My work as an artist often finds me researching the real world, looking into the stuff that surrounds us in our daily lives. I'm fascinated

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Nothing beats a great pair of legs

An artist looks at the balloon legs on Nordstrom's new flagship store and floats them through the cultural landscape.

My work as an artist often finds me researching the real world, looking into the stuff that surrounds us in our daily lives. I'm fascinated by the stories that reside in unlikely places. Looking into one thing, I find myself being pulled happily toward another.

A month ago I came upon a photo of a giant pair of women's legs as I paged through The Seattle Times. The caption said that the legs, along with two other pairs representing a man and a boy, were made from 2,000 yards of nylon fabric. The three pairs had been installed on the roof of the new Nordstrom flagship building to promote its August 21 opening in downtown Seattle.

That photo reminded me of another image, one I photocopied a few years ago, of a huge, freestanding stocking-clad leg on a pedestal with the word "nylons" wrapped around it. In that image a woman hangs high above from a crane, showing some leg. This picture was in my files because I'd been reading up on nylon; it was taken in Los Angeles, just after World War II, outside the May Co. Department Store.

Laid side by side, those two legs, shot a half century apart, speak to each other in provocative ways. Both are gargantuan; neither has a torso. But otherwise these department store promotions are quite different.

The LA leg exudes postwar excitement (there's a crowd milling about) and sexuality. It hints at the big-time pleasures in store for the customer. Despite their massive size, the Seattle legs look cute and cartoonish. They're wholesome—and imply that we all wear shoes happily, in nuclear family groupings.

I decide to check out the Seattle legs in person, to learn more about how they got there. Calls to Nordstrom connect me to the PR department, where I leave a message. Then I visit the flagship.

When I return from sightseeing, a terribly cheery voice on my answering machine chirps that the giant inflated legs were there because the people at Nordstrom "wanted to have a lot of fun, wanted a whimsical reminder of our roots in the shoe business."

Indeed. During my visit with the legs, I was impressed by their shoes' quality, especially upon close scrutiny. The big, casual shoes are fully fashioned, all the way down to the underside of the soles—no Nikita Khrushchev holes or unsightly gaps in detailing. The legs spill lazily over the building's edge, apparently belonging to cavorting giants taking it easy up on the roof. These are kind, harmless, pleasant legs. Whimsical, yes.

But a lot of fun?

Paul Polson's Big Air Productions in Poulsbo began making the legs for Nordstrom six months ago. Nordstrom originally wanted large, dangling, inflated shoes; the limbs were Polson's idea. He based the nylon legs on photos of actual people wearing real Nordstrom shoes.

My search for the actual photo of the LA leg led me to Seattle-based Corbis.com, a digital image bank. Corbis has made a business out of turning visual images into information, which is perhaps the opposite of what artists do. The Corbis site gives me an 800 number and connects me to an Eastside location and another cheery voice. I fax over my copy of the photo.

Nothing turns up. A few years ago Corbis bought the Bettman Archives, an enormous collection of photo imagery that Otto Bettman began putting together after he escaped the Nazis and fled to New York City. I ask about Corbis-Bettman and am told that, yes, some of the images still reside in New York in actual photographic form. This time an 888 number connects me to Manhattan, another fax, and, less than an hour later, a return phone call.

The aptly named Ms. Hook has snagged my photo; her fax drops a twin image of the big LA leg on my studio floor, complete with its original caption. Another call, and the big LA leg is licensed to show in Seattle.

Shot by the Acme Agency in Los Angeles in August 1949, the photo was sent by wire around the country with the following caption: "Marie Wilson hoisted thigh-ward in a bosun's chair to compare gams with a 35-foot model of one of the famous Wilson legs. The two-ton plaster statuary, designed to advertise hosiery, was unveiled by Marie amid the fanfare of a Hollywood-type premiere."

My 82-year-old father-in-law, Tony, informs me that the Marie Wilson of the '40s was a "dizzy blonde" movie star. Funny, he remembers the hair, not the gams.

Nylon was created in 1937 to replace the silk in ladies' stockings, which had become very expensive and increasingly susceptible to supply problems due to turmoil in Asia. Nylon stockings were introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair to enormous acclaim; by then Wallace Hume Carothers, the genius chemist who synthesized the polymer, had killed himself.

A couple of years later almost all of DuPont's production of the fiber was going towards the war effort (parachutes, towlines, and so on). Stockings themselves were very expensive and hard to come by, even on the black market. Nylon-less women painted lines down the back of their legs to feign wearing them. The plaster leg outside the May Co. store celebrated the new postwar availability and affordability of nylon.

The thighward LA leg pulls our eyes upward, toward the lure of sex and a kind of fun that the Nordstrom legs ignore. The Seattle legs intentionally direct our vision downward, toward a shoe. They have gender, but no sex appeal. The LA statue is shoeless, because it was nylons that people wanted to see back then.

Half a century later, it's shoes—overly engineered shoes—that are the objects of desire. Billboards, million-dollar sponsorships, advertisements, and commercials incessantly link what we wear on our feet with prowess and skill, with our very sense of self and well-being.

The Nordstrom legs suggest a dream vision of Seattle, not so much fun as inflated. In this go-go boom time, everyone wants to believe it will soon be like this: just us big guys in our casual comfort shoes, no more 60-hour workweeks, no back-to-back meetings, all our options cashed in. We'll all be giants, lolling about on our snazzy downtown perch with the family, wearing the fruits of our labor.

Donald Fels is a visual artist whose recent projects include "Shoreview" (with Gloria Bornstein) at the Elliott Bay waterfront and "The Industrial Fish" at the Museum of History & Industry. A member of the faculty at the University of Washington, Fels is currently producing a series of artworks for the new Mariners baseball stadium.

 
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