Folk singer Phranc surrounds herself with striking clothes and other
fun stuff — all of which she’s made from cardboard. BY ANNIE BUCKLEY
“I failed sewing three times,” Phranc says,
laughing. I am talking to the famed folk singer, next to
a crowded worktable in her sunny art studio in Santa
Monica, Calif., amid strikingly real cardboard renditions of sailor shirts, candy boxes, and a life vest.
That this quintessentially rebellious iconoclast
has found the same wry sensibility in paper and
paint that’s a trademark of her albums — from
the best known, I Enjoy Being a Girl (1989), to the
most recent, Milkman (1998) — is something of a
feat in itself, and doing it with spurned home-ec
skills is somehow apropos. The self-proclaimed
all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer punctures
entrenched stereotypes with humor and humanity in her music, and her cardboard art is equally
reflective, if quieter.
“I’ve been making stuff out of cardboard since
I was a kid,” Phranc says, recalling submarines and
other “stuff you could crawl into.” As a punk rocker
in Los Angeles in the 80s, she sold her cardboard
wares out of her apartment the day before rent
was due. Since then, the work of The Cardboard
Cobbler, Phranc’s newest moniker, has come
a long way. She has been included in several group
exhibitions, and her first solo show opens at Cue
Art Foundation in New York City in December.
Phranc has a deep respect for the everyday,
innocuous little things that make our lives better,
like an ice cream bar, a favorite pair of shoes, or the
perfect shirt. Her art both celebrates and elevates
these objects by preserving them in the simplest
of media: paper and paint, cardboard and thread.
When working in paper, she first designs a pat-
tern for her “fabric,” sketched carefully in pencil.
She eschews exactitude and prefers a handmade
line to a ruler-straight one. Paper, Phranc explains,
is unforgiving. To give paper added flexibility, she
layers it with acrylic or gesso before tracing and
painting the pattern. When it’s time to cut the pattern and sew, she says with a smile, “you close your
eyes, you say a prayer, and you hope it doesn’t tear.”
Memory and family are intricately connected to
Phanc’s cardboard work. In 1991, while she was
away on tour, her brother was killed. The tragedy
prompted her to take time off from music and
ensconce herself in her studio, where she focused
on paper creations. Her first three-dimensional
pieces, realistic replicas of pumps, penny loafers,
and her trademark combat boots, inspire smiles
and reflection. Phranc’s work reinforces a universal
connection between objects, memories, and the
feelings that weave them together. In her studio,
a cardboard KidKraft kitchen inspired in me a
visceral memory of being a kid in the 70s.
When Phranc and Lisa, her partner of ten years,
started a family, it was again important to her that
she not be on the road so much. So she took the
beautiful black and gold Singer Featherweight
sewing machine she inherited from her grandmother to a friend’s house and learned to sew.
Phranc still uses her Nana’s machine to make
her creations. Each sewn garment includes a hand-painted label adorned with a single palm tree or
ocean wave. Her label, Phranc of California, is reminiscent of growing up in California. The garments
are made to be exhibited, rather than worn. But
as she completes each one, Phranc slips it on
just once — the perfect test-run for artwork that
celebrates the joy and fragility of the here and now.
Annie Buckley is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. She
wrote the profile of artist Marnie Weber in CRAFT, Volume 04.