1 : the act of creating
especially : the act of bringing the world into ordered existence.
The past year or so has found many of us trying to bring order into our worlds through creativity. We’ve created artwork, jigsaw puzzles, exotic cuisine, new routines, new ways to educate, and new ways to get our work done. The list could go on. Creating something not only fills us with wonder and accomplishment but can also bring unexpected and often delightful consequences. (Who knew so many of us would conquer sourdough!)
The following essay was written by writer, educator, and Cynthia Ashby enthusiast Terri Kapsalis. She reminisces about the legendary Cynthia Ashby Studio Sales of the past and exquisitely shows us the impact “making things” can have on the world arounds us.
Since Terri also graciously modeled for us from time to time, we’ve included some images of her from our archives.
1998 or so. A Chicago storefront at Cortez and Marshfield. Flowers in the window boxes. Drinks and snacks. A celebration adjacent to a large screen behind which a flock of heated bodies peeled off items. They stood on one foot, arms above their heads, twisting this way and that, out of one piece and into the next. Bursts of jovial exchanges in front of shared mirrors. I had never been to Cynthia's studio sale, or any studio sale, for that matter. Most stores left me itchy and dehydrated, but this was an artist's studio with makeshift racks. I knew of Cynthia's work by way of her costumes for Goat Island Performance Company. Those were decidedly untheatrical but these so-called samples were another story. I touched each piece, one hand guiding hangers from right to left as if turning pages of an absorbing book. I was transported to 19th century Russia, then to early 20th century New Orleans, and on and on by way of linen and silk and brocade and stripes. I didn't buy anything. But I was filled with colors and shapes, created by this beautiful woman, layered in her own creations, who stood somewhere near the platter of grapes and cheese.
My Cynthia gateway dress was a dense grey linen A-line item with swirls of tucked fabric gifted to me by my dear friend Lin. When I first wore the dress, my hair was the color of the dress' black snaps, although now my hair matches its silver label. That dress might be the heaviest piece of clothing I own. In pounds, that is, but also in depth of spirit. The dress has kept me warm for nearly two decades of falls and winters.
I did not buy that dress but I would purchase plenty. At studio sale after studio sale. Cynthia's pieces were made by people who were respected and paid fairly. And they were gorgeous. I was hooked. Unlike the Garanimals I coveted as a child (match the giraffe label top with the giraffe label bottom!) Cynthia's clothes were ideal for those of us who are thick when it comes to assembling outfits. Step one: take two or three, even four items. Step two: put them on.
People have often stopped me on the street and pointed at a piece of clothing. I spell out ASHBY and say "pieces of art" and "as comfortable as pajamas" and "so beautiful on most every size body." (Particularly noteworthy about Cynthia's designs. . . no tortuous silhouettes, no prostrations to the tyranny of thin!)
In 2007 Cynthia and company moved their operations to Ravenswood. By this time, I was happily no longer a solo studio sale shopper.
I met Sunnie and Katie in 2005 at a celebration for Katie's father, Max, who had died at 104. My husband John had announced that morning that we were invited to a memorial for an important artist we had never met. And, it was a potluck.
The day was too hot for the oven. Plus we needed groceries. A quick stop at the Middle Eastern Bakery for some spinach pies and humus? A low, gruff voice in my head, a stranger's voice, would have none of it, insisting I had food in that refrigerator. "Make something," the voice said. I found three beets and a lemon.
We memorial attendees sat close together in repurposed pews in the home studio surrounded by hanging sculptures and wooden racks of finished canvases, not far from a big stone fireplace. Neighbors and family and friends of all ages shared stories about Max, who had died four months before. So much laughter and joy. His granddaughters played a string duet. A true celebration of a magnificent life. I learned that Max was always making something. He had made weather vanes, the last of which he installed on a roof at the age of 99. A number of stories featured his culinary magic, that he would conjure a meal with the dregs of the fridge when somebody happened to stop by.
I was struck by his daughter Katie, her melodious voice and curly red hair. Her dear old friend Sunnie was aptly named with her gorgeous bright energy. Sunnie pointed to the photo of the two of them, age five, there among the hundreds affixed to the kitchen wall. The dining room table was overflowing with bowls and plates of food. Sunnie was heading back for seconds. Do you know who made that beet risotto? she asked me.
Sunnie and Katie and I looked forward to each sale as if Cynthia's designs were spring flowers or fall leaves. We perfected our strip-in-Cynthia's-backroom attire of tights or leggings and undershirts. We pulled for each other from the racks. We coveted one another's finds. We kept an eye on nearby shoppers and watched for select items to be placed on the discard pile. We shuttled the purple items (or things that could be dyed purple) to Sunnie as that is the only color she wears. Eventually, after much twirling and group deliberation, consensus would be reached and an item would find the body that completed it. We took our time. A studio sale was a half day commitment, sometimes two half days in a row. There were snacks and drinks and delightful company and once or twice, an accordion player made it all even better.
After the sale, the gifting would begin. Inspired by Cynthia's masterworks, I sometimes purchased with an uncharacteristic abandon. I loved to matchmake. My missteps would suddenly sing on someone else. Yes, the reflective black asymmetrical shirt is Leslie's. That green jacket with large lapels belongs to Gwen. That bright cherry see-through number, that's Deb's, no question. And inevitably, Katie with her unsurpassed enthusiasm would have convinced me to purchase something that I just knew I would never wear. Within a year or two, I would have gifted that item to Katie. The white men's shirt with the black trim, for instance, had belonged to Katie all along.
Sunnie's growing wardrobe drew the attention of her fellow teachers at Francis Parker School. I recall that lavish purple jacket she wore while conducting the orchestra for "Little Shop of Horrors." Her colleagues started to join us at the studio sales and soon the school's halls were flowing with Cynthia designs. That people as different as that art teacher and that math teacher both felt at home in these clothes was a testament to their versatility.
Cynthia moved yet again. This time, to the country. Soon thereafter, having retired from teaching, Katie did too. Sunnie, also retired, spends more and more time away from the city. The studio sales ended. For all of us. But in the middle of the pandemic, I began to have visions of the one fitting room and the piles and the laughter and the endless deliberations. Of course, I was constantly wearing my old friends: the mesh tees, the many comfortable pants, the sleeveless cotton tanks. They were good company on my daily walks. When I taught online, I added one of Cynthia's jackets. And each time I would look into my largely untouched closet and spot that mottled blue crinkly number with snaps the size of plums or the "foreplay" dress in herringbone with its zig zag of buttons or the heavy grey dress with the black snaps, I could recall a concert, an opening, a wedding.
On Zoom, Katie inches toward her screen to show us the fawn colored tank top. She stands on the chair so her laptop camera is pointed on her black pants. Upon finding the second pair in Katie's closet, her 26 year old daughter had dubbed them "the perfect wide legged pants." "Good thing I bought two online!," Katie tells us. Sunnie disappears from her bookshelf backdrop and returns with four purple linen shifts, her summer uniform for the last decade or so. She cycles through them, day after day. Then washes all four. And repeat. They are getting thinner these last years. Sunnie shows us a small hole that she will patch. Katie expounds on her beloved overalls of yore. Sunnie describes pieces she no longer wears but cannot discard. I, too, stand on my chair, to remind them of my favorite summer pants made of a loose weave linen the color of butterscotch. They are like the culottes of my youth, only the shorts extend downward into an ankle-length wide legged drape that easily accommodates a recent knee brace. The skirt-pants (skants?) are breeze on skin.
Sunnie is the one who remembered how we became a studio sale pack. Max's memorial. The purple risotto. The heavy grey dress with black snaps. ASHBY on a scrap of paper.
Make something. Make something. Make something.
Thank you, Cynthia, for answering that call.
[photo of Beet Risotto with Greens, courtesy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison]
Terri Kapsalis is the author of Jane Addams' Travel Medicine Kit, The Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum.
She is a founding member of Theater Oobleck and has performed in over thirty productions since 1985. Since 1991, she is a collective member and health educator at the Chicago Women's Health Center and co-founded TGAP (Trans Greater Access Project) and the Integrative Health Program. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
You can find out more about Terri at: www.terrikapsalis.net