A Dress & A Photograph: When History Meets Story

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“When you buy from an independent artist … you aren’t just buying a thing, you are buying a piece of heart, part of a soul, a private moment in someone’s life.” – Rebecca Joy Plett

Of all the stories I’ve created so far, my upcoming “novel in pieces,” currently known as Project M, is perhaps the most personal. The story was inspired by personal experience (even though it’s fantasy), and the illustrations are fashioned from things I already have on hand.

I’ve written elsewhere about the family quilt I took apart and the backdrop fabrics I hand-dyed for the illustrations. I’ve even shared how improvisation guides my efforts. But since these earlier posts, my efforts have gotten even more personal than that. Project M is reaching out of my craft nook, all the way down to my personal closet and the deepest, darkest crannies of my 130-year-old house.

Let me explain.

As an improvisational storyteller, I follow my Inner Mentor as I’m making my work. Thanks to my Inner Mentor, the illustrations for Project M take a different turn than I imagined they would. Or the little voice says, “Hey, what about that [insert thing] you have in that closet downstairs? It’s not fabric, but it might look cool!”

Because my best work unfolds through these moments of magic, I’m inclined to give the Inner Mentor more and more free reign.

Which is how I got down to a dress and a very, very old photograph as the latest pieces of Project M.

Let’s start with the more personal of the two:

The Dress

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I purchased this simple cotton sundress several years ago on clearance at a boutique. I loved how it felt against my skin on the hottest days of summer and all its old-fashioned touches, like the lace at the top. I wore the dress for my 30th birthday. And my 31st. And my 32nd. Once I even wore it to the Bristol Renn Faire.

But a couple weeks ago, I found myself in need of some light, skin-toned fabric for a couple of characters’ faces in Project M illustrations. I had nothing on hand. Though I considered buying a piece of fabric to fill the need, it felt out-of-kilter with my goals for Project M as a fully upcycled project.

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Then one day I saw the birthday dress hanging in my closet. And that’s when I knew I had my fabric right at hand.

Believe me, I thought twice about cutting up that dress! I love wearing it! But why not let something that’s brought so much joy to me go on to bring joy to many other people? Plus, there’s enough fabric here for all the characters who might need it in Project M’s 40-plus illustrations.

Here’s just one result of this small sacrifice:thumb_IMG_2705_1024

This piece turned out so well, I actually cut up a companion blue dress, from the same boutique, as a sky-colored backdrop for another illustration.

Perhaps the rest of my closet had better watch out!

The Photograph

Back when we moved into our house in 2013, it was a total wreck inside and (nearly) as bad outside. My husband and I ripped portions of the house down to its studs—usually the results of terrible remodeling jobs done in the 1950s to 1980s, by our best guess.

With so many stories of treasures found during old house remodels, I had hoped we would find some really fun relics of the past. But all we got were broken pieces of china, a tin fork and an abundance square handmade nails. That is, until we found “Miranda.”

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This undated portrait of a little girl was taken by William Wollensak or an associate at the Wollensak Ground Floor Studio in Milwaukee, which (according to the photograph’s back stamp) was once located at 500 National Avenue. Based on other tidbits we know, the little girl was the daughter of the house’s first owners, presumably also the builders.

Though I’ve always enjoyed the photo for sentimental reasons, it took on a new meaning during the creation of Project M. I realized that the child’s likeness had influenced my development of Miranda, the protagonist of Project M. The novel’s first draft was written the fall after we had moved into the house and not long after we had found the photograph.

Coincidence? I think not.

So when the Inner Voice suggested that little “Miranda” ought to grace the cover of Project M, I was very ready to jump on the idea. Only I didn’t want to cut up or damage the original photograph.

I was in a dilemma about this for several days until a light shone from heaven, and I remembered that superhero of all creative projects: Mod Podge.

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I took little “Miranda” down to the local copy shop and had her likeness reproduced. It turned out darker and more cool-toned than the original, which actually worked out well for the overall aesthetic of the lager piece. (Side note: What would “Miranda’s” parents, or even William Wollensak, think if they knew this expensive, no doubt time-consuming photographic expedition had been reproduced in an instant by a machine that hadn’t even been invented yet then?)

A good, sturdy piece of cardboard and a few coats of Mod Podge later, Miranda’s “twin” was ready to be stitched down onto the cover of Project M, which I’ll reveal in full right here on the blog.

Here’s a tidbit of the result:

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My excitement is building to share the cover of Project M with you here next week. But first, I have to go figure out exactly how I want to photograph the pieces. (Ha! It truly is “make-as-you-go.”)

In the mean time, I hope you enjoyed this peek into some of the more unconventional pieces of Project M. And when you finally see the finished illustrations, I’ll hope they’ll have even more dimension.

Each of them truly is a piece of my life that I can’t wait to share with you.

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