“Everything has value. Nothing should be discarded.”
It’s a dry winter morning in the far reaches of upper Manhattan. The pulse of the city slows as the temperature drops, and a patina of salt and frost dulls the hues of the streetscape. This is Washington Heights. The neighborhood has never been glamorous or controversial. Situated at the tippy top of Manhattan, Washington Heights has long been a modest choice for those seeking low rent who don’t mind the long subway ride from the city’s bustling cultural and commercial centers.
I ascend the stairs from the subway stop at 181st and Fort Washington and turn south, hunching forward against the bitter air. I duck into the long interior courtyard of a sepia-toned apartment complex that rules the block like some concrete overlord. I press the buzzer and Rebecca Purcell cheerfully buzzes me up.
Rebecca and her partner, photographer and designer Jeffery Jenkins, have lived in this working-class neighborhood for over fifteen years. As she greets me at the door and beckons me in, she’s inviting me into another world. I step from the bland hallway into a world rich with color and texture with a dizzying array of sumptuous details and colliding visual fragments. Rebecca has transformed the space into a veritable museum for her massive collection of clothing, textiles, books and sculptural objects d’art. Rich tapestries adorn the walls, hung beside quirky paintings. Every inch of the large apartment is layered with vivid fabrics and strange relics forming a frenzied montage.
The visual chaos is clearly the result of contemplated curation. Rebecca has erected a world that honors the mythology of objects and embraces the act of arrangement as an artistic praxis. This praxis, while extremely visually satisfying, is steeped in a utopian worldview. To Rebecca, the found object is visually appealing because it has acquired spiritual qualities from its successive users throughout its lifetime. It’s this acknowledgment of spiritual continuity that has led Rebecca to redefine the concept of luxury in uniquely feminine terms. She’s an obsessive collector, yes, but truly it is Rebecca’s reverence for the history of objects and empathic approach to allegorical display that forms the basis for her stylistic examinations. She embraces nostalgia and decay to rescue the past and place it firmly at the core of modernity’s curriculum of comfort.
As I surrender myself to the charms of this exquisite world hidden away at the top of Manhattan, I can’t help wondering about the motivation for its creation. I sink back into a plush chair that wraps me in red velvet. I focus on Rebecca, the Artist-As-Stylist and contemplate the subtle distinctions that this title implies.
RA: How did you get started as a stylist?
RP: I moved to New York in 1989 from Atlanta. I had a background working in display already so it was kind of a natural progression for me. I first got a job working at Charivari through my roommate and then I moved on to ABC Home, a job that ended up shaping the direction of my art and my life. That was really a formative experience for me. I worked at ABC Home under the direction of Paulette Cole during the birth of the whole past/present aesthetic and at that time, it was radical. The idea that we would put these really distressed chairs that were totally falling apart in the windows with these very high-priced luxury items was really disturbing to a lot of people. I mean, we would get mail… confused and angry mail. But, this was early on when Paulette had first come up with these concepts. ABC Home had just opened on the third floor of that building on Broadway, and it was just me and two stock boys actualizing all of her ideas.
RA: Past/Present. Is that a defining term for you?
RP: Yes, I think so. The whole past/present idea, I think, really has at its core a philosophical concept. Everything has value, nothing should be discarded. You can also take that to a social level. There aren’t throw-away people and there aren’t throw-away societies. I think this idea has clearly gained resonance in recent years. I also think a lot of people are responding to old objects, because of the legacy of the people that have owned them and used them still permeates that object. There is a spiritual element that objects acquire from their owner’s over time. It’s a way of honoring, not the legendary person, but the billions of human hands that have built our world, and on whose shoulders the most famed among us stand.
RA: Are you a commercial artist or a fine artist?
RP: I don’t think I would define myself as either. That’s why I use the term Artist-As-Stylist. Maybe that’s hard for people to understand. I guess I’ve always kind of been a hybrid of things. I always know what I’m doing…I know what it is. I’m just not quite sure what to call it. I just do the work I do. I could see it in a magazine, or I could see it in a gallery, or I could see it in a cool store that I like. I don’t have a problem with any of that. They all make sense to me.
RA: So, how did you meet Morgan?
RP: I heard about this person, this designer, named J. Morgan Puett that had this store down on Broome Street. This was around 1991. I went down to check it out and the store was just beautiful and her clothes were just stunning. Again, this was the beginning of this whole past/present thing, so this was very new, all the rumpled linen and hand-dyed fabrics. I mean, that was just not happening anywhere else. She was a forerunner of all of that. I really wanted to meet her and introduce myself and I almost just walked in and did that. But, then I thought: this is not the way to meet her. I can come up with something a little bit better. I went back to my job at ABC, and we had this bedding shop that needed some curtains for the windows. Bingo! I called her up and asked her if she would be interested in doing curtains for us and possibly doing a bedding line and, if so, would she like to meet ME. She was very interested so we made an appointment to meet, at MY place of work.
RA: That’s amazing. I’ll have to remember that.
RP: Yeah, I think it was the right move. I wanted our meeting to be on equal terms. Now I just had to make the right first impression. I didn’t want to come off as just some fan. So, our meeting was coming up and I remembered this skirt that I had seen at the flea market. It was a carriage skirt, ochre-colored; it had these seams that go all the way around it with a little piece of black velvet trim on the bottom of it. It was like a blanket skirt, you know, like the kind they wore in carriages at the turn of the century. I had to have that skirt. I knew that if I had that skirt, then she would know that I knew… you know what I mean? So, I went back to the flea market to get this skirt and of course it was too expensive. I had to haggle with this guy who didn’t want to sell it to me, and finally as I’m walking away he let me have it for twenty bucks. So, there I am at ABC Carpet wearing this ochre- colored carriage skirt with a pair of milk chocolate Mary Jane shoes, and in walks J. Morgan Puett. She takes one look at me, falls to her knees and goes “Oh my God! That skirt, those shoes!” That was it. We’ve been best friends ever since.