Leader, liberal, lover (and notorious lothario) are terms used to describe Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States. But perhaps more interesting than the man himself are the women who made his life a subject of fascination –even nearly two centuries later. Enter artist and designer Camilla Huey, who spent years researching eight of the most influential dames connected to Burr (among them include his daughter, mistress, first and second wives, and mother). The result? The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding, an exhibit that attempts to “resurrect” these women through intricate, breathtaking corsets stitched together with fine materials and handwritten letters.
We caught up with Huey, whose work has appeared everywhere from the pages of Vogue to the body of supermodel Kate Moss, at Lingerie Fashion Week’s closing party to get the scoop on her amazing work.
Camilla Huey: Creating the corsets for The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding was over a year long process. Each corset takes its own time. The concept of each woman was important as was the specific room in which the corset would be installed at the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum. A unique quality of this exhibition is that the Mansion was familiar to most of the women portrayed.
Because of the way ideas are mutable and changeable, the personification begins with the choice of materials. This history is told through material culture, through objects ordinary, rare or sentimental that would have belonged to the people portrayed. The research and thought process is much longer than the creative task.
BC: Why Aaron Burr?
CH: I was first captivated by Madame Jumel as a surprising and fantastically modern woman, but I was continually left with more questions than answers. The most perplexing was why she would marry Aaron Burr? She didn’t need to marry. She was the original material girl, a self made woman, so as soon as he lost her money…she lost him, by divorce!
Aaron Burr was a man who although he both attracted and repelled, he was always the most charismatic and interesting person in the room. Burr was a gentleman of liberal, humanist principle, a man of letters, a man of taste, a sybarite, an abolitionist and a feminist. He is mentored by and in turn mentors women. Burr is correspondent and subject. He appears and reappears in their letters. These are mostly literary women. He impacts these women’s lives and in return had letters of devotion posted and books dedicated to him, not a claim to be made by many of the founders.
BC: What type of research did you do to get to know the eight women involved in Burr’s life?
CH: My husband, Kurt Thometz, and I have been researching for over six years the biography of Madame Jumel, Burr’s second wife and mistress of The Morris-Jumel Mansion, on Harlem’s Heights is our view, across the street and where The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding takes place as a historic setting. Kurt is a private librarian, (The Private Library). We have a house with six different topical libraries including a bookstore called Jumel Terrace Books. We read and write and talk about American History, Harlem History, Aaron Burr, Madame Jumel among others and the volatility and uncertainty of their times which are mirrored in our own.
Reading letters and family papers leads you through lives and history. First you discover who people were and then whom they knew. It was a thrill to discover this circle of women who knew one another through Aaron Burr. The straight history then took a more interesting turn into gossip and innuendo. The research transported us through cities and countries, into archives and libraries, searching for and meeting living descendants, following correspondence serendipitously.
BC: Your work with corsets is so unique. When did you realize that you wanted to become a designer?
CH: I have always created things to wear. My first inclination is to put things on the body. I rarely put things on the wall. I’m the daughter of an architect turned furniture designer and a painter who and was trained as an artist. My first job in New York was for a couturier named Sander Witlin. I started as a textile designer, hand painting and creating silks for ball gowns and party dresses for socialites. Soon I was embellishing, beading, appliquéing, embroidering, eventually rising to become first hand, running the workrooms. I then did a brief turn in architecture working on the redesign of the Guggenhiem Museum with William Green Associates. Later, working in theatre I combined my love of architecture and couture working with Martin Izquierdo. Eventually, I started my own company, a couture atelier, The House of Execution where we create costumes and clothing for performance.
BC: You’ve worked with a number of celebrities, including Oprah and Katy Perry and your work has been featured in a number of publications. When did you get your big break? Did you ever imagine you’d have the chance to do so much?
CH: There are no big breaks, there are a lot of little breaks. They happen every day. When those accumulate, you’ve got a career!
BC: What can we expect from you next?
CH: I’m working on a portrait of Bashford Dean the man who started the arms and armament collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Armor and corsetry have a shared syntax. Mr. Dean was also an Ichthyologist so there’s a certain visual appeal of the embryonic pectoral fin formation of the Japanese Frill Shark within the portraits of Bashford Dean and his wife. The exhibition opens September 15, 2013 at Wavehill called Tandem Pursuits: Armor & Ichthyology on view September 15 to December 1, 2013.
Click through to view each of Huey’s eight corsets and learn about the women who inspired them.