Issue 8.3: June/July 2005

Inside the Dream Factory

story by Liza Simon
photos by Karl Backus


This may be the only time I conduct an interview under the wafting canopy of a gigantic dress constructed of doilies. I sit here cross-legged on the floor of the Golden Egret Studio at the behest of my interview subject: painter, photographer, collagist and self-described maker of "dress as architecture," Anna Peach. Anna weds her affinity for the wild with her passion for art’s transformative power; since our first meeting less than twenty-four hours ago, she has regaled me with anecdotes that intertwine her art with her Midwestern roots, global explorations and current capers here in Honokaa, a small town north of Hilo. This is a woman who’s so far out she actually loops around and hooks up with tradition, resurrecting the long-lost role of the artist as shaman, merry trickster, healer.

About this doily dress, for example: Anna traces its inspiration to memories of winter that spurred her to decorate her Honokaa studio’s storefront window with "snowflakes" she made from Goodwill doilies. One night she came upon a group of elderly women gathered on the sidewalk, gazing in the window. "It hit me that there was something about these pieces that was really historical, and soon after, it popped into my head to make something massive and over the top that would also be a sanctuary," says Anna.

Word on the project got around, and before long people were presenting her with heirloom doilies. She made them into a bodice fitted to a tailor’s dummy, then went to e-Bay and bought doilies from around the world for the skirt. It now hangs suspended—about twenty feet in diameter, made from some 700 doilies—from several studio walls. "This is a memory device," she says, glancing around at the skirt. "People see it and start gushing about a mother or grandmother who used to make doilies."

There’s even a paranormal connection between the past and the singular dress. But to appreciate the full chicken-skin effect of that connection, you have to understand how Anna got into the Golden Egret Studio in the first place. It began when she entered the costume contest for Honokaa’s annual Western Week parade with an elaborate saloon girl outfit of satin and lace. It caught the eye of octogenarian Mrs. Evelyn Andrade, proprietor of Honokaa’s vintage Andrade building. "She heard I was looking for an art space," remembers Anna. "I tried to tell her that my art wasn’t the conventional kind, but she told me she thought I had spunk, and I would make the town a better place."

Anna moved into the building, right on Honokaa’s main street. There were vague allusions that something unsavory had gone in the space, hints that a kahuna had been brought in to bless it. When Anna asked for details, her new neighbors—including the retirees who gathered regularly on the benches across the street—were not forthcoming.

Anna developed a sudden passion for sewing. Machines seemed to just appear, six in all: Some were gifts from townspeople; one she found in perfect condition at the landfill; one appeared at a second-hand store, where the salesperson begged her to take it away because it took up too much room. She hunkered down in the studio for all-night solo sewing bees. "And I always hated sewing as a girl," she says. "This wasn’t rational. Why was I doing this?" Mrs. Andrade happened in at five one morning, when Anna was ready to chuck the whole doily dress project. "That’s when she told me what I already knew on some level: The storefront was once a tailor’s shop, where the distraught tailor took his own life. This is how it goes for me: I make the work and then the story comes through."

"Social Process," one of
Anna's Coconut Couture
pieces, is made of lauhala
that has been twisted,
woven and sewn to
a nylon girldle.

When Anna was six, a farmer’s daughter in Janesville, Wisconsin, she made a list of places she wanted to visit. In her last year at one of the nation’s most iconoclastic art schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she hit the road in search of the artistic muse. She started in her ancestral Ireland, where she concocted an aerial photo study of remote islands, capturing incongruous post-modernist juxtapositions such as ancient Celtic crosses crisscrossed by utility lines. The work garnered her awards, national attention and several solo exhibitions.

Next, in what she calls "my Indiana Jones phase" came forays into the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, including time with indigenous whale hunters "some seven islands east of Bali" who taught her textile weaving; a visit to a Tantric shrine deep in the Sumatran jungle; and an excursion to the Japanese city of Kyoto, where she learned the technique of gilding used in ancient temples. Weeks after her return to Chicago, a lucrative job in this rare and specialized skill came her way. "I realized that even if I was an outsider, I was a people’s artist. Everything in my life had pointed me towards this less- conservative approach," she says.

Anna arrived in Honokaa four years ago with her husband-to-be, a tall redhead from Switzerland. A whim, she says, drove them here: The two had gone on-line to find a place where they could marry and settle down, and they came up with Honokaa. They got off the plane in Hilo not knowing a soul and drove straight to their own wedding ceremony, which they had managed to plan in advance, enlisting the florist and various church goers—all strangers—as members of their wedding party. "People must have thought we were some bizarre variation on Barbie and Ken," she laughs.

While her husband took a job at a macadamia nut factory, Anna continued with her art. She has now clearly been accepted in the town. When I stopped to ask for directions at an animal feed store, the man behind the counter fairly lit up when I mentioned her name. It’s a reaction that hasn’t come without some work on Anna’s part: She’s a regular volunteer at local schools, at the library, even at polling places on election day. She also makes sure to hang explanations of her work in her window—lest the stereotype of the "snobby artist" persist. She says the town has paid her the ultimate compliment in return: "It used to be this was the place no one came in. Now no one walks by without at least stopping to look. People understand when I say it’s a dream factory."

"Bleaching of America" uses
hemp that is twisted and braided;
the piece, Anna says, was
inspired by women who
dye their hair.

Anna’s art has also worked its magic on the powers that be at the Smithsonian Institution, whose representatives recently stopped in Honokaa to investigate her latest oeuvre, Coconut Couture. These sculptures of corsets, girdles, bustiers and petticoats, elegantly embossed with a veneer of dried tropical plants, are positioned around the gallery like a surreal welcoming committee. They are spectral and carnal, like something an MTV diva would wear as a back-to-nature fashion statement. But they are not for wearing, Anna says—they are for "representing the human spirit through the husk of clothing."

Some of the inspiration for the work came from her travels to Tonga where she learned to pound bark to make into tavaola, mats still worn around the waist by men and women, often over blue jeans. "The young women, especially, adapted style with this wonderful mix of hip-hop culture and ancient knowledge. So I began thinking, what would have happened if the missionaries had actually collaborated on a garment design with the ancient Hawaiians?"

What actually happened in the Golden Egret Studio is yet another great tale from Planet Anna: First, the huddle of retirees from across the street were thrilled to see she had found a use for the junk weeds, vines and seeds that cause them such humbug in their taro fields. Some sentimentally recalled years ago seeing the town’s best lei makers work with some of the same material. They offered to lead Anna on the steep descent into nearby Waipio Valley to find patches of other, more isolated plants once used in island crafts.

Others saw her plant couture through an utterly different lens. One day a scientist and a naturalist happened into her gallery at the same time and recognized several invasive species in the makeup of her living fabric. They began arguing over what’s invasive and what’s not in Hawaii’s plant world. Anna sighs at the irony of this: "Every time I turn on the radio, I hear about nature being at war with itself. So you want to control nature—which is so often portrayed as a woman, right? And, here I had two grown men ready to duke it out in the middle of these garment contraptions that are basically used to control women’s bodies."

The fact that Coconut Couture managed to provoke such reactions is, the artist says, a mark of its success: "My work brings all these difficult issues of race and place to the surface and gets people talking. In coming to this place, I am working as an outsider, but I am mirroring back a world that I also become a part of—because I am paying tribute to it. My art has always been less about what the eye sees and more about what the heart feels."    HH