A great design or work of art has an element of timelessness. It may be difficult to tell if it was made last week or 50 years ago. I recently purchased this handbag because it possessed a classically beautiful silhouette. It was hidden among some average purses, but still stood out. The black leather was smooth yet sturdy, the hardware was elegantly understated, and the size was perfect for everyday use. It gave the impression of a chic New Yorker, but I suspected it had a bit of a past. Peering inside, it was fully lined in pigskin and had a label that read: Made in England exclusively for B. Altman & Co New York. These details provided insight to when the handbag was actually made. B. Altman was a New York department store started in 1865.
Founded by Benjamin Altman, the luxury department store started as a family owned dry goods store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Industrial Revolution introduced new technologies, including railways and sewing machines. These impacted the fashion industry by reduced the cost of shipping and created ready-to-wear clothing and accessories, which were more affordable and accessible. B. Altman did so well that the store expanded to a larger location in 1877, and then again to 365 Fifth Avenue in 1920. The department store was known for its: “fine, conservative selection of top-quality and top-label merchandise, for its pleasant ambiance and for exceptional customer service” (New York Times). It opened 6 other branches on the East Coast, in mall locations in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Short Hills, Paramus, White Plains, and Manhasset. B. Altman offered ready-to-wear designer clothing, or commission custom-made designs. The store’s also offered private label merchandise, like the handbag I found.
B. Altman was never classified as a trendsetting in terms of its merchandise. It stocked classic, well-made items. The store had a successful 124 year run, but filed for bankruptcy in the 1989. As I considered the history of B. Altman, I pondered the fate of contemporary department stores today. It’s difficult to ignore the changing landscape of retail. I grew up in the heyday of the American mall; a time when brick and mortar businesses flourished. The great power of these physical locations was their siren call: it was a location where, regardless of age, you could socialize safely, see new fashions or products, and get a few errands in. The lure of consumerism was so subtle and beautifully infused in these spaces. Grab a cup of coffee with a friend, walk around, and buy a new shirt. While the intention may not have been to make a new purchase, the progression was natural. It’s difficult to resist giving in when the item is in your hand, or fits so well in the dressing room.
Logo and image courtesy of The Department Store Museum.
And with the strong economy of prior to 2008, discretionary incomes allowed most consumers the routine splurge of a new piece of clothing or gadget. Enter the financial crisis. We’ve all felt the effects, although some more than others. Every person I talk to still feels shell-shocked. Economists intellectualize this as “another bubble”- that tempting pie-in-the-sky idea of going to college so you can gain skills for a meaningful career, or buying a house for your family to provide stability. When the bubble burst, the economy toppled. Millions lost their homes due to sub-prime mortgages. Entire industries were moved off-shore to cut costs. Job opportunities shrunk. Students entering the workforce couldn’t get jobs, nor could their educational loans be discharged in bankruptcy. The prices of necessities inflated while wages shriveled. Businesses adapted to the virtual arena to stay afloat. The paradigm shifted. Some retailers have managed to stay afloat. Others, like The Gap, have uncertain fates. This classic American retailer announced that it would be closing a quarter of its North American brick and mortar locations. Will all physical stores eventually close their doors, like B. Altman? Every time I make a purchase, I realize I’m navigating a new space. I have to make my dollars go farther than before, and the way in which I spend my money is like casting a vote. My tendency is to support brick and mortar stores. There is something immensely enjoyable about trying on clothing and accessories in person. Mostly because it offers the surprise of finding something you didn’t know you were looking for, like this handbag.
Quantum Hand Through My Eyes by Jason Padgett, 2006. Image courtesy of Fine Art America.
“I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life — from the geometry of a rainbow, to the fractals in water spiraling down a drain.”
Photon Double Slit Test by Jason Padgett, 2006. Image courtesy of Fine Art America.
He also started drawing everything he saw. Doctors later concluded that Padgett developed savant syndrome from the injury. Savant syndrome is a rare but extraordinary condition in which persons that were either born with serious mental disabilities (including autism), or those who suffered a traumatic injury, have access to an “island of genius”. This means that those with savant syndrome can read, interpret, remember, and create an enormous amount of data. Padgett sees equations and complex geometry in the world around him, and can draw them effortlessly.
Savant skills typically occur in an intriguingly narrow range of special abilities, mostly: music, art, calendar calculating, or math
The special skills are always accompanied by prodigious memory
Savant skills characteristically continue, rather than disappear, and with continued use, the special abilities either persist at the same level or actually increase
Spiral Scalar by Jason Padgett, 2008. Image courtesy of Fine Art America
In addition to developing savant syndrome, Padgett also developed a type of synesthesia that “allows him to perceive mathematical formulas as geometric figures”. (New to my site? You should read my previous posts on synesthesia.) A team of researchers at the University of Miami scanned Padgett’s brain to understand how these savant and synesthetic qualities emerged after the accident. Why is this significant? Padgett’s case suggests that these amazing abilities lie dormant in every human brain. Understanding how the severe trauma altered his brain could lead the way to furthering human creativity. Padgett developed this new way of seeing and experiencing reality. What if it could be developed without trauma? I’m certain that it can be developed, and look forward to see what science can discover in the near future.
- Sudden Artistic Output: This is an extremely rare neurological condition that affects the brain’s breaking system. So what does this mean? It means that the brain can no longer inhibit certain behaviors. In the case of sudden artistic output, people who have this condition has a compulsion to create works of art.
- Puzzles of the Brain: Artist Lonni Sue Anderson contracted encephalitis. She had such an acute case of encephalitis that she had permanent brain damage in the hypocampus. This is the region of the brain that stores memory. Lonni Sue short and long-term memory were affected. She had to relearn how to walk, talk, and eat. She has to relearn how to create art again, with interesting results.
- Teaching Synesthesia as a Gateway to Creativity: My peer-reviewed article for the University of Warwick that chronicles my results in teaching about synesthesia, lending students a new frame work for creative expression. The Warwick Research Journal Murgia Article
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
“The momentousness of the migration as an event does not alter the fact that the migrants were ordinary people. Like colonial settlers or western pioneers of an earlier day, they were not looking to change the world, only their own status. A mixture of farmers, domestic servants, day laborers, and industrial workers, they came from all parts of the South, hoping for a chance to improve their own station or at least that of their children.“
Julia: I think I learned about synesthesia in college. Honestly, I wonder if I really have much of it at all. I always associated numbers and letters with colors, but just in my head. Until I learned about synesthesia, I thought everyone did that. I don’t see colors when I look at text on a page, it’s more like in my mind the letter D has to be green, 8 is a cool, dark color, etc. That said, becoming aware of it and learning how our senses can be connected has certainly changed how I see the world. I like what you said in your article “The ability to successfully link apparently unrelated ideas and concepts is the very definition of creativity.” I think I’ve subconsciously explored that in both my collage and floral work— grouping unexpected things together based on color and using repetitive “rhythmic lines and shapes.” The collages I’ve been making started off more as a design exercise before turning into their own obsession…
Monica: Do you have any images of your work for collages and floral arrangements that you think best illustrate the ideas of repetitive rhythmic lines and shapes,and also your exploration of linking unrelated ideas and concepts? For me, my paintings are illustrations of both of these concepts. I find that picking out the paints and materials is one big meditation. I stand in front of cans and tubes of paint silently. Then, a particular color will grab my attention and a sort of creative, ecstatic energy guides me. I’m very absorbed by the process of picking out colors; they each seem to have this emotional language that captures my attention. It’s an experience that is really outside of words and letters, so it can be difficult to explain . . . but I feel a variety of emotions and states of being when I look at different hues and colors. This is one of the types of synesthesia, and Joan Mitchell talked a lot about the emotional states of her paintings this when describing her creative process.
- I no longer have to focus on the misfortunes of the past or on judging myself.
- Each moment, I can direct my focus towards the pursuit of happiness instead of tearing myself down.
- It takes courage to be the person what I want to be, but I believe in myself.
- In finding the courage to believe, anything is possible.
As the photo shoot progressed, I felt like I was living a major moment in art history. All of those books I read about my favorite movements, like Impressionism and Pre-Raphaelite art, were swirling around me. I was living art. Finally, I was proud of who I was. Everyone around me was living art, too. It was so liberating to see each person as who they really were – a beautiful soul in the artwork of their own body. There was no shame or judgement. There was only appreciation and joy. And that is the only way I choose to live.
“Dare to love yourself as if you were a rainbow with gold at both ends.” ― Aberjhani
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
– Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
“Continue until you see yourself in the cruelest person on Earth, in the child starving, in the political prisoner. Practice until you recognize yourself in everyone in the supermarket, on the street corner, in a concentration camp, on a leaf, in a dewdrop. Meditate until you see yourself in a speck of dust in a distant galaxy. See and listen with the whole of your being. If you are fully present, the rain of Dharma will water the deepest seeds in your store consciousness, and tomorrow, while you are washing the dishes or looking at the blue sky, that seed will spring forth, and love and understanding will appear as a beautiful flower.”