Amy E. Elkins

Macalester College, Department of English

Month: August, 2014

Journeys Through Lace (17th c. to present)

A painting I can’t get out of my head: Bernhard Keilhau’s 17th c. The Lacemaker:

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 - 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

This exquisite piece stopped me in my tracks last summer when I saw it at the Ashmolean in Oxford. I’d just been to the Isle of Wight to learn more about the processes and history of lacemaking from Barbara Philo, a traditional bobbin lacemaker and all-around wonderful person. As I wrote here,

In my dissertation, I ask questions about how visual art and material culture shaped literary aesthetics in the early 20th century. To answer these questions, I read literature through the lens of unseen art and craft processes in order to illuminate new circuits of visuality, social and political activism, and aesthetic patterns. I explore how various processes, designs, and media surface in and around [twentieth-century] literature. As a result, my project demands a hands-on research plan for direct contact and practice with the visual and material cultures I study. This type of research extends interpretive insights in new directions by rooting them firmly to creative materials and processes.

I not only tried my hand at (the most very primitive form of) lacemaking, but I learned about the ways different weave patterns signal different national traditions and styles.  The materials of manufacture–the bobbins, beads, pins, bolster pillow–also tell stories.  In particular, I was excited to learn that markings on the bobbins and the design of the beads that weigh them down have symbolized different things throughout history! 


A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest go at lacemaking.

A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest attempt at lacemaking.

A fabulous Polish street artist, NeSpoon, has taken over urban spaces with lace, a kind of cross-cultural web of visual storytelling (if you ask me).  I like to think of the Warsaw of WWII and the reparative, generative aesthetic of lace covering the city today.  I’ve been writing about the historicity of textiles lately and what they mean to the literary imaginary of WWII (the Latin laqueus meaning ‘noose,’ for instance), so NeSpoon’s work is a timely addition to my thinking! See more of her work here.






The Ukulele: Modernism’s Greatest Musical Instrument

In 1922, a New York Tribune reporter warned, “The ukelele has become the favorite musical weapon of the flapper.”  These modern troubadours with rouged knees, I’ve just learned, took the ukulele world by storm in the 1920’s.  Women were especially drawn to the plucky, portable instrument, including Josephine Baker.  I can’t get enough Baker, and my fascination has only deepened with this new knowledge…

Cliff Edwards (better known to most of us as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) also popularized the ukulele in the 20’s and 30’s as a modern, Jazz instrument, which earned him the stage name, “Ukulele Ike.”  See this rendition of his popular 1929 hit, “Singin’ in the Rain”:

Am I joining the ranks of Hawaiian hula girls, Josephine Baker, flappers, and Jazz musicians?  Probably not any time soon, but I have started ukulele lessons at Guitar Decatur.  I’m also not sure I’d call my uke a “musical weapon” (the only thing I’m hurting is my very patient music teacher’s ears, I’m sure!)–but it is a pretty disarming presence during late-summer dissertation writing ferment. 

Collodion, or the Scholar in Tintype

My research has taken me to the very bottom of the bottle–the collodion bottle, that is.

This ooey-gooey miracle substance has been used for all kinds of things since it exploded (it’s quite flammable) onto the scene in 1846.  By 1951, photographers were experimenting with the substance, using it to adhere silver nitrate to photographic plates.  Brandon, the photographer behind Humans of New York writes about Jill Enfield, a renowned contemporary wet plate collodion process photographer here and includes a time-lapse video of her process:

I, too, recently had the thrilling experience of having my wet plate portrait taken by local photographer Alexander Hadjidakis (complete with Victorian-era neck brace).  I caught up with him at SCAD Atlanta to watch him work, learn more about the practice of wet plate photography, and get his thoughts about how literature and this particular art form intersect in my research.  Here is tintype proof!

Tintype by Alexander Hadjidakis, 2014

Tintype by Alexander Hadjidakis, 2014

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

The National Museum of Women in the Arts calls Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová “The First Woman Graphic Novelist.”  A Czech artist/writer, Bochořáková-Dittrichová (1894–1980) wrote six novels, illustrated with exquisite woodcuts that detail both the domestic and cosmopolitan energy of the early-twentieth century. I’m quite enamored with her work, which levels a pretty stern assessment of capitalism, education, and war–all put in tension with women’s creative lives.


Z mého dětství (From My Childhood), 1931

To see more of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, see this recent Huffington Post piece.

I’ve started (in a very preliminary way) to shape a project that explores Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work alongside the more contemporary work of Marjane Satrapi.  Take, for example, a frame from Satrapi’s 2003 (English version) Persepolis and this 1934 Bochořáková-Dittrichová woodcut, Indiáni Jindy a Dnes (Indians Then and Now).



Woolf on Craftsmanship

As an undergraduate, I received a grant to visit the U.K. and walk in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. The trip included my first visit to Monk’s House, meetings with Woolf scholars in Victorian drawing rooms, and a trip to the British Library to see manuscripts.  At the British Library, I was hooked up to bulky headphones at a listening station and promised an encounter with the voice of Woolf herself.  This recording, thanks to the wonders of the web, is now widely available, but at that time it was scarce. At first, I thought they’d loaded the wrong recording–Woolf’s timid-but-determined, rather high-pitched lilt did not match the voice in my head!  But, the librarians assured me, it was the right one and this was her voice.  See Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post about Woolf’s radio broadcast and hear the recording in high quality here.

Speaking about craftsmanship, Woolf challenges her fellow modernist wordsmiths:

How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.


Her prompt has material implications for the production of literature as a material art, as my dissertation, Crafting Modernity, suggests.  In particular, I think of Woolf at the type cases, combining old pieces of type in “new orders” of modernist literary experiment at the Hogarth Press.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.  -  I’ve been neglecting this blog a little due to midterms; rest assured, it will pick up again now that my work has begun to wind down slightly.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.

I’ve seen a photo of Woolf at work at the press somewhere, but I can’t find it–and perhaps this sketch from Kennedy’s memory is a better representation of modernist book arts anyway.  Woolf’s geometric type case a Mondrian,  Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette emerging from the right corner, and the tilted, empty frames on the back wall (negative space emphasized by the positive space of the bottle) like a jostled Picasso still life…