Personal Pages from a Book of an Artist’s Life


By: Ms. Nancy McTague-Stock
Von Kohorn Address Speaker
December 6, 2011

Thank you so much, Mrs. Hartwell, for your kind introduction and for honoring me with this address.  I would also like to thank the Trustees for their vision in creating this program, which honors Mr. Henry Von Kohorn, enabling faculty to share things with students about themselves that go beyond the walls of GFA.  Although my studio art practice was likely the expected topic from me today, I chose instead to speak more broadly, coupling my passion for the notion ‘that art reflects life’ with my lifelong intrigue in cultural nuances that are not my own.  As St. Augustine declared, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I hope you all enjoy these snippets from my own pages that I am pleased to share with you today.

My first recollection of my use of high school level Spanish outside of mi clase de español  was on a family vacation to Puerto Rico. We were joining friends of ours from Sweden, whom we often vacationed with.  One day, my sister and I decided to venture into what was then, the tiny village of Dorado.  Once in the taxi, I used my carefully practiced school text and said with trepidation, “Buenos días, puede usted llevarnos a Dorado, por favor”, hoping the driver would have a general idea of what I was asking him to do. As luck would have it, shortly we arrived into the village. As the sole turistas, we navigated the quiet narrow streets, tiny shops often a room in a home, examined the beauty of handmade functional crafts, local artwork and delicious tapas. I began to feel much more confident as my requests for “Cuánto es esto? e “De qué tamaño es esto, por favor?”, were received with big smiles, as not only did they understand me, but I actually understood their responses.  As the trip unfolded, I became more interested in ONLY speaking Spanish to everyone I came in contact with. I was excited to learn more of the beginnings of this annexed US nation. I visited battle sites and museums, walked the cobblestone San Juan streets, sugar cane fields, and ate fried plantains on the side of rustic roads. My discovery of an artist named Juan Botello, a colleague of Picasso’s who resettled there from Spain, started a life long passion for art history and cultural iconography. Not only did my Spanish improve in those ten days, but even forty years later, I still recall the elation and pride that I felt as a fifteen-year old, who successfully communicated with and learned about another people’s culture using language and art as my bridge.

A few years and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree later, I found myself in Manhattan, working in the fashion industry, traveling often for extended periods of time. I had just begun a French class at the Alliance du Francais in Manhattan and a new painting class at the Art Student’s League in the evenings, when I got the call I would be flying to Italy. While disappointed about my eventual withdrawal from French class, I was excited about working in Europe. With only a short time to prepare, I went to the bookstore and bought a basic Italian language book and a pocket-sized dictionary. Upon my initial arrival in Milano, I used my just learned, simplistic phrases, such as, “Centro Citta, per favore”, e “Dove posso trovare il gabinetto, per favore?” which translated, meant “the center of the city, please’ and “where can I find the restroom, please”? two important things for a twenty-two year old to know!

However, I soon needed more complex sentencing and increased vocabulary, as I realized more people in Italy spoke Spanish than English at the time. I once again relied on my high school Spanish to communicate with people. After about four weeks of living in Italy, my Italian vocabulary increased, and the crossover began from Spanish to Italian. My love for the Italian culture was solidified as my newly acquired language led me to focus on making friends with Italians, rather than the ‘ex-pats’ working in the city, so that I could become immersed in my new country’s culture. My Italian friends assisted me greatly, as my accent became more assimilated and less, ‘Ital-Americano’.  My biggest compliment came one day when I was working in Tuscany and a couple of people entered the elevator I was in and speculated aloud, in Italian, that ‘I was a German tourist’, to which I responded in Italian, “Good Morning, actually, one of my great Grandfathers was Fiorentino, yet I am American. I live and work in Milano, and have never been to Germany, but hope to go sometime.’ The couple laughed with me and apologized, saying it was not that common to see such a blond Italian. They then complimented me on having a strong, natural Italian accent. Thus, in our small American company, I was soon known as ‘the one who could speak Italian’, and I enjoyed the role of translator for others in our firm. Not only was I translating for my American colleagues, but often for the Italians as well, often over the phone at six a.m. or eleven p.m., when I was barely awake, yet business between time zones was still going on. While at these times it was exhausting, I enjoyed the feeling of dual citizenship, of creating ties between cultural boundaries. Working in the field of fashion, and living in the heart of an international design center was exciting. Everywhere I looked, I saw a painting, a drawing, and an inspiration for a design. I was able to walk off of Corso Magenta to a little church called Santa Maria della Grazia, to see ‘The Last Supper’ in its pre-conservation state…no lines, no fee, just a guard, ‘The Last Supper’ and me. What an awe-inspiring experience!

In the field of textile and accessory design, drawing played a critical role in translating concepts into production reality.  I drew everyday, not only for work, but also for my own artwork.  Living in Italy differed from New York, in that it was the first place outside of university life where I saw so many people drawing in public. I was thrilled to find students drawing architectural facades, designers collaborating over a cappuccino, and artists young and old drawing and painting in the streets- drawing was just everywhere! From Fiorucci to Armani, Ferrari to Missoni, and Buccelatti to Scalamandre, not only did all of these beautiful Italian design companies pride themselves on these basic tenets, but a pervasive sense of aesthetics filtered to even the small business owners, who artfully displayed everything from pastries and pasta, antiques to fabrics in the windows of their shops. It was rapidly apparent to me that in Italy, craftsmanship, color and design were seamlessly ingrained in the culture.

Before long, my bosses sent a telex to say I would now be leaving for Germany. While crestfallen at the thought of leaving my newly adopted family of friends and art-infused lifestyle, I went to Rizzoli’s bookstore in Milano and purchased a pocket dictionary for German. Off I went, first stop Munich!  In Munchen, one of the first phrases that I found important to know was, ‘mit schlag’….which, in this country, was as important as ‘Che tipo di pasta ti piache?’ or, ‘What type of pasta do you like’ in Italy. Munich is in southern Germany, and is known, among many things, for its delectable baked goods. One item seemed to sit atop most things, from hot chocolate to coffees to pastries. Yes, I am talking about whipped cream! It seemed no matter where you went, every restaurant had multiple things on the menu offering the extra price and verbiage, “MIT SCHLAG”, to which I learned to always respond,” Ya, mit schlag, bitter! ”, which meant, “YES! With cream please! “

Food aside, I found my personal appearance caused a similar response in Germany as it had in the Italian elevator, as even on the Lufthansa flight from Milano to Munich, the stewardess addressed me in German, rather than English or Italian. This was both a good and a bad thing! Good, because I always enjoy traveling under the radar as a tourist, but bad, because my German could not even begin to be faked like my high school knowledge of Spanish and later, Italian! My younger brother had studied German in high school, and I developed a little bit of an ear for the language. The vocabulary, nevertheless, tended to be quite diverse from the other languages I could speak at the time. So, I plodded on, and found the Munchens to be accessible and amicable, helping me along.  This southern German city was more laid back than Hamburg, Stuttgart or Dusseldorf, so it was a good place for me to begin to try to learn some German!  Fortunately, English was the second language in Germany, the one all students had to study before anything else, so I had a bit more leeway living in this city. When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my time perusing the art galleries and museums, furthering my art historical education. I was privy to an exhibition of Giorgio Morandi’s work that, to this day, remains unprecedented in its inclusion of most of his painted works. Having lived in Italy, I had heard of Morandi, but this exhibition had a profound effect on my understanding of the Italian art during that time period of mid 20th century, as well as its connection to the Modernist movement in the United States. Morandi’s spectacularly modest still lifes, extremely limited palette and celebration of quiet light and simplicity of life were hence forever ingrained in my repertoire of color and design.  Had I not been in Munich at that time, I would likely not have paid Morandi much mind, however, his influence on me as a designer and an artist was immeasurable.

Aside from viewing art, I was inclined to ‘comb the shops’ for interesting designs and color interactions.  It was in Munich that I gained an appreciation for the varieties of embroideries and appliqué techniques that were indigenous to the traditional Bavarian dress, as well as boiled wool, something I had only used as a felting technique in college; yet in Germany, it was considered an autumnal wardrobe staple.  I soon went from Munich to Frankfurt, where there was an annual fabric exhibition called ‘Interschtoff”, catering to fabric design specifics and color palettes favored by the Nordic countries and Germany. Here, I learned the colder climates and active outdoor activities favored by these audiences necessitated more specific needs, such as boiled wool, heavier, tighter, knits and indigenous patternings for design elements than other places in the world.

Shortly thereafter, my job travels took me to the United Kingdom. A train ride of about one hundred miles led me from London to the city of Bath, to meet a group of cottage knitters, creating specialty cashmere sweaters for our company. A woman named Brinian Heaton did some of the most remarkably complex Celtic knitwork in the world, with a handful of dedicated female knitters. Not only did this trip expose me to the notion of cottage industries, but it also offered me some free time to learn about the reason the city of Bath was given its name. Having an afternoon to myself, I was awed by the fact that the Romans created a ‘spa’ in this city in the year 43 AD.  Hot springs, located in the Avon valley, inspired them to build a temple and spa in the surrounding hills. They called it Aquae Sul. Bath has, on and off over the centuries, been a destination for its healing properties, as well as its well-known woolen production.

Driving to Scotland to look at a cashmere resource gave new meaning to the color ‘Green’, as the rolling hills of seemingly velvet carpets of landscape gave me an appreciation beyond words for the possibility of hues for this color, which later showed up in my many oil paintings of the landscape. Travels to Ireland led me to see full production of Irish handknits.  My arrival at Rory O’Shearcorn’s farm in County Cork proved to be educational, as the sheep were sheared, wool cleaned and carded by hand and then spun into wool the old fashioned way. I had done this process in college in my textile curriculum, yet seeing it on such a large scale from farm to factory in one location was really interesting. Rory’s small factory specialized in magnificent, hand-knitted, four-ply sweater jackets, some of which I still own today, thirty years later.  One of the things that struck me the most about traveling to these small factories was the obvious love for design and the level of pride that exuded from the faces of each and every one of these artisans. Their passion for perfection was evidenced by the extraordinary craftsmanship in each and every item they produced, and the kindnesses extended to us were like that of family, as we shared a pot of tea and biscuits in friendship and business.

Premier Vision is a Parisian trade show that brings together the best of the best of European fabric design each and every year. Loud chatter in a multitude of languages and dialects abound, yet design has always known one language, and that is visual. Large hand gesturing could be seen, often used to get a point across language barriers, but nevertheless, the designs always spoke volumes. In a large exhibition show such as this one, it was easy to get overwhelmed, but if you knew what you were looking for, you could sort through the volume with relative ease. My boss had certain companies he had been doing business with for years, and despite his inability to speak another language, the culture of design was understood and business was always consummated with a handshake. These trade shows sometimes reminded me of dressed up versions of the bartering I had seen done in the Arab souk markets, as buyers went from booth to booth to see the newest and most exciting new wares.

My favorite part of the Premier Vision show was a small exhibition, called INDIGO. This was generally held in rented, apartment-like spaces in downtown Paris, rather than with the larger show in a convention center outside of the city.  This show featured the one of a kind works by artists who came to ply their prints. Most of these designs were sought after by scarf companies and shirting companies.  Many of the artists were British printmakers, who used monotype, silkscreen and mixed intaglio techniques to create their designs. I loved the handmade nuances in these works; perhaps my affection for paper as an artist did predispose me to their design work, over that of the fabric sellers at the larger venue. We chatted at length about design, process and art. Little did I know at this point in time, that ten years later I would be producing volumes of prints myself!

My off time in Paris was spent visiting the work of some of my favorite artists at the time.  A train ride took me to the tiny town of Giverny, where I had the good fortune of walking, photographing and sketching Monet’s gardens, studio and home. Sadly, at this point, I wished I had been able to complete my classes at the Alliance du Francais, as my passion for speaking to residents of small villages offered me a window into their daily lives that was more difficult to see without it.

Flying far across the Mason Dixon line, I traveled to Asia. My first arrival in Japan was exhausting, as unable to sleep on the plane, I had knitted a whole sweater from New York to Tokyo! Arrival into Tokyo was like a step onto a movie set. In the hotel lobby, guests were greeted by ladies in traditional kimono dress, who bowed in traditional, fashion and said, “Konichiwa, which meant, “Welcome”, I bowed back, with a respectful, “Arigato”, which meant “Thank you”, thus exhausting my command of the Japanese language! Unfortunately for me, this was a language that required far more than a trip to the bookstore to navigate!

The hotels were striking, simply designed; very different from my European travels, where coffered ceilings, dark wood and rich fabrics abounded. The rooms were very tiny, yet efficient. After a quick nap, I was out on the street to see what I could see. I snapped photos everywhere, as not only was it Spring and the cherry blossoms in full regalia, but everything was colorful and welcoming. People were everywhere, sidewalks jammed, everyone rushing somewhere. Sightings on the street ranged from buckets of lollipops that were so beautiful they looked like floral arrangements, to kids flaunting their new Sony Walkmen, the first personal, portable stereo ever made, the Grandfather of the I-Pod if you will. Taxicabs had daintily woven, lace coverlets on the seats and televisions in them– remember, this was early 1980’s, when small tv’s were not something one saw in the marketplace, nevermind a taxi! The driver had a handle, which opened your back door to exit, much like a large city bus here in the States. Walking into shops, I was immediately greeted by professional greeters who, after saying, “Konichiwa”, asked what they could help you find. The Japanese culture prided itself on personal service to the customer, and they were eager to please. Furthermore, once a purchase was made, it was wrapped in beautifully unique papers and ribbons, ready to be given as a gift, even if that wasn’t your intention! Subway pushers abounded…no, I don’t mean drug dealers..these were uniformed, white-gloved men whose job it was to ‘push’ as many people as possible in to the subway cars at rush hour!  It was wild!

Working primarily in accessory design, I created designs for everything from men’s ties, pocket squares, cufflinks, socks, wallets, belts, luggage, towels, eyeglasses and more. Our Japanese meetings and presentations were quite formal, generally held in boardrooms, with a large gathering of people who carefully and respectfully debated the viability of a particular design for hours. Once business was completed, traditional Japanese suppers were had, with numerous, previously unknown gastronomic offerings eaten. The importance of ritual and respect was seen clearly in the Japanese way of life. Design was ingrained in every part of it, from tea ceremonies, comic books, gardens, interior design, clothing and more. Japan’s unique culture resonated deeply in me, as it opened many new doors in the realm of possibilities of art making and design with its simplicity, function and creation of green products before its time.

Many of the factories our company used for these products were in Japan and Hong Kong. In those days, there were no computers, so every drawing was done by hand. Every pattern was carefully drawn and hand colored. So, that meant, if you used the same pattern for a tie and wanted it to be offered in five different color ways, you had to redo it five times!  In Hong Kong, a fellow designer and I often spent much of our time recoloring and repainting designs in our hotel rooms, specific to the needs of the factory’s suggested changes of the day.  In contrast to the hotels in Japan, the guest rooms in Hong Kong were grand, with beautiful views of the Hong Kong harbor, so we did not mind much.  Hong Kong was much more of an international city like London, as its designation as a British colony for years made it a bridge for the much of the world’s commerce. Almost everyone spoke English, or some abbreviated version of it, and business was everyone’s number one priority. The hustle and bustle echoed that of Tokyo, yet it was less provincial and more diverse. In Hong Kong, you could pretty much get anything you needed to do your work and to feel the comforts of home. You almost had to make extra efforts to go out to find reflections of the Chinese culture. In late 1982, I did just that.

President Nixon had just lifted travel restrictions for Americans and the Chinese government quickly put together a travel program through American Express. I leapt at the opportunity to go to on one of the first offered to China, and left from Kowloon on a five-day excursion with two New Zealanders, one Canadian and two British citizens. I went to Foshan, Shiwan and what was then Canton. I traveled by train from Macau, which was accessed by a hydrofoil from Hong Kong.  The landscape changed immediately upon the crossing of the border in to China. Policemen, who looked quite stern, entered the train and examined everyone’s documents with a fine-toothed comb. Looking out the window, we went to a constant landscape of foggy greens and browns, passing scores of Peking duck farms with large, straw huts rather than barns. I winced to think all of these cute ducklings would soon be off to someone’s table for dinner!  We arrived by foot at our hotel, called a ‘State Hotel’. It’s green and gray cinderblock walls were more institutional than welcoming, as we were the first visitors from outside China. We were each given a key and, when I arrived in my room, I found it to contain a bed made of hay, covered in coarse linen and a toilet and sink, a far cry from the luxury living in Hong Kong! The water from the tap came out slightly discolored, so I chose to brush my teeth with Coca Cola and toothpaste, figuring it was a safer choice!

We were taken by van to a school, where tiny children in tattered silks performed admirably in a dusty courtyard for us. We applauded loudly and their smiles showed their appreciation for the acknowledgement. When we left, we walked on a dirt road to a hall where we would eat lunch. Some of us stopped along the way in front of what appeared to be a pastry shop. Soon, we heard giggles and about ten little children were huddled behind us, watching our every move. Several reached out to touch my long hair and giggled loudly. One of my fellow tourists said that I might have been the first person they had ever seen with blonde hair!  We went into the shop and bought small, pastel-colored cakes, which we gave the children, despite the stern, disapproving looks we got from our guides. The kids, being kids, were thrilled with the unexpected treats and ran away laughing and munching on their goodies!

I was able to visit a silk factory in Canton or what is now Shenzhen, and a china factory in Shiwan, where hundreds of girls and women were lined up threading looms, hand-stitching embroidery or hand-painting predetermined designs on porcelain bowls. Some of them looked as young as ten. Afterwards, we were taken by van to what was named ‘The State Store”, where the shelves were filled with predetermined goods for sale relegated by the government. I chose some small gifts to bring home for my family, but I also purchased a beautiful landscape made of carved wood, that was mounted in a glass box. I gave this gift on the last day to my favorite tour guide, a young woman about the same age as me. The older, head tour guide did not look happy about it, as she had been carefully monitoring our growing friendship with disdain. My friend had a broad smile, happy eyes and we had developed an unspoken communication pattern over the days despite the watchful, disapproving gaze of her boss. We exchanged addresses, as she had learned some English and was eager to practice; I was excited to hear more about her life as well.  I wrote her immediately upon my return, yet, sadly, I never received a response. Despite the ‘open door’ policy, China was still very much closed at that time of transition, and the mail was likely confiscated. A friend in Hong Kong told me the gift I gave her, which cost about thirty US dollars, amounted to more than three months of her salary! Over the years, I have often worried if my gift to her ended up getting her into trouble, as it was clear the ‘Head Tour Guide’ had not embraced this new Chinese mode of accepting outsiders yet. I always hoped that was not the case!

That was my last trip to China. The world has changed since 1982, and many of the experiences I had then no longer exist, as the overbearing Socialist Chinese government of the time has moved into the age of technological and international trade. I look forward to returning with this year with my son. His work as a men’s shoe designer takes him there to finalize prototypes of his CAD designs. It will be wonderful to see the progress that has occurred since my trip, when factory workers lived in hay huts.

My life and travels as a designer nurtured my love for cultures of all types and informed my life as an artist in far too many ways to speak about today! However, I hope a few of my ‘travel tales’ have interested you in seizing the opportunities you are being offered as GFA students.  Take advantage of the trips you are offered, practice your languages, make friends in other countries….you will gain a more complete perspective of your place in the world and the possibilities that exist! Thank you, Mrs. Hartwell, Mr. and Mrs. Von Kohorn, Trustees, family, colleagues and students for taking the time today to listen…

Personal Pages from a Book of an Artist’s Life

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