Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Photos by Chuck Miller; click to enlarge

The camera you see above is a Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic, a model that was produced from 1912 through 1926. Blogger and PermaRec reader Chuck Miller recently acquired it on eBay.

As you can see, the camera was inscribed with a series of etched notations. That's because the each Vest Pocket Autographic came with its own engraving pencil. The pencils were supposed to be used to write notes on the film, allowing the users to annotate their photos, but most people didn't bother with that and instead wrote notes directly on the camera case. You can see the pencil mounted at the bottom of the camera in this next photo, which also shows lots of additional inscriptions (click to enlarge):

If you look near the top of that last photo, you'll see the name "Frank D. Row" surrounded by a series of military locations. Miller (the guy who acquired the camera) figured Row must have had some sort of military connection and had charted his travels on the camera, sort of like a vacationer slapping place-themed decals on a suitcase.

Miller wanted to know more about Row and his travels with the camera, so he did some research and learned that Row served in the Red Cross during World War I and helped to establish a military hospital in France, among other things. Miller's research on Row and his unit turned up evidence that matches up with most of the places etched into the camera. You can read the full story here.

Row died in 1966, but the Red Cross chapter that he belonged to still exists, and Miller plans to return the camera to them shortly — a nice way for the camera to return home.

Miller sounds like a very PermaRec kind of guy. "For years, I've been trying to acquire cameras that have undeveloped film in them — maybe half a roll before the previous owner stopped taking pictures and the camera was lost," he says. "Unfortunately, in most cases the film is so deteriorated that it's undevelopable, or the company I sent it to that promised to develop rare film simply took my money and never gave anything back. So this Vest Pocket Autographic is the first time I've actually been able to get a camera that can tell its story."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Click to enlarge

As you can see above, a 1922 high school sophomore named Jennings Keffer liked to doodle. Those scribblings — and many more, as I'll show you in a minute — appear in an old Shakespeare text that was recently found at a bookstore by a music blogger who calls himself Devil Dick. Although the Shakespeare book has nothing to do with music, Devil Dick found the doodles so enticing that he decided to post them on his blog and try to find out more about Jennings Keffer.

So what sort of doodles did a high school fella create in 1922? Pictures of girls, for starters. And what kinds of girls would be of interest in 1922? Take a look (for all of these images, you can click to enlarge):

It's hard to express how much I love that. I particularly like the cigarette and the bells — scandalous! It's worth noting that while flappers were just becoming a pop-cultural phenomenon in the early 1920s, the term "flapper" has much deeper roots and was long associated with prostitutes, so the word may have had an extra forbidden-fruit quotient or with young Jennings.

Here's another set of doodles from the book:

The most interesting thing here, at least to me, is the pair of baseball drawings on the left side, because Jennings was coming of age at just the right time to be swept up in the national mania surrounding Babe Ruth. The Babe had set a single-season record by hitting 29 home runs in 1919 (the previous record of 27 had stood since 1884) and then completely changed the sport by hitting 54 homers in 1920 and 59 more in 1921. When Jennings was making these doodles in the spring of 1922, Ruth was at the peak of his larger-than-life celebrity arc, and baseball was coming into its own as a powerful cultural and economic engine. Even without televised games, it all must have been a very exciting time to be a teen-aged baseball fan.

If Jennings was a high school sophomore in 1922, that means he was probably born around 1906. Sure enough, Devil Dick did some research and determined that Sidney Jennings Keffer was born in 1906 in West Virginia and died in 1995 in Ohio. You can see Devil Dick's post about all this, including several more pages of doodles, here.

(My thanks to reader Jeff Ash for letting me know about this one.)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On the left is a snapshot from 1933, showing a boy and girl hugging on a sunny day in Syracuse; on the right, a tissue paper collage based on that photo. The collage was done by the children's book author Eric Carle, who also happens to have been the boy in the original photo.

Carle, who's now in his 80s, was three years old when the photo was taken. Last November he told USA Today that he couldn't recall her name — only that she had been his friend and was the daughter of Italian immigrants. He said he had frequently looked at the photo over the years and wondered what had happened to her, so he created the collage based on the photo and used it as the cover illustration for his latest children's book, Friends.

That USA Today article from last November caught the attention of Syracuse Post-Standard writer Sean Kirst, who decided to see if he could track down the little girl in the photo. And now, thanks to some persistent research and a few lucky breaks, he's succeeded. (You can get more info on how he connected the dots here.) Not only has the little girl been identified, but she's still alive. She and Carle spoke on the phone last Sunday, and there's talk of a face-to-face meeting. Great stuff.

(My thanks to reader Anne McNelis for letting me know about this one.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Photos from JillSobule.com

About a dozen years ago, the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule received a vintage charm bracelet as a birthday gift. She had no interest in wearing the bracelet ("not really my style," she would later comment) but nonetheless became obsessed with it. As she wrote on her website in 2012:

Who was the original owner? What did she do? I do know her name was Dottie, as there is a round engraved "Dottie" charm. ... She was not from a wealthy family — the 22 charms are pewter as opposed to silver or gold. She traveled domestically, gathering mementos from Florida to Mackinac Island to New York City. She played piano. She liked big, sculpted poodles. She liked cowboys. She was a working girl; there is an ABWA union (American Woman Business Association) charm and an office chair. She was Jewish — a mezuzah. I keep saying “was” [but] maybe Dottie is still alive. Who knows?

Totally Permanent Record, right? Sobule decided to use the charm bracelet as the organizing theme for a concept album: a dozen songs, each relating to one of the charms on the bracelet, forming a fictional (but plausible) composite view of Dottie's life. But she didn't write the lyrics herself. Instead, she enlisted a bunch of writers — mostly novelists and academics like Jonathan Lethem, Luc Sante, and Rick Moody — and had each of them write a set of charm-based lyrics. She then added the music. The resulting album, Dottie's Charms, is being released on vinyl this weekend (in conjunction with Record Store Day) and will be available digitally on May 5.

Interestingly, Sobule had already been contemplating a similar project before she hit upon the charm bracelet idea. At one point she had considered purchasing a random old high school yearbook on eBay and constructing a concept album around that. But the charm bracelet idea ended up working out better.

The collaborative nature of Dottie's Charms has echoes of the Significant Objects project, in which the writers (and my friends) Rob Walker and Josh Glenn acquired about 200 cheap thrift store items, assigned a writer to create a short story about each of them, and then auctioned off the objects and the stories on eBay. (The stories were later packaged into an excellent book.)

You can learn more about Dottie's Charms in this article, and Sobule will be playing a record-release party for the album on April 24 at City Winery in New York. As she recently wrote on her blog, "Maybe Dottie will show up."

Incidentally, a few years ago I considered writing a song about the Manhattan Trade School report cards that formed the basis of the Permanent Record project. I figured I'd write some lyrics (something I'd never done before), and I asked my friend Lianne Smith — a great singer/songwriter who also happens to be a big PermaRec fan — if she'd be willing to come up with the music and then add the song to her repertoire. She was agreeable, but I never came up with a full set of lyrics. Only managed to do the chorus, the bridge, and part of a verse. This is all a good reminder that I need to dust off that project.

Monday, April 14, 2014

I'm a big fan of prewar country blues, and of course I'm also a fan of artifacts with hidden stories to tell. So I was super-excited when I saw The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this past Sunday: a long-form account of writer John Jeremiah Sullivan's extended research-based attempts to find out something — anything — about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two female blues singers who cut six sides for Paramount in 1930. One of those six songs, "Last Kind Words Blues" (credited to Wiley, as you can see on the label, but with Thomas accompanying her on guitar), is embedded above. If you're not familiar with it, go ahead and give it a listen.

The six Wiley/Thomas sides have long enjoyed a fairly rarefied status among blues connoisseurs and scholars. But those same scholars have failed to turn up any information about Wiley or Thomas. The mystery surrounding the two women is underscored by how rare their recordings are. In the case of one of their records, "Motherless Child Blues" with "Over to My House" on the flip side, only two copies are known to exist.

Many researchers and scholars over the years have loved Wiley and Thomas's music and wanted to know more about them. But Sullivan — the author of the NYT Mag article — seems to have been particularly smitten with them after first hearing their music in 1994. His article details his increasingly obsessive attempts to unlock the stories of these women's lives, and I don't think it's giving too much away to say he ends up hitting a certain degree of paydirt by the article's end.

While the two blueswomen are the article's protagonists, there's another significant character worth mentioning: Mack McCormick (shown at right; click to enlarge), a Houston-based 85-year-old who is said to have the world's largest archive of original blues research content — interview tapes, transcripts, photographs, record company ledgers, birth certificates, death certificates, you name it. I qualified that with "is said to" because McCormick's archive is so massive and unruly (he calls it "the Monster") that even he isn't sure of what he has anymore, which has led some skeptical rival scholars to question whether he really has all that much to begin with. The fact that McCormick is afflicted with bipolar disorder hasn't helped either his reputation or his attempts to organize his archive while he's still alive.

McCormick, who I'd heard of before but didn't really know that much about, comes off as the most fascinating character in the article. Part field researcher, part folklorist, part cultural historian, and part nosybody, he's a white man who was born into a very segregated era and has devoted most of his life to investigating and documenting the history of early-20th-century black American music. At one point he took a job with the census and specifically asked to be assigned to a particular black precinct where he thought (correctly) he'd find lots of old musicians and old records.

But McCormick has become paralyzed by (or maybe victimized by, or even captured by) the scope and depth of his work. He supposedly knows more than anyone has ever known about the most famous country blues singer of all, Robert Johnson, but has been unable to write a book on Johnson — in part, one suspects, because of his mental illness, but also because he got in so deep that he can't create a coherent narrative. And the Johnson situation serves as a metaphor for the rest of his archive, which is uncatalogued and is likely filled with untold stories that could add to our understanding of blues history.

Sullivan's article spends a lot of time discussing McCormick. It seems clear that the two men have a complicated relationship that veers from mentor/acolyte to rivalry, and I wonder if Sullivan envisions — or worries — that one day he'll end up like McCormick, an old man who got so immersed in his life's work that he neglected to shape it into a functional legacy. It raises a question I've often thought about while working on Permanent Record: At what point do we devote so much time and energy to investigating past lives that we lose sight of our own? Or, maybe more to the point, does a fascination with past lives indicate a feeling of emptiness about one's own?

Such introspections notwithstanding, Sullivan's article is superb. Like all stories about the blues, it's also a story about race in America, and a really good one. It's also very, very Permanent Record. It's long — about 14,000 words — but it's absolutely worth your time. Lots of good audio and video content, too. You can check it out here, and there's a follow-up "story behind the story" piece here. Don’t miss.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I occasionally look for PermaRec-ish items on eBay and Etsy — old passports, old ledgers, old scrapbooks, that kind of thing. A week or so ago, for reasons I can't fully explain, I found myself thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if anyone's selling old prescriptions?"

As you can see above, someone certainly was. In fact, as I soon discovered, there are a fair number of people on the internet selling old scripts. The two shown above are from a batch of 25 — all from 1959, mostly from the Kentucky/Tennessee region — that I purchased on Etsy for $3. (If that sounds like a good deal, you can get in on it, because the seller apparently has plenty more.)

Like any old documents, the prescriptions are evocative and feel like they have stories to tell. They've also raised all sorts of issues in my mind. For example:

1. PermaRec has often entailed some ethical concerns about violating people's privacy. I've usually been able to rationalize away those concerns, either because the people involved were likely deceased or because I convinced myself that the pursuit of an artifact's underlying story was worth the risk. But prescriptions feel different — they'd fall under doctor/patient confidentiality, no? And some of the people for whom these prescriptions were written may still be alive. So as you can see, I've blurred out the patients' surnames, which seems like the right approach to take, especially for a prescription like this one:

2. Somewhat related to the above: How did these scripts end up for sale on the internet to begin with? Wouldn't the pharmacy have disposed of them? Or did pharmacies keep paper prescriptions for their recordkeeping in the days before electronic records? The two holes on the left side of each script may indicate that they were all kept in a two-ring binder.

Still, even if the pharmacy kept them around for a bit, it seems surprising (at least to me) that they weren't eventually discarded. So I asked the Etsy seller how she obtained them. Here's how she responded:

The prescriptions came from a Hopkinsville, Kentucky pharmacy. I acquired them some time ago and sadly I don't remember where. However, I buy my inventory from auctions, estate sales, and antique shows, so it was from one of those. ... When I bought them they were in a vintage black pharmacy box with the date and record range on the cover.

I had hoped to pick her brain a bit more in a phone interview, but she declined my request. A pity.

3. Prescriptions are notorious for being rendered illegibly. But the batch I bought ran the gamut from schoolmarm-perfect penmanship to a few that looked like they were written by a caveman with crayon. The worst of the batch was this next one — even with the surname rewritten somewhat more legibly (presumably by someone at the pharmacy), I don't see any need to blur this one out:

4. Leaving aside the legibility factor, prescriptions often feature their own little alphabet of symbols, like the squiggle — which I believe is the symbol for ounces, right? — that appears twice on this one:

(Update: Longtime PermaRec supporter Kirsten Hively has pointed me toward a page that helps decipher old prescription symbology. Thanks, Kirsten!)

5. I was struck by how these 1959 scripts don't have any provision for renewals or generics.

And so on. I'm sure there are some doctors or other medically inclined folks among the the PermaRec readership, so please fill us in on some of the issues I've raised here by posting some info in the comments.

Meanwhile, now that I have the prescriptions, I don't really know what to do with them. Any suggestions?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Photo by Stephanie Strasburg, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Chris Togneri, a writer for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was recently doing some work on his 1890 house. While tearing out an old attic, he found a bunch of items, including the framed display of old century-old baseball cards you see above.

The cards are from the T206 series, which was produced from 1909 to 1911 — the same series that included the famous Honus Wagner card that's generally considered the most valuable baseball card of all time. Unfortunately for Togneri, the cards he found in the attic didn't include a Wagner, although they did feature several other Hall of Fame players. You can read more and see additional photos here.

My favorite part of that article is this passage:

[B]ecause of [the house's] age, it provides countless little treasures. ... While tearing water-stained walls out of the attic, I found old Pittsburgh Press clippings. While digging around in the backyard, I found a tombstone. (It did not come with a body, thankfully. After contacting the family, we were told that Barbara Tremel [the name on the tombstone] was buried in Reserve Township. They could not explain the duplicate tombstone, but were glad to take it off our hands.)

Wow! The baseball cards are cool, but a duplicate tombstone — that's much more PermaRec-ish! Indeed, what is a tombstone if not, literally, a permanent record? I wish Togneri had written more about that instead of relegating it to a parenthetical mention. (Update: For more on the tombstone, scroll down to Taha Jamil's comment below.)

(My thanks to Brian Justman for bringing this one to my attention.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

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Click to enlarge

Lots of people this week have been calling my attention to the photobooth self-portraits shown above. They're nine images out of a collection of 445, apparently taken over the course of several decades, all showing the same man. The 445 images are currently being exhibited as part of a new art show about portraiture at Rutgers University.

I'm sure the whole exhibit is worthwhile — I hope to see it at some point this spring — but it's the photobooth images that are currently garnering the most attention. Writing at Slate, the history blogger Rebecca Onion did a good job of capturing their appeal:

The images are undated and unsorted, but you can make a mental game out of guessing how they might be organized chronologically. The man’s hair grows silver; his face gets craggy. In some frames, he smiles broadly — the grin of a kind uncle or grandfather.

The 445 photobooth shots are owned by historian Donald Lokuta, who purchased them from an antiques dealer in 2012. Lokuta has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to determine the subject's identity and why he took and saved so many photos of himself. Were the photos part of an art project? A neurotic obsession? Simple narcissism? It's a good PermaRec-ish puzzle, at least for now. Given the publicity the photos are currently receiving, I have a feeling this mystery will be solved fairly soon. (You can read more about the how Lokuta came to acquire the photos here.)

As an aside, the first person to tell me about the photobooth shots was longtime PermaRec supporter Kirsten Hively, who has a new blog about portraiture and self-portraiture, called Reflectology. She plans to use it as, among other things, a forum for portraits of herself (like many of us, she doesn't like how she looks in photos, so she's hoping all the portraits will help her come to terms with that). So far she's posted a self-silhouette and an x-ray. Not sure if she's planning to make it all the way to 445 or if she'll be content with a smaller number. Either way, it's a good start.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

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Permanent Record is all about uncovering the stories lurking within found objects. It's a determinedly fact-based approach, employing archival research to determine what really happened.

But found objects also provide lots of opportunities to spin fantasies about what might have been, or to project ourselves into other people's stories, or just to mess around with our perceptions of reality. That's the approach taken by the Florida-based artist Angela Deane, who has a very interesting specialty: She procures old snapshots and paints over most of the people in those photos, transforming them into ghosts. The resulting images, which she calls ghost photographs, can be seen on her Tumblr site (from which all the images in this PermaRec entry were taken).

Deane's response to found objects is obviously very different from mine, which is precisely why I find her project so interesting. It would never even occur to me to modify or alter an artifact like she does. But hey, that's why she's an artist and I'm a journalist, right?

In any case, Deane and I both find inspiration in found objects, so I wanted to learn more about her project. She recently agreed to answer a bunch of my questions via email:

Permanent Record: When and how did you decide to start this project? What was the impetus?

Angela Deane: I started it by a happy accident, really. In the fall of 2012 I had an artist residency in New Mexico. I had bought a bunch of photographs on eBay and at thrift stores, which I planned to use to create collages. When I spread out the photos in my studio, I started wondering what would it be like/mean/look like to paint a ghost over a photograph, to erase the particular of an identity or the ownership of an experience. And so I launched in.

Hours later I sat back and stared down at about 40 or so "ghosted" pictures and was blown away. I knew I was on to something.

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PR: Roughly how many ghost photos have you made? Have you posted all of them on your Tumblr site? If not, how many more have you done besides the ones on the site, and how do you decide which ones go on the site and which ones don't?

AD: I'm on about number 325. Only a handful are on the Tumblr site. Being fairly new to it, I'm taking my time and picking and choosing mostly on whim. Recently I've been sourcing photos based on themes (embraces, birthday parties, parades), so they may post in waves of these moods for some time to come.

PR: Where do you get the found photos? Like, do you hunt for them at flea markets? Did you already have a big stash of them when you started this project?

AD: My initial stash was probably about 100, sourced mostly from eBay and from some from thrift stores in Miami and other places in Florida. In New Mexico I met this guy who had a whole garage full of photos — he even had a deal with all the local thrift stores to give him any of the photos they received first — so I struck a deal with him and got to go through a lot of boxes out there. Got some great ones. I'm back south for the spring and summer, so I'll definitely be hitting up some flea markets! I'll be looking for some good vacation photos, I think.

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PR: How do you decide if a photo is "good enough" or "right" for being painted? Is there a particular type of scene (or feel, or whatever) that you look for?

AD: Mmmm, it remains much of a mystery why I choose the ones I do. In general I'd say I look more for color photos (black and whites make it a little more morbid; more about death, which isn't really how I think of them). I like snapshots. In essence they're just these little moments, generally when people are feeling good, are engaged with one another or with nature. I like those moments where you can feel a pulse in the inattention of what's taking place. Does that make sense?

PR: Why ghosts?

AD: There's a line from a Band of Horses song that goes, "We are the ever-living ghost of what once was." I think of these ghosts not as of people that have passed but each and every one of own experiences that has passed. How to hold memories has always been something that has provoked me to create lots of my art in life. Can we retain them as experiences or do they just turn into anecdotes?

These are intended as ghosts of moments. And in painting away the specificity of the people experiencing them, I like to think it opens things up for any of us to place or project ourselves into that space. They could be our memories now. Of course, that is what a life ends up to be — a collection of moments, experiences, memory — so ultimately I suppose it does grapple with mortality. But I don't think of them morbidly.

And I notice that the ghost photos make most people smile or laugh, which is great. I think the choice of the snapshots contributes to this. A writer on Flavorwire the other day described them as "ghosts having fun" and then did a riff on the whole celebrity mag thing and said, "Ghosts: They're just like us!" I loved it.

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PR: What paint (or white-out, or whatever) do you use to paint the ghosts?

AD: Mostly acrylic, sometimes gouache.

PR: How long does one of the photo paintings typically take you?

AD: Most of them take only about 30 minutes or so, but lately I've been doing some with upwards of 100 or 200 ghosts in them, and I spend a few hours with those.

PR: At first I thought you turned every person in each photo into a ghost. But then I saw you sometimes leave some people un-ghosted (like the people in the background of this shot). Is there a rule or system you use when deciding who gets ghosted and who doesn't?

AD: Not really; just a gut feeling. Sometimes I imagine myself as the un-ghosted people, looking on at the "ghosts" and "spaces to project other people in" and want to keep them intact so they can be more concrete witnesses to something magical happening. It gives a different focus to the ghosted characters. And once in awhile it's just as simple as finding their face simpatico, or liking their stance, and therefore wanting to leave them intact.

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PR: Do people send found photos to you to paint, either for commissions or just as a "I thought you'd like to have this" kind of thing?

AD: Yeah, I have a few commissions under my belt. I love doing them. This past December I had a show with F.L.A. Gallery and was put in touch with Amy Sedaris, who is crazy for ghosts and commissioned me to paint a bunch of family photos to gift to her siblings. Very cool!

PR: Have you had any other ghost photo gallery shows besides that one?

AD: Yeah, I've had a couple. The last was in Los Angeles at a friend's spot called "Matters of Space" in Highland Park. It was well-received and has brought me a couple projects in the works, which I can't get into yet but are very exciting. The F.L.A. Gallery show was also terrific and was so beneficial, as it was the first time I'd seen so many of the photos framed in a group rather than just in my studio.

PR: Have you ever tried to find any of the people in any of these photos, and/or has anyone ever told you, "Hey, I recognize that photo"?

AD: Only once, out in New Mexico! And actually I never painted over that photo because it's so great — an older man out in his front lawn, standing proud. Sometimes there are names written on the back of the photos, but I've never thought to Google anyone. Maybe I should..? Hope they'd be cool with being turned into spirits.

I also haven't done any personal photos of my own yet. But may do a few soon. Some goofy ones from junior high or something, maybe my softball team portrait.

PR: How long do you think this project will keep going?

AD: I keep getting nervous that I'm not "over" it yet. But I gotta tell you, my curiosity remains piqued with each one that I make. And they're just beginning to get out into the world to such a nice reception, which makes me feel okay for wanting to paint maybe 3,000 of these guys. These last few years I've been bouncing around cities (Miami, New York, Seattle, Gainesville), so the fact that these are so portable — very different from my larger-scale paintings — is pretty addictive.

PR: Any other thoughts about found objects?

AD: Just that I love them. Much of my d├ęcor is second-hand. I love the hunt of it, I love the slow meandering and contemplation of the hunt — it's never speedy. Stories that are embedded yet unknown, endless mystery in objects and a reminder that time just continues on.

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My thanks to Angela for answering all my questions. I was particularly struck by this passage from one of her responses: "How to hold memories has always been something that has provoked me to create lots of my art in life. Can we retain them as experiences or do they just turn into anecdotes?"

I totally relate to this notion of experience morphing into anecdotes. You start by experiencing something, and then proceed to remembering that experience. But if it's a memory that you tell or explain to others, sometimes the memory gets superceded by the telling and retelling of the memory, until you no longer remember the original experience — you just remember how you've told the story, like a script that you've internalized. Or at least that's what I've often found to be the case. Even the experience that gave birth to the Permanent Record project — the night I found the old Manhattan Trade School report cards at my friend Gina's birthday party in 1996 — falls into this category. I don't really remember much about that night anymore; what I remember is the countless times I've told the story about that night. That troubles me a bit, because it feels like the original experience has gotten lost along the way.

For those who want to see and hear more about Angela's work, here's a good video interview with her, which was produced in conjunction with one of her recent gallery shows:

(Extra-special thanks to Heather McCabe for bringing Angela's Tumblr site to my attention.)