ART BY TECHNIQUE: film-movies

Libby Holman, Fernand Leger and Mannequins in Dreams That Money Can Buy

I can't imagine a more perfect blend of people, ideas and art. Here's a clip from the 1947 flim Dreams Money Can Buy, produced and directed by Hans Richter, Dada/surrealist artist. The film, which follows a story line about a man with the talent of seeing into people's minds to help them craft dreams, features segments by Surrealist superstars, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Fernand Leger. Here's the Leger segment:

Mannequins...Fernand Leger. Be still my seesaw heart. But there's more.

The song, The Girl With the Prefabricated Heart, was sung by Libby Holman, a Jewish, bisexual, broadway star and chanteuse  and a huge supporter of civil rights, anti war and environmental causes. She may be obscure today, but in mid 20th Century America, she was a superstar. Known not just for her stage and recording performances, but also for a scandalous and difficult personal life, as well as for her serious and deeply held committment to political causes.

Libby Holman, 1931
Libby Holman in 1931
Louisa Carpenter, in 1941 she was magager of Robin Hood Theater, Deleware
One of Libby's great loves, Louisa Carpenter. Here, in 1941. Deleware Public Archives.

I'm just going to imagine for a moment that Libby Holman and my mother, Polly Cowan, must have crossed paths at least once in New York City or Connecticut, where they both owned homes.

The soundtrack in the clip above differs slightly from the one in the original. Same song, same singer, but a different recording. Both include Josh White, a now-famous African American folksinger, who Libby worked and sang with, sometimes at great peril to both of them.


Libby Holman and Josh White 1944
Libby Holman and Josh White, 1944
hans richter, dreams that money can buy, libby coleman, the girl with the prefabricated heart, photo Arnold Eagle.
Hans Richter on the set of The Girl With The Prefabricated Heart. Photo Arnold Eagle.

More about Libby Holman here and here

More about Josh White here

Art Is My Weapon: the promo

Here's my weblog premiere. A promo for the totally wonderful Art Is My Weapon scarf by the amazing TMNK, The Me Nobody Knows. The scarf will be at SmallEquals soon, and available at the smallequals online store.




Nobody was just featured in Vibe Magazine, so get your flair and remember you saw Nobody first at Pine Street Art Works for his solo show in September 2009.


Max Fleischer and the Rotoscope: Out of the Inkwell

I  love this cartoon and wanted to share it with you. Sheer genius. The Tantalizing Fly by Max Fleischer, created in 1919, the same year as The Easy Road To Readng in the previous post. Notice the difference between the sweet nostalgic art of ML Spoor and the avant garde perspective of Fleischer. Radically different approaches to art always happen in the same historical moment.

 Fleischer made this cartoon using technology of his own invention, the rotograph. He also invented the rotoscope 


 Rotoscope patent, max fleisher
Patent for the rotoscope. Max Fleischer

Max Fleischer, with his brother Dave Fleischer,  were  famous not only for the Out Of The Inkwell series, but also for Betty Boop, Koko The Klown,  and the animated versions of Popeye The Sailorman, and Superman.

A slightly different version of The Tantalizing Fly, as well as a much better explanation and history of the rotoscope than I could ever hope to do,  is part of this inkwellink  Ray Pointer mini documentary about Fleischer available at their InkWell Ink website.


 For a wonderfully erudite and in depth look at animation and the early 20th Century avant garde I highly recommend Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant- Garde, by Esther Leslie. Not an easy read, but well worth it.



Charles and Raye Eames are so famous - so iconic - that an entire era has been named after them, at least on eBay. And now there's a new postage stamp collection honoring them.
Eames stamp, charles eames, raye eames
Eames US Postage Stamp- due to be issued next summer

I had the pleasure of meeting Charles, but not Raye, Eames in the late sixties at a  conference at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado.  My parents dragged me along that summer, hoping, I suppose, to enjoy some time with their still somewhat rebellious teenager.  One evening Charles screened a film he and Raye had made  -The Powers Of Ten. This was the first version. Nine years later they released a second version.

You can see the second version on youTube.


That evening, Eames took questions from the audience. I had sat spellbound throughout the film. It probably wasn't too easy to capture my imagination that summer, but this film took my breath away. Apparently I managed to ask an intelligent question, because he sought me out after the film. I was with my parents - it was all on the up and up.

After Aspen, my parents and I traveled to Los Angeles where we met up once again with Charles -but not Raye - Eames, to discuss schools, and the design of schools, with someone else who had been at the Aspen Conference. I apologize for my hazy memory here, I don't remember who this other guy was or anything that was said.

Charles eames, raye eames, george platt lynes

Raye and Charles Eames, photo by George Platt Lynes

Later that year I  started working full time at the Pacifica Radio station WBAI-FM in New York City, and was producing their live performance series, The Free Music Store. I scheduled a screening of The Powers of Ten to coincide with an Eames visit to NYC. He was designing a huge exhibit at the time, I think at IBM.

For some reason, I decided to screen early Betty Boop cartoons with The Powers of Ten. For some reason, Charles thought this was a great idea. Remember, this was way before VCRs or DVD, and Betty Boop was not seen often on TV or anywhere else.

Amy Crehore loves Betty, too. Check out her blog

Charles and I spent part of the afternoon together while he showed me the exhibit he was putting together. Later in the evening, I picked him up at his hotel and we went over to the hall we'd rented. This was before WBAI started having concerts in the renovated church we later used for studios, offices and productions.

We screened the film to a packed audience. Charles spoke and answered questions. After the screening, we parted, and I never saw him again.

Almost forty years later, it still amazes me that this design genius was kind enough, interested enough, and open enough, to appreciate the ideas of a nineteen year old just beginning to make her way in the world as an adult. He never condescended to me. On the contrary, he took me and my ideas seriously. What better way could there be for a young person to enter into the grown up world of design and information.

My deepest thanks and yes, love, to Charles Eames.

Go buy some stamps! (when they're issued, that is.)


mary louise spoor, bye baby bunting, chromolithograph, mother and baby, baby in cradle, blue dress stars
Mary Louise Spoor, Baby Bunting, chromolithograph 1917. Liza Cowan Collections

Collecting is an adventure. The civilized version of big game hunting. You never know where the chase will  will lead, what roads you will follow. Here, we go from nursery illustrations to the early history of cinema.

A couple of years ago I was hunting at an antiques show. I was fast- walking the aisles, which is how I always do my first scan. I stopped abruptly at  a huge chromolithograph schoolroom poster published in 1917 by Congdon Publishers in Chicago. I immediately fell in love with the Japanese - or Japonism - inspired design. The dealer knew the name of the illustrator, Mary Louise Spoor, but not much about her. 

I immediately began searching for more of her work. I have subsequently found three of the school room posters. Hickory Dickory Dock, Little Bo Peep  and Baby Bunting Went A Hunting.

mary louise spoor

Mary Louise Spoor, Hickory Dickory Dock, 1917 Chromolithograph. Liza Cowan collections. Available here

Internet searches revealed scant information on Spoor.  An interesting conversation among collectors and descendants reveals that Spoor (1887-1985) worked for a brief shining moment from Chicago, publishing illustrations for Rand McNally and Lyons & Carnihan.

Mary Louise Spoor, 1917, chromolithograph, children's illustration, hickory dickory dock, mice, doll
Mary Louise Spoor, Hickory Dickory Dock, 1917 Chromolithograph. Liza Cowan

By 1917 she was married and pregnant with her first child. She moved to Massachussets to raise her family. And that, as far as I can tell, ended her professional career. She continued painting and drawing private works that would end up in family collections but those works have not yet entered into public circulation. Nor may they ever. What a shame to have access to so small a piece of a life's work


Mary Louise Spoor, 1917, nursery school poster, chromolith, little bo peep, sheep
ML Spoor from schoolroom poster triptychs, 1917, Liza Cowan Collections. Each image is 15'" square.

Before she left Chicago, Mollie, as she was called, went to The Art Institute  and shared a studio with Gertrude Spaller, another young illustrator. Together they illustrated at least two children's readers. The Easy Road To Reading Primer editions one and two.


Mary Louise Spoor, Easy Road To Reading, Children pushing doll carriage
ML Spoor illustrations, The Easy Road To Reading- Cowan Ephemera Collections

Here's where the road forks:

Mollie's brother was George K Spoor. In 1907 George founded Essany Studios in Chicago. Essanay was one of the first movie production studios in the US during the blink of an eye when Chicago was the center of US movie production. A couple of years later Essanay built studios in Niles, CA, but kept offices in Chicago.  George Spoor's partner in Essanay (S&A) was Max Aronson, aka Gilbert Anderson, aka  Broncho Billy, the very first film cowboy star .

Broncho Billy, Essanay Film Company, early cowboy, jewish cowboy

Broncho Billy And The Essanay Film Company by David Kiehn. Farwell Books 2003

That's right. The first cowboy star was Jewish. Aronson/Anderson appeared in the first great narrative film ever, The Great Train Robbery, then went on to direct and star in hundreds of films for Essanay.

When it began, Essanay depended on, and discovered, local Chicago talent, many of whom went on to become some of the biggest stars and directors in the industry, including Ben Turpin, Alan Dwan, Louella Parsons, Francis X Bushman, Gloria Swanson.

They made 2,000 movies in their ten year span, out of which only about 200 survive.


Charlie Chaplin in drag in Essanay's The Woman  from 1915

Charlie Chaplin was an Essanay star too, one of the first to be hired from outside the neighborhood. He had a contentious relationship with the studio, and left after a few years. His first version of The Tramp was an Essanay production.

It seems not unlikely  that the George Spoor would have asked his illustrator sister to design movie posters for his studio. She did design the Indian Chief logo for them. So far, I haven't discovered any but the hunt is on.


conversation amongst relatives and collectors at Antiques and The Arts

essay on essanay from Chicago Magazine May 2007

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Niles CA



Mary louise spoor seen on see saw