As I walked around the Alexander Girard exhibit, my daughter, Olive, was on a search for images she recognized from a children’s book of his work that she had at home, given to us by a friend who had not consciously remembered we had a screen print of his hanging in our living room. The unconscious at work. She found many versions of the smiling green tree, abundant with leaves and trunk thick and sturdy, and also the smiling sun, unusually constructed with wave like rays reaching out from the yellow circle inside. It is a rare show that can capture the hearts and minds of children and adults alike, and this is, for sure, the artist’s unnamed superpower: the ability to court the unseen child within us that will always and forever want to come out to play.
While Olive continued on her scavenger hunt for images she knew, I marveled at what he had accomplished in his lifetime, not only his well developed playful graphic style – a perfect blend of storytelling and product, but also the variety of mediums – textile designs, toys, posters, as well as spaces, furniture and even the information architecture of his own exhibits – all with the consistency of tone recognizable today as a modern brand. Of course it takes so much sacrifice and commitment to life as art to achieve such a seamless world where all that you love funnels effortlessly to your recognizable portfolio, and I admire it. Still, a jealousy emerged within me, a competitiveness too, whereby my own life’s work seemed pale in comparison and I felt the need to expose something secret or otherwise unsaid; surely this was not the work of just one person.
Surely, I thought, he did not do all this himself. Perhaps there were little elves up at night while he slept, turning one piece into many, as in the fairy tale the shoemaker and his wife – the story of a well meaning couple at the brink of poverty visited by some magical helpers to turn their business and their lives around. My daughter loved to read this story, especially around the time my husband got laid off, as if to assure us of an abundance available to us if only we to trust in the universal energy that provides. If there could be a real life couple deserving of this – perhaps it really were the Girard’s, having stepped off the grid and moved to New Mexico, early on in their marriage, in order to build and make lives their own.
Back at the hotel, another guest who had seen the exhibit wondered the same thing as me: was there not at least a business manager hidden in the wings? In truth, I had prickled at the story of the couple’s move to New Mexico — the only time Susan Girard was mentioned in the show notes at all — knowing full well that the success of a man in a couple must be unflinchingly and invisibly supported by his wife. Was she not, in part, responsible for his graphic genius? If so, what part? Was she like Richard Serra’s wife, who, by his accounts, kept the household running; the kids, the staff, the flow of his internal affairs, his schedule even, so that he could leave his mind free for creative pursuits? Or was even her role minimized in his story?
Still, I longed for the exhibition catalogue, sold out already from previous iterations of the show in other cities, because the style, so clean and cheerful, really did satisfy and inspire. His combination of freedom and control seemed to be the ultimate achievement for a person, proving that art could do for one what meditation also promises (if it can be held to any promise at all). It was my own fascination with brands that held me tight to his vision; the ability to gather in the collective pulse and spin it back out as if it had been solely created. The ability to wield the energetic forces and move them around for your own enjoyment seemed like the ultimate definition of power.
“Is he a white man,” asked my friend Loretta, unimpressed by my description of his artistic range, godlike in scope. Come to think of it, I had also paused at the video, on a tiny flat screen, barely there, of Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India, a show he curated at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, which my post-modernly educated brain deemed at once to be cultural appropriation, a term which also rang true for his wooden dolls, inspired by the Day of the Dead. Is there something in actual poor taste about removing the spiritual history of folk art, dolls – and turning out objects for interior design? Or was the couple’s love of folk art a beautiful way to celebrate parts of culture otherwise overlooked, and the inclusion a way to bring attention to joyous objects beyond what can be more easily reproduced? The intellectual part of me did not win the emotional part of me over, as I wished for the a way to hold the tiny animal / people dolls in my hand – or a way to wander through the imagined magic of an dense market filled with smells and colors both new to me and old to the world.
The image that left me most curious was the set of binders, archives of textiles, neatly arranged, and labeled, and also, themselves, covered with the beautiful cloth patterns they held. Who paid such loving attention to the remnants of work undisplayed? Is this a gift of the female partner, or is that my own stereotypes creating a story? Was it done in hindsight, after success had already been achieved, or is the care dedicated to one’s past work, regardless of popularity, necessary as a part of the current creative process? This question, of how tender you must be of your own creativity, is what makes me most curious about learning more about their lives, and all those lived beyond the ordinary.