Karie Bookish Dot Net

Authors & Artists: The Frances Herself Shawl

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Helen Lockhart of Ripples Crafts dyes exquisite yarns from her home in the Scottish Highlands. I first met Helen at a knitting conference when her stall was next to mine. We bonded immediately, so I cannot believe that it took us nearly five years to finally collaborate. We decided on our collaboration at In The Loop. I fell deeply in love with the blue-teal shade (Stormy Seas) and the rest followed. The rich magenta (Jewelled) and the warm grey (Assynt Peat) worked perfectly in unison. Working with her Quinag base was an absolute joy. The BFL gave Helen’s colours additional depth and the yarn flowed through my fingers.

The construction of Frances Herself will be familiar if you knitted my Byatt shawl (though it works in a slightly different way). You increase alongbthe top edge at an accelerated page which makes the shawl grow very rapidly in one direction and at a more considered pace in the other. It makes for wonderful asymmetry when worn – yet it is surprisingly straightforward to work. I do not believe in overcomplicating patterns when wonderful results can be achieved in a straightforward manner!

A lot of the Frances Herself joy is derived from working with such wonderful handdyed yarns. Frances Macdonald McNair was a child of the Arts & Crafts movement and its truth to material ideas. Truth to material simply means that you take the material that is best suited to your project and you showcase it honestly. The shawl is designed to reflect that. I am a big fan of basic stitches (like stocking stitch and garter stitch) precisely because they let handdyed yarns take centre stage.

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I have included a guide to modifying the colour sequence so you can make it work with your given yardage. I used three colours in this shawl – one neutral and two jewel-like colours. If you are considering other colours, think about getting enough contrast between the two contrast colours. You might also be tempted by mini-packs of yarn – Col B would be the obvious candidate for this – so keep the following yardage breakdown in mind:

Col A: Gray / Assynt Peat (approx. 380m/ 415 yds)
Col B: Magenta / Jewelled (approx 180m/196 yds)
Col C: Teal / Stormy Seas (approx 180 m/196 yds)

Another modification you might like is beading. Frances Macdonald McNair used beads extensively – both as material and as visual metaphor. I opted not to add any (mostly as I was travelling when knitting my shawl and there is no worse combination than beads & a bumpy road) but it’d look incredible done right. If you want to add beads, I suggest doing it in the middle of the garter stitch sections with the beads nicely spaced out. I would also suggest choosing beads that reflects cols B and C – you do not have to agree!

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The shawl was knitted on 4.5mm needles which the beautiful 4ply yarn was more than capable of handling. I strongly urge you to swatch if you substitute with any other 4ply yarn (and also to check your yardage!). The open fabric has a lot of drape and character, yet it still retains a sense of itself. I love how the lace pattern blocked out – it looks like tiny tenement tiles which is so very apt for a pattern inspired by Arts & Crafts in Scotland.

You can buy the pattern here. If you are going to Edinburgh Yarn Festival, make sure to check out Helen’s stall where she’ll be happy to advise on colour combinations (and we might have more up on our collective sleeve!).

(Note: I am away from keyboard February 26-28 2016, so I’ll get back to any queries as soon as I can afterwards).

Authors & Artists: Frances Macdonald McNair – or Frances Herself

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The first artist in my Authors & Artists series is Frances Macdonald McNair (1873-1921). She was born in England and attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art with her sister, Margaret. Frances and Margaret became part of a creative collective known as The Glasgow Four together with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Their work was multi-disciplinary (though that concept didn’t exist then): painting, furniture design, architecture, textiles and metalwork. Margaret Macdonald married Charles Rennie; Frances married J. Herbert McNair. The future was bright.

Charles would go on to be an incredibly influential architect. He was lauded across Europe and influenced Gustav Klimt in Vienna. His wife collaborated with him extensively. Today the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is dedicated to preserving his heritage (just a hop & a skip from where I am typing this!) and he was commemorated on a series of bank notes in 2008.

The McNairs led an unhappy life, however. They had exhibited across Europe in the early 1900s but just a decade later, everything was in tatters. McNair’s family had some financial misfortunes, he started drinking, and his career stalled. Frances suppressed her own career in order to help Herbert with his. She had his son, left the marriage briefly but returned before dying at the age of 48. It is notable that even as Herbert McNair stopped producing art (around 1911), Frances kept painting.

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This watercolour dates from when life started wobbling – 1907 – and is entitled Girl & Butterflies.

 

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This is called Woman Standing Behind the Sun. It was painted sometime between 1912 and 1915 – when Herbert’s career was in serious decline, their marriage mostly over, and Frances was looking after their child. The symbolism is fairly clear.

 

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This is the amazingly named Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them – again painted sometime between 1912 and 1915. I’m not a psychologist, but I think we can agree on the anger emanating from this painting.

I find Frances really, really interesting. She is an artist that seems almost unbearably twee with faerie princesses, butterflies, bows, gauzy dresses and long flowing locks of hair – but if you scratch the surface you find serious thoughts on women’s rights, motherhood, society, and (lack of) equality. Even her early art asks questions about identity: who am I as an artist, why am I being defined by men, how can I break free? Her later art is more outspoken and confrontational – it is as though Frances decided to cast off her mask. Her late watercolours show near-nightmares of darkness crashing against frail female bodies – as an artist she was very much rooted in the Symbolist art movement.

Herbert McNair destroyed most of Frances Macdonald McNair’s work after her death. I presume her work did not depict him in a particularly flattering light.

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Bow, Beads, Birds (1911)

I celebrate Frances. She was struggling to be an artist on her terms; her art shows a woman grappling with huge topics, and her having a very limited outlet for her struggles. We are still struggling to be heard and we are still struggling to be taken serious. We are still defined by men and we are still expected to conform to society’s expectations.

So, Frances Herself. I struggled to name the shawl but ultimately it is about Frances herself – and by extension our right to be ourselves no matter who we are. This is already a very long post – and I like leaving this celebration of Frances here. I’ll talk about the shawl in tomorrow’s post (it’ll include details on colours and modification – including how to add beads if you want to give the shawl even more Glasgow Style).

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Why Naming A Pattern Can Be Hard

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This is an image by Frances Macdonald McNair, a Glasgow-based artist at the turn of the century. Her art looks whimsical with sleeping princesses, fairies and gauzy dresses. In fact, her work is a lot more complicated when you look closer and she’s the inspiration for my new shawl pattern.

As part of my job I help other people figure out their pattern names. I usually have a wealth of names at my own disposal, but this time I am having trouble naming the pattern. This post is all about why.

Frances was born in England and attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art with her sister, Margaret. Frances and Margaret became part of a creative collective known as The Glasgow Four together with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Margaret married Charles; Frances married Herbert.

While Charles went on to become an incredibly influential architect and collaborated extensively with his wife, the McNairs led an unhappy life. McNair’s family had some financial misfortunes, he started drinking, and his career stalled. Frances suppressed her own career in order to help Herbert with his. She had his son, left the marriage briefly but returned before dying at the age of 48. Her husband destroyed most of her artwork after Frances’ death.

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I went to see an exhibition on the McNairs about ten years ago. I was struck by how Frances was the much better artist of the two – her line work, sense of colour, and understanding of storytelling in art were all superior to her husband. I will be writing about her art tomorrow, but suffice to say I find Frances Macdonald McNair intensely interesting. She was an artist whose talent could not fully blossom because of her gender and the age in which she lived. If she had been born just a few decades later, perhaps her life story would have looked very different. She is deeply inspiring for many reasons – I’ll share more tomorrow.

Naming my pattern is hard.

I want to honour Frances as the artist she was and could not be. I want to tell her story rather than a story in which she is relegated to being a wife or a sister-in-law of a celebrated man. Frances yields 77 pages of hits on Ravelry.

I cannot name the pattern after the man who destroyed most of her art work. McNair is not even an option.

I do not want to name the pattern Macdonald because not only does it mean the son of Donald but it also has a whiff of greasy chips.

Glasgow Girl is an option. It was the name of a 1990 exhibition about the female artists flourishing in Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century (and is a nice counter to another Glasgow creative collective, The Glasgow Boys) but Frances only lived in Glasgow briefly.

Frances used either very generic names for her art work (Spring; Autumn; Ophelia), deeply ironic names (Sleeping Princess), or amazingly angry names that are totally unsuitable (Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them).

Any ideas?

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Photo of shawl by Dave Fraser. Imagery by Frances Macdonald McNair via WikiMedia Commons.

Making & Doing: Shawl, Skirt & Teaching

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Happier times ahead. We had a photo shoot yesterday for this asymmetrical shawl knitted in three colours of Ripples Crafts BFL 4ply. I’ll be writing much more about this shawl later (including my source of inspiration, why it’s the next instalment of Authors & Artists, and how it is constructed) but for now let’s glance downwards..

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Hello skirt! This is one of the first things I’ve whipped up since I started dress-making again. I made this skirt in just a few hours and it worked perfectly for the photo shoot.

I use the super-simple Burda 6682 and made View B. The fabric is a slightly stretchy cotton poplin I found in a remnant bin in Glasgow’s Mandors. I had around 0.75m and still managed to eke out a knee-length skirt. The construction couldn’t be simpler: darts front & back, side & back seams, zipper, waistband, hem, done. I had never inserted a regular zipper before (it’s always been invisible zips until now) but even that went without a hitch. I’m not entirely happy with how the waistband was attached – it was easy but looks a bit sloppy on the inside – so I’m going to try a slightly more fiddly waistband next time. I think my perfectionist tendencies are rearing their heads again..

.. but the skirt is super-comfortable and fits well. Its no-nonsense style makes it a good, basic pattern that I can see myself making again and again. Well, I am trying to make an everyday wardrobe, after all! The next skirt will be made of a medium weight denim that I picked up at the same time as the pattern. I have a bit more fabric to play with this time, so I might add a bit more length.

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I’m off to Manchester this weekend for the Joeli’s Kitchen retreat. There are going to be all sorts of amazing people there and I cannot wait to see everybody.

Next Wednesday I am going to be at Kendal’s finest wool establishment, Williams Wools. I’m teaching a class on colourwork and how to design it yourself. I know people have lots of ideas in their heads, but it can be difficult translating those ideas into a project. I’ll also talk about how to find the right colour combinations because that is probably one of the questions I get asked the most!

Then Saturday the 6th I am back up in Dundee’s Fluph Shop doing c-c-cables in the morning (sorting out those C2R, CNB, and T3R abbreviations!) and Shetland lace shawls in the afternoon. It’s never dull teaching at Fluph and I expect a fair amount of difficult questions flung at me!

I’m late updating my workshop page due to Life Happening, but hopefully that’ll whet everybody’s appetite! I’ll return with more details about the new pattern and some Edinburgh Yarn Festival lowdown!

Saying Goodbye & Knitting On.

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Earlier this month we had some very sad news. David’s father fell ill and passed away unexpectedly. We went north to a small Aberdeenshire fishing village to join the rest of the immediate family in preparation for one of the hardest days a family can face. David’s father was a man who made a difference to other people’s lives. We heard from hundreds of people how he had encouraged them to be the very best they could be; how he had made people laugh; how he was a friend to everyone he met; and how his generous, keen mind transformed lives. As a family we loved him deeply – we learned that our love was shared by not just the local community but also by the generations of children he had taught. To me, he was both family and one of the finest friends anyone could hope to have. I had a long conversation with him just a week before he passed away. We spoke of our hopes and fears. As always, he urged me to believe in myself and told me put my trust in other people.

On the way north I was working on a knitting project with tears silently running down my face. I felt a touch on my shoulder: a stranger had seen my tears and felt compelled to reach out. The stranger wondered if I wanted a cup of tea from his flask? David’s father had been right: other people will reach out and help whenever they can. The stranger’s offer was one of the loveliest, most timely gifts I have ever received.

I worked on my knitting project in the fishing village. The mindless garter stitch was all I could manage (and sometimes not even that!) but the familiar rhythm of the needles was soothing. I focused on the feel of the yarn as it slipped through my fingers. Whenever the telephone calls and the emotional labour threatened to overwhelm me, I sat down to knit. I pulled out several rows over and over. Knitting helped.

We travelled up and down the country. David read. I knitted on. Amid it all, I celebrated my birthday. The stranger’s offer of tea had been a gift. Friends spending time with us was a gift too.

The past fortnight has been very hard. Both David and I have taken much comfort from all the condolences we have been offered. Thank you to everyone who has reached out.

We are slowly settling back into normal life again. I am back at desk, though with reduced hours and energy. I am really, really looking forward to all the wonderful things ahead of us (Edinburgh Yarn Festival, anyone?) and I am knitting on.

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A Very Personal Note

This is just to say that life has happened.

I’m away from email & work queries for a few days. I don’t know when I’ll return to work. If you have any queries, please ask in my Ravelry group where I’m sure the fantastic knitters will be happy to help.

Love those around you & let them know every day.

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In Her Soft Wind I Will Whisper

Lady on the left? My great-grandmother. She would have been a hundred years old today.

The photo was taken in the early 1950s outside her cottage and she is with two of her sons, K and T.

I have several photos of her; my other favourite is from the 1930s when she was approached by a travelling salesman who wanted her to become a hair model. I presume she shot him one of her withering glances. The photo shows her with long, gorgeous hair. I was told it was chestnut-coloured. The photo is black/white.

I was lucky enough to grow up around her. She looked after me when I was pre-kindergarten and I spent most of my school holidays in her cottage. Her cottage did not have running water until I was maybe seven or eight and never got central heating.

I can still envision her sitting in her chair in front of the kerosene-fuelled stove. She’d knit long garter stitch strips from yarn scraps and sew them into blankets. She was the one who taught me to knit. She was certainly the one who taught me how to skip rope.

Happy birthday, momse. We may not always have seen eye to eye, but we loved and understood each other. And I still miss you.

Title comes from this beautiful farewell song (youtube link). Post reposted from previous years with Momse’s age amended. I continue to miss her.

The Joy Of Making Stuff

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Oh, but the joy of making.

Recently I have begun dressmaking again. I had previous forays into dressmaking around 2011, but I have not been seriously sewing clothes since I was a teenager. This time around I have discovered how relaxing I find the rituals and processes of dressmaking. Casa Bookish is fairly petite, so I do my sewing on the dining table which presents its own challenges. Despite a pressed schedule and lack of space, I am really enjoying myself.

Which brings me to this outburst:

LET’S MAKE STUFF and make the world a more creative, imaginative, happier, more colourful, and enjoyable place.

Some times I worry we overthink the act of making.

We swathe it in mystique (all those “15 Things You Need To Know To Unlock Your Creativity” pieces).

We become consumers rather than creators (“You cannot do origami unless you buy authentic unicorn paper from this off-shore Japanese monastery”).

We are tourists rather than inhabitants of MakingLand (spending more time browsing Pinterest and blogs rather than make all the things we pin and queue).

LET’S MAKE STUFF and make the world a more creative, imaginative, happier, more colourful, and enjoyable place.

I know that a full-time job and family life leaves us with precious little time. I know it’d be amazing to have a whole weekend just making stuff. I know time is a scarce resource.

But if you have 30 minutes free every Sunday, you too can make stuff! Don’t feel you need to have tonnes of free time. Make when you can! Make when you are on the train! Make in your lunch break! Make whilst the pasta is boiling! Make whilst watching TV!

LET’S MAKE STUFF and make the world a more creative, imaginative, happier, more colourful, and enjoyable place.

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So, I’m dress-making.

A) I feel really happy when I wear something I have made.

B) I have become increasingly aware of my making needing to reflect my everyday wardrobe.

C) I want sewn clothes that fit me as well as my knitted items do.

My main reason for dress-making is wardrobe, so my main focus is to find a basic dress pattern that I can make over & over with a few tweaks. I wear dresses all the time – occasionally skirts – so I am not to bothered about keeping up with what’s the latest trendy pattern to make in the sewing world.

I spent a bit of time on a disastrous pattern which I nicknamed The Apron Dress. I had seen some pretty versions of the dress on various people I know, but the fit was so, so awful. The lack of any actual structure (i.e. darts, supportive seams and shaping within the pattern itself) means that I was wearing a cutesy apron dress in which my bust looked to be extending outwards! The overall effect was not good. Fortunately I was just making a toile using cheap charity shop fabric – lessons gained and no beautiful fabric lost.

Moving on, I have been playing around with the Emery dress pattern by Christine Haynes which comes with beautifully clear instructions and structure. I’ve really hacked’n’slashed the Emery bodice. I’ve added extra coverage for my bust, moved the darts, and I’m about to alter the waist a tiny bit too. The first toile was almost spot on – I just had to move the bust apex a bit, lower the waist darts and .. well, I am having fun. when I was dressmaking as a teenager, I had no notion of fit but this time around I’m geeking out.

And there is knitting too, but I am in the midst of ‘stuff’ that will be unveiled at a later date. There is nothing more frustrating than some very pleasing things I cannot discuss. Fortunately there is always, always making stuff.

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F-f-fashion: Some Thoughts on Clothes & Knitting

Fashion. I was one of those people who always said I didn’t care about fashion because fashion didn’t care about me, but in the last decade or so, I changed my mind. Maybe it was my move from Copenhagen to Glasgow that prompted my change of heart? The two cities have radically different approaches to fashion. Maybe it was because I began making clothes? I started thinking about necklines and silhouettes in another way. Whatever the reason I began thinking about fashion as both visual communication and social history.

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I spent last week doing jury duty. I was never picked to sit on a jury but I spent several hours every day sitting in a crowd of around 100 strangers. It was so interesting to observe what people were wearing. It was a sea of black trousers, various blouses, and suits but people still looked so different depending upon the cut of their trousers or how their jacket sat. One guy stood out for a slim-cut navy suit with brown brogues – I imagined him working in media or the trendy part of IT. Another man wore a loose, baggy suit that screamed 1990s to me – I guessed that maybe he didn’t wear suits to work and only owned this one suit? What people wear say a lot about them – just as much as body and verbal language do.

What has this to do with me working as a designer?fashion

I don’t live and work in a context-less world. I am influenced by what I see around me as much as anybody else. I have my own specific aesthetic which is tied to my body, my colouring and my love of vintage shopping. I design things that I want to wear myself (unless it is a very, very, very specific brief which rarely happens). I have pinterest boards that I edit frequently to help me hone my aesthetic (How to Wear Clothes is my imaginary wardrobe, for instance; Knitting Inspiration does what it says on the tin). I keep an eye on people like Shirley Kurata whose stylistic instincts I admire. I also spend a working day each season going through catwalk shows on style.com thinking about things like necklines, colour combinations, sleeve caps, tailoring etc. You may not be able to see all this work in my design, but it is there. When someone commented on the Lindgren mittens saying “they look like the most amazing vintage find!” I had a quiet, internal fistbump of yay, yay, yay, that is what I wanted to say!

 

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I think talking about hand-knitting in a fashion context is always likely to be fraught with danger. I know many Ravelry people have the same ‘I don’t care about fashion because fashion don’t care about me’ stance that I used to have (which in its own way is a reaction to fashion – or at least the fast fashion of the retail world). But what we choose to make speaks its own language and forms part of social history (increased leisure time; rejection of consumerism; ethical consumerism; concerns about sustainability; the rise of nostalgia industry etc). Clothes are never ‘just’ clothes. I’d argue we even see micro-trends within hand-knitting that are as much about fashion as we’d like to pretend they are not.

What are your thoughts on the act of making and fashion? Do you try to imitate current high street trends? Do you have a specific style you try to make? Do you follow making trends and like making ‘the in-thing’? Do you follow fashion? How do you think about the clothes you wear & make?

“Don’t Think You Knew You Were in this Song” – Goodbye Bowie.

You are going to read this many times for mine’s a common tale even though it feels otherwise.

Short version: I grew up in Nowheresville. I grew up, left Nowheresville, and found David Bowie’s artistic output to be a constant touchstone. Bowie passed away today and I am very, very sad.

Longer version: I grew up in rural Denmark in a family whose cultural references were mainly the Great American Songbook and 1950s American pop culture. The school playground was a hard, cold, bewildering place. I knew I had to fit in somehow and that I couldn’t manage. The other kids loved Disney, sport, and Madonna while I was really into prehistoric archaeology, art history, and Gene Kelly.

When I was 18, I moved to London. It was the first big move in a life that’s seen quite a few big moves. I spent my days looking after spoiled kids and my nights going to art galleries and listening to music. London was in the early throes of what would later be known as Britpop – the rank commercialism of the Blur vs Oasis feud was not even a glimmer in a record exec’s eyes. I discovered music that was to be mine – Suede, Pulp, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and dEUS among others. Drifting towards David Bowie was inevitable. Strange, raw, androgynous, glamorous, queer, desolate, alien, and utterly beautiful Bowie.

One of my favourite songs is by an obscure 1990s band called Subcircus called 20th Century Bitch and there is such a beautiful line: “There is a hole in the sky / Where Bowie fell through” before it continues to blur the lines between gender, desire, and self.

I made more big moves. I ended up in Copenhagen. And I met people who were strange, raw, androgynous, glamorous, queer, desolate, alien, and utterly beautiful themselves. Bowie and his cultural brethren/descendants became shorthand for a lot of identity-making. We discovered we were free to define (and crucially choosing not to define) ourselves in every way that mattered.  Bowie paved the way.

One of my favourite films is Todd Haynes’ glam musical Velvet Goldmine. It is a thinly veiled Bowie biopic and isn’t particularly complimentary towards him (you cannot blame Bowie for turning down requests to feature his music). It is a wildly ambititous, crazily messy film. I love it. There is an unforgettable moment where Christian Bale’s character points to Brian Slade (i.e. Bowie) on TV and exclaims: That is me! Mum, that is me! That powerful moment of recognising something buried so deep inside yourself in someone else. That joyful surprise of realising that you are not alone even if it feels like that sitting in a shabby living room in the middle of nowhere. There is a whole world out there where you’ll feel some sense of belonging: That is me! Mum, that is me!

Along the way I managed to catch David Bowie live. He was about the size of my thumb nail and his charisma hit me squarely in the face. I could not take my eyes off him. He made you feel like you were a member of an exclusive club of misfits and outcasts – yet Bowie was touring 1. Outside and we were 80,000 people in front of him at the Roskilde Festival. This was part of the paradox and fascination with David Bowie: so much intimacy in such a remote way. Bowie was like a two-way mirror. We all looked at him and saw ourselves reflected back at us – but there was always something else lurking behind it all. Something we could never reach or see.

I am very sad today but most of all I think of the people who knew David Jones rather than David Bowie. They are the ones who really feel the loss. The rest of us mourn the man and the masks that brought us solace from loneliness and a sense of freedom.