It’s in the Details

We think a lot about sequins here—about their care and conservation—the history of their invention and evolution—and they ways their sparkle conveys the magic and glamor of performance.

From the Hollywood movies of Judy Garland to the honky-tonks of Patsy Cline, sequins have played an important role in audience enchantment. Their very glimmer is a kind of short-hand for magic—the magic of a fantasy world conjured upon a screen or the magic of a voice stirring powerful emotion. It was the marriage of sequins, intense light, and Technicolor, after all, that gave those slippers their ruby glow in The Wizard of Oz and conveyed their inner power. [1]

Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," 1938, designed by Gilbert Adrian, NMAH

“The iridescent glimmer of sequins are essential elements in the larger-than-life persona of many a performer. It’s as if the shimmer allows them to bring their own special lighting to the stage.”

               —Dwight Blocker Bowers,
 Entertainment Curator,
National Museum of American History

PBR shoes made from over 2,000 hole-punched aluminum circles; woven white plastic bags in background

Sequins—whimsically employed—are what first drew me to artist Timothy Westbrook’s Pabst Blue Ribbon shoes. They were posted on Facebook by Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel where Westbrook is Artist-in-Residence. Online, the shoes were gorgeous and charming—their blue bows and red ribbons lining up just right—but it was the sequins’ brilliance and texture that put them over the top. I have two-stepping friends who would die to dance in them.

My cousin Rebecca’s wedding brought me to the hotel soon after, and in a quiet moment I discovered Westbrook’s studio just off of the hotel’s ornate 19th-century lobby. An odd place for PBR shoes, you might think, but this is Milwaukee, home of the Pabst family of brewery pioneers. Pabst Blue Ribbon is about as iconic as it gets in this place of invention.

I spotted the shoes right away—twinkling amid mannequins, gowns, and sparkling fabric being woven on a giant loom. I moved closer. I had never seen sequins like these—like round pieces of confetti arranged as if scales on a mermaid’s tail. I couldn’t stop looking.

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

“Please touch!” enthused a voice from behind a non-electric treadle sewing machine. The kind and welcoming artist himself. Even with permission, I was hesitant to touch, but I’m so glad I did. Those weren’t sequins at all! They were red, white, and blue aluminum circles hole-punched from PBR cans! I loved the shoes even more for their surprise—for the inventive way that they not only celebrated an iconic American product—they were the product, recycled back to life.

Each shoe, Westbrook explained, was covered in over 2,000 aluminium circles hole-punched from used PBR cans. Separated for color and pattern, the “sequins” were then meticulously glued to a pair of vintage shoes over the course of 32 hours. Next to the PBR shoes were the latest entries in what Westbook calls his, “Drinking Shoe” collection: “Strongbow shoes” made from the hard cider’s distinctive yellow and black cans.

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

Strongbow kit: cans, vintage shoe, hole punch, glue

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

The “magic” of the PBR shoes, I told Westbrook, made me think on some level of that most celebrated pair of sequinned shoes in the Smithsonian’s collection. Funny I should say that: Westbrook recently created “Ruby Slippers” for a project commissioned by Misha Rabinovich.

Westbrook's glistening red "Ruby Slippers" made from another American icon—the Coca-Cola can; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

The result is a spectacular pair of shoes that would make the Wicked Witch of the West take notice: a sparkling duo made of thousands of aluminum “sequins” from another American icon: Coca-Cola. The project was difficult on several levels—the heel, for example, is often wrong in reproductions—but Westbrook’s greatest challenge was creating something that evokes the public’s powerful memory of the shoes while providing a 21st-century twist.

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

Model wearing Westbrook's "Ruby Slippers"; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

“The closer I get to garbage the more interested people are, ” Westbrook said. ”When they don’t know what they’re looking at, when they have to look closer and differently to figure it out, they see the innovation—that it’s not garbage at all—it’s something beautiful and a piece of Americana.”

Turns out, there was more to see, including other pieces made from recycled materials such as audio cassette tapes, MRI film, scrap yarn and fabric, umbrellas, medical splints, electric wire, and those ubiquitous white plastic bags. Even retired sheets donated by the Pfister get a second life as gowns.

Since that meeting in Milwaukee, I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Westbrook about his work and commitment to using re-purposed material. So much of what he talked about resonated with conversations the Lemelson Center has had with the many creative and innovative people that come through our doors. In my next post, I will talk about the work Westbrook is doing to transform discarded audio tape into shimmering textiles that challenge one’s definition of luxury.


[1] Blocker Bowers, Dwight (Entertainment Curator, National Museum of American History). 2007. From the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Treasures video.

 

 

 

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Charismatic Women

 

Harriet Tubman, oil on paperboard by William H. Johnson, about 1945

When I was a girl, I liked to read biographies of famous American women—hard-bound books written for “young adults” with book covers featuring strong, resolute women staring out onto uneven playing fields. Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams. I loved them. I loved their stories and before I was able to discern the difference between autobiography and biography—let alone mythology—it felt like the women in these books were talking just to me about the things they had seen, their struggles for freedom, for education, and for fair treatment. They spoke about the places they traveled, the people who made their lives better or worse, and the conditions that necessitated new ideas and bold action. Courses were changed in pivotal moments and small acts of resistance had powerful and sometimes dangerous consequences. These books were cool to the touch and just holding them in my hands made me feel righteous.

Susan B. Anthony, gelatin silver-print photograph by Theodore C. Marceau, 1898

Abigail Adams, silhouette by Raphaelle Peale, 1804

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how important those stories were to my developing sense of self. Despite the somber book covers, these women were the kind of charismatic leaders we often talk about at the Lemelson Center: they fostered community and social networks and drove innovation with significant social and cultural implications. They adapted, took risks, solved problems, and blazed trails—all in the pursuit of something new.

Jane Addans, oil on canvas by George de Forest Brush, 1906

Jane Addams’ efforts to deal morally and ethically with the social problems of industrialization had particular resonance for me. Inspired by the success of Toynbee Hall, an English settlement house in London’s East End, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House in 1889. Hull-House provided a safe and culturally rich community for Chicago’s most vulnerable, including immigrants, children, and the elderly. Addams and Starr sought to combat the isolationism that immigrants and the urban poor felt by providing what historian Rima Lunin Schultz calls “a new kind of urban space” to “develop new avenues of social intercourse” between middle class and wealthy Americans and the largely immigrant working poor and their children. [1] At Hull-House, the educated middle- and upper- class residents living within the community implemented shared theories on social reform. These practices, and Addams’ prolific writing and lecturing, led to a national reform movement that put Progressive ideas into practice. National legislature for women and children, including the federal Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, were direct results of Hull-House initiatives. The nation’s first juvenile court system was as well. [2]

There is another reason why Addams had particular resonance for me: she and Hull-House provided important resources to my own family of Greek immigrants. I learned this later, long after first reading about Addams as an historic figure. A class assignment, an oral history report done with a set list of questions, yielded this and other surprises from a subject I thought I knew well—my yia yia (Greek grandmother aka fortitude incarnate) “She was a wonderful woman—the kindest person I ever met,” Yia Yia said of Addams. The eldest of five kids, Anthula (Anthy) Poulopoulos came over from Greece in 1920 at age eight. Like everyone in the family, she helped her father run the religious candle shop he had established four years earlier on Chicago’s west side, on the corner of Harrison and Halsted. He had first learned the trade from Greek immigrants in the mill-town of Lowell, MA (one of the places of invention being studied by the Lemelson Center). Work at the Chicago store was extremely labor-intensive, but the tall, elaborate candles were used by Greek Orthodox churches throughout the country, and their demand never waned, fortunately, even during the Depression. Most of the family spoke English and did a great deal of translating for the community, even Yia Yia, who would tell Addams which families she knew needed milk or bread. “Miss Addams spoke up for the rights of poor people and she made sure they had enough to eat.”

Jane Addams with children at Hull House, photograph by Allen, Gordon, Schroeppel and Redlich, Inc., 1933

Hull-House provided important services to the neighborhood, including employment and daycare services; social, athletic, and political clubs; and classes in English language, citizenship, painting, carpentry, sewing, singing, and mathematics, to name a few. Violin and piano lessons were open to adults and children, including Yia Yia and her sister, Frances, who was proud to be a member of the Hull-House “Milk and Cookie Club” that provided just that to young children. Performances of Greek plays and Italian music inspired personal dignity and ethnic pride. Spaces to create, exhibit, and sell traditional crafts allowed immigrants opportunities to connect with their native cultures and showcase their skills. “The visual and performing arts, and the display of traditional crafts became vehicles through which different immigrant groups could ‘perform’ their European identities and have these identities affirmed and respected by Americans and other ethnic groups,” Schultz explains. [1] Addams thought socialization in American ways was important for immigrants, but not at the expense of their culture.

My thoughts have probably turned to charismatic leaders I first admired as a girl because so much of our work on the Places of Invention (POI) project involves identifying these kinds of key figures in the communities we study. We know from our research that individual innovators have social networks that support and enhance their work and Jane Addams and the residents of Hull-House certainly fit this model. Identifying these kinds of figures and their relationships with different networks is one of the most fascinating parts of our POI work. As we move forward in the POI Affiliates Project, you will come to know the charismatic leaders and social and collaborative networks of Lowell, MA; Newark, OH; Oak Ridge, TN; Peoria, IL; Pittsburgh, PA and Seattle, WA. We look forward to sharing with you our discoveries as we dig deep, documenting, researching, recording, and comparing oral histories to learn more about the particular ways that increased exposure to ideas and techniques spawned invention and innovation in each community.

[1] Schultz, Rima Lunin. “Hull House and its Immigrant Neighbors” from the Urban Experience (UE) in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889-1963 website. The UE website is a joint project with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and the College of Architecture and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

[2] “About Jane Addams,” from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum website, UIC College of Architecture and the Arts

 

Academic Hip-Hop

Opening panel discussion at the Remixing the Art of Social Change: Expanding the Cipher conference on July 7, 2012.

As a Midwestern Caucasian female—whose musical tastes run more towards classic rock— tasked with researching the history of hip-hop music in the Bronx during the 1970’s and early 80’s, I cannot avoid approaching this subject from an outsider’s perspective. What authority do I have to tell this community’s story in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Exhibit? This same insider/outsider perspective conflict also exists within the academic community teaching courses at colleges and universities on hip-hop music.

I recently attended a panel discussion at Howard University during the “Words Beats & Life” conference about just this conflict. Panelists Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal discussed the state of hip-hop music in the academic environment. Popmaster Fabel holds a high school diploma but is an adjunct professor teaching courses on hip-hop at New York University; Dr. Neal attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and is now a professor at Duke University and the author of several books on African American history and culture. During the panel Fabel argued that a person can’t understand hip-hop, and consequently doesn’t have the authority to teach about hip-hop, unless they’ve performed hip-hop music. He said that his “degree” comes from being a hip-hop practitioner in the Bronx during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Neal countered that although practitioners of hip-hop who are also professors provide a valuable insider perspective, professors with academic training put hip-hop into a wider social and historical context, such as how hip-hop artists relate to social constructs of masculinity or the social and cultural effects of urban planning. By the end of the panel, both speakers concluded that insider and outsider perspectives are valuable and should be included in hip-hop courses.

This made me feel much better about telling the story of hip-hop music in Places of Invention. My outsider perspective enables me to put hip-hop music into a context that people may not expect to find it in—technological invention. I am equipped to discuss how hip-hop music relates to technological invention and its impact on society and culture. The conference also served as a reminder that the voices of practitioners need to be key components within the exhibit. Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion has helped me appreciate that non hip-hop practitioners such as myself can bring valuable insights to the story of hip-hop music.

Mello-D and the Rados perform at the conference. Video by Laurel Fritszch.

And We’re Off! The “Places of Invention” Affiliate Pilot Project Kick-Off Workshop

Newark, Ohio linen postcard, 1942, Curt Teich & Co, Chicago

Whiskey,
Prohibition
and fiberglass

 

Large-scale fermentation—

Oak Ridge, TN billboard, 1943, when the site was one of the centers for work on the Manhattan Project. Photograph by Ed Wescott.

1853 Lowell, MA patent model for boot and leather sewing machine, William Wickersham, NMAH

 

 

 

the Manhattan Project’s
secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee

 

 

 

Cycles of invention
over 300 years in
Lowell, Massachusetts —

 

 

 

Pianist and composer Earl “Fatha” Hines, pioneer of the Pittsburgh sound, Columbia recording featuring "57 Varieties," NMAH

 

 

 

Pittsburgh’s distinct jazz sound—

 

Mary Lou Williams, Pittsburgh jazz pianist and composer, 1944 music folio, Archives Center, NMAH

 

 

 

 

 

Attendees at Seattle's PAX Prime—one of the world's largest gaming events, 2009, photograph by Kiko Villasenor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seattle’s locus as the center of
a thriving international gaming market—

 

These and other details about local places of invention were recently shared by representatives from six Smithsonian Affiliate museums and their community partners as part of a kick-off event for the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Affiliates Pilot Project. The Lemelson Center is working with these Affiliate partners on projects that document invention and innovation in their communities. When complete, developed material will be an integral part of an interactive digital map in our exhibition—yet another lens for examining historic and modern communities where people, resources, and spaces have come together to spark inventiveness. The material also will appear on the Places of Invention website where visitors from around the world will be able to comment and add multimedia about their own places of invention. Equally important, POI-related public programs will take place in each Affiliate community.

Participants in the project are:

The day-long workshop on June 15th at the National Museum of American History was led by Dr. Lorraine McConaghy, a public historian based at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. Affiliate museums and their partners were joined by representatives from Smithsonian Affiliations, the National Science Foundation and the Lemelson Center. Through a series of presentations and brainstorming sessions, Dr. McConaghy taught the group how to research, document, and find an interpretive pathway for a topic that will become part of the Places of Invention exhibition and website when it opens in 2015.“Let’s be reflective,” McConaghy advised. “Think about your topic as an opportunity to engage your community in invention and innovation and inspire people to think of their own place as a place of invention.”

A lively and gregarious discussion provided no shortages of possible topics, such as:

Super Slurper flake, photograph by George Robinson. Courtesy of USDA.

Mass-production of penicillin as just one of the inventions out of Peoria, Illinois’ USDA-NCAUR lab: Behold the mighty “Super Slurper,” the cornstarch-based superabsorbent polymer used in everything from disposable diapers to biodegradable packing peanuts and plastic utensils; protective seed coatings to fuel filters. It’s even used by archivists to dry out waterlogged books and prevent mold.

By close of day, the teams had come up with thought-provoking possible titles: War Ends, Healing Begins: The Rise of Nuclear Medicine; From Field to Function: Agricultural Research in Peoria, Illinois; How Prohibition Spawned Fiberglass: Newark, Ohio, 1920–1933; and Forgotten Pioneers of the Pittsburgh Sound, to name a few. These topics and titles are not set in stone, but the exercise was a valuable one for all of us thinking about how to create the most compelling content for each community.

I’m thrilled to be directing this process as the new Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator. I look forward to sharing this experience with you in a series of blogs written by Affiliate museums, their community partners, Smithsonian Affiliations, and Lemelson staff. I love the work that Smithsonian Affiliations does—I’ve seen first-hand the ways that its programs foster the exchange between Affiliate museums and the Smithsonian, broadening each institution’s reach. I see the Affiliates Pilot Project as an opportunity to take this relationship even further, creating a new model for collaborative co-creation of exhibition content that we hope will extend to another 20 Affiliate museums. As my colleague Monica Smith points out, we are the prototype for the Affiliates Pilot Project.  I hope you will join us—sharing your suggestions and comments as we move forward in this inventive process.