The value of things – inspired by the Ringling Museum

While on residency at the Ringling Museum, I have unexpectedly come upon a form of decorative arts I never considered having much value.  That is  – painted furniture and decoupage .  As I worked my way through the collections in Ca d’Zan, I realized the need to access multicolored motifs in my work – a place to imprint colorful fem-eccentric imagery.  Up until now most color is in the printed gender portrait and the dyed fabric, however the decorative imagery is fairly monochrome.  Decoupage allows me to transfer digital images to print and apply them to the surface of furniture.

Fabric dying and printing, embroidery and lace, decoupage – the histories behind these art forms is fascinating and always takes me to wonderful stories of women and woman’s work.  Decoupage combined with decorative painting and gilding was a way to create affordable and do it yourself lacquered furniture decorated with figurative and floral motifs (an inexpensive form of Japanning).  Decoupage has been a popular hobby for women throughout the ages.  Printed images glued to a surface appear to be a more colloquial version of baroque and rococo painted furniture.   I can’t decide if I am simply intrigued that I can now insert colorful imagery into my settings, or if I am inspired by something deeper.  I think both…

As I stroll the Ringling campus, read books written by female circus performers, spend time in Ca d’Zan, Mable’s gardens and looking at photographs both of Mable and the circus performers – I read about and observe to what ends John and Mable Ringling went to be respected amongst the top capitalists of their time – I become deeply aware of my need for beauty and aesthetic acceptance and question how my livelihood, art and person fit into the value of things.

I could really let it get me down – knowing, for example, that certain theories, materials, and subjects have more value in the world (of art) – or I could embrace what I value despite it all.  For example, here at Ringling, I value the voice of the woman. I am thinking about she, being the one who is normally gazed upon – turning this in on itself to she being the one who gazes. A woman can be self conscious when not being objectified, like the circus women, Josie and Zora, she reflects upon her own person, her status and values.  She provides strength from within, not condescension and judgment coming from an outsider’s point of view.  To me a much more interesting and powerful narrative emerges.

Mable Ringling held strong to her integrity. I am told how she provided for her sisters and everybody I meet and everything I read use kind words to describe her.  Yes she directed the design and operation of Ca d’Zan, a 1.5 million dollar Venetian Palace built in the 1920’s, but she was working against the odds – not being from an upper class family – still frowned upon today. While people tour the Ca they continue to condemn Mable for her working class origins.  She seemed to be free spirited and loved to surround herself with family spending much of her time in her gardens, with her animals, and out on the yacht.  She didn’t keep a journal and only once let a journalist interview her, so I can only guess by looking at family photo albums and various collected photos of Mable – who was she really?

I look at myself – despite my personal nature and livelihood some of my traits are seen as woman and some may be seen as mannish – like being a grounds keeper, gardener, laborer, designer, artist.  A type may come to mind when seeing me maneuver the large walk-behind Gravely mower over the bumpy three acre terrain of Stenton Museum grounds – a piece of equipment generally operated by male lawn keepers.  I love physical work – out in the yard sweating, digging, rearranging, carrying, trimming, keeping fit and getting dirty.  As a designer and artist I appreciate high craft and tend to be moved by more feminine spaces and ideas.  Here, I am drawn to Mable and her sister’s bedrooms, Mable’s sense of color, her green chairs in the breakfast room, the painted furniture, and the ormolu figurines of women, cherubs, and animals (monkeys in Mable’s room).  Her bathroom is filled with painted trompe l’oeil wall panels, doors, and chairs.  I am loving the arts seemingly more valued by women.