For some time I’d wanted to do a city scene – Paris in the Gay Nineties. In my online fabric browsing I had the good fortune to discover a half yard of vintage fabric from the 50’s stamped with sepia, green, red and black motifs of a modern city – factories, apartments, streets – that I thought could be turned into a period Parisian scene. I decided this piece would depict one of those slightly overcast late spring or summer days typical of Paris by emphasizing the cream, beige, brown and black colors in the fabric enlivened by the green of trees and red accents here and there.
Besides the blocky buildings, the city streets of this fabric were jam-crammed with street lights, figures in modern dress, kids on skateboards, plus lots of contemporary trucks, cars and motorcycles – all of these had to be cut apart and reassembled into the very different city and time period I envisioned. I also quickly determined the major streets of my Paris couldn’t be from the vintage fabric – the tan used for streets on this wouldn’t set off the sidewalks and buildings of my reconstructed city at all. Considerable scouting through quite a few fabric stores ensued before I came up with one I thought would work – ivory cotton with tan dots in a semi-random pattern that vaguely suggested cobbles, would harmonize with buildings and sidewalk pavement and allow all the figures, animals and vehicles I planned to place on the streets to show well.
First I cut away every bit of fire-engine red from buildings, pavements and near the trees, though saving plentiful bits of this color to make accents from later. Then commenced the months-long process of transforming modern buildings into typical Parisian ones of the 1880s with the right facades, roofs, chimneys, decorative elements – I about tore out my hair changing and rearranging these to get in several wide boulevards, all the building types I wanted, and a few squares – I absolutely had to have one little square with a fountain, as well as narrow side streets shooting off here and there, rows of shops, an old monastery, an stone gateway left from the late middle ages, typical apartment buildings, lots of trees in parks and along streets, doves in the sky – and for a distant focal point a large domed church with steps up to it at the end of a boulevard, with, on the skyline to the left, the Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889 as the entrance to the Exposition Universale.
In other words, I wanted the moon but decided to settle for a glimpse of Paris in the early summer in the gay Nineties. Yowza!
Building this imaginary Paris quartier proved a major undertaking – months of anguished howls sprinkled with earthy Anglo-Saxon verbiage emanated from the front room studio . . . Fitz-William Fizzy Wits’s feathers were on end more days than not. I’d work on the piece for a while, go away after a few hours when I went bug-nuts, then be drawn back to it as like a puppet with strings being pulled. Persistence was the key that got me through all the inevitable contretemps. The black bits I cut from the vintage fabric and used to create people, animals and carriages were so tiny they were especially prone to being lost despite the little trays I had by me where I was supposed to immediately put the cut out bits; unable to find some particular part, I’d make a new one only to find the lost one I sought on the floor or sticking to my socks or something else afterward – then the vowels would fly!
All the architecture – the churches, domes, spires, the gateway arch and monastery building from pre-Revolutionary days, the 18th and 19th century apartments, along with the detailing of doorways, windows, ledges, string courses, roofs, gables, chimneys, shops and awnings, kiosks, lampposts and the fountain of this imaginary Parisian quartier are made from bits and pieces of the vintage fabric, sliced, diced and put back together in different ways. I changed the modern black figure silhouettes to this era by giving each one period clothing – the men wear top hats, the women have bustles on their gowns. The little dogs being walked are made from blobs of this black as are the cats, horses and the fiacres – the carriages typical of Paris in that era. These fiacres with their horses were a total pain to construct; I struggled for days to achieve the right look. It was not until I thought of Impressionist paintings of city boulevards and had art books open to Camille Pissarro’s paintings of the Boulevard Montmartre and the Avenue de l’Opera that I figured out how to cut the black splodges in the vintage fabric to shapes that suggested horses, the body of the carriages and the large wheels, and how to make the some of the fiacres appear to be rolling forward toward the viewer. The reins of the horses and leashes for the little dogs are made of glue-stiffened black quilting thread.
The Eiffel Tower, the outdoor café’s furniture and people sitting on chairs there, and the pink roses in the celadon bowl on the foreground windowsill are cut from another fabric I had in my stash and tea-dyed to harmonize with the vintage fabric. Note the figures at the outdoor café: there’s a couple seated at one table and two women are crossing the street toward an empty table while a cat slinks around another.
While shades of beige, tan and black, and the green of the trees are the predominate colors in this piece, I used tiny dashes of cerise and red here and there for essential accents. The shop awnings – made from the widest separated lines used as roofs on most of the apartments – show bright stripes made by filling in every other width with cerise or red fine tip felt pen; other red accents are seen on the red advertisement ‘posters’ of the three little street kiosks – these were almost the only red bits used from the original vintage fabric.
Beading in this piece is minimal – the green tree tops are all beaded to suggest full, leafy canopies, and the spouting fountain in the little square is beaded to give an impression of spraying water; accent crystals decorate church spires. The sky is beige satin overlaid with peach-beige gold gauze woven with tiny gold sparkles – and the five drifting ivory clouds are cut into Art Nouveau shapes and outlined in fine gold glitter – these are symbolic, like the Eiffel Tower, of the arrival of a new age. Remembering some confetti flying dove shapes in my stash, I selected a few, stitched them on peach gauze, and placed three groups in the sky.
The celadon bowl on the windowsill is made from a green poly-satin and filled with roses, each bloom sewn with pink and cerise beads and crystals. The window frame is peach-beige grosgrain in shade slightly lighter than the beige in the vintage fabric; the top valence has dangling golden shadow Swarovski crystal drops edging a strip of darker tan grosgrain ribbon.