Muse: Shooting Venus

Muse: Shooting Venus

Constructing the Shell

We often get questions about the Birth of Venus [After Botticelli] shell. Despite living in Chicago with lots of theaters and prop houses, we figured the search to find the perfect shell was more effort than just making one ourselves. At 9’x6′ it consumed my apartment’s dining room and brought with it a host of delightful and unexpected experiences.

Shooting Venus

After having scoped out our lakefront location weeks in advance, Niki, my friend Joe and I meet at the agreed upon location around 4:45 a.m. The sky still dark and the September air crisply in the 50s, we arrive at the beach only to discover a parking lot full of cars, a row of yellow school buses and scurrying people in the dark. A stab of fear is replaced by confusion until we notice a promotional tent and a few people in running gear. Judging it safe to proceed, we begin unloading and taking everything down to the water’s edge.

An hour passes as we position the giant shell in the water, deep enough to look good while shallow enough not to sink in the shifting sand or fill with water from the breaking waves. Amidst our busy preparation and an ever slightly blushing sky, we fail to notice the swelling crowd of 200 or so runners up on the beach ridge stretching and looking down our way with curiosity – a few moving down onto the beach to snag a photo.

As the sun rises to the horizon, we begin the shoot. Niki, with sweater wrapped around her head (looking precisely like little Edie from Grey Gardens), steps behind the camera to secure its position. I place my clothes in a plastic bag, tape the fabric hood on my head, step into the shell. I find my position with right hand over chest and left nearly covering my groin. I lock my gaze with the camera lens and wait for the click and wind of film. A split second of confusion is replaced with disbelief. “O-oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” peels from a loud speaker near the runner’s tent. The three of us burst into uncontrollable laugher. Never before has the Star Spangled Banner initiated such hilarious irony.

As our composure returns, we witness a slow moving line of runners stretching out and moving north from the tents along the lakefront path. Warmed with humor, we resume our shoot, taking advantage of the best light and waves Lake Michigan can provide. At the end of the shoot we pack up all but the shell. One last glance, looking down from the grassy beach ridge, we wonder about its new life, how many people will pass and appreciate it, how long it will remain.

The disco ball, however, hangs in my dining room.


Recent Posts



Nearly two years ago during the chill of winter, upon Niki‘s suggestion, I stopped by the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago one night to view John Singer Sargent’s painting “Mrs. George Swinton.” At 7.5 feet tall and surrounded by a hefty gilded frame, it is nearly life-sized and retains a commanding presence on the end wall of a long gallery. Upon my first glance, I felt a palpable upwelling of excitement and immediately drew in closer to examine its luminosity, lush details, and painterly quality. Mesmerized, I took a picture of the painting with my phone and texted Niki the with a resounding “Yes! We have to do it.” Shortly thereafter, I started drafting patterns and sewing muslin.

About six months later while celebrating my 40th birthday on a solo trip to Paris, I stopped in a fabric store near the foot of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Much like the luminosity of the Sargent painting, the sheen of silk shantung beamed toward me from the wall. Having managed with my rudimentary French skills, I walked out with seven yards of fabric. Upon my return home, the fabric took on a new life that filled me with the same giddiness as my first experience standing in front of the painting.

As we are often prone to doing, we gave the painting/project a nickname. It typically serves as shorthand and also tends to endear us more toward the subject of the painting. Besides, “Portrait of Mrs George Swinton” doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, so we opted for Tilda after the actress Tilda Swinton. What I didn’t know, until doing my usual research on the painting, was that Mrs. George Swinton turned out to be the great-grandmother of the actress for whom we nicknamed the project. In fact, as I dug further, I learned that the painting was commissioned by George Swinton’s mother to honor her Scottish politician son’s engagement to socialite and professional singer Elizabeth Ebsworth. It has been noted that the painting took two years to complete because of Sargent’s insistence upon taking breaks to play the piano while Elizabeth would sing. Regardless of timing, Sargent’s skill is not only evidenced through the many lush details present within the painting, he seems to effortlessly capture his subject’s signature poise and beauty—a major reason in our choice to reinterpret the piece.

IMG_4832When I went back to revisit the painting, I began to notice distinct elements of Impressionism in how Sargent rendered the translucent folds of the organza cascading down her arm. Up close, the brush strokes look like abstract squiggles of paint, yet at a distance, a luxurious pouf of iridescent fabric appears. Again, upon further research, I discovered that the portraiture for which he is most well-known composed the majority of his commissioned work. Yet he regularly employed Impressionist techniques in his informal work and landscape paintings. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, the portrait of Mrs. George Swinton marries the two approaches with a seamless grace and adeptness.

It likely goes without saying that we are enamored by this painting and much of Sargent’s work. We are excited for the opportunity to hang this piece next to our reinterpretation of A Portrait of Madame X, one of Sargent’s most well-known works. There’s also an element of delight in little secrets that Niki and I share in the process (like the fact that I’m standing on top of two art history books instead of wearing heels in the photo). But those are for telling another time. For now, below is our latest addition to the Muse series. We can only hope our gender-bending reinterpretation would bring honor to the original painting’s creator and subject.


Mrs. George Swinton (after Sargent), 2017
© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

Wikipedia: John Singer Sargent, George Swinton
Art Institute of Chicago

  1. Why All the Costumes, Makeup, Rhinestones, and Glitter? Leave a reply
  2. Muse: Niki Grangruth & James Kinser Leave a reply
  3. Columbia College Alumni Give Art History a Gender-Identity Makeover Leave a reply
  4. “Muse” Exhibition Interview on Metaphor, Gender, and Collaboration Leave a reply