This article was originally published to HauteMind.com on 11/8/15
Tales from the Winding Path, by Ashley Rabin
I must warn you in advance that the following story is incomplete. Memory has a way of presenting its own reality, of dwelling on some events and ignoring others entirely. All I have are my recollections, old photographs, written words, and my mother’s elephantine memory, in order to piece together the various episodes of my creative evolution, including that one time I “fell down the rabbit hole.” If I start at the beginning, then I’ll be sure to get side-tracked and lose you altogether. Instead, I’ll pick up the threads somewhere between the present and the recent past, and will try to keep the tangents to a minimum…
One of the biggest misconceptions I had as a new adult living in New York City was the idea that I was somehow “planting roots.” Just being in Manhattan means becoming part of the engine itself, surrendering to its rhythms and navigating the strange intimacy of shared space. Few products are actually made within those 468 square miles, and yet, one has access to the best – and sometimes even the worst – of everything.
But its most precious commodity is counted in feet, with every inch of measureable space being owned by a person, government agency, or corporation, and even nature must yield to its industrial design. Extreme weather seems more subdued from within the almighty machine – snow melts quickly under the pitter-patter of harried feet and frigid air conditioning is a staple of my summer work environment. Only a hurricane, with herculean energy of its own, can still the mechanical beast. It is a rare breed of human being that can exist on inertia and stimulation alone and I, as it turns out, am not one of those people.
It was only a few short years ago that I was so sure of my life on the Upper East Side, that I gave up my beloved 1995 Saab convertible that my dad bought me at a car auction. So I was just as surprised as my city friends were when last fall, I made the unexpected choice to move back to my childhood home in the Hudson Valley. Luckily, it is within a commutable distance to Manhattan, where I still work in the garment center. The lush greenery has been a welcome change, where porcelainberry vines are intertwined with towering trees, their full canopies teeming with birds, while the butterflies and bees pollinate the resilient flowers of our rustic gardens. Crickets and cicadas can also be heard through the cool evening breeze.
When I first moved, I waited anxiously for spring, as the ground was completely sheathed in thick layers of ice and snow, and just getting to the train every day was treacherous. But despite the perma-freeze that prevailed during the long winter months, navigating the slippery slope of a driveway was still more desirable than crowd surfing on the island of concrete and dreams.
Tired of being “just another brick in the wall,” I developed a new appreciation for the house I was born into, that was built in the 1800’s of quarry stones with irreverent shapes.
For as long as I can remember, my parent’s house has been one of the few constants, with its abundance of space and art, and strict rations of electric toys. As children, my brother, Christian, and I were only allowed to watch television on weekends, and so we had to be resourceful in order to amuse ourselves. I, having been allowed to rummage through my father’s art supplies, discovered a passion for creative projects that still endures to this day.
My need to always leave behind some physical imprint has had many manifestations. Before I could even spell, I sat at my mother’s feet while she worked on her writing projects, and illustrated my own homemade books. When I was a little older, about ten, I lobbied for a sewing machine and made myself a corduroy skirt.
And later, during breaks from prep school, I spent hours in the darkroom that my dad had built in the attic. Those different phases, which once seemed to exist in isolation, now collectively form the foundation of my life as a designer, writer, and sometime blogger. I had other interests as well, including weaving, metalsmithing, macramé, beading, knitting, ballet, music lessons… ￼
…and I even tried performing at one point, though I peaked as a singer/actress in the third grade. I didn’t have any expectations when I tried out for the school’s musical production of “Alice in Wonderland,” though my brother had his eye on the eccentric part of the Mad Hatter. To our mutual surprise, I got to play Alice in the second act, after she had taken the shrinking potion, while he was cast as the White Rabbit, the plum role and catalyst for my entire journey into Wonderland. Being small for my age, it turned out, was a blessing.
And now decades later, I feel as though our actual relationship mirrors the dynamic of our fictional counterparts – he is often preoccupied by mind-bending philosophical ideas and I attempt to keep up. Every day conversations are infused with such perception-altering statements like “the imagination is an organ for understanding,” or “the screen of normalcy can make even the most outrageous behavior seem banal.”
So even though there have been many societal changes in the years since our youth, our family home feels as though it is suspended in time. Aside from the laptops, iPhones, and other modern devices, it would be impossible to date the house based on its architecture and furnishings alone. When it was built, there was no such thing as the internet, computers, even electrical light was just a filament of Thomas Edison’s uncommonly bright mind. Located in Newburgh, New York, the area was once considered the “jewel of the Hudson Valley” and is where some of the first incandescent bulbs were ever illuminated.
Now we take electricity for granted, cannot fathom life without it, and I, like everyone else, have my own gadgets of choice. As a homecoming gift to myself, I bought a nutri-bullet, the compact machine that pulverizes leafy greens and hearty vegetables into healthy concoctions. And since I don’t know where I’ll be living come the next spring thaw, I decided to take advantage of the fertile land surrounding our home by planting some of the vegetables that I would normally buy from the health food store. I was partially inspired by Stonegate Farm down the road, as its owner and creative mastermind, Matthew Benson, has the absurd ability to make cultivating the earth sound like an illicit pleasure.
To my surprise, I have actually enjoyed and become addicted to the process of gardening, of digging in the dirt, and then watching the leaves, flowers, and budding vegetables grow, slowly at first and then seeming to mature all at once. Having lived in the city for so many years, I hadn’t anticipated the relief of being able to disconnect from its electric pulse. I began to notice the different types of foliage as well as the fruit trees that are scattered throughout the property.
I was vaguely aware that we had apples and pears, but was surprised by the discovery of some low-hanging fruit I had never seen before. I had walked under the tree’s enveloping shade many times, but it was the fallen berries, overly ripe and spreading their juices across the soles of my sheepskin slippers, that finally caught my attention. Shaken out of my urban trance, I was compelled to look skyward and think, “my, what delicious branches you have!” When I asked my mom about the tree, she was adamant that they were mulberries. “But they look like blackberries.” “They’re mulberries, trust me.” “Well, how do you know?” I asked naively. She shot back a confident look, as my great-grandfather, whom she adored, had been a farmer. “Because you planted it!” she replied.
I was stunned. I figured that she had to be mistaken, but alas, she is never wrong about such things. Whether it is innate, or was learned from years of being a journalist, she is relentless when it comes to collecting the kind of details that give depth and shading to a story. And upon closer inspection, I could see that its trunk was protruding from a small patch of earth where, at five years old, I had insisted on planting a small garden. But back then, the meek sapling was overshadowed by the vibrant flowers I do remember, the pink and yellow snapdragons, which looked like cascading bells. And since mulberry trees can take up to ten years to produce fruit, I clearly moved onto other interests that offered quicker returns.
While the black mulberry tree was making its slow and stealthy climb, I went off to ballet camp, then prep school, and eventually Syracuse University, where I earned my BFA in film art. But it wasn’t until I returned home at twenty-two for my first indefinite stay, that I had any inkling of becoming a fashion designer.
Emerging from the bubble of academia was not the liberating experience I was expecting, but the unveiling of a whole spectrum of anxiety. When I think back on what catalyzed the shift away from wanting to make films, there was another tree involved, only this one was unlike any shrub or bush I had ever actually seen in real life. With a vintage Cacharel sweater as my canvas, I used silk thread to record my impressions of its appearance, stretched out across time and space – one half nearly frozen by the bitter cold, while the other bore the first blooms of perpetual spring.
I went on to do a whole series of embellished sweaters that were inspired by nature and now that it’s been ten years, two jobs, and one associate degree in fashion design later, I still love being able to live through my imagination.
So what may have started out as the smallest quivering limb, has developed into the main stem.
Nature and art are alike in that they both have their seasons of famine versus plenty, and there is no formula for creative productivity. It is a fluid energy – sometimes it is the medium that changes and at others, it is the intensity, the waxing and waning of a mysterious force. It is also unpredictable, what stimulates growth one day might hinder it the next, and all we have in terms of conventional wisdom is the belief that one of the key ingredients is suffering. Pain and adversity are supposed to be the great fertilizing agents for profound artistic breakthroughs and while I don’t know if that is universally true, the platitude does have at least some validity. After all, Buddhists believe that “life is suffering” and so maybe the purpose of the artist is to put this abundant resource to good use. And so regarding the spectrum of emotional turmoil, with complete bliss on one end and total descent into Vincent Van Gogh madness on the other, I was experiencing a manageable level of discomfort as I browsed the aisles of the Newburgh Vintage Emporium back in December of 2014. I would like to say that it was the coldest winter that I had ever experienced, but the truth is that I feel that way aboutevery winter. Perhaps it was my creative dry spell that only made it feel worse.
I was looking for some magical object to elevate my mood, a beacon of color and light amidst the blanket of grey slush that extended as far as the eye could see. Style had become secondary to comfort and overall warmth, with accessories being the last hope of creating interest to my subdued winter palette of charcoals, black, and navy blues. You may not be able to buy lasting happiness, but I was convinced that a well-designed piece of jewelry would provide temporary relief for my seasonal ennui.
After pacing the aisles that had been carefully curated by the Emporium’s owners, Troy Ford and Jimmy Schaeffer, I settled on a leather bracelet that featured hardware from an antique dresser, something the “Mother of Dragons” might wear, and a headband. Both were made by local artisans, and the hair accessory was designed by Celia Panella, using antique lace and luminescent beads.
Aside from the occasional feathered concoction, my first thought was, “am I the type of person who even wears headbands?” Looking back at old photographs, the answer to that question seems to be “yes.”
And when I took a closer look at how it was constructed, I realized that I could make my own. So while it may not have possessed any supernatural powers, the headband turned out to be the exact object I had been looking for.
Around the same time as this sartorial discovery, I took a workshop at Golden Bridge Yoga in lower Manhattan. If there ever was such a thing as an instruction manual for being human, the seemingly ageless guru had it in her possession. For three and a half hours, the stunning, serene, and occasionally humorous, Siri Sat Kaur led us through a series of exercises, while explaining their intended effects. Among her morsels of lesser known wisdom, was her description of the energetic aura that emanates from the top of the head, where the crown chakra is located. In the same spot that I had been wearing my new hair accessory, artists have been painting halos to distinguish the sacred figures in religious paintings. Another allusion to that same energy are the jeweled tiaras that have been worn by monarchs for centuries, as symbols that their positions have been bestowed upon them by the highest power.
But according to the yogic tradition, the “light body” is not strictly the province of the elite or enlightened. It is the source of “intuitive knowing,” which is possible for all human beings to achieve. I believe that it is also where inspiration comes from, and when you tap into it, your work will resonate on multiple levels, like surrendering to the will of your wisest self.
Even if the depth of that interconnectedness proves elusive in the moment, as my brother would say, “the imagination is an organ for understanding,” and one is able to learn through the process of creating. And so as my dry spell came to an end, I struggled to keep pace with the sudden flow of inspiration.
One headband quickly turned into many and I knew I had something worthwhile when my mother changed her attitude from “oh, I don’t wear headbands,” to claiming multiple pieces for herself. She began digging into her own personal trove for items that I could incorporate into my one-of-a-kind designs.
My dad then asked for a male version…
And this whole experiment, which has turned into a website and an Etsy shop, has reminded me of why I wanted to be a designer in the first place – to create wearable art that reflects the mystery of the natural world. When I returned to the Vintage Emporium a few months later to look for materials, for the first time in my life, I actually felt like a “Little Bird,” as I foraged for not-so-hidden treasure.
“The Little Bird” was the only nickname that I ever actually liked, though no one has called me that in years. It was given to me by a former boss and roommate turned friend, Matteo De Cosmo. The summer before my senior year of college, I was the prop assistant on an independent feature-length film. Props are basically anything that gets moved during the course of a scene and part of my job was to assist the prop master Brian, in a massive scavenger hunt. There were simple items like rope and duct tape, but the “picture cars” were more of a challenge.
Matteo and I hadn’t known each other very long when he turned to Brian one morning (it was a location shoot and I lived with them both) and asked, “where is the little bird?” I was flattered, as it was a term of endearment by someone I would come to respect. And now that I’ve been spending more time in the country and have had some time to ponder it, I realize that birds are essentially scavengers and designers, and the ultimate scavenger is my mom.
The first time I realized that about her was in Montreal, our home away from home. On one trip a few years ago, I watched as she ambled from one room to another, reliving the satisfaction she earned with every purchase. She told me the story of the olive green furniture, how she bought it at flea market in Lambertville, NJ, and after months of patient perseverance, found an obscure Canadian moving company that would take the furniture seven hours north, hitching a ride with existing cargo.
From the conspiratorial tone in her voice, one might think that she was talking about illegal contraband, instead of the three pieces that set the tone for the apartment, but that is the strength of her instinct to “nest.” The house in New York is likewise filled with collectibles, a visual feast for wandering eyes. Collecting antiques, designing headpieces, and caring for an edible garden are all activities that require observation.
Multiple seedlings from the same plant can mature differently depending upon the amounts of sun, rain, and pollen that each one receives. I also discovered the hard way that planters retain more water than ground soil and in an attempt to outsmart the local deer and cabbage worms, moved my kale into the greenhouse. What I did not know is that wilting leaves can be an indication of too much water as well as too little, and my organic greens nearly drowned as a result. It is a lesson I won’t soon forget.
But ideas are also like seeds, plentiful and eager to grow, but needing constant attention. I am always looking for bits of metallic trim, colorful glass, semi-precious stones, and a lot of my designing happens in the foraging stage. Since I don’t have to cater to a customer that has been pre-determined, or follow the murky predictions of trend forecasters (flared pants in 2015?), I am free to experiment.
“The Little Bird,” who is essentially my inner child who still thinks anything is possible, enjoys building the individual layers of every wearable art object for the sole purpose of seeing it’s sudden transformation into a finished look. The result is a sculptural nest for any manner of mane, from pure white to jet black, unfettered curls to silken and straight.
And so while the birds continue their song and the fierce humidity still hangs thick in the air, the shrinking daylight is the first sign that this season is now beginning its inevitable decline. Every day, the sun sets earlier than it did the day before, only this time, I hope that it’s just the humidity that dissipates.
By doing what I love and engaging with my surroundings, I have discovered a synchronicity that could never be achieved through Ego alone. My varying interests might seem separate, like a forked branch, but the diverging limbs still emanate from the same source. Each provides a different window into who I am and what I might eventually become, though even I am not entirely sure of what that is, as the process is never-ending. When I think of my muse, on a good day he is warm, inviting, and playfully challenges my hardened assumptions about life. At others, he seems destructive, nihilistic, and resolved to derail my best laid plans.
But after spending my life alternately running towards and away from him, I have learned that breakthroughs happen when I am willing to explore the unknown. So even though I can’t see beyond the curvature of the road ahead, or further down the rabbit hole below, the promise of new discoveries means that the journey will continue to be its own greatest reward. And if I have a growing collection of fancy headbands to show for where I’ve been along the way, then so be it.
Models: Nikki Davis, Matthew Benson, Kana McKee, Marini Rodriguez, Kat Cohn, Carolyn Mitchell, Kristin Delargey Bauer, Lana Nazer, Marlena Gentry, Sandra Rabin, Michael Rabin, and Ashley Rabin