The Hundred Dresses Project
Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses was one of my favorite books as a child—the story of Wanda Petronski and the hundred dresses. Wanda is an immigrant girl from a war-devasted Europe of seventy-five years ago, who, living in small-town America, is teased for her accent, her name, her clothes, and her poverty. Her story is as pertinent now as it was in 1945. It has never been out of print since it was published and won a Newbery award that same year. For Crystal Cawley, a New England artist who works with paper, textiles, collected objects, and all sorts of “repurposed” material, the story held special meaning.
“I first read the book about eight years ago,” says Crystal. “The mother of a student of mine asked if I’d heard of it because I was telling her about some work I made called One Hundred Drawings of the Same Thing. She, like so many who cherish this book, loved the story for its ending—for not having a tidy ending where everything gets settled and everybody becomes friends. As an artist who explores the issues of identity, of time, and of loss, this book is the snapshot of those ideas as a young person.
“The Hundred Dresses is all about being included—or not,” Crystal continues. “It perfectly describes bullying. The story is told from the [perspective of a] friend of the most popular girl, who is afraid she will be the next child bullied, for, like Wanda, she is poor. And in Wanda, the reader is shown the courage to be who you are, anyway.” Crystal’s artistic response will be on view here in Williamsport in The Hundred Dresses Project: We Are All in This Together from June 4 to July 23 at The Gallery at Penn College. For this project, Crystal printed 200 yellow dresses complete with a border and label. In March of 2016, she invited people of all ages, genders, and walks of life to read the book and make a dress that was their personal response to the story. Like the story, where Wanda submitted not one drawing for a contest, but instead sent all 100 dresses she made, this exhibit includes every dress that was returned to her.
It was the promotion of the exhibition in New England that sparked the interest of Penny Griffin Lutz, director of The Gallery at Penn College. “I already owned the book, and I thought it would be wonderful if [Cawley] could exhibit here,” she says.
Penny also wanted the children and the community to get involved, much like what she saw at the first exhibit in Waynflete School in Portland, Maine. There, Crystal and The Hundred Dress exhibit truly engaged the community.
“The show ran from September to December, and, through the course of it, the artwork of the students at the school was added,” Penny says. “By late November, there were notebooks full of black and white prints by the middle and high school students, collage dresses by the youngest children, and some absolutely breathtaking large cut paper pieces by the advanced art students. Every time I went back to the gallery there was more art to see.”
Here in the Keystone State, Penny reached out to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for a small grant to bring this exhibit to third, fourth, and fifth graders in the school districts in Lycoming County. Art teachers from six school districts accepted the invitation and received a copy of the book for the students, along with markers and dress prints for each participating student. Over 1,300 dresses from Lycoming County students will also be on display in this exhibition.
There is also a collaboration between Studio 570, a Williamsport-based theater company, and The Gallery at Penn College to create an adaptation of the Estes book. This group creates theater in “found spaces”—often public spaces—to bring theater to the public and to expand the local arts community. Jared Whitford, founder and artistic director, is producing a forty-five minute performance based on the book. Seven local performers will be featured, and one, the actress playing Wanda, is learning Polish for her role. Performances will be at the Gallery on June 13, 20, and 27 at 6 p.m., and on June 16, 19, 23, 26, and 30 at 2 p.m.
It’s the kind of community involvement Crystal hopes for.
The public, and especially the local school children who have dresses in the exhibit, are invited to the artist’s opening reception and gallery talk on June 6 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at The Gallery at Penn College. For more information call (570) 320-2445, send an email to [email protected], or visit pct.edu.