Classy Old New Yorker Spotlight: Bill Cunningham

On Friday night, my dear friend Stacey “babysat” me and Olive while Joel was the DJ at his friend’s SF wedding.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I have a penchant for “bad” entertainment: movies, books & TV shows that are just that side of campy and brilliant.  When your life’s work is as serious and intense as mine, you need lots of inanity to find balance.

Well, Stacey hangs out with me once a week, and invariably I want to watch something awful like Showgirls or Step Up 3.  This time, she put her foot down.  “We have to watch something ACTUALLY good, not good-because-it’s-cringe-worthy.”  “Okay, I guess a break from the low-brow is healthy.  Maybe next week we’ll re-watch Hackers.”  “No.  I need like, a month.”  “A MONTH?!  Was watching Burlesque while horrified/amused/embarrassed that my mother recommended it to us that bad?”  “Yes.  Let’s feed our brains.”

So, we checked out Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about the elusive 81-year-old street fashion photographer for the New York Times.  I have been spending a lot of time with actual monks and nuns lately, but Bill constitutes his own form of aesthetic artist who is literally married to his work.

Bill himself, the man on the scene.

The doc is fascinating for many reasons, but the true shock was seeing Bill’s apartment/studio in Carnegie Hall, which was about the size of a public restroom and FILLED with wall-to-wall filing cabinets of his photos.  There was a tiny space carved out for a cot in the midst of it.  He hung his clothes (which for all his love of wild outfits is an incredibly tame self-imposed “habit”) on the cabinet drawers.  He parks his bike in a utility closet on the first floor.  You can say in words “he is utterly devoted to his work” but it is another thing to see it in how he creates such little space for his own personal effects in his living environment.

As I’ve said before, I really love the style of people of a certain age (that is, those who have many candles on their birthday cake).  The blog Advanced Style, is a fabulous celebration of older New Yorkers like Iris Apfel and Ilona Royce Smithkin.  There is something particularly admirable about older folks who live in New York — that city will chew you up and spit you out and somehow they’ve managed to not only survive it, but to grab it and shape it and put their unique stamp on it.

Iris, looking ravishing as usual.

I reflected to a new friend the other day that I would love to live in New York, but I don’t feel that I have enough ambition so I chose San Francisco instead.  She sort of laughed at me, pointing out that I have enough ambition to have 2 jobs, a marriage, a baby, a blog, a spiritual practice, an arts practice, and a social life.  I was a bit chagrined, but still — the kind of pluck you have to have to make it in New York is all of that and then some.  I am currently trying to devise a trip there in December, to show Olive the pulsing teaming lifeform that is that city.  Perhaps we will stop by Occupy Wall Street there and see how the original compares to our version here in SF!

Anyway, Bill Cunningham is as dedicated to his work as an artist as my friends in spiritual orders are to their vows, and he got me thinking if there is anything in my life I feel that ferociously about, that I could lose myself in so completely.  I don’t feel that the work I do as a therapist is the kind of work that you SHOULD lose yourself in in such a way.  You have to retain a sense of self so that you have something to offer to the client and to be a whole person.  I think I could really find that singularity of purpose with writing, but lately it has been hard to even meet my goal of writing every day, never mind making it the binding principle of my life.

That begs the question — should I be balancing all my passions, or letting one consume me and giving my all to it?  As a mother, it is a moot point.  I am undeniably a better mom to Olive when I have my priorities in check and am trying to find the balance of my calling/passion and the mundane everyday tasks of living.  And I will never totally give in to a “thing”, as relationships are my number one commitment.  I guess I just love knowing that people like Bill are out there.  His monastic form of art-making brings beauty to the world.

How do you like to create art — do you lose yourself completely and give up all for it, or do you find it here and there, cobbling together a patchwork life of art and dishes?

8 thoughts on “Classy Old New Yorker Spotlight: Bill Cunningham

  1. Love this, and I can completely relate. Also being a therapist, I feel I can’t give my whole self to any one “thing” either- and especially not the career. However, I beg to offer that everything we do supports that calling, perhaps not directly but it is there- that we are growing and enjoying other passions so we can share those pieces of ourselves with our clients. Hence, it really is all for the work… and I am amazed at your strength,
    I don’t even have a hubby or baby and I feel a mess at times! haha
    I also feel you on the need for inane and terribly bad/awesome movies etc- check out “airbourne 1993” youtube has the entire flick (1:25 hrs) and its glorious… rollerblading, surfer DUDE dialogue, and bullies. 🙂
    As far as our elders? they are the shit. maybe one day we can do a seniors dance and singing group?! 🙂

    • Beth, This is a fabulous comment for so many reasons. I like your take on all that we do outside therapy supporting the work. That is a wonderfully life-giving way to think of it! And now I have a new horrible/amazing movie to check out — score! YES to seniors rock project!

  2. I think it’s all about the balance. At least for peeps like us, who want deep, satisfying relationships and a family. I, too, admire people like Bill Cunnigham and their all or nothing approach to art, but that’s not me. It took me many years to realize that, though. I used to beat myself up for not dedicating myself enough to my art. But in the end, I learned that I’d rather live a life that’s fulfilling in all ways. Plus, I believe that if you live in a way that makes you happy, art and creation will come out of that naturally. It might just not be in the way you think.

    Now onto more important things: bad movies! I love them. Love. Especially teen movies. Have you seen Center Stage? If not, you need to watch it immediately. It’s my all-time favorite teen movie. I’ve probably watched it twenty times. At least.

    • You are so wise. And of COURSE I’ve seen Center Stage, about a zillion times. That shit just never gets old! I even saw the sequel — oh yes I did — it’s terrible terrible but the two main dudes are in it! No Zoe Saldana, though 🙂

  3. Rhea, once again, you have put words to my inner thoughts! I’m definately cobbling together a patchwork….no full on art dedication from me in terms of Bill’s way.
    I always felt i ‘should’ be making art more to truly be an ‘artist’ but then i have realised ‘making art’ is much wider than the box i was putting it in. I find that my creativity is no longer so ‘defined’ but more about living life out…
    As a therapist I also LOVE the comment by miss Beth that all the other passions we have and do are part of what we offer our clients…to ‘share those pieces of ourselves’
    So I’m glad to share with no shame that maintaining balance in my life meant that last night me and two friends shared too much wine, ate too much chocolate pudding (if there is ‘too much’ with chocolate?) in front of Dirty Dancing! oh yes. I still LOVE that film.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog. I’ve never done blogging, I’m inspired
    sending love from London

    • Ooh yes Georgie, please do a blog! I’d love to see some pics of your London life and hear more of your musings. Everyone in the US thinks it’s odd that I eat chocolate pudding, since here it’s mostly something children eat. Maybe I need to hang with more British folks, who never grow out of pudding! Here’s to balance!

  4. Rhea…I’m not sure I have your ability to blog and cope with the rest of life (though I’m having a particularly ‘shit i can’t do this work….its so hard’ type of day…crisis in confidence…feeling overwhelmed…which being in the final year of my Masters with a huge thesis to write is not ideal timing… i’m forgetting to hug that big old oak tree for strength…
    perhaps you could shoot up a prayer for me as someone who has got through the studies!
    I’m not saying a definate no to blogging…but for now reading yours is inspiring me enough…
    and YES to pudding and YES to you eating more of it with British folks!

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