Literary Paraphernalia: The Second Life of Romance Novels

carrie_annCarrie Ann Schumacher is an artist and teacher living in Chicago. She uses various mediums to create her pieces, like paint, videos, and even the pages of romance novels. With the book pages, Carrie Ann makes beautiful, one-of-a-kind dresses. I first stumbled upon her dresses on Tumblr; I spent the next hour captivated by them, scrolling through older posts and making my way to her website, where I scanned through her portfolio. Each dress is extremely elaborate and intricate. I was curious about Carrie Ann’s process and the books that inspired the pieces, so I reached out to her for an interview.

The Poetics Project: First off, I’ve looked at most of the pieces you’ve shared on your Tumblr and website. My favorites so far are Vicki and The Vision, Harlequin, and Never the Prom Queen. Do you have any favorites?

Carrie Ann Schumacher: Every dress is my favorite and my least favorite when I make it. On one hand, I’m usually pretty excited when I’m done because I’ve tried something new or I’ve executed something that’s been floating around in my head for a while. On the other hand, I know every single flaw and mistake of each dress. There’s definitely an unglamorous side of creating the pieces that I’m intimate with, so sometimes it’s hard for me to see the beauty. Alice and the Boy She Left Behind will always be my favorite-favorite, at least when it was first made. Creating the dress was this really intense out-of-body experience. I made that piece the week after my grandmother died as a prayer and an apology, and it was exhausting and all consuming. Seeing it completed was like coming through to the other side or giving birth; all of a sudden you’re at the start of something new. I think I slept for three days when I was finally done.

Alice and The Boy She Left Behind 2011
Alice and The Boy She Left Behind 2011
TPP: It looks like you have a few degrees under your belt. You have a B.F.A. in Digital Media and a M.F.A. in Painting (I swear I’m not stalking you). Do you find that the skills you learned earning those degrees have helped you design the dresses?

CAS: I’m not one who really categorizes mediums. I would never say “I’m a painter” or “I’m a sculptor,” and I could never be someone who works in a single medium. Rather, I work with what I want when I want (I’m such a rebel), and I firmly believe that an interdisciplinary approach to art only serves to strengthen my practice as a whole. It is difficult for me to say if there are any direct skills that transfer from my degrees, but rather, I think the practice of art in general forces you to think and look at things differently. Any sort of creative process is going to inform another. The painting and digital aspects of my practice use different parts of my brain than creating the dresses, but that’s good because then I don’t have unused or stupid parts of my brain. Well, the foreign language and math parts are probably underused. But I personally wouldn’t set up my practice any other way. I get bored way too quickly, and I very much enjoy integrating a number of disciplines into my art.

TPP: Each of your dresses looks so intricate and unique, but what I like about them is that they actually look like dresses that could be worn. They are stylish and beautiful. Do you have any experience in fashion design? And if not, how have you overcome that challenge?

Harlequin 2011
Harlequin 2011

CAS: I have one sculpture class from undergrad under my belt and one class in fashion history during grad school. Beyond 4th through 6th grade, when I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up and drew my own catalogs and magazines, I have no experience. I think this may work in my favor, however. I tend to over analyze and overwork everything. It’s just my personality, and the more I know about a subject, the more I’m going to think about it. That may be why my paintings aren’t as successful; too much thought goes in to them. But the dresses just let me be. They’re immediate. Glue something on and it looks wrong? Tear it off. There’s no waiting. I can look at it immediately and make a decision. I also tend to have a fetish for over the top in art work, and I can definitely indulge those instincts with the dresses. If I do tend to overwork a dress, fabulous. There’s almost no saturation point.

It’s always about experimentation. Failure is a huge part of being an artist, and I think most people are afraid to address that. But if you’re going into the arts, you better become good friends with failure, because there’s no prescribed formula for success. So I play a lot. Play and cut up paper and glue and see what happens. If it’s awful, I can try again tomorrow.

TPP: So, since we are a literary blog, why make dresses out of the pages of romance novels? I read that you came across a box of discarded romance novels. How did that discovery transform into the concept of dresses made from their pages? Is there a connection between the designs and the books?

Never the Prom Queen 2011
Never the Prom Queen 2011

CAS: The books are a loaded material; society has already prescribed meaning and significance to romance novels. I simply get to play with those associations and assumptions that are already embedded in the materials. If I were making dresses out of plain computer paper, I don’t think the pieces would carry the same conceptual weight.

I see a lot of connections between the worlds of romance novels and fashion. Because what is fashion, most of the time, but a way to obtain romance? If I’m sexy and I look good, I’ll land a mate, right? At least, isn’t that what we’re sold from childhood? Wear the right clothes, put on make-up, style your hair, weigh the right amount, and you’ll be a real woman, because we all know beauty, fashion, and romance are what defines femininity. There’s a definite disconnect from reality, because the real world isn’t just that. Sure there’s a time and a place for looking beautiful, but there’s also a time and place for sitting on the couch and watching Netflix marathons and eating macaroni. I’m pretty sure my husband loves me either way. And while I love clothes, I also love laser tag. And while I do wear make-up, I’ve also taught wood shop. I guess what I’m trying to say is there are a lot of aspects to being a woman, and many times, they are seemingly conflicting, at least in regards to prescribed gender roles. We are real people after all.

I don’t necessarily read the books and create the design around the plots. I am working on a Fifty Shades of Grey dress, but I need more copies. Maybe that one will be super S&M.

TPP: Are you a reader? If so, how does that impact your process? What are some of your favorite books?

Vicki and The Vision 2013
Vicki and The Vision 2013

CAS: Everyone always assumes I must hate reading, and I don’t. I get a lot of hate mail in regard to “destroying literature” and have been called a cunt. But actually, I am a huge reader and always have been. I was the weird kid who would beg my mom to take me to the library on Friday afternoons so I could stock up for the weekend. I used to play hooky from school so I could stay home and make it through all fifty thousand Baby-Sitter’s Club books. When we read books for school, I was the student who was always seven chapters ahead. And really, nothing has changed.

Sometimes I do feel guilty for cutting up books because I was raised to regard books as sacred objects. But that’s changing. We have e-books now. So is this paper object really that sacred, or is it the ideas? And obviously, the ideas can be captured or documented a million different ways nowadays. I really don’t intend to offend anyone or their work.

My all time favorite book ever is Blankets. I sob every time I read it; it’s such a beautiful and perfect mix of words and imagery. Otherwise, I’m extremely eclectic. I read from every genre, and I can get sucked into things that I initially think won’t hold my interest. That’s one of the reasons I loved working in the library—checking in books was like a treasure trove! I’d always end up with a stack to take home.

TPP: I noticed each of your dresses has a name. Do you design the dress with a name in mind?

CAS: I generally don’t design dresses with names in mind, because I’m never quite sure what personality the dress is going to have when I finish it. I’m a horrible sketcher, and the process of creating the dresses is so intuitive that my plans always change halfway through. Each dress is a bit of a discovery or a surprise in a way. Carolyn and the Mae of 1968, for instance, is named after my mom, who is extremely modest. A dress with a plunging neckline or short skirt never would have done it for her. So I had to wait until I had a dress that wasn’t overtly sexy.

TPP: And finally, do you know when you next exhibit will be?

CAS: I currently have an exhibition at Moraine Valley Community College that runs through February 7. I will be part of a panel on February 4 at the Beauty and Brawn Gallery in Chicago. Beyond that, I have a show at the Harold Washington Library over the summer, and after that, I’ll be exhibiting at UC Clermont College, Jasper Arts Center, and North Central College.

If you liked Carrie Ann’s dresses, you can view more at her website or follow her on Tumblr.

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