really admire Tracy Reese.  She’s built an empire,” she says noting the growing brand umbrella.  She’s unmoveable. She’s solid…I have great admiration for the individuals in fashion who carve a place for themselves and their creations. And maintain it in this industry. Like Donna Karan and Issey Miyake.”

“I’m playing a lot with capes,” Lois says of her latest collection from the floor-length, dramatic  entrance-maker to the jaunty capelet. She smartly showcased the ebony and ivory pieces for Fall/Winter 2011 with larger-than-life black and white photographs by Joanna Totolici.  Lois herself is the sole model, presenting a strong, modern, sexy woman, The Vessel woman.

A Vogue Italia feature; the Jacket, from Fall/Winter 2011 with removable bustle in wool twill.

She’s taking it back home to Jamaica for Spring 2012.  “The vibrancy, the color, the flowers,” will be in full bloom. “Jamaica is a wonderful country and in all my travels I am yet to feel the energy that thrives there. From the topography of the land, it’s lushness … the flora and fauna… the vibration in the air and passion of the people, the flavor of our foods our music, beaches it’s endless.” She’ll continue to develop the Vessel., embrace the fact that her baby boy will be ten-years-old this fall and get to know the younger half sister she discovered via Facebook a few months ago. “It’s been an experience,” she says.

Her trove of favorites is largely experiential, have a look…

1. Motherhood. “I can’t imagine life without my son. He’s so supportive. I’m always working around him.” (and he will chime in if he thinks a look is too revealing) “Motherhood is a gift.”

Lois’ joy: glowing with the great love of her life, Malo.

2. Love. “Of the Divine, my son, family and friends.”

“Love” spelled out in American Sign Language.  © All rights reserved by Mariahhh1.

3. Fruits and Foods of the Land. With farming in her DNA, she enjoys the bounty that the earth yields.

Coffee, sweet orange and tangerine, pimento and bananas.

4. Sunshine. Her own disposition seems to mimic the Sun’s rays.

Lois, like other heliotropic beings seeks it with great zeal.

5. Flowers. She delights in the beauty of color and fragrance which sprouts from the earth.

The flora of her homeland.

6. Travel.   “All sunny places.”

No surprise that her beloved Jamaica makes the cut, but she also loves visiting Turkey. Her favorite cities are Paris and New York.

7. Photography. “I love to capture the spirit.”

Mrs. Rose and her Great-grandchild; Grandma Avis.

8. Music. “Music brings joy and sadness, brings back memories and makes us escape…takes us away.” Her tastes are eclectic from reggae (Burning Spear, Ijahman Levi and Bob Marley) to pop (Stereo Lab and Daft Punk)  to Rock, Rare Groove, Opera and Jazz. “Music is life!” she exclaims.

Burning Spear, “Marcus Garvey.

9. Spur Tree Lounge.  The Lower East Side boite has “lovely energy,” she says. With its Jamaican-Asian fusion, it gives her “a piece of home, great food, great music, and the owner Sean John is such a fantastic host as well!”

 Photo: © All rights reserved SeBiArt.

10. Ties.  Her favorite, must-have accessory, the necktie is the inspiration for her just launched Her-Tie.com, a collection of ties for women.

Her Tie by Lois Samuels worn with the Baby camel Jumper from the Vessel. by lois.

The Trove: Malene Barnett

April 18, 2011 - 7 Responses

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 - 6 Responses

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 - 3 Responses

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.


The Trove: Shalea Walker

January 28, 2011 - 7 Responses

A glowing Shalea Walker at her spa.

Nestled on a quiet block near Jersey City’s Grove Street Path Station, Walker’s Apothecary is a “beauty haven designed to relax and enlighten.”  I went recently to visit the visionary proprietor Shalea Walker and marveled over her radiant skin as a nail technician completed her manicure. We spoke of fragrance, of travel, the brilliance of Michel Gondry and the moody melifluence of Sia Furler. Celebrating her seventh year of business this Spring, she and I met, however years ago while she worked for Harriette Cole’s Profundities, Inc. She recalled securing the interview for the position: “Darin (her friend and Profundities staffer) hooked me up.” At the time she worked in accounts payable at a hospital by day and an Ethiopian restaurant at night. Her lack of experience in media made her family caution her not to get her hopes up.  But “Harriette saw my eagerness and willingness,” she says. “Some core things about us were the same: the love of apothecary preparations, a sense of spirituality, journaling…and we’re both Pisces.”  She credits Harriette for showing her that “big things can be created from very small things and that big business turns to small businesses to execute its needs.”

Her road to entrepreneurship started with an early love of fragrance and skin care. Mississippian Tommie Walker and his Ecuadorian/Irish wife Celia Duffy raised their 3 children “all over Brooklyn–Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie…” Their middle child, Shalea, drawn to her father’s smells started wearing his Brut deodorant and Polo cologne at age 4. By seven, she was “obsessed with soap,” she says. “I’d sit in the bathtub and would rub the Tone beauty bar onto my skin in a thick layer.” She was a fastidious child, “very particular,” about her appearance.  She had “her own way of doing things,” she was no schoolyard clone. She wore only Candies sneakers and her seamstress mom made all her clothes. “My mom can re-upholster a chair, make window treatments…she’s a creator. She’s not interested in making dinner every night, she thinks of bigger things.” When adolescent acne reared its unfortunate head it was mom who introduced Shalea to renowned natural skin care specialists, Christine Valmy “for extractions on my nose.”

The attentive care to skin wellness was established in childhood but the germ of an idea for what would become Walker’s Apothecary was a journal entry when she was twenty or twenty-one: “I want to open my own place. It’ll carry teas, skin care products.” Her mother’s daughter, she thought of “bigger things.” She worked for an IT company to save for beauty school, but was laid off two years later in the aftermath of the dot-com bust. The timing was perfect, she’d felt nervous about being out-of-the-loop during the “corporate years.”  She returned to Christine Valmy to study and become a licensed esthetician.  Though she’d done makeup for years– herself and others, she finally admitted to herself that she was a makeup artist after doing the makeup for a photo shoot.  She soon did the makeup for a feature on a woman with a Jersey City candle shop.  She left thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if she didn’t want the business anymore and would sell it to me.  I could have my own business by 26.’ She called her brother Tommie and shared her Piscean fantasy.  “Keep dreaming, that’s never gonna happen,” he said.  She convinced him to visit the shop with her and when they walked in the proprietor said, “Hi Shalea, I’m selling the shop, you are the first person I’m telling.”  So with $5000 from the corporate gig 401k, she realized a dream.

An affirming tattoo.

In the charming 185 square-foot Warren Street space, she launched Walker’s Apothecary in 2004, carrying candles, teas, body oils and perfumes.  A stone’s throw from my cousin’s home, I’d visit the shop whenever I visited him.  There was always some new delight to savor.  Soon clients began to ask if she would offer services. “They begged me to do it,” she says. So she set up an eyebrow grooming station in the tiny space.  “Eyebrows changed the business, it was a segue into other things.” While her shop was growing, so too was a freelance career as a makeup artist, working with beauty expert/entrepreneur Andrea Fairweather Bailey’s Fairweather Faces.  The late Eric Spearman had been the makeup artist to singer Dianne Reeves and upon his passing she didn’t work with an artist until Shalea came along to a shoot at the Thompson Hotel. From working with Reeves to interior designer Sheila Bridges on her television show to creating the signature look for Little Mama, she juggled servicing makeup clients with serving Apothecary customers.

A 2006 feature on Shalea in Black Enterprise. CD covers for Dianne Reeves and Lil Mama.

When Shalea’s friend Ruth shuttered her Mercer Street vintage shop, Shalea seized the opportunity to increase her square footage five-fold and secured the space. She was finally able to offer all the spa services Apothecary clients were clamoring for: facials, nail care, waxing, massage, makeup application, even ear candling.  And of course eyebrow styling.  (She groomed mine to perfection while I was there.)

Stations for makeup application and nail care.

“I had a vision of a business making people’s lives better. It’s come into fruition and evolves as needed,” she says.  The evolution of the business has led to her to develop an in-house, paraben-free, product line. “I wanted to create great product at a great price.” The four face care products, when used sequentially provide at-home treatment akin to a spa facial. The gentle Marine Enzyme Peel draws out impurities, exfoliates and stimulates circulation. The humectant-rich Chamomile Soothing Gel hydrates and soothes. The Green Coffee Moisture Masque deeply moisturizes and softens skin and fine lines. The ultra-hydrating Super Moisturizing Serum delivers anti-oxidants and botanicals to protect and nourish the skin.  I’ve tried them all, it is a great system, but my absolute favorite is the soothing gel, it feels wonderful! My skin breathed a blissful, “Ahhh…”  Though each product is individually sold, Shalea smartly introduced a trial-sized sampler kit.

The Facial-to-Go Sample Set got me hooked, I’ll be back for more.

The body care line consists of light body oils and emollient lotions, each infused with synergistic blends of botanical essences.

Walker’s Custom Blend Body Oil and Body Lotion

She’s a student of global skin care practices, traveling to a different country each year to “explore the skin care culture” of each region. She’s discovered that the French embrace technological advances; in Germany “stringent” use of natural ingredients is followed and in Greece, they use mastic gums. Her research informs the development of her products.  At Walker’s Apothecary, she wants to create “an experience, a discovery” for her clients and “now that we have our own products, people can take a bit of us home.”

We took our interview upstairs to her home above the spa to check out some of her favorite things…

1. My Couch. She found a pretty yellow and cream récamier in need of a little TLC at a Salvation Army store. “I paid $60 for it, thinking I’m gonna get it upholstered one day.”  To complement her spa decor and withstand heavy use, she had it revamped in durable silver and grey vinyl.

This bit of vintage glam now resides in her living room.

2. Fragrance Collection. An “indulgent, decadent luxury,” her growing collection of scents is an “obsession. I can forfeit a pair of shoes, but not my perfume.”

In current rotation: Susanne Lang Tamboti Wood; Pierre Bourdon Iris Poudre, Frederic Malle; Beth Nonte Russell Forever Lily; by Kilian Back to Black Aphrodisiac; Tom Ford Black Orchid; Guerlain Elixir Charnel; Sarah Horowitz Perfect Kiss; Jo Malone French Lime Blossom and Kiehl’s Forest Rain.

3. Journals. Journaling since she was twelve, she keeps them on hand, buying them by the stack.

Among her collection, recycled leather journals from Florentine company, Ciak.  Available through JournalingArts.com

4. Turkish Earrings. She doesn’t do a lot of accessorizing, but she likes the melding of gold and silver, the fringe detail and the manageable size of the gift from her boyfriend.

Her sweetie picked up the fringed lion cabochons during his travels to Turkey.

5. Montauk, Off-season. “It’s so laid back. April, early May no one is on the beach, and even if other folks are there it is like your own private beach. I just drink champagne, sit on the beach and relax into the view.”

Montauk Lighthouse Sunrise, © All rights reserved, Oldsamovar.

6. Hard Cheeses. She loves the dryness; the texture of an aged Parmesan, the nuttiness of a Manchego.


Queso Manchego from La Mancha, Spain is one of the hard ripened cheeses available at The Cheese Store in Hoboken, NJ, just ten minutes away.

7. Karen Oh. “I saw her perform [with her band Yeah Yeah Yeahs] at Liberty State Park, her energy was so live!”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform “Heads Will Roll.

8.Hôtel de Ville. Also known as Le Marais, Paris’ fourth arrondissement was her stomping ground during a one-month visit to the City of Light. She enjoyed the melange of Old Paris and what she’s dubbed “New Age” Paris with its eclectic mix of bistros and boutiques.

Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall from which the area derives its name. Photo: Trey Ratcliff.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “Kate, the somberness of the music, I loved it.”

The official film trailer.

10. Helen Julia Soft Mink Candle. As a purveyor of fragrant goodies, Shalea has certainly tested her share of aromatic candles. She ranks the bold rose/geranium scent from the Helen Julia line of hand-poured soy candles among her favorites.

Soft Mink, one of several aromatic blends created with love by Tamiko Hargrove for HelenJulia Fragranced Candles.  Each candle is packaged in an elegant velvet pouch.

The Trove: Renaldo Barnette

January 13, 2011 - 47 Responses

The impeccable Professor Barnette, photographed by fashion peer, Michael McCollom.

Renaldo Barnette loves models.  In fact, he was one — a muse to esteemed fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez as he created the brooding genie in the lushly illustrated 1985 re-telling of the Scheherazade classic Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.  Friendships with runway legends eased his transition to life in late-eighties Paris: Coco Mitchell (“She’s still my heart”) welcomed him as a roommate during his jaunts to the City of Lights and Lu Sierra introduced the awed young designer/illustrator to Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy. Millie the Model, a paper doll dream glimpsed in the pages of his older sister’s comic books started it all.

A page from a 1960 “Millie the Model” book available on eBay.

 

Renaldo’s oh-s0-chic 2010 season’s greetings brightened my holiday.

The youngest of the “humorous and fabulous” Eddie and Lillian Barnette’s four children, Renaldo was born in Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  An Army brood, the family moved every 2 or 3 years, living in places as far-flung as Okinawa, Japan and Augsburg, Germany to several states in the U.S.  “My real discovery of drawing was when we lived in Hawaii, between about eight and ten-years-old,” he says. He’d duplicate the super heroes from his comics, Spiderman and Superman, but it was big sis Phyllis’ Millie the Model and Katy Keene books that captured his burgeoning fashion imagination.  His mom, who called to mind Diahann Carroll’s TV character, Julia, was a “nice, stylish, suburban lady” who had her clothes made.  Baby of the family Renaldo would accompany her to fittings with dressmakers in whatever town they found themselves in.  Fascinated, he took it all in, learning about patterns and fit, fingering the fabric samples and quietly taking the available scraps. With these scavenged textiles or even bits of his own cut-up socks, “I learned how to trace a bodice and sleeve.” He saved his lunch money and secretly bought a Barbie doll, sharing this only with his brother Corinzo, now a hairstylist in Florida. “Corinzo would style Barbie’s hair and I’d make her clothes.”

During a family stint in Fort Knox, Kentucky, “Mom sent me to the store to pick up something and I spent her change to buy a copy of Vogue. It was big, the September issue. I think it was 1971 or ’72.”  Though he was concerned she’d be angry about the expenditure,  it opened a dialogue.  “Oh, you’re interested in fashion?” she asked, then shared that she’d gone to New York years before to pursue a modeling career. She didn’t continue that path, but she kept up with the styles of the times.  As fashion “got young in the seventies,” people mistook Ms. Barnette in her “Cleopatra Jones cropped fur jacket, double-knit pants and curly “Freedom” wig for her children’s sister. (With Corinzo’s help she had “an entire wig wardrobe with wiglets and falls.”)

Though his father was oft in uniform, Renaldo was taken by a photo of his father in the era just after the Zoot Suit: the strong shoulder was still there, but the silhouette was slimmer.  His dad looked sharp.  And he taught his sons the essentials of proper grooming.

When Fort Bragg beckoned, the family lived in Fayetteville, NC where Renaldo excelled in art class, so much so that his teacher taught him private painting lessons.  “But I was bored,” Renaldo says, “and kept on drawing girls.”  Noticing the fashion illustrations advertising local store, Miss Vogue Junior Shop, his instructor noted that Renaldo’s illustrations were as good the advertisements in the paper and convinced the shop to hire the eighth grader for a Saturday job drawing velvet blazers, Faded Glory jeans and Huk-a-Poo dresses. It was, of course, a big deal for him. “I thought I was the cat’s meow.  I became a local celebrity.”  When his beloved brother, Eddie Jr. passed away last year, Renaldo was deeply moved by the discovery that his proud big bro had saved all his Miss Vogue sketches (as well as his favorite Hot Wheels cars.)

After high school, he headed to Los Angeles to attend FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising,) where he was eventually advised to head to New York, for a better match of sensibilities.  He did visit the Apple and was offered a job by a fairly new company that he loved, Carolina Herrera, but a boyfriend in LA convinced him to stay on the West Coast.  He would finally make the move, take classes at the Parsons School of Design and reconnect with Antonio Lopez, whom he’d met at the L.A. launch of the book, Antonio’s Girls.  Upon reviewing his portfolio, Antonio told Renaldo that it “looked out-of-townish,” and that he should “always carry a sketch book,” a practice he embraces to this day. They’d hit legendary club Paradise Garage and whilst Antonio & Co. burned up the dance floor, he’d find a corner, take in the uniquely New York scene, and sketch away. Although he was accustomed to immersion in different worlds, Antonio and his famous friends—Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Iman – were a new universe.

Posing for Antonio and freelancing at Polo Ralph Lauren, “sketching in various departments,” Renaldo met American-born Paris phenom Patrick Kelly who liked his sketches and invited him to work in his atelier.  He loved the Paris years, working not only with Patrick but with the “very French” houses, Sonia Rykiel, Chantal Thomass and Jean Charles de Castelbajac.

Upon his return to the states, he embarked on a career designing and/or sketching for a variety of American sportswear lines including Anne Klein, Nicole Miller, Christian Francis Roth, Yansi Fugel and good friend Michael McCollom; teaching at the college level; creating day dresses for Badgley Mischka as Design Director for daytime dresses and Lauren dresses as Creative Consultant; and launching his well-reviewed (WWD) eponymous line, Renaldo, Ltd. in 2003.

When pulling looks for Lloyd Boston’s The Style Checklist, I thought Renaldo’s matte jersey stunner was the perfect piece to illustrate “The Jaw-Dropping Dress.”  Photo by Robert Tardio.

  

Recent sketches.

Now an adjunct professor at F.I.T., Renaldo has taught there for 19 years. Though he is highly rated by students, he says “it took years to develop” his teaching style and level of comfort. 

 Amazing artist, amazing professor. He does not only teach you how to draw, but how to think and act like a designer. He treats you with respect and has a lot of expectation. He very often stays late for us after class. Very accessible and helpful as long as you are seeking for help. Love him! and I wish to have him again as my professor. – Student review of Renaldo from Rate My Professors

Though classroom instruction was not in his plan, “I interviewed on a lark,” he says. Painter, illustrator and art instructor Harvey Boyd exclaimed upon seeing his sketches “Wow! Have you ever thought of teaching?”  Renaldo responded in the negative, but decided to go for it “to make extra cash.”  He had no idea how much he’d enjoy it.  “I find it so rewarding, giving back” and helping students to perfect their craft. So beloved is he and so strong his talent that he was hired by fashion darling and former student Bryan Bradley to work on his line Tuleh.

Renaldo delineates between the wonderful fashion illustration, which is “solely for setting the mood,” with little regard for technical detail and the effective fashion design drawing which serves as the blueprint for translation into an actual garment: from buttons and buttonholes, seams and topstitching to accurately rendered fabric texture and weight.

From sketch pad to runway: Renaldo’s design drawing fully articulates the look created for Mrs. Stevie Wonder’s fashion line, Kai Milla.  View more of his  work at RenaldoBarnette.com

Though the self-funded venture Renaldo, Ltd. was critically ac- claimed and able to fulfill all orders it became financially prohibitive to support.  He would like to helm a line again, however his dream is “to do what Marc Jacobs has done, to not only relaunch but to renew a brand.  I’d love to do Pappagallo.”  As for the Renaldo line he has an eye toward a made-to-measure business.  He would include the requisite red carpet looks, however the crux of the business would be daywear— “great pants, that perfect dress for day that fits! It’s all about the customer.” And his customer “appreciates simplicity, she’s someone who wants to see herself before she sees clothes,” elegant and aware that proper fit is everything.

Renaldo’s Trove reflects his love of beautiful presentation with a luxe, yet relaxed ease.

1. Meisel & McGrath.  When Steven the photographer and Pat the makeup artist come together, the results are always magical and Renaldo loves the synergy of the two. “I give props to Meisel for being a model maniac like I am. Love him.”  And Pat McGrath? “That woman’s work is genius, genius, genius!”

From Vogue Italia, Meisel and McGrath’s collaboration with Stylist Karl Templer and Hairstylist Guido.

2. Cashmere.  Especially sweaters and jackets. The tactile experience has him sold.  “It feels good against your skin and it feels good to other people.”

He often shops Barney’s for his cashmere pieces.
 

3. Chelsea Boots. “When I was a kid they were called Beatle boots and I thought they were the coolest thing–still do.”

Renaldo ushered in the new year rocking a tuxedo and Gucci patent Chelsea boots.

4. White Shirts.  He likes clean, crisp lines and “the way white looks against my skin.”

 

From the Spring 2011 collection of Los Angeles cardiologist-turned-haberdasher, Roderick Tung.

5. Black Jeans.  He enjoys the contrast of black and white and the lengthening properties of dark pants.  “I’m tall and black jeans make me appear even taller.”

Raleigh Denim creates jeans in varying washes and silhouettes.

6. Great Driving Shoes.  “Even though I can’t drive!” Prada, Hugo Boss, Bally and the Daddy of them all, Tod’s–he loves the yin and yang of softness and structure.

From Tod’s Pre-Collection Spring/Summer 2011, the Gommino Loafer.

7. Creativity.  He is grateful for his–“I don’t take it for granted”– and embraces and encourages it in others.

A project Renaldo worked on to revamp the Laura Ashley image was an all-encompassing vision for the brand from apparel to accessories and shoes.

8. Elmo Restaurant. In How to Be a Gentleman, John Bridges suggests that every gentleman should identify a restaurant he enjoys where he is known and respected.  Elmo in Chelsea is that spot for Renaldo.   

The stylish interior, great food and proximity to the garment district make Elmo a favorite haunt of the fashion crowd.

9. Bongo. With its mid-century modern furnishings, fun vibe, and great owners (his friends Andrea Cohen and Jeffrey Bell), the West Village seafood lounge is a frequent hang.

“If you like club–good house, the music will keep you coming back,” Renaldo gushes, “It’s great!”

10. Metamorphosis in Movies. The fashion-oriented films Mahogany and Funny Face tie for favorite film in his book with their shared themes of transformation. Diana Ross’ “Tracy” and Audrey Hepburn’s “Jo” both emerge from humble beginnings into beautiful swans.

One of his favorite scenes from Mahogany.

The original theatrical trailer for Funny Face.

Happy New Decade!

January 1, 2011 - 24 Responses

It was the reflection on the prior decade that was the impetus for this blog two years ago.  To those who have read along as this little thing has found its voice, thank you so very much. Thank you for alotting your precious time to seeing which way the pendulum will swing, from my story in 2008 to Oi Yin Gonzalez’ at the end of 2010. I hope you’ll follow as the well-received feature, The Trove, becomes it’s own entity. I am excited and optimistic about the possibilities of this new decade, the second of the new millennium in which we are thrust solidly into the future.  We are living a future our forbears could barely imagine.  Today at 01:01:11 am, I put a conscious intention for the year into the universe, from my head and heart to God’s ear.  Wishing you all good things…

Photo by Camera Slayer.

Oi Yin’s Story

December 21, 2010 - 15 Responses

As we “say a little prayer” for Aretha Franklin, I ask that the family of Oi Yin Gonzalez and the countless families affected by cancer be lifted as well. As I viewed the marvelous orange display of last night’s rare and powerful lunar eclipse/winter solstice combo, I thought of them and the possibility of the miraculous as well as the gift of acceptance.

Please view the video below from the Cancer Respite organization, For Pete’s Sake:

I met Oi Yin and her family years ago when she and I were in the bridal party of our dear friend, artist Fran Mack.  She and her husband, Rafael, both engineers, were about as lovely a couple as I’d ever come across. Deeply in love, devoted parents to two small children, their’s was a life that was golden.  In 2006, Rafael visited the doctor with the complaint of back pain (that he’d attributed to strain from having moved heavy furniture.) The non-smoker was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and given the prognosis of six months to live.  Widowed at 36, Oi Yin, in characteristic positivity forged the best possible life for her babies, a life that honored their father’s memory, embraced his family and yet allowed them to move forward.  When new love Jeff proposed marriage in January, she accepted.  They were stunned by fit,former distance runner Oi Yin’s diagnosis in March of pancreatic cancer.  It seems unfathomable that so much should be heaped on this family and yet Oi Yin with her beautiful, open, indomitable spirit once again forges ahead, preparing her children for the possibility of life without her whilst fighting the good fight with aggresive treatment and holistic therapies.  She was given seven months in March, and now as the year draws to a close, she is still vital through wearying treatment and creating a special holiday for Sienna and Derek.

I saw her last summer at the annual memorial softball game held  in honor of Rafael.  She, a bit frail after treatment, resolved nonetheless to play.  And she did for a bit before assuming the mantle of pep squad, gratefully cheering on all who came out in Raf’s memory.  She is truly a remarkable woman.  She shares her ethical will to her children on Jeff’s Psychology Today blog.

In this season of copious spending I hope that everyone who reads this will feel compelled to give the extent of their ability.  Donate to For Pete’s Sake at  TakeABreakFromCancer.org  by 12/31/2010 to help reach the $8,000 matching funds challenge; and/or if you’d like to donate directly to Oi Yin’s medical costs and the trust for the children, visit Gonzalez Family Trust.

Thank you for reading.  Wishing all a happy, love-filled holiday season!

The Trove: Abby Dobson

December 19, 2010 - 11 Responses

 

Mama’s Girl: “I am ever aware that I am standing on her shoulders and those of all the women in the house I was raised.”

I was sitting in my mama’s living room in post-Thanksgiving satiety flipping through the Washington Post when I came across a listing about Abby Dobson’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage the very next day. Since we’d met through her college chum, writer Nicole Moore, time had never permitted me to check her live (including her release party at the Blue Note in November.) Bet. Another chance.

Abby’s got some pipes;  her resounding voice a compass directing me to the venue as I arrived just after she, bathed in purple light, began her set. Including songs from her independently released Sleeping Beauty: you are the one you have been waiting on, as well as a couple of covers (her rendition of Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore scorched) she both glided on gossamer wings and plunged deep into a place of earthy excavation.   At set’s end I went to say hello and the floodgates opened to a stream of grateful listeners, stupefied by her vocal prowess, who queued up to commend her.  Abby and I quickly agreed to meet for coffee while we were both in town and I left as she greeted her fans.

View the performance on the Kennedy Center website.

We met up the next day at her hotel, the quirky Hotel Helix (count on Kimpton Hotels for modern rooms with personality) “My mom loves it, she feels like a rock star,”  Abby laughed as she gathered her things. We strolled to nearby Mid City Caffè  for delicious coffee, tea and pastries and settled in for a chat about her gumption-finding journey from childhood timidity (hiding behind the refrigerator to sing) to securing some of the best musicians in the business to record her music and belting it out before large audiences.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica,  Abby’s first inkling of her gift was at  “5 or 6 years old, singing to the radio in the living room, when my aunt shushed the adults at the dining table to listen to me.”  When she was seven, her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn. “Migration is an interesting thing,” she says. “I think it can change your personality.  I became quiet, shy and very observant.” Growing up amid a mix of Jewish, Italian and African-American residents she learned to not to speak Patois.  Her folks “knew how to turn the accent on and off,” where necessary. She has become one not easily “placed” by how she speaks. “I feel very Jamaican, but I’ve never really spoken Patois– maybe when I’m angry or with just family.” 

She attended Plymouth Congregational and “the voices I heard in that church really influenced me. The Jamaican churches preferred classical singing,” a by-product of “Anglican colonization, which was very different from the bluesy Baptist singing” of African American churches.  Another influence was her “visionary” elder cousin Colin who introduced her to Sarah Vaughan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman.  Though she listened to “a lot of  Bob Marley,” she became indoctrinated in the music of Black America and developed a love for Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston and Prince.

Her mother, Theda was “an incredible influence.  She has always supported my brother’s and my creative pursuits…She was a closet artist,” providing her daughter with voice and piano lessons early on.  In high school Abby received private voice lessons from her Chorus teacher who invited her to sing in the Salon Series he held in his home in Bayside, Queens. All nerves and “scared shitless,”   Abby traveled with her mom to perform, the only child amid a gathering of adults.  “It was cool, I was in the tenth grade.”

She went on to study History and Political Science at Williams College, singing all the while. “I directed a gospel choir there.” Though she knew she wanted to sing, she was “afraid of failing and being unable to sustain myself. When you come to America from an immigrant family, you are expected to succeed in a profession.”  So she entered Georgetown Law School intending to establish a career in law or public policy, whilst performing cover tunes at every “open mic” she could.  She graduated but declined to take the bar exam knowing that she really did not want to become an attorney. She would commit to building a music career while sustaining herself as a paralegal. Realizing that the best route to landing a record deal is not in performing covers, she began writing her own songs, which was a revelation, opening her to all she had to say. “I grew up in a very female centered household with my mother, grandmother, aunt, my aunt’s kids and my brother. I was an avid reader of feminist and womanist literature which really shaped my point of view.”  

Her debut as a singer/songwriter at Nuyorican Poets Café led to appearances at S.O.B’s, The Knitting Factory, The Cutting Room, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note.  Her song, Deeply, a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, was featured on TV shows, “The Shield,” “Jack & Jill” and “Any Day Now.” She has provided backing vocals for artists from John Legend to Talib Kweli; opened concerts for Rahsaan Patterson, Ledisi, Dwele, Chrisette Michele, Floetry, Kindred, Leela James and Robin Thicke and performs with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, the interdisciplinary, improvisatory ensemble led by Greg Tate. 

The genesis of her current release was in a realization that she’d been trying for a long time to get notice from a major label.  That she’d been waiting to be “spotted across the room by Clive Davis and signed as his pet project.”  This notion of a sleeping beauty awaiting awakening by an external source resonated with her. She’d fallen “asleep” in her romantic life, waiting for fulfillment. “As much as it is about not expecting someone else to make me who I’m supposed to be in my personal life,” she explains, “it’s also about not waiting on a record company or music producer to deem me worthy of making music I was ready to share.”

There was a long planning process before she actually began to record in early 2007. She continued her paralegal work.  “My 9-5 was part of my story, I needed it. I made good money,” which allowed her to self-fund her record. “If I could afford to do something, I did it. No compromises.”  Like recording and mixing in analog. “People thought I was crazy,” but she wanted her release to have the old-school authenticity of her musical influences. When she got to the mixing stage, she cashed out on a sou-sou, calling on that ‘financial touchstone’ of her Caribbean heritage.

The release is available for download on Amazon & iTunes, but if you enjoy the tactile experience of poring over liner notes, order the disc from CDBaby.  Abby put her heart into the packaging and you can peep Greg Tate’s glowing review. Photo by Piper Carter.

Drawing on her literary shero Alice Walker’s “We Are the One’s We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she weaves the musical tale of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening, not to the kiss of a Prince but to her own inner light.  With heralding horns that call to mind the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez, the disc begins with Cool Rain giving way to a heritage nod, the reggae-tinged I’m Drownin (witten with her percussion-playing, ethnomusicologist brother, Robert.)  Sleeping Beauty continues her 13-track journey on the strains of Robert Glasper’s piano, Lonnie Plaxico’s bass, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Teo Avery’s sax among others. Rounding out the mélange of genres, Abby completes the song cycle with bluegrass-inflected anthem of reclamation and affirmation, Sleeping Beauty: go make the world you dream.

And she is doing just that.  She’s now interested in a distribution deal, not signing to a label.  “People are coming back to entrepreneurship.  Motown, A&M, that’s how they started.” She shares the story of her moving visit to Detroit’s Motown Museum. “I was in tears. The beauty that was created from a small loan from family is nothing short of miraculous–that they were able to do that in those times.” She admires the forward-thinking vision to protect the brand. “No matter where they were licensed in the world– Japan, for instance– it remained ‘Motown’ not the native language translation.”  She plans to uphold her musical integrity through her company, LadyBraveBird Music. 

The songbird shares her ten favorites with The Trove

1. The Color Purple.  “Although I love Alice Walker’s book of the same, one of my favorite things is the color purple. It is regal and warm at the same time.  It lifts my spirits. It puts a smile on my face.  My luggage is purple.  My winter and spring scarves are purple.  I just adore the color purple. And, wearing purple makes me feel special.” 

 

The color associated with royalty, mysticism, creativity and feminism.

 

2. Herbal Teas.  “I love drinking it because it’s soothing.  There is nothing like hot herbal tea, the aroma, the steam on my face as I sip, the taste…it immediately relaxes me.”  

She particularly enjoys African Redbush tea from TAZO (as well as their chamomile blend, Calm.) Photo by xlungex.

 

3. Books and Reading.  “I love the experience of browsing a bookstore…libraries too,” she gushes. Books, newspapers (New York Times,) magazines (O and Success), love them…I just love reading!”   

            

Her all-time favorites, The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Beloved.

 

 

4. Spices. “I enjoy savoring food with alot of flavor.  My favorites are thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg.” 

Botanical print via the wonderful blog Honest Fare.

 

5. Sexy boots.  “I have a thing for boots. Whether thigh high or booties, I enjoy wearing them with everything.   What more can a girl ask for?”

Abby’s got winter covered, so she can look forward to the sizzling boots coming as the weather warms. Here, Sessilee Lopez’s great gams and open-toe booties in BG Magazine’s selects for Resort. Photo by Will Davidson.

 
6. Massages.   “I love giving and receiving massages. I give them to my family and friends all the time.  I enjoy making people I care about feel better. If I’m stressed and need to relax, I’ll get a 20 minute at a nail salon to relax, relate and release.”

“Touch is very powerful. It soothes and comforts,” she says.
 
 

7.  Great Music and Musicians.  Natch. Though inspired by all forms of art she loves great music and artists who create for the love of their craft and passion as opposed to money. Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Streisand, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few.”

Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for West Side Story (Presented by the Sederbergh School)
 
 

8. Good Wine.   “I enjoy German Rieslings and Argentinian Malbecs.”

         

Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling and Renacer’s Punto Final Classico Malbec.
 
 

9.  Family and Friend Gatherings.  “I love getting together with my family and friends for gatherings to celebrate each other and special events and holidays… the experience of breaking bread, our conversations, and our laughter.”

And laugh she does.

 

10.  Solitude.  Although she enjoys the communal experience, she also enjoys her “own company” and is “often inspired by moments of solitude…thinking, walking, dreaming.” 

“Solitude – La Dame des Sables.” Photo by Tiquetonne.