Diamonds and Rust

In my family, fashion is a big thing. Already as a child, I had a stunning style, carefully put together by my mother, who found great satisfaction in dressing her kids with taste. At school there were no uniforms, so selecting our clothes for the next day became part of a ritual: every night, I would look at the weather forecast, and prepare accordingly and meticulously my outfit for the day after. It goes without saying that the process sometimes ignited some insecurities, especially in the tumultuous period of teenage-hood, when the relation to our changing body can be complicated. On some dark days, I would have preferred to hide in a school uniform. But… we were free.

Diamonds and Rust, 2015, oil on canvas, 55*70 cm – (Sadly, this painting has been painted over…) from the painting series Obey to Me

We were free to wear whatever we liked, … as long as we dressed decently. In the early 90s, this meant: restricting the amount of holes per pair of jeans, taming the layers of colours and print, wearing both shoes of the same pair, keeping the loud clinking chains and resin bracelets for the weekend parties, stop thinking that safety pins are real earrings, understanding the message of our grunge T-shirt before wearing it, washing that same T-shirt even if it’s cooler dirty. No hats were allowed in class, no matter the style: baseball cap, Samuel L. Jackson’s beret, Slash’s or 4 Non Blondes top hat, grungy wool bonnet, hip-hop Bucket hat, sporty casquette. Wearing a hat was indeed considered the biggest offense to authority. To sum up, we were free, but strongly encouraged to keep our creativity in the closet.

Years of observation of my own dressing habits have taught me how, no matter the amount of clothes I can choose from, I tend to put the same outfit every day. Of course, this outfit changes with the seasons, but its characteristics answer my needs in the studio. And so, I’ve been mainly varying the printed shirts over the same pair of jeans for the last five years since they’re comfortable enough to move around and climb on the ladder; I can put a hammer, a screwdriver or pliers in the back pocket, and I am not scared to do something dirty or messy in them — in short, they became my working-gear. I like these jeans so much that I have repaired them many times, as every part cracked over the years. The stains though, won’t go away and remind me of the many projects I painted in them. In a way, I created my own uniform which gives me the confidence to simply do. So, I wear it every day, even outside of the studio, because … why not?

I like to think of objects in such a way that they prolongate us, complementing, protecting, guiding, serving, or simply pleasing us. We build special relationships with them. The history behind their conception and design is interesting as well. It is true that from our end of the chain, we don’t necessarily need to know the why and how, but being in love with inventions and techniques, I find it captivating to realise that we always create to solve an issue or convey a message.

I have a passion for all crafts, but at the moment, I feel a growing interest for Native American artifacts and jewelry and American cowboys’ style (yes, I wore a pair of cowboy boots for many years as my uniform of the time!). People who know me may not be surprised with my taste for riding boots, as my grand-father was a horse trader, but truth to be told, I mostly remember him shaking his plastic boots full of mud from the moist French countryside. Still, his pure love for horses stays with me. 

Hand-made work is admirable, and cowboy boots are no exception. I particularly enjoy the variety of leathers used (from cowhide to exotic skin of ostrich, snake, eel, alligator and more), the hand-tooled carving techniques, the many embellishments such as cutouts of geometric or other natural elements. They tell a story, and this only, makes them beautiful in my eyes.

Horse in a Room, 2015, oil on canvas 20*20 cm from the series Obey to Me

Another interesting aspect, is how these boots’ design responded to practical issues that cowboys were facing while herding and tending cattle on horsebacks. Researching for this text, I learned that the tall heel of cowboy boots actually prevents the foot from sliding forward through the stirrup, which could be fatal, especially on a galloping horse. And also, the reason for the tall leather shaft and its loose fit, is to help the rider, in case of a fall, to be able to let go of the boot and not be dragged on the ground.

Would cowboys be such icons of freedom without their horse? I don’t think so, and I like the fact that their boots suggest this man-to-horse relationship. Together, they gallop from place to place and nothing is impossible. I guess I am wearing my favorite working-jeans for the same reasons: to get back in the saddle and get some work done!

Cowboys are men of substance, strong and courageous, being a symbol of hard work, independence and individualism. These are values, that I associate with craftsmen, too. In the Cowboy’s Code of Ethics, I found principles that I am sure can apply to all artists:

Live each day with courage
– Take pride in your work
– Always finish what you start
– Talk less and say more

From where I stand, I can see the cowboy and his horse disappearing in a cloud of dust.

Love, Ethel

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