This summer, it was an absolute pleasure to visit Camilla Huey. She lives in the Jumel Terrace Historic District in Harlem Heights, high atop Sugar Hill. The sign in the front window which says “WORD” also states that Jumel Terrace Books is open by “invitation, appointment, or serendipity.” (The bookstore, specializing in “local history, African and American” is now closed. Kurt Thometz, her husband, is a private librarian, curating collections of rare and special interest. He is actively pursuing the sale of his collection of African Studies and Harlem History. The goal is to keep the collection intact while increasing accessibility for scholars.) Serendipitously, I was able to meet him and briefly see his amusing anthology of Nigerian Market Literature, Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English.
Their house is not only filled with books but also several distinct libraries. Novels, art books, history, general non-fiction, and scores of books on the domestic arts: fashion, cookery, interior design and gardening. This home is also full of art: specifically, select pieces from Camilla Huey’s rather unique solo exhibition “The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding” which had been exhibited at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in 2013.
Huey’s day job (if an artist can be said to have a day job) is couture. When she first came to New York, her very first assignment in the world of fashion involved hand painting a dress for the former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, for the dedication of The Night of The Wildflower. Now at Camilla Huey Studio, she creates exclusive, couture garments, constructed entirely by hand. A single dress usually requires weeks to complete. Huey has designed for Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey, and Jennifer Lopez, among others.
Living, as she does, within sight of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, with a professional knowledge of couture and fashion history, her interest in Eliza Jumel was a natural. Madame Jumel, a former resident of the Mansion, became all-consuming for Huey. Through Madame Jumel, Huey began reading letters, first those of Jumel, and then more extensively those of Aaron Burr, former Vice President and briefly the husband of Eliza Jumel. This study led to the discovery of a unique social circle of women with Burr as their nexus. Reading letters, diaries, and other documents found in libraries and archives, Huey, through her own bent, found an unusual path by focusing on the domestic and material arts. Asking… what did they wear? Wondering… how did they look? What did they find interesting to talk about? What was amusing? Their interests were the stuff of life.
Huey created a series of nine corset portraits of women in Aaron Burr’s life, including his wives and his daughter. They’re exquisite pieces, each of them inviting the viewer to engage in further reading. Since their exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Huey created a documentary film following the design process from atelier to exhibition. The exhibition and film are bibliographically-driven with specific reading references. It’s a unique view of the eighteenth century through narrative and material culture.
The fascinating stories include that of Leonora Sansay, who wrote vividly of Creole culture, publishing one of the few firsthand accounts of the Haitian Revolution. Mary Emmons was a servant in the Burr household (and at least Burr’s mistress and possibly his wife); their mixed race son, Jean Pierre Burr, helped found the Underground Railroad. Margaret Moncrieffe, Burr’s first love, a teenaged daughter of a British officer during the Battle of Harlem Heights, was suspected as a British spy by Burr, who believed he detected that she was revealing military intelligence through the language of flowers. Jane McManus Cazneau, accused by Madame Jumel of having an affair with Burr, was a journalist and lobbyist, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” and advocated American imperialism. Theodosia Prevost Burr, Burr’s first wife, was intellectual and sophisticated, and raised her namesake daughter with a philosophy based on the concepts of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Huey’s a fascinating conversationalist with a wealth of knowledge about fashion, design, textiles, and the history of domestic life, so we had a lot to talk about. Here’s a taste of it…
Date: July 22, 2015
Hometown: Anywhere along the Mississippi!
Current town: New York City
Occupation: artist, couturiere
What level of detail do people give you when you are creating a dress for them? It is something like, “I need an evening dress in red?” Or do you get more specific design instructions?
It varies. Sometimes it is a very brief description, or a Pinterest board, or a back of the envelope sketch. Other times it is a more elaborate design. But design is only one part of couture; the execution is every bit as important.
The closest thing I’ve ever come to that is being fitted for my wedding dress, for which I had to go back three times. I imagine you must do that?
Yes, ideally my clients will come at a minimum of three times. Sometimes it requires more time and more fittings to make it right.
Do you ever want to make clothing that more than one person can wear, like create a line that is made in a factory?
I like making one of a kind, beautiful creations. Sometimes it is just right and I know that the dress is perfect.
Is it hard sometimes to reconcile what people think they want with what is actually going to work for them?
Yes, sometimes. I want to give my customers what they want and what they will be happy with but sometimes people don’t have a good understanding of what will be the most flattering for them, and what is going to work for them.
What styles do you think are the most flattering and easiest to wear?
I recently had the opportunity to see the original Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway and was awed by the fit of the wardrobe. It’s 1968, so there was plenty of “pop” and attention getting outfits, but watch the “fit.” Ms. Dunaway’s dresses may be short or color blocked, and certainly they were sexy, but they “FIT!” Everything had that absolutely right amount of ease, which made her appear confident, assured, and knowing.
What are the most difficult styles to wear?
Armor, corsets, and crinolines! They usually require assistance when dressing and certainly take time.
On to your artwork and the history that inspired it: what do people not know about Aaron Burr?
He was really forward thinking…an abolitionist and a feminist. That he is on record as suggesting that Thomas Jefferson include a post in his cabinet for a native American Indian. (Of course Jefferson entertained no such notion.)
Have you seen Hamilton? Aaron Burr was a pretty complex character…what are your thoughts?
I did see it at the Public. But that musical was based on only one book, a biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It doesn’t tell the full story. And one of the reasons that Aaron Burr is known mostly for that duel is that he never told his story. When his daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, was lost at sea, along with her were his papers from his career, including from his Vice Presidency under Jefferson, and a two-volume manuscript, telling the story of the founding of this country. He was circumspect, and refused to display his vanity, unlike most of the other founders.
And how about Eliza Jumel? What should we know about her?
I admire her because she was a self-made businesswoman, who reinvented herself when necessary, relying on her own intellect. Her story begins with her birth in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island. Her life was a very highly developed act of creation.
She brought 200 old master paintings back from Europe to the United States for which she was criticized as having the audacity to be a “collector,” which was thought to be a male domain.
And what’s next for you?
I’m very excited to be creating an exhibition celebrating the hundred-year anniversary of the Dyckman Farmhouse as a museum in 2016. (Right now we’re calling it the Dyckman Novella.)
Did the Dyckmans know the Jumels, or will this be all original pieces?
They didn’t seem to travel in the same circles, but they knew many of the same people. They were neighboring families, and knew of one another. I’m still in the research mode now, so we’ll see what turns up.
What inspires your artwork generally?
I’m curious as to how people live. My interest in history arose out of biography and fashion. In biography I find the letters people wrote, and discovering points of view, so revealing. Letters are really a bit of fiction; carefully crafted for effect. The writers knew that their letters often became public; they’d be passed around and read as entertainment, they were definitely written with an audience in mind. I do cherish being able to see and read the authentic documents. The other part of my interests is fashion as a “read” of the person’s personality. I find myself fascinated by what someone owned, and seeing, touching objects they handled, objects that collected affinity, or become a “key” to revealing the personality.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
I’m not sure if it’s been advice but I’ve always followed my own interests. My husband and I don’t do what’s popular or mainstream. We go against the grain.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would that be?
If you look at my library, my interest’s in the domestic arts: houses, estates, food, gardening. Those interests have informed my work and it’s all coming together. Nothing is lost. I have no regrets.
Do you consider your work political?
My husband and I see ourselves as humanists. Politics have not lately been serving the humanist point of view very well. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. We are for the rights of man and the rights of women. How can you not be political? It affects us all.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
With social media, people already know everything!
Is there a book you’d like to recommend?
I think the best book on Eliza Jumel hasn’t been written yet, but The Painted Lady by Leonard Falkner is very good.
One of my favorite books on American history is Orders from France: the Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World by Roger G. Kennedy. It’s about how much the United States benefited from the French diaspora, with the people of France fleeing the revolution. It’s remarkable how much American culture was influenced by and benefited from that immigration–engineering, military skills, arts, food, gardening, architecture.
I’ve never thought about that but it makes sense. The same way the U.S. took in refugees from Europe fleeing the violence of World War II in the 20th century; people like Albert Einstein.
Yes, very similar.
Is there a movie you’d recommend for our readers?
There’s a documentary, Living with Lincoln, a portrait of four generations of a single family, who each studied Abraham Lincoln devotedly. The great-great grandfather was a northern soldier who was wounded on a battlefield, when he came to, he met Lincoln who gave him a daguerreotype of himself. This began his fascination with everything Lincoln. This interest intensified from generation to generation. His son became an authority and discovered in New Jersey thousands of Brady Studio glass negatives; the first glass slide he held up to the light was an image of Lincoln.
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
I try to always walk forward with my day; I try not to do anything twice.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
It’s been a very good career review to create a new website for my art and my fashion work together: www.camillahuey.com. And the film will be making the circuit at a few small film festivals (The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding), and the upcoming Dyckman Novella sounds like fun!
Of course our newly enlarged and renovated Jumel Terrace Bed & Breakfast makes the pleasures of the entire historic district available to anyone who visits and decides to linger a bit longer! Contact: email@example.com or visit the website at www.jumelterracebnb.com.
On our final walk through the Jumel Terrace Historic District’s film-set perfect neighborhood we met George Nelson Preston, neighbor, poet, and art historian who opened the Museum of Art Origins in his home. Running into him was yet another moment of serendipity on a beautiful summer evening on the very top of Sugar Hill.
Images Courtesy of Camilla Huey
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino