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Joshua Ruff

A watermelon-shaped minaudiére with crystal rhinestones and onyx details by Judith Leiber, 1991. Image from LIM

By Ellen Barcel

The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook is busy putting the final touches on a stunning new exhibit, “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags and the Art of Gerson Leiber,” which will be on view from Feb. 24 to June 4.

Julie Diamond, director of communications said, “One of things we wanted to stress is that this was a real partnership, right from the beginning.” Diamond noted that of the nearly 200 items on display, the purses “have been paired with the paintings, not matching, but you can see the inspiration there.”

The museum is known for its large costume collection, so the exhibit was a logical choice. “We’ve been thinking about doing an exhibition about the Leibers for a couple of years now. It’s such a fascinating and multilayered story, and I think it was an interesting challenge … not simply to explore two very different creative figures, but to consider their influences upon one another over the course of their marriage and their careers,” said Joshua Ruff, museum director of interpretations and collections and exhibit curator.

Tiffany-inspired minaudiére with dragonfly pattern and sodalite lock, 1992, by Judith Leiber. Image from LIM

The Liebers have been married over 70 years, having met while he was a solider in World War II, she having avoided Nazi persecution in Europe. Judith’s early training in making handbags was the result of her having a traineeship at a handbag company in Europe.

After the couple married and moved to the U.S. Judith Leiber began her designing career working for Nettie Rosenstein (1913-1975), fashion designer, in New York City. Rosenstein was known for the famous “little black dress,” a fashion piece that every woman must have. An award-winning designer, she was often copied and, as a result, had a major impact on women’s fashion in the first half of the 20th century. In addition to dresses, she was known for designing accessories, such as purses.

In 1963 Judith Leiber started her own company. Her handbags — 130 of them — will be part of the Brilliant Partners exhibit. Some are referred to as chatelaines, small purses usually hanging at the waist from a belt or sash. Some are minaudiéres, small decorative handbags without handles or a strap, essentially clutch bags. Her elegant bags have been carried by many stars, first ladies and have walked the “red carpet.”

Many of her works are fashioned after animals — a polar bear, a penguin, an elephant’s head. Some are inspired by natural objects such as the purse that resembles a slice of watermelon, while others are more abstract in design such as the purse inspired by a painting done by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Some were inspired by Fabergé eggs. She even designed a feminine interpretation of a briefcase for a successful businesswoman.

Gerson Leiber, an American abstract artist, was born in Brooklyn. He is known for his award-winning, brilliantly colored paintings, 50 of which will be on display in Brilliant Partners. While many are oils, he also works in watercolors and produced many woodcuts, etchings and engravings.

‘The Simple Swagger of Spring,’ 2014, oil and graphite on linen by Gerson Leiber. Image from LIM

In addition to his paintings, Gerson Leiber is also a sculptor and designed the gardens around The Leiber Collection, a gallery in the Hamptons they built to display their work. The gallery is open spring through fall.

In addition to her purses and his paintings, a portrait of the couple done by one of Gerson Leiber’s teachers at the Art Students League in New York, Will Barnet will be on display. Barnet remained close to his former student and did the portrait in 2000 as the couple were each nearly 80.

There are two museum programs related to the exhibit. On March 26 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., senior conservator from the Smithsonian, Sunae Park Evans will explain the process of conserving textiles and costume pieces. Afterward, participants are invited to view Brilliant Partners, including the one-of-a-kind bag Judith Leiber designed for former first lady Mamie Eisenhower.

Senior Tuesday will be held on Tuesday, May 9 from 10 a.m. to noon when those 62 and over are invited to tour the exhibit, free of charge. No reservations are required and groups are welcome. In addition, the museum is sponsoring a bus trip to The Leiber Collection in the Hamptons on June 5. Call the museum for details and reservations.

The Long Island Museum is located at 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. The Art Museum will reopen to the public on Thursday, Feb. 23; “Brilliant Partners” opens on Feb. 24. Hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org for further information.

The wedding of Marcia Lawrence, a descendant of Richard Smythe to Verne LaSalle Rockwell, an army colonel in the 11th U.S. Calvary during World War I, in 1910. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

By Rita J. Egan

Benjamin Newton’s wedding vest and his wife’s slippers, 1854. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
Benjamin Newton’s wedding vest and his wife’s slippers, 1854. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

Romance is in the air at the Smithtown Historical Society. The organization is currently hosting the exhibit Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present at the Caleb Smith II House.

Curator Joshua Ruff said the exhibit, which examines the changes in wedding traditions throughout the centuries, presents a universal theme that provides the historical society the perfect opportunity to display some of its collection pieces that the public may not have seen before.

“The story and topic is one thing, but if you have the objects and the photos and the clothing that really can do justice to the story, then you have the making of a good exhibit,” the curator said. Ruff said the society has a great number of wedding-oriented artifacts in its collection, and among the pieces on display are items that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Items from 1854 include a wedding vest of Benjamin Newton, who ran a livery service, and wedding slippers worn by his wife Ellen.

A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith, who was married to Caleb Smith I, the original owner of the home located on the property of Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, is also featured. “It’s pretty amazing that it survived,” the curator said.

Ruff said the historical society borrowed a couple of artifacts from the Smithtown Library including the wedding invitation of Bessie Smith and architect Stanford White, who designed the second Madison Square Garden as well as local structures including All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Stony Brook and Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham.

“It’s a small gallery, a small space, so I think it’s always good for us to have a little gem of an exhibition, something that has a few really great artifacts. You also have to realize that you can’t do a great, huge elaborate exhibition in the space,” Ruff said.

Marianne Howard, the historical society’s executive director said, “I think the exhibit is beautiful. One of the reasons why we were excited about the exhibit is because we wanted to have those partnerships with community members and with other organizations like the library who have a collection that is deep in this history, in this topic in particular,” she said.

In addition to the small artifacts, the exhibit features seven dresses from different periods. Gayle Hessel of Kings Park donated a 1980s wedding dress worn by her daughter Mary in 1985. “This is the kind of thing that people save and at a certain point after handing it down generation after generation, they start to think, ‘Well, what do I do with it now?’” Ruff said.

Two of the wedding dresses on display at the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
Two of the wedding dresses on display at the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

The curator said the gown by Laura Ashley has the princess style that was popular during the era due to Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding. “It’s timeless. You can tell it’s modern because of the material, and the overall look, and how low cut it is, but at the same time it really is this throwback, and it just looks great,” he said.

On the same side of the room as Hessel’s dress is one from 1882 worn by a Julia Strong. Ruff said it features a lace filigree neckline, and the dress is so small, it looks a child wore it even though the bride was 23 years old when she married. Ruff said he first attempted to put the dress on a regular mannequin, then a child’s mannequin, but finally had to carve a form for it. Ruff said it’s a perfect example of how people were smaller in the past, and the tight bodices and corseted waistlines worn in those days, too.

While at the museum, visitors can watch a 2½-minute video featuring wedding announcements of Smithtown residents in 1961. Ruff said it’s interesting to see the choices couples made as far as venues before the big catering halls of today. He said he chose 1961 because “the video is just a good way of returning to one moment in time, a moment that’s both long ago to feel like history, and maybe modern enough also to have some relevance and connection to people that come to see the exhibit.”

Howard hopes with the exhibit that attendees will not only learn about local history but also realize they can contribute to future exhibits, when they see the artifacts that are on loan. “I want people to learn about the history of Smithtown and the history of Long Island as well. And, I also want people to know that this is a place where they can have a say and have an impact and be a part of something bigger, and that’s what we’re really trying to do,” she said.

With the historical society’s museum located at the Caleb Smith II House on North Country Road slightly north of the Smithtown Library, Ruff said he hopes library patrons will take a few minutes to visit the museum adding, “They can step right next door and see a wonderful little exhibit with really unique little treasures that they’re not going to see anywhere else.”

The Caleb Smith II House, 5 North Country Road, Smithtown will present Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present through Nov. 29. Hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more information, call 631-265-6768 or visit www.smithtownhistorical.org.

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