Somethings Wonderful This Way Came

Somethings Wonderful This Way Came
1970's Vintage Caftan in At Play

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Exploring the Details of Design

During last week, I was able to photograph all of the wonderful fabrics given to me by Joan, Harwood and Sophie's niece.  I focused on capturing details of some of the different designs.  There are so many.  One fabric may contain nearly a hundred design elements, each linked and placed harmoniously with its neighbors.  A great example is Seven Cities of Cibola.  I think this was one of Joan's favorites.  When she was pulling out the treasured Steiger examples from her black chest, the striking lime green base color of the fabric overwhelmed me, and I had to exclaim, What a fantastic sixties color!  And, it is.  Beyond the color of the fabric, one immediately begins to note the complex design of the silk screening.  Joan told me that this was a particularly difficult design to print.  I believe her.

The printing process was not particularly difficult in and of itself.  The fabrics would be rolled out on a very long table and then the screen would be placed, inked and moved to its next location, skipping space in a leap frog fashion so that the inks would not smudge until they dried.  Then, Harwood would come back and fill in the empty spaces, leap frogging again until the entire bolt was printed.  The problem comes in with strictly maintaining registration.  The Seven Cities of Cibola design, complex and intricate, was difficult to maintain registration exactly.  Steiger, being a perfectionist, would not sell the fabric that was not perfect.  But, also being a thrifty person, could not afford to discard the fabric.  An ingenious solution was created.  On these imperfect printing runs, Harwood would overprint another complimentary design, hiding the imperfections of the first print.  I had seen some overprint fabrics, but had wrongly assumed that these were an effort to introduce variations following Harwood's death.  Joan just laughed when I told her this.  No, Uncle Harwood and Aunt Sophie just couldn't afford to waste any fabric.  It was the most expensive part of the studio process

It wasn't until Joan gave me this beautiful green example of Seven Cities of Cibola that I was able to examine it closely.  In reviewing the photos, I just shake my head in wonder and appreciation of its divine dimension and energy.  Undoubtedly, Harwood Steiger was a collector of native symbols and a creator of interpretations of the things seen and found in the desert.  He was clearly a keen observer of desert life including all plants and many animals (the most whimsical ones, surely).  All these he gathered into his designs. 

The stencils were all hand cut.  Harwood would work out the designs while summering in New York.  One of Joan's earliest jobs as a young child while visiting Uncle Harwood and Aunt Sohpie in Red Neck, was sweeping up all the little pieces cut from the stencils.  That was such a hard job!  All those damned little pieces, Joan complained nearly sixty years later.  It really must have been a hard job, indeed.  Joan is still frustrated by the task. 

In looking at the fabric design, I'm unable to determine where one stencil ended and another one begins.  Such is the talent of this persnickitty printer.  Joan tells me that the stencils were only about 18 inches long.  This amazing attention to minute details is what makes Steiger such an exceptional artist and separates him from other silk screeners of his era.  Where most silk screeners of the mid century worked in big, bold graphical designs, Harwood Steiger's work was highly detailed, almost delicate in comparison. 

My husband often chuckles when he finds me petting my fabric.  Almost daily (and usually when he's not at home) I take out a piece from my Harwood Steiger collection and just look at it.  I find something new in each piece every time.  Sometimes I'll hang it on my quilt design wall so I can study it in its entirety.  Also, I can examine design elements easily and study how they all fit and work together to create a lovely, and may I say fascinating, fabric.  I guess I have become mesmerized by my addiction.  I hope I'll never find a 12 step program to cure me of it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Becoming a Textile Archeologist

The Villager, Tubac's only publication, was gracious enough to run a small feature article I wrote for them on my book project.  In the article, I asked for anyone possessing Harwood Steiger examples to contact me in the hopes that I would be able to photograph them.  I also sent a few photos of Steiger fabrics I had on hand. 

Well, if the Villager ever needed confirmation that locals read it cover to cover, I can provide it.  I got so many responses over the next few weeks that it was dizzying.  Each and every day I received several emails from folks who had fabrics, curtains, garments and more.  By the time December rolled around, over 30 people had offered their Steiger treasures to be photographed.  Only problem was, I had to have surgery on my right hand that could no longer be delayed.  It was nothing serious, but not having the use of your dominant hand's thumb is handicapping.  So, I let everyone know that my photo sessions would be delayed until January.

In spite of the delay, ethusiasm for the project had not waned when I recontacted all those folks.  Based on the large number of people willing to work with me and the number of items they each brought, I scheduled a three day trip to Tubac and arranged with Nancy to use the Pink House as my working studio.  Preparations included creating a permission sheet (required by publishers), packing up my own Steiger treasures to share, borrowing a digital Nikon from my friend, Marie, and confirming a three day schedule with everyone.  When the time came, I packed up the car, complete with groceries, coffee pot, ironing board and iron, my quilting design wall for a backdrop, and a few changes of clothes.  This was going to be a heavy duty working session, so no need for anything that was not absolutely essential.

The schedule I developed permitted me to travel to Tubac in the morning and get set up for appointments starting at 1 PM.  My first appointment was on time and the schedule was pretty tight for the rest of the day straight on through to 8 PM.  The next day was pretty much the same, except I started work at 8 AM and went to 8 PM.  On the last day, one of my appointments couldn't find me and it was a shame because she claimed to have 30 different fabrics.  I had set aside the bulk of the morning for her.  But, not to worry, because I was catching up with a huge collection that had been left with me of  mostly linens.  Keep in mind that each and every item offered to be photographed had to be ironed first.  I haven't done that much ironing in at least 10 years, if ever.  On the last day, work ended at around 9 PM.  I was exhausted, but, oh so happy.  I had been able to take over 120 photos of some of the most stunning fabrics I'd ever seen.  And, more importantly, I met great, actually wonderful people, who shared with me some pretty terriffic stories about Harwood Steiger, buying fabrics at the studio, how the fabrics had been used, and so much more.

One lady and her husband had been visiting a local ranch house that had just undergone a complete renovation.  She noticed that the construction debris pile had what looked like the old drapes.  Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be Steiger roadrunners printed on a heavy linen.  Torn?  Yes.  Stained?  Yes.  But, nonetheless she asked if she could retrieve them from the trash heap, and of course, took them home, carefully laundered them and saved them from an unhappy disposal.  I loved this story.  But, you know what?  She gave me one of those drapery fragments and I treasure it all the more for having been rescued.

Another couple that visited with me were so much fun.  The wife was a quilter and both were eager to see my own collection.  We went through the fabrics piled on the bed in the second bedroom and they ooooed and ahhhed appreciatively at my personal treasures.  She had brought some great fabrics, too and we had the best time together.  Before she left, she proposed a trade:  one half yard of her Mimbres for one half yard of my Nine Wives.  Well, yes, of course.  We were both happy with the transaction.

Did you know that Santa Claus lives in Tubac?  Her name is Judy.  Judy was one of my first visitors.  She just dropped off her fabrics and said, Call me and I'll pick them up later.  That's Tubac folks for you:  trusting, generous and so very supportive.  Judy had some great fabrics.  One, Bows and Arrows, I had tried to acquire on Ebay, but was unsuccessful.  It went sky high.  Another, Saguaro, is one of my most favorite.  I photographed them in between other appointments and eventually phoned Judy to retrieve her treasures.  I could not believe it when Judy handed me four beautiful cuts of fabric including Bows and Arrows and Saguaro. She said, You keep these.  I really want you to have them.  It was Christmas for me, for sure.  So, yes, Santa lives in Tubac.

There are other great stories, too.  One from the lady who years earlier volunteered to run the Four H Program in the village and used to take the kids to Steiger's studio to shop for fabric for their projects.  There was no other place to buy fabric back then unless you wanted to go to Tucson and that was too far away.  Another from a lady whose house burned down with everything her family owned in it.  So, friends got together, purchased Steiger fabrics and sewed clothes for the family.  Amazing.  Simply amazing. 

During those three days in Tubac, I saw Steiger fabrics that I didn't know existed.  I saw Steiger fabrics in color variations that were stunning.  I saw Steiger fabrics sewn into beautiful garments and home decorations.  In retrospect, I'm glad that Pamela Coates Antiques was unwilling to let me use her inventory as the base collection for my book.  If I had been able to use that inventory, I wouldn't have had to work so hard to find all these individually owned examples and I wouldn't have met all these wonderful, wonderful people and I would not have heard their stories.  My textile archeology paid off in a huge way and I am enriched by the effort.  Also, I now have some great friends in Tubac, too.  Thank you, Pamela Coates.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Visiting Joan, Harwood and Sophie's Niece

Yesterday I had the distinct honor of visiting with Joan, the Steigers's niece who was very close to Harwood and Sophie.  I have been trying to arrange a meeting for six months and we just never seemed to connect.  Joan is not in good health right now, and is scheduled for hip replacement following a fall last year.  To her, the whole inconvenience of being in a wheel chair, is simply that:  an annoying inconvenience.  It makes me mad that I just can't get up out of this chair and walk into the kitchen, she declared.  But, in spite of her difficulties, she very graciously welcomed me into her home and shared with me a trove of amazing treasures.

We started with a portfolio of watercolors and drawings produced by both Harwood and Sophie.  Some were easily recognizable as Harwood Steiger's work.  I have seen a number of his paintings in galleries, and of course, his monumental mural in an Alabama post office.  Harwood's work is generally of landscapes and buildings as he observed them in his environments.  There were beautiful scenes from Duchess County, NY, where he and Sophie lived, gentle rolling green hills, dotted with farms and small buildings.  There were wonderful coastal scenes from his time in Martha's Vinyard and Florida, boats rigged with fishing nets and crowded harbors.  But, the most touching painting was of Sophie, herself painting a still life, inside their Red Neck, NY cottage.  Harwood produced a series of watercolors that depicted views from windows in their home.  The scenes changed with the seasons and other elements placed on the sills and tables near the window.  Some elements were constant like a conch shell on the table.  Others, such as flowers, were seasonal in keeping with the changing landscapes.  These were beautiful works of art.  Loose, bold strokes in the watercolor demonstrated Harwood's mastery of the medium.  Not being an artist myself, I don't know the techniques that produced both the suggestion of, and precise details in the painting's elements.  To me, it is magic.  But, what is most amazing is how completely different these paintings are from the silk screened textiles.  A knowing eye would be able to detect similarities in forms, the creation of movement, the absolute mid century modern esthetic.  But, to an untrained eye, the paintings I saw and the textiles I collected, bore no suggestion of having been created by the same person.  Many of the paintings Joan has are not signed.  Uncle Harwood was an extremely modest man.  But, he was very hard on himself and a serious critic of his own work.  He wouldn't sign anything untlil he thought it was perfect.  Aunt Sophie wouldn't let him throw anything away.  So, if he was unhappy with the things he'd been working on, he'd get up in the middle of the night and burn them while Sophie slept

Among the watercolors were Sophie's work, as well.  Sophie's paintings were lovely and romantic.  Her technique produced more controlled images.  Many were still lifes, while others showed people going about their daily business.  It was clear that Sophie studied under Harwood, but she demonstrated a clearly different style all her own.  Unlike Harwood, Sophie painted people.  Through her, we get a glimpse into their lives in Duchess County.  Sophie was an herbalist and a gardener.  So, plants, flowers and growing things appear frequently.  Her paintings exhibit great precision and exactness in high contrast to Harwood's bold, loose strokes.  According to Joan, Sophie was deliberate in all things.

Putting away the portfolio, we moved to the laundry room where Joan had a black three drawer chest.  I was suprised when opening up the second drawer, Joan began to extract small pieces of Steiger fabrics saved from sewing projects of years gone by.  It's hard for me to even think about cutting up a Steiger fabric.  But, here, Joan demonstrated that she used these fabrics often, sewing dresses, shirts, vests, and any number of garments for her and her family.  Joan told me that as a young woman, she used to sew all kinds of items to be sold in the Steiger studio in Tubac.  Oh, yes, I made tote bags, vests and all kinds of things.  I'd just take the fabric from the shop, bring it home and sew it into items we thought would sell.  That's how I made money in those days.  Joan also made practical household items.  As she pulled a scrap from the drawer she explained that she had made a toaster cover from this fabric.  And, she lamented that a soft, stuffed Christmas tree she had made for her mother seemed to have disappeared.  I hope it didn't go into a yard sale.  Joan pulled out a collection of pieces pinned together.  They were in a fabric design I'd not seen before.  It was rust colored with black printing.  This is Tubleweeds, Joan said. I cut out a wrap around skirt, but never got around to sewing it.  Maybe you can figure out how to piece it together.  As she handed the bundle to me, I just looked in wonder at the potential of this handful of 40 year old fabric waiting to become a garment.

She kept pulling out scraps of Steiger designs I'd never seen.  Oh, this is an early one.  Or, I made a dress out of this one.  I was almost squealing with delight as Joan revealed fabric after fabric in the most amazing colors and designs.  You know, Uncle Harwood used to mix his own ink colors.  He wasn't satisfied with the standard colors available from the manufacturer.  Joan kept handing me fabrics and I stacked them atop a nearby box.  When she got to the bottom of the drawer, she moved onto the last one.  There, again, packed away were yards and yards of brilliant Steiger fabrics.  The colors were as bright as if they had been printed last week.  Some simply took my breath away.  There was a piece of Apogee with such strong color saturation it shocked me.  I held it up to admire it.  Stunning.  Simply stunning. 

I could go on to tell how fabric after fabric brought utter delight.  I was practically swooning with excitement.  But, suffice it to say, each and every fabric was beautiful.  Most of the designs Joan extracted from her stash were new to me---either an entirely unknown design, or a color variation not before seen.  I was in heaven. 

To my utter amazement, Joan made a gift of those fabrics to me.  I could not have been more thrilled than if someone had just given me a dozen Hope diamonds.  When I left, she gave me yet one more departing gift:  a Hawood Steiger painting.  But, the true gift that day was meeting Joan and listening to her tell me of beloved Aunt Sophie and Uncle Harwood.  Like nearly every experience I've had in the process of researching this book, meeting and visiting with Joan was a genuine joy, and now I count her among my friends.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spreading the Word

Tubac Village, itself, is little more than a six block by six block square.  New Tubac runs from the Frontage Road to the east for about three blocks.  This is where most of the galleries, restaurants and shops are located.  Old Tubac is closer to the river and includes the Presidio, St. Ann's Church and a smattering of private homes, artist work spaces, and a few shops.  I started out in the most populous areas to spread the word of my book project. 

Stopping at the deli for a latte, I chatted briefly with the counter clerk while she prepared my beverage.  No.  She'd never heard of Harwood Steiger (How could she?  She was so young!).  But, sure, go ahead and put a flyer up on the bulletin board.  There should be some push pins up there.  Leaving the deli, I headed across the street to the arts center.  I asked to see the Executive Director, to whom I'd spoken a few weeks ago.  But, alas, she was not in today and not expected.  Again, I left a flyer.

Hmmmmm.  Where next?  I just started walking east and stopped in at several shops and galleries.  All the people I met and talked with were friendly, interested in what I was doing, and willing to pass the word onto others because they, themselves, neither knew Steiger nor owned any of his textiles.  This was not promising.  Finally, I happened into a shop where the owner and staff all knew Steiger.  In fact, they had a banner Harwood Steiger had created for the arts festival years ago.  And, oh yeah, that building across the street was his studio.  But, of course, it looked a lot different back thenYou should talk to...and they gave me a list of folks who'd been in town a long time and who had known the Steigers.  Accepting a flyer, they wished me luck and on I went.  I worked my way through the list, but mostly didn't connect with a lot of folks.  Many were away or simply unavailable.  But, please leave one of those flyers.  So, I did, basically papering the town with my flyers.  People were polite, generous and accommodating and before the day was over, I had flyers in every major space in town:  post office, community center, business services centers, galleries, the Chamber of Commerce, shops and grocery stores.  I even drove down to Amado and Tumacacori to post flyers there.  By the end of day, my flyers were in nearly every establishment in and nearTubac. 

When evening arrived, I returned to the Pink House to pick up Nancy Valentne.  I wanted to take her to dinner as a way of thanking her for the hospitality.  As it turns out, it was Nancy's birthday, too.  So, off we went to a wonderful Mexican restaurant, owned and operated by a multi generational family.  We gorged ourselves on absolutely delicious tamales, all the while sipping great Margueritas.  Nancy told me of her plan to turn the family properties into affordable work/live space for artists.  One of the buildings on the property is so important to the history of Tubac, I could hardly believe it.  Nancy's family home while growing up, at one time had been the first store in Tubac, its first post office, first telegraph and telephone line, and so on.  Loew's Store, as the structure is known, was the center of Tubac's community for over a hundred years.  I had read about it in Elizabeth Brownell's book, They Lived in Tubac.  She explained her plans for developing it and her dreams of bringing more working artists to Tubac.  It was a wonderful dnner, passed with lively conversation and belly laughs.  By dinner's end, Nancy and I were good friends.

The next day started out early.  I had an appoinment with the good folks at the historic society.  They were ready and waiting for me.  Laying on the table was a file folder full of newspaper clippings, ads, magazine stories, photos and other ephemera on Harwood Steiger.  Some of the ladies told me that they had visited the Steiger studio when it was still open.  But, none of them actually knew him.  Most of them were snowbirds who only came after the oppressive heat of summer had passed.  But, they had been Tubac showbirds for decades.  They were a fun group and so full of information.  I really had a good time visiting with them and learned a lot about the town, its history and Harwood Steiger.  I was reluctant to leave, but I wanted to get on the road and get home early enough to cook dinner for my husband.  Plus, I missed my four pawed girls. 

On my way out of town, I gassed up at the convenience store on the frontage road.  After paying , I picked up a copy of the Villager, the monthly newspaper of Tubac, in a rack near the door.  I stuffed it into my computer case and headed north to Phoenix.  I was happy with all of the great people I'd met and felt the expedition had gone well.  One thing I learned about Tubac is that the people are nice and far more accommodating than folks you'll find in a city.  Yes, I liked Tubac and was glad for the time I'd spent there.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Being Rejected and Becoming Empowered

One of the first sites that comes up when a Harwood Steiger internet search is conducted is that of Pamela Coates Antiques.  This site offers the largest collection of Harwood Steiger silk screen prints for sale on the internet, and probably anywhere.  My understanding is that Ms. Coates used to live in Green Valley, AZ, a community located between Tucson and Tubac.  Apparently, Pamela Coates Antiques acquired quite an inventory of Steiger prints over the years, and probably towards the end of the studio's operations.  I salivate when I visit the website because there are so many different designs----some of which I've never seen in person.  You can imagine that for an addict like myself, this is a temptation that causes me to tremble.  The bad news is, I just can't afford the prices on the items offered.  They are simply beyond my ability to buy and good judgement to pay by credit card.  Nonetheless, it is the largest collection I've seen to date.  I would have gone down to visit Pamela Coates, but she apparently moved to New Jersey, taking her wonderful Steiger collection with her. 

When I reached the decision to write a book on Harwood Steiger textiles, I emailed her, telling of my intentions to publish a book and asking for her cooperation.  As a former antiques business person, I know the importance of exposure to the market and thought Ms. Coates would welcome the opportunity to  prominently appear in a book on Steiger.  Boy, was I wrong.  Ms. Coates wrote me and said that she had considered writing a book herself, and no, she wouldn't put me in touch with Steiger family members because they didn't want to be bothered.  I emailed her again asking if she would consider letting me use the photos on her website, or even permit me to produce new, better quality photos that she in turn, could use.  No reply.  She basically shut the door on me, cutting off access to the largest Steiger collection I could find.  Bummer!  If I had been able to gain her cooperation, the Pamela Coates Antiques collection would have been the core portrayed in the book.  But, that easy solution to research material was not to be.  Now what?

I thought about this for a long time.  I finally decided that the only thing to do was to go to Tubac and dig around some more.  In preparation, I made some flyers, briefly telling of the book project and asking for anyone having Steiger examples to get in touch with me.  Next, I started looking for a place to stay.  There aren't too many choices of accommodations within the village of Tubac.  But, I happened onto a curious place that described itself as a place for working artists offering heritage accommodations.  Aldea de Artisticas is a collection of historic structures converted into charming and comfortable accommodations in the heart of Old Tubac.  That sounded interesting.  So, I wrote to and heard back from Nancy Valentine.  Nancy is such a nice person.  She asked about the project and how I became interested in Steiger.  I learned that Nancy's parents had been among the early "colonists", and that the accommodations offered were in historic old adobe dwellings.  How could I possibly resist staying with Nancy, especially since she offered me a no cost stay as her contribution to the project? 

That's how I found my home away from home.  Nancy made available a lovely little pink adobe cottage.  It had two bedrooms, a huge, modern bath, a tiny, but complete kitchen and a living/dining room with a fire place.  The Pink House is located right across the street from St. Ann's church and in the heart of the oldest part of Tubac.  Totally charming is how I describe it.  I got to Tubac around noon and stopped to have lunch at the deli.  After that, I went straight to the Pink House and unloaded my things so I could get organized.  The door was open and Nancy had said she had a meeting in Green Valley and wouldn't be back until later in the afternoon.  I loaded up my brief case with flyers and started out, on the trail of Harwood Steiger.