May 19th, 2015

Wonderland: a 4-Part Series

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ARTISTS FACEBOOK CHALLENGE. DAY 5.

Well, like the Scarecrow to Dorothy, this one seems like the hardest one yet. Maybe that’s because this was my biggest creation, built to last yet gone nonetheless. Or maybe it’s because this week marked the anniversary of losing our little spark, Lauren. Whatever the reason, it is with a heavy but hopeful heart that I wrap up this Facebook Artists Challenge with a journey back down the rabbit hole.

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Let me first borrow some other people’s words before I try to find my own. Cameron Connerty called 12South a “magic little house.” Nancy Perla Michaelis remarked about the 360-degree nature of my brand (I wore it, I decorated it, I built it, I employed it, I spoke it, I wrote it, I played its music, I represented it within the community).

The Guardian wrote this: “a cosy store established in a grey clapboard house set back from the street, is the most cutting edge, stocking affordable designer clothes sourced from across the US alongside vintage sunglasses, jewellery and chocolate. It specialises in the informal but chic look favoured by those too hip for Urban Outfitters, and its liberal credentials were confirmed by a 10% discount for anyone registering to vote in last year’s presidential election while at the store.”

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Jim Ridley of the Nashville Scene called it “playfully chic,” and then later he wrote about me: “the brainiac in high school who walked around with Marx in her backpack, with a head full of Broadway show tunes, with a snappy comeback at the ready for any sorority girl who dared look crosswise at her combat boots…three parts Amelie to two parts Juno, the pixieish proprietor of the 12 South boutique Two Elle. A petite almond-eyed wisecracker who runs the only fashion shop in town—maybe in the world—where you can get a copy of Kafka’s The Trial to go with your Converse high-tops, Lowe presides over a four-room enchanted kingdom of hip couture and a glamorous staff of well-read, culturally aware (and endearingly attitude-free) hotties. But it’s her personality that comes through in the store’s mix of geek-chic ’90s retro, high-style jeans and distressed college T’s, and slim silver pendants that depict girl-power superheroes.” And I’m sorry, world, I will never stop quoting him, because his words brought me unparalleled joy and honor….until Stephen Gilbert called me an “all-weather-whatever’s-clever-now-and-forever- tougher-than-leather woman.”

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So, those are their words, but I still struggle to find my own. I was just looking at photos of 12South, ones that I had never used for anything, ones that weren’t glossed over by stories I’ve already told. I said aloud, “I can’t do it,” and closed them up. I can’t say goodbye. It’s been many years. But somehow I just can’t do it.

Maybe I’m just not ready to be cute and clever about it. Maybe I’d like to think that the story is still being written. And really I don’t need to say much at all, because so much of it is already documented here or on twoelle.com. And so many of you were there! You wrote on those chalkboard walls I put up for you. You sat with me on the porch swing. You plastered graffiti, and you ripped it down at the end. You posed with me in the ads that lined local bathroom stalls. You sat on the couch I selected. You played on the pool table. Or the piano. Or the drums. Or the stage. Or the pinball machine that ONE DAY before it started smoking. You hung up your clothes on hangers that had bunnies on them. You walked out the doors I had shipped in from New York. You wondered why the exterior window frames on a structure that was built in 2008 looked like they had been there for hundreds of years (Me! I did that!). You wondered why there was a sign on the door that said, “Went for Paletas. Be back soon.” (Me! I did that!) You talked to me while I stood behind a bar, the last place I stood that felt as safe to me as a stage. And you bought things that I designed, and they still show up every now and then in your photos, bringing a deeper smile to my heart than you can imagine.

You were there. So, I won’t tell the whole story. I’ll just show you some photos of that thing I made. {I broke them down into 4 groups. I know. I’m far outside the scope of this Challenge. But here’s what: I don’t care. Join me down here in wonderland if you like. And Amanda Paytas Stevens: my deepest thanks for nominating me for this opportunity to share, waking me up, and reminding me to do what I do best.}

Regarding nominations, I started this Challenge in childhood and nominated in Nashville. I’ll now end it in Nashville and nominate in childhood with my family. I’m nominating Ninfa Lowe, Michael Lowe, Daniel Lowe, and Adam Lowe, creatives each in their own way.

OK, kids.

PART 1: THE MAGIC LITTLE HOUSE

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PART 2: BUILDING WONDERLAND

The day after the Hill Center Grand Opening, I felt an overwhelming sadness; the building phase was over. If we’re being honest, I think I liked building wonderland more than I liked living in it. Maybe that’s my truth: nothing ever felt as good as waking up too early, drinking too much coffee, getting my hands too dirty, and building a dream.

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PART 3: LIFE IN WONDERLAND

As mad as a hatter’s tea party and as confusing as a Caterpillar’s question, this was life.

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PART 4: GOODNIGHT, WONDERLAND

There’s something particularly poetic about building a dream and then having to break it down with your own hands. These were difficult yet liberating days, when I began deconstructing my world into manageable pieces that I could discard or pack away. That empty space still haunts me, but I always find something inspiring about the darkness.

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May 18th, 2015

If I Can Make It Here

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ARTISTS FACEBOOK CHALLENGE. DAY 4.

The last time I performed was in 2002. It was a small cabaret show on Restaurant Row in New York City with an audience containing some of those very same PCDSers who had shared my first childhood stage. After the show, a newer friend said to me, “I don’t think anyone could truly understand who you are until they’ve seen you on stage.”

I offered so many different reasons as to why I stopped singing, but I don’t think I ever uttered the simplest one: it hurt. That big voice had strained my vocal cords, I was living with chronic tonsillitis, I was almost always in pain, and I often got sick. I saw an ENT in 2002, and he told me I’d need surgery very soon. I put it off…..until 2014. (It was a simple procedure. But there were complications. I was in recovery for 2 months. I told a small handful of people.)

When the doctors confirmed what I already knew, that I was losing one of the most cherished things in my life, I did what any headstrong 20-something would do: I said I didn’t care.

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For better or worse, I had found a new “stage.” At some point after high school, I started becoming more aware of aesthetics. I soaked up information about fashion, beauty, interior design, and, perhaps most crucially, retail. When I had trouble choosing a major in college, a close friend said, “Well, you’re really good at getting dressed.” I hated the notion that my only gift to the world was my ability to clothe myself, and it would be about 10 years before I realized this was both a compliment and a career option. I started working at the Anthropologie in Westport, CT in the late 90s and ultimately left Yale to work there full-time. I transferred to their 16th & 5th store in Manhattan, and, to a certain extent, the rest of that story is a fairly well-documented history.

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I also can’t tell my New York story without mentioning writing. One fall Sunday in 2002, I was enjoying a Magnolia cupcake and ventured to the used-book store (now a Book Marc) across the street. I bought a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More Now Again and decided that I, too, wanted to write my story. {I did. My friend Michael Troy had it bound for me, put it in a Barnes & Noble bag, and surprised me with it one day. That’s as far as the publishing of that particular manuscript ever went.}

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I ultimately went back to Columbia to finish my degree in English, took a number of creative writing classes there, and began to develop a voice that is now becoming a signature. Oh, and then there was that little law school moment.

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New York wasn’t just about training, though. The New York that I called home was a sigh of weirdo relief. It allowed me to embrace my creative rhythm. I wore what felt natural. I learned names like Marc Jacobs. I built displays in my apartment like the ones I coveted from store windows. I took photography classes and discovered my love of a dark room. I learned about the notion of linking a concept to a visual. I began using more than just my words or my voice to express myself, and I spent my time with other inspired 20-somethings who made it seem like we were running the city. I think that’s what the New York years were for me, a time when working unconventional hours or staying up all night on a project was as ordinary as throwing on a choker, a dark lip, and a chunky heel.

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So, today I nominate my New Yorkers: Josh Prim, Sally Franson, Colin Quigley, fully aware that you’re not going to do this but bringing you in anyway, because my New York wouldn’t have been my New York without you.

In terms of attaching photos, it gets harder as we get away from childhood, when parents or pros documented our lives, and before smartphones. So, these are some examples of a girl just becoming aware of her desire to play with color, fashion, interior design, and feats of strength involving hangers. And I threw in a photo from shortly after I woke up from surgery, because maybe this journey isn’t just about what we create but also about what we lose along the way and the sacrifices we make in order to keep creating.

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And because the moment after waking up from surgery, I begged for a sketchpad, drafted 140 characters or less, hashtagged, and took a selfie.

Posted at 10:50 pm by rachel in: After Wonderland

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May 17th, 2015

Nesting

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ARTISTS FACEBOOK CHALLENGE. DAY 3. THE PCDS YEARS.

Today’s installment takes us back to the PCDS Eagle’s Nest, a somewhat prickly scene from which one allegedly cannot escape. Aside from teaching me that I was more comfortable on stage than anywhere else, Greasepaint had taught me the mechanics of performing, like how to memorize lines, learn choreography, or fill a large room with my voice (a lesson, truth be told, that didn’t require much teaching). By the time musical director Schert arrived at Phoenix Country Day School, I had my tools, I had home court advantage at my own school, and I was ready to use that big voice both on and off the stage.

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At a New York PCDS reunion many years ago, a phrase circulated. “PCDS: we don’t get them smart; we make them smart.” Now, surely this was never the school’s official slogan, but the fact remains that something changed for me on that PCDS stage. My brain became bigger than my voice. Maybe it was just age (is there anything worse than a teen artist?), maybe it was the zeitgeist (angst was all the rage in the 90s), or maybe it was because I had a director who listened, counseled, respected, never pulled rank although it was completely within her right, and persistently made me feel like I was a part of the creative process. Looking back, this is precisely what I aimed to do with my own creative team long after I left that Eagle’s Nest, which perhaps explains why, on the last day the store was open, I wrote, “Thank you, I love you, goodbye,” on our chalkboard walls, a phrase only familiar to little Eaglets.

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So, the facts are these: PCDS is where I became aware of the audience, and that relationship continues to affect and haunt my journey through the arts. I can pinpoint this moment when Lucy sings to Schroeder as the exact moment when I became aware of WANTING the audience’s laugh. Mostly because Ezra Weiss always got the bigger one. And apparently my future fashion choices were also modeled on this moment, because I refuse to quit the saddle shoes and little blue dress.

It is perhaps fitting (and to the advantage of those alumni who went on to bigger and less creative things) that I have only fuzzy, ghost-faced images to share, screenshots from the videos that, yes, I watched last night. I carry with me no staged images of those days, only the rough, dated, complete story.

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But let me discuss a couple things I learned from those videos.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown: This was an unconventional PCDS musical. It took place in the fall, because Schert was pregnant, it featured a 6-person cast, and half of those cast members were in middle school. Schert, I’m sure this decision was both a challenge and a risk. I remember thinking at the time that our casting was perfect, that we were all playing the roles we were born to play. After watching it last night, I still agree. Peter Chiarelli & Ezra Weiss, you were delightfully honest, and, although I still dress like her, I wish I had the confidence and freedom of that little girl playing Lucy. Thank you. To all of you. To the boys, for sharing that stage with me. To Schert, for both trusting me and for allowing me. To my mom, for making that outfit that I apparently never took off. And to the audience, for revealing yourself.

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Pirates of Penzance: Due respect to Kevin Kline and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (who came AFTER), but Jonathan Ashley is the best Pirate King to walk either stage or plank. I’ll spare you all the proof, but watching our scenes reminded me that being a pirate was perhaps the most fun I ever had on stage.

So, because we’re talking about the plight that is the teen artist, today I nominate the teachers, past and present, who help wake the dreams and muddle through the occasional nightmares that accompany them: Brenda Schertenlieb, Becca Edwards, Erin Lynch.

[With a quiet nod to Linda Bryant, the only art teacher who ever made me feel like I belonged at the table.]

[As long as we’re calling upon our teachers, if grammar is an art, then Louise Crabtree is unequivocally my favorite artist.]

Posted at 9:20 pm by rachel in: After Wonderland, Our Favorites, The Family

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May 16th, 2015

Where Dreams Are Born

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ARTISTS FACEBOOK CHALLENGE. DAY 2.

If you were an Arizona theatre kid in the 80s, you wanted to be Kristen Sampsell so bad. She was beautiful, sang like an angel, and had just enough mystery to keep you intrigued. So, when I got to be the Mr. Neilson to her Pippi Longstocking, I didn’t care that I was wearing head-to-toe faux fur and some innocent version of blackface; I had arrived!

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That’s what Greasepaint Scottsdale Youtheatre was for us. Like Neverland before it, it was a place where the big kids got to play as adults and teach us that “it gets better” before that was a thing, and the babies had our spotlight moments before our tenth birthdays. And the process continued. New babies came in, and the roles adjusted accordingly. I always thought that these early days meant so much more to me than they should. But after reading Amanda’s Facebook Artists Challenge post and its comments, I realize that what Wendy Leonard did more expertly than block some scenes or choreograph some dances is create a family. Perhaps that’s what young creatives need most; it’s not just about the stage but also about feeling you belong there.

Wendy gave us that.

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Now, as the photos indicate, mine was a less glamorous and often hooded spot in that family. I played a penguin, a goose, a cricket, a monkey, a pig, a fairy, a bear, a scarecrow, a witch, and a grumpy dwarf. I mastered the tight French braid at an early age, and ironically Little Red Riding Hood was one of the few roles where my real hair wasn’t masked by a hood. Even at my most triumphant “human” moment as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, my hair was tucked up under my wig. I’m now wondering if my entire theatrical career could be subtitled: I want to be a blonde! But Audrey did work in a flower shop, another irony not lost on me given my current horticultural endeavors.

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The point is that Wendy gave us so much more than a stage. She gave us a community that has lasted beyond the fire engine red lips of these photos. And when we lost a member of that community nearly a year ago, we found each other again, this time on the other side of the rainbow, but equally intertwined.

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So, on that note, today I’m nominating a few I met once upon a time on this childhood stage, but who stayed with me on this daunting journey through wonderland: Ezra Weiss, Nancy Perla Michaelis, Sarah Kane, Ryan O’Connor. (Yeah, I nominated 4. It’s ok, you guys.)

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And before signing off for the day, I need to say some things about Jack & the Beanstalk. I had done other shows, but this was the first one I auditioned for, as in, this was the first time I could have been rejected! So, in some ways, this might be where my sense of self began. This is also where I first met the greatest dancer I had ever seen, Sarah Calvin (who was also allowed to wear colored Keds instead of just white), the artist forever known as my giant, Kerr Lordygan, and the beauty, Little Miss America herself, Amanda Paytas Stevens.

It was 1987, and Amanda and I were to become best friends, but to my little child brain, Amanda’s magical harp and my golden goose could not be more different. Amanda’s lines were in verse and spoken on command. My lines were “honk, honk” and said whenever I wanted. Amanda’s costume highlighted her natural beauty, and she had glitter sprinkled in her blonde hair. I had my face painted gold, I was wearing a hood, my duck bill was too heavy and would fall over my eyes, and my little webbed feet made me waddle.

Just watch the video on Facebook, kids. And forgive me!

 

Posted at 8:32 pm by rachel in: After Wonderland, Our Favorites, The Family

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May 15th, 2015

Challenge Accepted

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Artists Facebook Challenge: Post a picture for five days from your artistic career, each day nominating three other artists to do the same.

Day 1:

This morning, Amanda Paytas Stevens nominated me for this. I was honored first that anyone would consider me an “artist,” but secondly that the nomination came from my childhood musical theatre co-pilot. I am currently resisting every urge to make this about her. My guess is that I cave tomorrow.

My early childhood involved perpetual singing, dancing, and cartwheeling in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places. I was first put to the stage in 1986 as this pint-sized Mary Poppins and a year later as a far wiser but equally tiny Liesl in Phoenix Country Day School class productions. {Costume credit goes entirely to my very talented mother, even though our little Austrian teen looks more Pocahontas.} Being on stage felt more safe and natural than perhaps anything I will ever know.

A classmate’s mom noticed that this shy little math nerd morphed when in front of a crowd, so she took me to the Greasepaint Scottsdale Youtheatre production of Wizard of Oz. It was a simple Saturday afternoon that probably changed my life, and I don’t know that I’ve ever admitted that it wasn’t all my idea. Stay tuned tomorrow for tales of yellow bricks and painted faces and the wonderland governed by our wizard, Wendy Leonard.

For Day 1 nominations, I’m starting at the end with Taylor Woody Thompson, Sarah Rhodes, and Sara Beth Longenecker. These women remind me that art is a daily affliction that takes many forms throughout a life, a lesson I’ve had to learn and accept. Cheers, ladies. You inspire me from afar and challenge me to claim my rightful creative spot!

Posted at 8:23 pm by rachel in: After Wonderland, Our Favorites, The Family

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