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      PEMcast | June 30, 2020

      PEMcast 18: Alterations

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      ABOVE IMAGE: Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Creativity and crisis are no strangers.

      In the ‘90s, artist Nick Cave responded to the police beating of Rodney King by building a suit made of sticks that would act as protective armor.

      Nick Cave with one of his Soundsuits at PEM in 2013. Photo by Allison White/PEM.

      Later, when the Boston marathon bombing occurred in 2013, Cave’s Soundsuits again saved the day at PEM when nearly 1,000 people gathered in the museum, feeling safe as they danced alongside the colorful pom pom-looking creations.

      Nick Cave with one of his Soundsuits at PEM in 2013. Photo by Allison White/PEM.

      Soundsuits at PEM after-hours party in 2013. Photo by Kanty Tarantola/PEM.

      Now, as the Massachusetts stay-at-home order loosens from a months-long health crisis, PEM is looking toward reopening.

      Once again, we will open our doors and welcome the public during a time of crisis to provide uplift and inspiration. We are also looking at creative ways to protect ourselves. This time, with face coverings.

      Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, in her comfortable running mask. Courtesy image.

      Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, in her comfortable running mask. Courtesy image.

      Paula Richter, PEM Curator for Exhibitions and Research. Courtesy image.

      Paula Richter, PEM Curator for Exhibitions and Research. Courtesy image.

      In this episode of the PEMcast, Chip and I speak with two PEM curators, Petra Slinkard and Paula Richter, as we examine the role of unsung heroes — the home sewists who have turned up throughout history to help in times of crisis.

      We then chat with Boston-based designer and Season 15 winner of Project Runway Erin Robertson about her mask-making efforts and what the future of fashion may be, thanks to the pandemic. Here’s a hint: day pajamas!

      Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, PEM’s Museum Shop merchandise director Victor Oliveira was thinking about how climate change would change retail and fashion. He worked to develop products to protect against harmful UV rays. One of his creations was a prototype for a new UV-resistant parasol. But then the virus struck and sent him in an entirely new direction.

      In our shop, you can find masks made of traditional materials from India and masks designed by Carla Fernández, one of the designers in PEM’s upcoming exhibition Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, opening in November.

      Carla Fernández and Pedro Reyes collaborated on this mask that features the 68 spoken languages of Mexico. Courtesy photo.

      Thank you to Petra Slinkard, Paula Richter, Trevor Smith and Erin Robertson. Follow Erin on Instagram @an_erin, and visit to purchase masks. Thank you to Forrest James and Fred Giannelli for providing music for this episode.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      PEM re-opens to the public July 18 and will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm. Purchase tickets at or by calling 978-542-1511. The health and safety of PEM’s staff and visitors is our highest priority. Go HERE to listen to more episodes of the PEMcast.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Host, Chip Van Dyke: The Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013, left the nation shattered. And people everywhere were frightened to gather in crowds.

      Trevor Smith: The bombing was a huge shock.

      Host, Dinah Cardin: This is Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense.

      Trevor: Of course the first instinct is so say, well, nobody is going to want to come together. Nobody is going to feel like doing this kind of thing.

      Dinah: Trevor is referring to a big event that was going to be held at PEM, featuring Chicago-based Soundsuit artist Nick Cave.

      Trevor: We were about to really hit the PR and the social media. Come and experience this extraordinary event. And then the script was flipped.

      Dinah: PEM was ready to pull the plug on the whole thing. No one was going to come to a big party three days after a bombing.

      Trevor: Our team thought about the work. They thought about the artist and they recognized that the origin of Nick’s work was a response to cultural violence.

      Chip: The beating of Rodney King by LA Police.

      Dinah: Cave’s first Soundsuit was a full body costume made of sticks that, as Cave puts it “rattle with movement like a coat of armor.”

      Trevor: These are exactly the moments when we stand up and recognize why we’re doing what we’re doing. We had an opportunity for people to come together and deal with what happened.

      Chip: The decision was made to continue as planned. PEM opened its doors and waited…


      Dinah: Nearly a thousand people came.

      Trevor: It was people from all walks of life. All ages, families, single people, older people, younger people. As the dancers moved through the museum, through the Atrium, onto the bridges … just watching people’s faces light up...

      Chip: Some of the dancer's Soundsuits look like Chewbaccas covered in cheerleader pom poms. When they dance, bursts of bright colors shimmer in every direction.

      Trevor: It was this moment of love and strangeness and the power of music and dance and art to kind of allow us to transcend, even if for a moment.

      Dinah: People danced all night with Cave’s volunteers in their shaggy, shiny Soundsuits.

      Trevor: Art helps us understand what it means to be human and to negotiate our lives in relation to other lives. The Nick Cave Soundsuit invasion turned into this powerful communal experience.

      Chip: It is probably no coincidence that Cave’s soundsuits, born of injustice, would later go on to help a community with fear and anxiety.

      Dinah: It seems that creativity and crisis are not strangers to one another.


      Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From a socially distanced Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin.

      Chip: And I’m Chip Van Dyke. As the Massachusetts stay-at-home order loosens, PEM is looking forward to re-opening. Like in 2013, once again, we are faced with the reality of opening to the public during a crisis.

      Dinah: So who will help us this time?


      Petra Slinkard: In sort of the comic book movie world, when the world is ending, people tend to think of the superheroes coming to the rescue, you know, with their capes on.

      Chip: This is Petra Slinkard, our fashion and textiles curator.

      Petra: The truth of the matter is that the people who are our essential workers, our doctors, our nurses, the home sewers who are creating masks, those are our true heroes. We’ve really had to depend on the domestic arts, if you will. Or home economics in a way that we really haven’t had to in many years.

      Paula Richter: I kind of associate learning how to knit with this terrible and catastrophic event in our country’s history.

      Chip: Paula Richter is a longtime curator at PEM. She learned to knit from a friend shortly after 9-11.

      Paula: It was kind of comforting in a way. Many of the textiles are very tactile. You have something that is pleasant to touch in your hand. I had the time to do it and it was encouraging to learn something new that I had not done before. At the end of the day or many days, you have a finished object that you can either enjoy yourself or you can give it to someone else.

      Chip: Certain textiles seem to represent specific moments in time. The AIDS Memorial Quilt for example. Even something as universally recognizable as the bandana.

      Paula: They are very historic objects that date back several centuries.

      Chip: Paula explained that bandanas first arrived in America through the international maritime trade in roughly the late 18th century.

      Paula: And the name bandana is derived from an original textile from India. Sometimes they were made on silk and sometimes they were made out of cotton. There were tie dyed examples, floral motifs, and then by the late 19th century, you begin to get printed examples.

      Chip: Paula found a 9/11 commemorative bandana while browsing in a local shop.

      Paula: It’s now in the PEM collection as a 21st century example of this very historic tradition.


      Paula: These objects evolve over time and then all of a sudden, when you least expect it, they crop up in a very particular moment in time for a certain reason.

      Chip: Like, face masks.

      Paula: With the COVID-19 situation, it looks like this is a textile object that’s of the moment. It’s protective in a way. It’s also protecting others. It’s kind of a community gesture. But it’s also very personal because when someone has taken the time to make something for you, it reminds you of them.

      Petra: I don’t love using recipes. I sort of like to wing it and experiment.

      Chip: Petra has been making masks for her family.

      Petra: And so I’ve been kind of going through a variety of materials, creating filters. And then beyond that, the other sort of part of sewing that I’ve been digging into is mending.

      Dinah: Oh, my goodness. We should talk. I have so many things that need to be mended right now.

      Petra: I’m kind of hosting my own personal repair cafe.

      Chip: When she first started making masks, Petra went very basic.

      Petra: I did a plain white cotton mask. It felt so foreign to the way that I would like to perceive myself to be. It kind of erased some of my personality.

      Chip: So, she cut out a cloth heart and pasted it right over the center of the mask.

      Petra: Not only did that act as a sort of another layer and a filter, but it was a message of love that I was trying to present to people that I saw on the street.

      Chip: Petra explained that people will start to see face masks as a true accessory, one that conveys our own personal style.

      Dinah: I have a mask covered in chickens that I wear to the farmers market. My mom’s church friend sewed it.

      Chip: Dissident artist Ai Weiwei has really taken mask messaging to a whole other level. His masks feature images of surveillance cameras, Chinese mythology and the middle finger.

      Dinah: Sales of these masks raise money for humanitarian and emergency relief efforts.

      Petra: There are a couple of well known designers who are delving into the mask making market. Alabama Chanin, Carla Fernández and Jerry Lee Atwood are three people that I’ve been watching make masks that are very specific to their aesthetic.

      Chip: Petra believes masks will soon be developed for very specific purposes.

      Dinah: Your running mask, versus your office mask, versus your special occasion mask.

      Petra: Jerry Lee Atwood is a designer who specializes in custom western wear. And so his masks are encrusted with Swarovski crystals and embroidered with hand stitch and chain stitch embroideries and appliques. A friend of mine, who purchased one, said, you know, this is sort of going to be “my dress up mask.”

      Dinah: Okay, the idea of a “dress up” mask, I have to get my head around.

      Petra: I know. It’s true.

      Erin Robertson: The need for my masks is so grand. I put them up on my website and they sell out in like twenty minutes.

      Chip: Erin Robertson is a fashion designer and winner of Project Runway from season 15. Like many of us, Erin has been staying at home since mid-March. Before that, she was very busy. Designing costumes for a film project. Creating specially designed Kentucky Derby outfits. Designing a line of summer dresses. When all of these things were put on hold.

      Erin: I have this thing in my heart where I need to help everybody all the time. So I just want to make all of these masks, so I can get people in good masks.

      Chip: She put together a sewing guild to make and donate thousands of masks for frontline health care workers.

      Dinah: Erin also put a mask-making tutorial on Instagram that got thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. Soon people around the country were using her instructions to make masks.

      [DOG HOWLS]

      Erin: Oh, my goodness, Morris you’re ruining the podcast...Morry Bear you are a bad boy.

      Erin: But, yeah, so I started saving the scraps of all the masks from the very beginning. So I have bags of scraps. I think they are super important. I don’t know what it’s going to be. As a fiber artist, as well, yeah these are important.

      Chip: Erin sees herself as a fashion scientist.

      Erin: I get super excited about the future of textiles, and how manufacturing and all these things can be better for the environment and better for the workers.

      Dinah: Erin recently hosted an Instagram Live with the Director of the Community Biotech Initiative at MIT Media Lab. They discussed how the virus affects our socially distancing culture, as well as the design of couture.

      Erin: Fashion is like a very interesting thing before COVID. There was such a surplus of it. There was so much production all the time. Why do we do this to humans and our planet? Just produce so much waste and, you know, working with these factories where the more produce, the cheaper it is. Like, what’s the point of this?

      Chip: In order to counter what Erin feels is a problem with overproduction, she’s making masks for pre-sale, meaning she doesn’t make a mask unless it already has a buyer.

      Dinah: One of her designs involves a material called Ripstop. It’s breathable and waterproof.

      Erin 13:02 And then I also did it with, like, a reflexive strap with cord stoppers. So it just fits around the face so much better, and also it allows the air to not go up through your glasses, because it’s so annoying.

      Dinah: Yes, it is annoying when your glasses fog over.

      Erin: It’s the worst.

      Erin: I think you just have to have fun with it. I mean, this is why it is an important thing for an artist or creative to really take this as an opportunity to be super creative.

      Erin: Things will go back to the way they were. I still think that people are going to want things. But, my hope and my wish is that people just kind of start wanting less. And buy things that they are going to want for a really long time.


      Petra: You know, when given boundaries or parameters, I think that we experience, as a society, quite a bit of growth creatively because it isn’t just the sky’s the limit. It’s here’s this box, now what are you going to do with it?

      Chip: That’s our show. Thanks for listening.

      Dinah: Thank you to Petra Slinkard, Paula Richter, Trevor Smith and Erin Robertson.

      Chip: Petra is excited to share with you her new exhibition Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion. It’s scheduled to open in November.

      Dinah: Music from the Nick Cave Soundsuit party at the top of the show is by Salem-based musician Fred Giannelli.

      Chip: And the music under us now is by former PEM staffer, Forrest James. You can find both of these artists wherever you find good music.

      Dinah: PEM will re-open in mid-July. Check for PEM’s safety measures, which, of course, includes face coverings.

      Chip: So what kind of mask will you be wearing?

      Dinah: Before you decide, you should know that PEM’s online store has masks made from traditional Indian materials, as well as a few designed by Mexican fashion designer, Carla Fernández. Her work will be featured in the upcoming Made It exhibition. Check for availability.

      Dinah: If you have comments or story ideas or if you have a story to share about your inspiration during this health crisis, write to us at

      Chip: Keep in touch with us through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Stay tuned for more episodes of the PEMcast.

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