Print this review [ PDF ]

Cultural Analysis, Volume 7, 2008

#510: If the Shoe Fits…
A Transformative Laboratory Exhibition
Betty Rymer Gallery, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, March 10-April 14, 2006.

Katherine Loague
Betty Rymer Gallery, Chicago, USA

A living work of art is life itself, born from the dynamic fusion
of the self (the microcosm) and the universe (the macrocosm)…
If we accept…the interconnection of all living things, then art becomes the elemental modality through which humans discover their bonds with humans, humanity with nature, and humanity with the universe.

Daisaku Ikeda, Creative life at Académie des Beaux-Arts, June 14, 1989.

#510: If the Shoe Fits…( as hosted by the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) of Chicago March 10-April 14, 2006, was developed over the course of two years, plaiting the power of the oldest transformative folktale (Dundes 1982,; Sierra 1992; Warner 1994) with a transformative experience for students around the globe. Taking folk tale AT 510A as its guiding subject and theme, the laboratory exhibition examined the widespread interest in this folk tale. International artists provided their critical assessment and/or retelling of the tale type through drawings, artists' books, sculpture, assemblage, and collaborative murals. Artwork included mentored collaborative student works from Kenya, South Korea, Turkey, Ohio, and Chicago, as well as some produced by pediatric patients working with the Snow City Arts Foundation.

As a laboratory, the exhibition's educational objective was to provide a forum to critically analyze culture and a citizen's place within it. The artwork provided a platform for dialogue that allowed local and distant comparisons of experience and perspective. In presenting works by established artists alongside collaborative student projects, the exhibition's designers intended to challenge the notion of privilege within the gallery's public space. The exhibition sought to construct a democratic landscape where the cultivation and exchange of individual perspectives could be effectively achieved. In this regard, the exhibition represented a critical intervention in the art world trend toward privileging a single point of view.

Case studies and focus groups conducted among school-aged children provided data regarding sustained level of interest in the tale, used to speculate on a projected laboratory/exhibition result. International versions of tale type AT 510A provided students an effective interface with which to explore fixed notions of dating rituals, death, patriarchy, family dynamics (including step- and/or mixed families), the complexities of gender expectations, grief, magic, matriarchy, misogyny, privilege/power, psychological/sociological phenomena, sexuality and/or spirituality that are at work within the narrative, as well as the unique perspective each artist used to interpret and present the tale.

A sampling of the exhibited works by students and artists follows: Snow City Arts Foundation's (SCAF) artists selected an AT 510A version of interest to them. In response, using medical supplies, they made plaster casts of their own feet and then fit those castings into altered shoes. SCAF visual artist-in-residence Lisa Fedich mentored hospitalized patients, enabling them, although physically confined, to walk in another's shoes. The works produced included Lauren Youins', In Response to a Persian #510 Tale (2006) and Ashley Bridges', In Response to a Louisiana #510 Tale (2006). In designing the shoes, each participant carefully considered the lifestyle and location of the leading character in the representation he or she chose.

Similarly, under the guidance of Pablo Serrano and Alberto Sepulveda, students of Chicago's Eli Whitney and Rosario Castelleanos elementary schools created a lobby mural outside the gallery entrance as a response to AT 510A by investigating cultural artifacts close to home: their family members' castoff shoes. The students developed the mural inscribed with their perspectives by writing slogans across the painted shoes where one might typically find corporate logos such as the Nike swoosh. They studied international films and children's book versions of AT 510A to gain a sense of the social implications laced throughout multicultural versions of the tale type in popular culture, and to consider how those themes are expressed in their daily lives. While developing their own interpretations, the students deconstructed well-worn interpretations, including commercials that use AT 510A to target youth as consumers.

In the same vein, three studio classes at Chicago's Multicultural Arts High School deconstructed the Disney film classic Cinderella (Geronimi et al. 1950) and produced a joint installation. Participants in Michelle Corpus' studio examined gender and stereotypes found throughout the animated film, contrasting these to images found in consumer marketing aimed at teens. Robin Roberts led a story-writing studio allowing her students to update Disney's screenplay using different genres told from various perspectives. Tanya Brown Merriman's fashion students altered clothing to design, reenact, and document the story from a hip-hop point of view.

Aaron Knochel's students at the Seoul International School reminded us that at their best, folktales can hint at utopian societies or at least articulate magical strategies with which to improve occupational concerns. Jack Zipes, in his Happily Ever After: Fairytales, Children, and the Culture Industry (1997) acknowledged the collective value of tales in his comment that:

We use fairy tales as markers to determine where we are in our journey. The fairy tale becomes a broad arena for presenting and representing our wishes and desires. It frequently takes the form of a mammoth discourse in which way we carry on struggles over family, sexuality, gender roles, rituals, values, and sociopolitical power. ( Zipes 1997, 17)

The individual flash animations and corresponding movie posters made by Knochel's students did not defer to Disney or any other storyteller. Instead, in the style of Wendy Walker and Jane Yolen's contemporary fairy tales, their interpretations critiqued oppressive forces. The students examined the oppression of homework, the dreaded SAT exams, dating, body image, war, and the struggle to balance all aspects of teen life—issues not easily resolved that readily cross geographical borders. The work of these students explored the potential of the Cinderella tale type to function as a tool of personal transformation that could assist them in dealing with the difficult issues of adolescence.

Likewise, Yesmim Sonmez's tenth grade students of TED Instanbul Koleji collaborated to produce Turkish Cinderella (2006), a unique story about a poor village girl's personal and economic transformation. The girl, Ece, is forced to move to Istanbul after her mother's death. In the city she befriends Tan, a paralyzed youth who suffered at the hands of his evil mother. Using AT 510A motifs, the story chronicles Ece's transformation as she overcomes the obstacles of servitude to become a successful physician. By the end, Ece marries and treats Tan; the evil mother's heart is softened;and all live happily ever after. Their piece was presented onto the page as well as into audio recordings in both Turkish and English.

Students from Kenya pointed to the cultural contingencies of the folktale by attempting to rearticulate elements of the narrative in terms of familiar, but different, Kenyan folk motifs. Students from Kenya High School, the national high school for young women, under the direction of art teacher Genevieve K'opiyo, collaboratively produced the gallery mural Lwande Magera, a local legend that depicts the indigenous teachings of the Sodho clan of Kano (2006). Individual drawings made by students mentored at The Nairobi Boys School by art teacher Wanjiku Ng'ang'a translated the essence of a benevolent "fairy godmother" into ancestral spirits. Such illustraions include Edwin Kaseda's The Walk Towards Help (2006), Peter Njeru's Terrified Cinderella, and Dissent Ingati's The Dance (2006).

Extending this critique to a global scale, other pieces pointed out that mass marketing calls attention to some versions of folktales more than to others. The versions variously produced by Disney and the Grimm brothers continue to influence the public at large. An assemblage of individual artists drawn from various geographic locations and cultural heritages—Damla Tokcan-Faro (Turkey), Lucia Fabio (Italy), and Zsófia Ötvös (Hungary)—illustrated the impact of branded AT 510A characters. The artwork of Tokcan-Faro's The ingredients for a life lived happily ever after, with Turkish to English translation (2006) and Fabio's Cenerentola (2006) reflected a childhood association with the innocuous fantasy of Disney, while the series of paintings by Ötvös, Trying on the Shoe (2006), included the mutilation of the stepsisters at the hands of their mother as graphically depicted by the brothers Grimm (Dundes, ed. 1982, 28). Turkey, Italy, and Hungary each claim a rich domestic canon of AT 510A variants, yet each of the three artists found themselves influenced as children by the longstanding marketing wizardry of the more popular versions and demonstrated the effects of this influence in their works.

Picking up on this thread, Eileen Maxson's video Three Revised Fairytales confronted and challenged the widely disseminated Disney representation of the Prince as a hero and Cinderella as a trifling girl. Overlaying imagery from Disney's film with audio from the TV show 90210, the work exposed the Prince as a weak link in the story and Cinderella as a strong person who has suffered, survived, and transformed into a perceptive judge of character, a woman who can smell a rat in royal garb. To the extent that it sought to subvert a mass media fantasy in fairy tale form, Maxson's version realized the visionary musings of Angela Carter on the potentials of technology in the production of narrative. Carter observed that "[n]ow we have machines to do our dreaming for us. But within that 'video gadgetry' might lie the source of a continuation, even a transformation, of storytelling and story performance" (Carter 1990, xxi).

Other works in the exhibition commented on the historical process of how AT 510A was introduced to the public through print media. Chapbooks such as Pamela Barrie's Scottish AT 510A letterpress variant The Ballad of Rashin Coatie (2005-2006), showed examples of the initial mass-mediated treatment of fairy tales. Chapbooks eventually served as public curriculum, teaching the public how to behave according to the principals of well-positioned clergy and judiciary. In 1942, the introduction of Little Golden Books challenged the privileged-status of literature in the United States. At twenty-five cents each, children's literature was made accessible to most by expanding print distribution to include sales in department stores. Amanda W. Freymann's work Cinderella: A Fairy Tale from the 1950's (2006), an altered Little Golden Book, used Cinderella to parody the sensibilities of American women in the 1950's.

Many of the works displayed in #510: If the Shoe Fits… also celebrated collaborative practice. Marshall Field's treatment of Cinderella in the design of their Chicago department store's 2005 holiday window display, inspired by the illustrations of Diana Marye Huff, was developed through a partnership with New York's Spaeth Design. The collaborative effort demonstrated the success of storytelling as a lure to bring customers into the store. Huff's original interpretation in the artist book Cinderella the True Story (2004), focuses on a young female protagonist who has aspirations to become a fashion designer. In the end, she marries the prince who finances her dream to own a fashion boutique. The shop eventually becomes a beloved store similar to Marshall Field's. Huff's sketches and Spaeth Design's foam core prototypes for The Prince and Cinderela had a fairy-tale wedding and lived happily ever after (2005), Tulle & Dye's Cinderella Slipper (2005), and Spaeth's Cinderella – Wedding (2005) represent the eighteen-month collaborative process and the numerous design teams behind the seasonal display.

The assertion that rather than teaching children about fine art, art can educate children about the world, arises from the observation that when children's introductions often constitutes an intellectual exercise in status perception. In the art world, a work appraised at a certain monetary value is often assessed as being of higher value than works by self—taught artists or by folk artists. Frequently, pedagogical value is assigned only to celebrated visual art, in the same way that works by authors of distinction become canonical on teaching syllabi. As a result, the art product (text or visual) is too often valued over the artistic process.

In a child's experience of art, the business of the "art world" is irrelevant, but the process of discovery and imagination enables crucial developmental tasks. Great masters need not shoulder exclusive responsibility for developing aesthetic awareness in students. Children can discover shape, color, and the intent and execution of design in the images with which they interact in their daily lives. Students are flooded with text-based media that is ripe for investigation of content, style, and structure. Utilizing folktales, visual and text-based artworks as a medium of exchange has proven to be of value in discovering and sharing authentic cultural distinctions among students of all ages. What is more, the evolution of oral tales and print media, as folklorists have often noted, is interwoven with notions of social justice. Therefore folktales represent a powerful genre for teachers of all subjects to use in opening an accessible route to cultural awareness and criticism for their students.

Works Cited

Barrie, P. R. 2005-2006. Ballad of Rashin Coatie. Hand-colored Letterpress Chapbook.

Bridges, A., Snow City Arts Foundation. 2006. In Response to a Louisiana #510 Tale. Mixed media: altered shoe, plaster casting, fur, beads, and clay.

Carter, A., ed. 1990. Old wives' fairy tale book. New York: Pantheon.

Disney, W., prod. 1950. Cinderella [Motion Picture]. Walt Disney Pictures.

Dundes, A., ed. 1982. Cinderella: A folklore casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Edwards, J., Tulle & Dye. 2005. Cinderella Slipper. Swarovski crystals, size 7.

Fabio, L. 2006. Cenerentola. Watercolor, ink, plexiglas, volcanic ashes from Mt. Etna, Sicily.

Freymann, A.W. 2006. Cinderella: A Fairy Tale from the 1950's. Altered book.

Grimm, J. and W. Grimm. Ash Girl (Aschenputtel). In A. Dundes, ed. 1982. Cinderella: A folklore casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. pp. 22-29.

Huff, D.M. 2004. Cinderella: the True Story. Artist's book.

Ikeda, D. 1995. Creative life at Academie des Beaux-Arts, June 14, 1989. In A new humanism: The university addresses of Daisaku Ikeda. New York: Weatherhill, Inc. pp. 3-12.

Ingati, D. 2006. The Dance.

Kaseda, E. 2006. The Walk Towards Help.

Njeru, P. 2006. Terrified Cinderella.

Kenya Girls School. 2006. Lwanda Magere. Oil on canvas.

Ötvös, Z. 2006. Trying on the Shoe. Acrylic.

Sierra, J. 1992. The Oryx multicultural folktale series: Cinderella. Arizona: The Oryx Press.

Spaeth Design for Marshall Fields. 2005. The Prince and Cinderella had a fairy-tale wedding and lived happily ever after. 3D model prototype: foam core, pencil, marker.

Spaeth Design. 2005. Cinderella .Wedding gown accented with Swarovski crystals.

TED Istanbul Koleji. 2006. Turkish Cinderella. Artist Book with Turkish and English text, English audio recording / Turkish audio recording.

Tokcan Faro, D. 2006. The ingredients for a life lived happily ever after. Turkish to English translation:

Warner, M. 1994. From the beast to the blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers. New York: The Noonday Press.

Whitney, Eli and Rosiario Castelleanos. Lobby mural/installation.

Youins, L., Snow City Arts Foundation. 2006. In Response to a Persian #510 Tale. Mixed media: altered shoe, plaster casting, wire, oil pastels, fabric.

Zipes, J. 1997. Happily ever after: Fairytales, children, and the culture industry. New York: Routledge.