Thursday mornings in 1970 were spent at a Salon held at the home of Joe and Esther Dendel in Costa Mesa, California. Here a group of 10 to 20 folks would learn how to work in techniques with fiber, clay or wood used by peoples from around the globe. Those processes were then pressed into each person’s imagination and explored with a diverse collection of materials. Poems were written and shared as the artists learned how to follow the lead of their muse. Often Esther would bring in a guest to share their story, their art, their travels and the expansion of our creative toolboxes was the result of this amazing opportunity and community of creatives. One morning it was announced that the following week we had been invited to spend two days of study at the Emerald Bay home of a Salon regular; we would have a tour of her studio where she made paper and constructed two and three dimensional works of art with her paper. After her presentation we would have the afternoon and the following day studying with a woman who had traveled from England and was speaking the following week at the Embroiderer’s Guild in Los Angeles. I signed up to participate.
The following Thursday was a magnificent drive along Pacific Coast Highway south to Emerald Bay. The home sat on a cliff over-looking the ocean which provided an astounding visual and audio setting for our learning session. After tea we sat at small tables for two on the porch; sea breezes and sounds creating a place far removed from the busy world in which we lived. With my requisite little stash of drawing and creating materials at the ready to take notes and learn from this woman who was just introduced; with a crisp British accent, slight, slim stature, sturdy shoes, a tailored suit and very, very green hair, the adventure began. This day was the beginning of perhaps the most exciting artistic journey of my life.
Constance Howard was born in 1910 in Northampton, England. For some great personal history on Constance you might enjoy visiting:
Our time of study with Constance included making small, 2 or 3 inches by 4 or 5 inches, cut paper designs; we glued our little pieces and made a series of studies to explore division of space within an assigned format and put them in our journals with our notes before creating the designs and after our critique as she went through each of our notebooks. Then we each took a page in our journal and divided it into six spaces, each a different dimension. We then chose something in our environment and we were to sketch it into these six spaces, altering the dimensions and staying true to the form; I chose a chair. After all these years her lessons still ring in my head and when I am feeling stuck regarding the format of a piece I will revisit these two processes.
Our second day of study with Constance was devoted to the exploration of stitch; how to take a known or familiar stitch and expand, distort and redefine it to accomplish a texture or line needed in a piece of fiber work. Constance sketched the basic stitch construction and then we each took that and pushed, pulled and played with the stitch to see how far we might go with our new approach to stitch. Constance has written several wonderful books on stitch and design and if you have not looked at them, do give yourself the opportunity to see stitch through new eyes. “Inspiration for Embroidery”, published by Batsford in 1966 is one of my well-worn and much used books; her “Embroidery and Colour” published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1976 has also had many hours and miles of use in my studio. A great article from a blog written by Jenny Hart about collecting books by Constance can be found at: http://sublimestitching.com/.
Several of us decided to drive to Los Angeles to hear her presentation the next week; additionally she suggested that I call Helen Wood Pope in San Francisco and ask if I might stay at her house for a week in the summer to study with Constance. The stay was arranged and my “rent” for the week was to be the chef for one evening meal for the houseguests and to take Helen and Constance to a favorite Japanese restaurant in the city. The adventure of living in a four story Victorian near the Presidio that held the artifacts of a museum and art gallery combined, staying in a lovely little top floor room, sharing meals with the six guests, including Constance, and writing while sitting in a solarium filled with orchids and repeating this for six more years remains one of my cherished memories.
Students each day were scattered throughout the house and gardens as they worked and gathered in the parlor three times each day for lessons and critiques. The very first project was to select one item from the house and with water colors paint a bit of every color seen in the piece and in the proportion it was seen. Then we went through stacks of magazines looking for printed colors to match our paints, made a striped piece staying with the proportions observed in the piece. From this “master piece of colors” we made our study pieces each day. Constance was always challenging us to look beyond the comfortable, the known and expand our vision to include ever so much more of the world around us. We spent one day folding bits of paper to see what shadows we could create and then headed out after lunch to the garment district where I did my first ever dumpster diving. We were looking particularly for striped fabrics and it was only after we had scoured every dumpster that we made a visit to the magical, wonderful fabric store called Britex on Maiden Lane, now on Geary Street off Union Square a marvelous four floors of fabric. We manipulated, folded, turned and stretched out visually those stripes to move our thinking from what was ordinary. Our last day we received a list of suggested study projects to keep us moving forward as designers and creators of art as we went back home.
This annual pilgrimage to study with Constance brought more to my creative expression than my years at the Laguna Beach School of Art; those studies gave solid and important information in color and design but the magic of a Green Haired Lady wrote the line of music and dance into everything I have since created in fiber and surely in my poetry as well. I took the lists of projects home with me and began a small Salon of 12 women who met monthly. We were dedicated to solving the design problem for the month using any media of our choice and to the making of at least three of our solutions in fiber during the course of the year. This group continued to meet for many years even after some of us re-located to other cities. Constance and her lessons touched a wide circle of people creating and, indeed, those folks who saw our work or studied with those of us who were teachers. To see a wonderful collection of photos of Constance the small publication, “Conversations with Constance” A celebration of the life of Constance Howard, MBE by Jean Littlejohn and Jan Beaney, ISBN 0-9531750-5-7 is a small booklet worth finding..
A visit to the Goldsmith’s Textile Collection and Constance Howard Gallery online site: http://vads.ahds.ac.uk/collections/CHM.html , will bring you some time of visual enjoyment and pleasure, I am certain. If you type samplers into the search box you will find some great pieces to study with salient information adjacent to the photos. It is my belief that Constance was a major mover and shaker in the world of embroidery and textile expression. She lived to be 89 years old and her mark is felt by those who studied with her, read her books, heard her lecture or saw the pieces of fiber art she created, often for large public installations. You will find her obituary at:
My life has been deeply touched by her hand, her voice, her heart and yes, her beautiful green hair.
photos from the article in the Guardian.