Let’s face it: these have been some long, difficult, somewhat depressing 18 months. Even those of us who were managing fairly well all through last year, buoyed as we were by the hope of Covid vaccines, have now become a little frayed around the edges with the new surge of the Delta variant. Two steps forward, one step back…is this going to be our forever normal and, if so, how do we stay motivated to carry on through an endless repetition of groundhog days?
You might recall from your high-school English or history classes that people always looked to their heroes to lead and inspire, especially in times of crisis. In classic literature (think Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy), heroes were bigger than life, sometimes considered mortal gods, always willing and able to save the day. Classic heroes shared certain basic characteristics: they were generally high-born or of high position, destined for greatness with exceptional abilities that ordinary mortals didn’t possess. They were devoted to a cause or quest greater than themselves, which made them fearless warriors in the face of great odds, and of course, they were almost always men. But then there was that pesky “tragic flaw,” that particular character weakness that presented a nagging spiritual/moral battle within that usually ended in the hero’s death. (Again, think Achilles or Macbeth.)
The problem with classic definitions of heroes is that the line between myth and reality blurs with time, especially as tales of the hero’s feats morph into legend over generations. To this day, glorious stories about some of the most towering figures of the past, people such as Alexander the Great or Moses, are short on factual corroboration. And when we move from heroes of the ancient world to those of the more recent past, to pivotal leaders such as Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King, reinterpretations of the corroborating facts invite controversy. For example, is Mahatma Gandhi the hero who freed India from British rule and established it as an independent nation, or did he ultimately allow India to be split in two?
Thus, the concept of a classic hero, both in modern literature and in modern life, becomes problematic. The cynics among us (or realists, if you prefer) see the “tragic flaws” of character as being at the core of the human condition, so our literary heroes tend to be anti-heroes, characters such as Willy Loman whose greatest flaw is his failure to see beyond the myth of the American Dream. Larger-than-life heroes with super-human strength and power are more commonly found in fantasy than in fact, which explains the enormous popularity (and the multibillion dollar industry) of superhero figures in comic books, video games, and movies in our current age of cynicism.
These days we are all more likely to agree on reasons to celebrate and award medals to the “everyman” heroes among us (Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding): our service men and women, firefighters and police, first responders and medics, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, all of whom do the work that most of us are either unable or unwilling to do. Ironically, most of these everyday people would deny that they are heroes at all, often appearing embarrassed to be singled out for recognition claiming that they are “only doing their jobs” even as they risk their lives. In a way, I understand their reluctance; hero is a hard title to live up to and the opposite title of villain is always just a hubristic misstep away. Ask Andrew Cuomo.
I have never been much into hero worship, even as a kid. There are, of course, people whom I greatly admire because of their deeds or because of how they have directly affected me, but I don’t expect any of them to be superhuman and without flaws. Rather, as I always say about love in marriage, you love someone not because he/she is perfect, but in spite of their all too human faults and foibles. I prefer to look for inspiration in reality, not fantasy.
This is especially true in my creative life and it has been especially true over these many long months of Covid and natural disasters and political upheaval and national discord. Amid all the bad news and bad behaviors, let me find some inspiration, let me find reasons to smile — please!
Iris Apfel is a self-described “geriatric starlet.” At age 99 (her birthday is in a few days), she is a businesswoman (still), an interior designer (still), a social whirlwind in New York City (still), and a style maven known for her iconic high/low style that mixes couture fashion with flea-market finds (still). Her sense of personal style is so original, in fact, that in 2005 the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured an exhibition (Rara Avis) of her clothes and accessories making her the first living woman who was not a fashion designer to be so honored. Since then, her fame and her recognition with her big black glasses have exploded; there are books, articles, films, collaborations with multiple brands and retailers, and even Iris Barbie dolls!
I have never met Iris Apfel, though I have seen the documentary, read her book and own one of the Barbie dolls, but I don’t need to know her personally to be inspired by her obvious energy and joie de vivre. As Rachel Zoe, a stylist to movie stars, has said, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” Iris doesn’t have to speak because she screams with the confidence, gratitude, good humor, and acceptance of each and all that can only come from a life of hard work, well-lived and well-loved. Just thinking about her makes me smile.
Which is why, here in the doldrums of a hot and hateful summer, I decided to do the thread-painted portrait of her above. “Oh, Iris!” is being sent to the Studio Art Quilts Associates for their traveling trunk show program, which passes samples of these small 10” x 7” quilts to member groups around the world for study and education over a three-year period.
Perhaps Iris will inspire them as she has me, or at least make them smile.