Summer on the mind: High school student and aspiring fashion designer recreates Frank Benson painting
It belongs on the short list of good things to come out of the pandemic: People hungry for a creative outlet during the lockdown recreated scenes from famous paintings and posted their pictures to social media. Museums were closed (along with everything else), but new interpretations of iconic works by Kahlo, Van Gogh and Vermeer emerged, to the delight — and welcome distraction — of many.
Seventeen-year-old Ally Howes was similarly inspired to reimagine a famous artwork, yet the execution would involve more than cleverly posing with objects found lying around the house. Her effort would ultimately require long hours at the sewing machine (3 am finishing times on occasion), multiple shopping excursions to fabric stores, fittings and more fittings, hair and makeup sessions, all culminating with a two-hour photo shoot.
Her goal was to recreate the painting Summer by Frank Weston Benson, the celebrated artist born in Salem, Massachusetts, who also happens to be Howes’ great, great uncle.
Longtime PEM visitors might remember this well-known work from the 2006 blockbuster exhibition, Painting Summer in New England, and the painting was also included in our 2000 show, The Art of Frank W. Benson, American Impressionist. To create this work, Benson tapped his daughters and their friends to serve as models and depicted on his canvas a scene described as an optimistic view of contemporary young womanhood. PEM's collection includes many artworks by Frank W. Benson and his brother, John Prentiss Benson, as well as the Frank Weston Benson papers in the Phillips Library.
Howes, a budding fashion designer and talented seamstress who started sewing at the age of 4, was long drawn to the beautiful dresses worn by the girls in the painting. She also found something familiar about a scene that captured four close female friends hanging out on the beach on a beautiful summer day. She immediately knew the three childhood friends whom she would recruit for the special project. And she also knew that two of them would be returning to school at the end of August and a strict deadline would need to be met.
“From the start I didn’t want to copy the painting exactly, but make it my own too,” said Howes, who lives in South Dartmouth, Mass. She knew at once her friend Erin, the tallest of the group, would serve as the figure gracefully standing and scanning the horizon.
She created her dress first, complete with an elaborate petticoat with “tons and tons” of tulle fabric and elegant hand-sewn lace sleeves. It set the tone for the entire project.
“What’s funny is that every single dress I did was my next favorite,” said Howes. The blue dress, worn by friend Pearl Mallick, is the one that most mimics the design found in the painting.
On the day of the photo shoot, the mother of one friend volunteered to do everyone’s hair, and Howes’ mother, Jane, was enlisted as the photographer. They chose a sandy dune on Gooseberry Island in Westport, a picturesque spot not far from their home. “It took us about two hours. There was a lot of laughing,” said Howes. “We really wanted to get it right.”
While Howes has sewn many of her own Halloween costumes, a prom dress, a ballet recital leotard, among other creations, bringing the Benson painting to life was her most ambitious project to date. “Fashion has always been something I loved and it’s how I express myself,” said Howes. “My favorite part of this whole project was feeling connected to my ancestors.
I have always known of Frank Benson’s work but this project took me to a deeper understanding of this painting. I thought about how long and boring it must have been to sit still for so long and who made their dresses. Throughout the project, I felt the creativity of my family’s bloodline in my veins and it made me feel united with their energies. It was really fun.”
Now a high school senior, Howes would like to study fashion to pursue her dream of making a career out of her passion. Some day she would like to launch her own clothing line. At the moment, she is scheming out this year’s Halloween costume, thinking Alice in Wonderland could be fun. Her dad, she says, would make a great Mad Hatter.
A look at some of her earlier original creations:
Fashion & Design
PEMcast 18: Alterations
14 min listen