Friday, September 4, 2009

SILHOUETTES


When I travel back and forth from New Iberia, Louisiana, my winter residence, to Sewanee, Tennessee, my spring and summer residence, the bulk of my baggage consists of boxes of manuscripts and personal papers which fill the backseat and floor of the car. Each time I prepare for the trip, I begin culling papers, and my “finds” are often quirky pieces of paper; e.g., an unpublished profile of my great-grandmother Dora Runnels Greenlaw, scraps of poems never finished, a ten-page resume that I prepared before taking a job on the executive staff of Bayou Girl Scout Council, and, yesterday, I discovered the silhouette shown above that was drawn by my mother.

The silhouette appears to have been torn from a scrapbook, three of which I inherited after she died. The scrapbooks are filled with whimsical pictures she drew during her college days at Mississippi Woman’s College (now defunct) and Mississippi State College for Women. She was forced to attend both colleges because my grandfather Paul was attempting to keep her separated from her childhood sweetheart and marriage. At these two institutions, Dorothy majored in Art, and she must have spent a lot of time filling those scrapbooks, which often makes me wonder about her devotion to academic interests. Never mind, I understand the creative bent, and each time I discover an old picture or drawing she rendered, I’m grateful that she encouraged all of her offspring to “follow their bliss,” to nourish the artist within – through painting, writing, woodworking.

Dorothy grew up in the early 1900’s at a time when “shadow pictures” were popular, and I know that she rendered far more “shades profiles” than I have unearthed. These silhouettes are outlines of people with interiors that are featureless and were done in black like the one above. During Dorothy’s era, they were usually drawn and not cut out. However, in the 18th century, the representations or portraits were cut from thin black cards.

The word “silhouette” is derived from the name of an 18th century French finance minister who enjoyed creating cut paper portraits. Today, silhouette portraits can be painted or drawn or cut out from lightweight black cardboard and mounted on a white background. Some specialist artists are able to sketch and cut out the likeness of a person within minutes, but I know that Dorothy labored longer over her shadow pictures.

Most readers will recall having seen silhouettes of famous people like Beethoven or Jane Austen, or even the images of human evolution. The picture shown above is probably a sketch of one of the three oldest children in my family sitting in a high chair, trying to learn how to self-feed, while one of Dorothy’s numerous cats watches for a crumb to be dropped. The rendering may be a simple copy of a Gerber baby because one of her scrapbooks contains hundreds of pictures of these babies she found in magazines of the day. She cut them out and studied their features, I think, so she could learn how to make shades profiles.

Today, silhouettes are again popular, particularly in the decorative arts industry and are being used on wallpaper and stationery, even pants cuffs. Practically speaking, they’re used for traffic signs, for military use, and as target pictures for those who’re interested in outdoor shooting practice(!). I’m sorry that Dorothy didn’t live to see the resurgence of an art she loved, but I’m glad I have the keepsake above to remind me of her interest in all things artistic and to stoke my own creativity when I feel that the muse has left me high and dry.
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