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Spring 2002

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People and projects

Coloring agent
Hmmm...that rings a bell
Good housekeeping
Commissioned for success
Books or boxboard?
Tied up in bows
Working in the valley of the shadow of death
Music man


Coloring agent

Barbara “Bobi” von Lenz Chenhall ’42 is not a realist. In fact, abstraction is her forte. Even the names of her paintings—“A Gap in Time,” “Breaking Through,” “Looking Beyond”—are vague and mysterious. “I’ve never been happy producing representational art,” Chenhall states. “My aim is to express the inner essence of my subject and to present the image in as succinct a way as possible.”

An award-winning artist accomplished in various mediums—including wood and alabaster carving—Chenhall’s been working primarily with pastels and mixed media in recent years. (If you think “pale” when you hear the word pastel, think again. Chenhall tends to more dramatic hues—vibrant orange, deep gold, vivid blue—whose richness, she’s found, best express her strong designs and abstractions.

Chenhall’s paintings are on view at various places, including her own studio/gallery in downtown Albuquerque, N.M. A couple of years back, she obtained space in the 3812 Art Complex with eight independent studios and a gallery. Besides the appeal of being among other artists, there’s the added benefit of having the prestigious Coleman Contemporary Gallery and the New Grounds Print Workshop in the same building.

And because the art complex sits among popular shops and restaurants close to a university campus, the studios draw visitors on a regular basis. “Making sales is cool,” Chenhall admits. “That’s a big reason for being here.” And by participating in shows, she adds, she feels she is “making a cultural contribution to the community.”

Chenhall’s work is widely exhibited in New Mexico. Last year she received awards from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, the New Mexico State Fair Hispanic Exhibit, and the Fisher Gallery Alternative Pastels show in Albuquerque. But she doesn’t seem to let the attention go to her head. “For me, painting is fun,” she says, “and I aim to keep it so.” To see some of Chenhall’s paintings, check out www.art-exchange.com, www.justoriginals.com, www.pastelsocietynm.org/psnm, and www.placitasarts.org. —MTS

Hmmm...that rings a bell

If Gladys Benfield Watkinson ’46 hears ringing in her ears, it’s not at all a bad thing. In fact, she quite likes it. At seventy-eight, she’s the oldest (the youngest is thirty-eight) member of a twelve-person, five-octave handbell choir based near her home in Flemington, N.J.

Watkinson has been ringing bells for about fifteen years. But her entrée into the music world began much longer ago. Starting in second grade, she studied piano for ten years—“with a rather casual attitude,” she confesses. When she was older, she sang in choral groups, including Skidmore’s. But her music-making went on hold after graduation, while her focus turned to marriage, motherhood, farm life, and nursing. (“I’m one of those vintage nursing students,” she offers as an aside, “still working in our ICU one day a week.”)

In her forties, Watkinson picked up the music again—this time studying “with great commitment.” While she doesn’t claim to be a virtuoso pianist, she discovered she loves teaching. Her ten piano students include a mentally disabled nine-year-old and a forty-seven-year-old nurse who heads up the county Hospice.

And then there are the bells. The all-woman group she rings with meets for two hours a week, rehearsing intermediate- and advanced-level compositions. Besides local performances for churches, nursing homes, Rotary lunches, and weddings, the bell-ringers also play at multistate festivals and national conventions that involve rehearsing daily with 500 to 800 other ringers. Hearing and performing with other handbell choirs in these settings provides a good dose of inspiration in a noncompetitive atmosphere, Watkinson says.

Playing in an ensemble has taught her a lot about “melody, accompaniment, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics,” she adds—not to mention “listening and following a director.” And that’s not to underestimate all she’s learned about the necessary hand-mind coordination required of a bell-ringer. One of her group’s greatest challenges, Watkinson relates, has been trying to perfect its rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite—which involves handling multiple bells, chimes, and mallets all at once. “It’s a never-ending challenge and balancing act,” she says. That, however, doesn’t lessen its appeal. —MTS

Good housekeeping
Carolyn Kaplan ’57 (left) and Mary Champenois ’56 (right) pose with Maureen Corr, private secretary of Eleanor Roosevelt during the last twelve years of her life.

A trio of Skidmore alumnae has been working with the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to preserve Val-Kill Cottage, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The three New Jersey residents—who have been good friends since graduation—help produce the project’s newsletter, The View from Val-Kill Cottage: Mary Pratt Champenois ’56 writes and edits, Carolyn Geismar Kaplan ’57 designs and writes, and Esther Meltzer Silbey ’56 has provided editorial assistance.

An official Save America’s Treasures undertaking, the preservation project includes maintaining the cottage (it’s built on a bog, so moist conditions dictate constant monitoring of both its contents and structural integrity); saving hundreds of photos and videos depicting life at Val-Kill as well as audiotaped histories from family and friends; and reacquiring historical objects related to the Roosevelt home.

In February 2001, Champenois had the thrill of attending a Christie’s auction that included more than 3,000 items of Roosevelt family heritage. Besides obtaining some table linens, silver pieces, and photos, bidders on behalf of Val-Kill came away with what they wanted most: a Cartier-framed sepia print of the official White House portrait of FDR painted by Frank Salisbury in 1935.

Besides her work for The View, Kaplan, a professional interior designer, serves as the liaison with the National Park Service for the redesign and reconstruction of the Val-Kill visitor center. “Tours of the cottage are a very important part of the visitor experience,” Kaplan says, “but to gain a fuller understanding of Eleanor Roosevelt, her role in history, and the impact of Val-Kill on her life and legacy, other media are needed,” such as film and exhibits.

“The center’s message about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life can either be inspirational or simply a footnote to the legacy of FDR at Hyde Park,” Champenois says. “We clearly want it to be the former.” Champenois and Kaplan—who were originally recruited by Val-Kill preservation chair Claudine Bacher to form a donor group to get the project off the ground—will lend their efforts to a major capital campaign once the plans for the visitor center redesign are completed.

Meanwhile, Champenois got a call recently from college history professor Barbara Conway Fertig ’56 in Savannah, Georgia. “She was taking a student grant recipient to Val-Kill to work on a new Eleanor Roosevelt Web site (an educational component of the visitor center), not knowing that our group had obtained the General Electric grant that’s underwriting its production.”

It’s a small world—but one made bigger by Roosevelt, the First Lady of the World, who was hugely popular at Skidmore, visiting the campus four times between 1929 and 1961. —MTS

Commissioned for success

Going public, fiber artist Martha Clapp Roediger ’65 found out, can be very gratifying. Most of her woven wonders have been commissioned by museums, banks, institutions, architects, and private collectors. But last fall, her three-by-twelve-foot sculpture “Sinusoidal Rhythm” was installed in the atrium of the new science center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It was Roediger’s largest—and most public—work to date.

The process began in 1999 when Roediger, who works from her studio in Portland, Maine, had a solo exhibit at a Cleveland gallery. A CWRU supporter saw her work and thought a fiber sculpture would be the perfect addition to the university’s science complex then under construction, so he asked Roediger if she’d create a work for him to donate to the university.

Joan Ainsworth, of the CWRU college of arts and sciences, remembers, “There had been much discussion about incorporating art into this new science center, but no one knew exactly what or where. When we saw the warmth and softness of Roediger’s work, we knew it was perfect.”

“At the time I was commissioned to do the piece, I had been working with ideas for using the pliable characteristic of weaving to create sculptural effects,” Roediger says. After a couple of visits to CWRU—to determine the site and try out some color samples—Roediger returned to her studio and got to work.

“It was an intricate process,” she recalls. “My goal was to emphasize an accelerated wave pattern with a dramatic progression of color.” When an observer commented that Roediger’s design resembled a “sinusoid”—a mathematical term well known by many who would use the science center—the fiber sculpture was dubbed “Sinusoidal Rhythm.”

Now situated prominently on a neutral brick wall just off the fifty-five-foot-high glass atrium of the center, Roediger’s tapestry—with its ripples of texture and gradation of color from sunny orangish-golds to denim-y blues—gets a steady stream of passersby.

In creating her biggest-ever fiber sculpture, Roediger couldn’t quite predict the outcome. But any lingering doubts dissipated when she saw the piece installed at the center’s dedication ceremony. As CWRU’s Ainsworth points out, “With its soft edges and warm textures, it provides a marvelous complement to the glass and steel structure. It works perfectly.” To view Roediger’s fiber sculptures, check out www.martharoediger.com. —MTS

Books or boxboard?

Twenty years ago Susan Hirsch Schwartz ’68 found she had a knack for taking personal predicaments and turning them into books. Unable to find a book to help her stepson in his job search, she found a job-hunting expert, hired an editor, and put together How to Get a Job in Chicago: The Insider’s Guide. The book became a series, with similar guides for ten U.S. cities and Europe. A couple of years later, when her husband’s cholesterol level soared and they were reluctant to dine out, Schwartz found an author who’d written a series for people with diabetes and asked her to write The Restaurant Companion: A Guide to Healthier Eating Out.

So it was no leap in logic when she decided to start her own small book company. She hired a sales manager, a publicist, a business manager, and a secretary. Now, as owner and publisher of Surrey Books, based in Chicago, Schwartz produces five to eight books a year. Current topics include healthy eating (like 1,001 Low-Fat Vegetarian Recipes) and less healthy imbibing (including the cocktail guides Tiki Drinks and Shag Party). Of the latter, Schwartz remarks, “I really enjoy marketing those, as I get to noodle with people half my age who have everything pierced.”

Surrey’s sales, warehousing, and marketing are handled by a national distributor, and a U.K. distributor covers areas outside the U.S. and Canada. “But you still have to publish books people want,” Schwartz says, “or they will all come back. About 40 percent of the books you see in stores are returned to publishers, who pulp them and sell the pulp to China, where it’s made into shipping cartons.”

“Book publishing is basically a crapshoot,” she adds, and while overall she’s been lucky, “sometimes I can’t believe how wrong I can be. Last year I republished a circa-1950 cookbook called Wolf in Chef’s Clothing, which I thought was really witty and had the funniest illustrations. Apparently the only other person who loved it was the reviewer at Playboy, and he gets a free copy. Six thousand unsold copies are going to China to become cartons for cans of dried squid.”

With the practical tone of someone who’s run her own business for a couple of decades, Schwartz advises, “No one should go into book publishing to make lots of money.” But in the same breath she adds, “I have to say it’s been fun to see some of my ideas make it on to store shelves, and into people’s homes.” —MTS

Tied up in bows

Ever wonder, when browsing in the gift-wrap section of a store, who comes up with the designs for bows? Perhaps not, but maybe once you know that Mary Moebus Yedlin ’73 does it for a living, you’ll pay them a closer look.

Yedlin and her husband, Monte, run Sky High Concepts, a Glendale, Calif.-based business that develops, designs, and patents products for the gift wrap and Christmas ornament industries. Bows are their specialty. Full, flouncy, multilooped, ribbony bows.

What began somewhat as play turned into a full-time enterprise for Yedlin. For years, she had worked in the licensing industry, primarily with divisions of Warner Brothers. Her husband, who was in the packaging and plastics business, brought some sample materials home, and after some experimentation, the couple ended up creating and patenting their first product: a pre-made gift bow.

“The marketing professional in me would like to take credit for having identified a market need and filled it,” Yedlin says. “But we simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. The bow market had not benefited from new designs in many years.”

The Yedlins licensed Berwick Industries, the world’s largest ribbon and bow company, to handle all their manufacturing and sales. Their Fireworks bows now dominate the market and can be found everywhere from local stationery shops to Target, WalMart, and Michaels. American Greetings also sells the bows at drug, grocery, and other chain stores.

And the craftiness of Sky High Concepts doesn’t stop with bows, Yedlin says. “The holographic and metallic plastics that started us down this road are a natural for Christmas decorations as well,” she asserts. Their Christmas ornaments—a tree and an icicle that they introduced two years ago—sell at many retailers.

Sky High Concepts has grown enough (it now has nine patents, with more pending) to allow Yedlin to leave her job at Warner Bros. and work full-time from home. The small shop—“just the two of us, with outside professional and freelance assistance as needed”—affords them the luxury of being their own bosses and spending time with their two young children. And that’s a gift that doesn’t need a bow. —MTS

Working in the valley of the shadow of death

On September 11, Michael Handler ’84, a project manager for Turner Construction in New York City, was working on a hospital addition in Brooklyn when he noticed smoke pouring out of the north tower of the World Trade Center. A short while later, he saw with his own eyes what many of us only saw pictures of: a low-flying plane that suddenly appeared and plowed into the south tower. Later he watched as both towers collapsed.

The next morning Turner Construction had a meeting to discuss the company’s role in dealing with the disaster site. Handler, who lives in New Rochelle, was pulled off the Brooklyn job and sent to Ground Zero, where he’s been working ever since.

In his eight years at Turner, this qualifies as “one of the more challenging projects,” Handler says. “It’s been a logistical nightmare.” As project manager with eighteen supervisors working for him, he spends most of his time in meetings, going over schedules, budgets, changes, and problems. The mission is two-fold: clearing away debris (such as the remains of Seven World Trade Center, the forty-seven-story building that caught fire and collapsed after the attacks) and repairing a few surviving buildings that were occupied by Merrill Lynch, American Express, and Brookfield Properties.

Once engineers had conducted initial damage assessments of the standing buildings, the construction company started assembling materials. The first day on the job, crews worked well into the night, Handler says, unloading truckloads of plywood—10,000 sheets of it—and two-by-fours. Over the next several weeks, they boarded up the buildings’ broken windows. Replacement glass was ordered, as was granite—1,800 stones from a quarry in Canada—to repair broken facades. Some buildings have needed new steel and concrete; others have been power-washed outside and patched and repainted inside. All told, projected costs for the renovations, Handler says, amount to $110 million.

Six months after the terrorist attacks, Handler was still logging twelve- to fourteen-hour days at Ground Zero. “My guess is I’ll be there through the end of the year,” he says. The plan is to complete work on the damaged office buildings by the end of May and restore the financial center’s Winter Garden—a glass, curve-topped building with marble floors and towering palm trees—by the end of September.

While Handler may look at building construction a little differently now (“We often joke about how people overdesign stuff; but I don’t laugh so much anymore, because a lot of it stood up pretty well.”), he says the events of September 11 and his work at Ground Zero have affected him personally more than professionally. “I’ve started to enjoy life a little more,” he says. —MTS

Music man

Solo act, front man, recording artist. Whatever his role, for Garland Nelson ’97, singing is “priority number one.”

It wasn’t always so. For his first three years at Skidmore, Nelson recalls, music was “just a hobby.” He sang with the Skidmore chorus, vocal chamber ensemble, and New Hope gospel ensemble. “‘Performer’ was my middle name,” the government major says. But it wasn’t until New Hope disbanded and Nelson teamed up with Wesley Ally ’95, Richard McNairy ’94, and Sheryl Carney ’95 to create a new group, The Quiet Storm, that he considered using his vocal chords to make a livelihood.

Now Nelson has launched his career as an entertainer. A year ago, his baritone voice—and his abundant energy—landed him a regular gig with New York Players, an upstate-based band that plays originals and cover tunes for weddings, fundraisers, and other functions. With an extensive repertoire ranging from country and Top-40 hits to jazz standards, folk, and R&B, New York Players take their show throughout New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and beyond.

The dynamic, nine-musician group—which includes a rhythm section and brass—is tight, Nelson says: “If you heard us, you’d think we’d been together for decades.” All are seasoned musicians, having shared the stage with big names like Aretha Franklin, NRBQ, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Feat, and the Joey Thomas Big Band.

Nelson’s role includes lead vocalist (“with ‘mad’ range: three octaves”), emcee, and conga player—or, as he sees it, “Energizer Bunny/quarterback.” He’s the guy who, throughout the gig, keeps in contact with hotel and banquet hall staff, brides and grooms, or company directors. “Then I take the stage and sing and dance my behind off,” he says. Dance? Yes, post-Skidmore, Nelson took up tap dancing and acting. “Great singers flood the world today, so I had to diversify my portfolio,” he explains.

When it comes to performing, Nelson says, “There is no better feeling in the world.” And, he adds, “God willing, the sky’s the limit. I’m thinking…Madison Square Garden or Broadway.” But he maintains an edge of practicality. “I learned a valuable lesson as New York State’s representative at the 2000 National Singing Championship in Nashville,” he says. “I didn’t win the $10,000 purse and a recording contract, but I won the respect of talent scouts and recording executives. A Universal Studios executive said, ‘Stay true, stay humble, and stay hungry. If you do these things, your natural blessings will take you anywhere you want to go in music.’ That’s great advice I intend to follow.” For more about the band (including some downloadable music), check out www.newyorkplayers.com. —MTS

 


© 2002 Skidmore College