Somethings Wonderful This Way Came

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

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.

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