Bailey, Xenobia 1955(?)—
Xenobia Bailey 1955(?)—
Xenobia Bailey is trying to entrench an African American aesthetic in American culture. All of her artistic endeavors are geared toward this goal, from the handmade crocheted hats that established her reputation, to her installations, short stories, cookbooks, and critical writing. Bailey also believes that the highly individual and inherently resourceful stylistic impulse she calls “funk,” and its role in African American culture, must be more fully acknowledged.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Bailey learned about hard work early. At times her father, Joseph M. Bailey, held several jobs, including one with the railroad; he also maintained a janitorial business. In addition to helping with that concern, Bailey’s mother, Alice Olivia Bailey, briefly maintained a day-care center and drove a bus. When she was in junior high and high school, Bailey would join her mother, father, and brother cleaning three restaurants before school. After school she would work for a couple of hours at her job with the parks department. “I think my ideas about aesthetics were largely formed by the time I spent out of doors,” she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
When Essence contributor Joy Duckett Cain asked Bailey why she feels compelled to create, she responded, “I’m actually creating myself, I’ve always felt like a misfit. Even in my own home, where I was raised, I felt like a misfit because it wasn’t an environment that complemented my insides. The walls, the colors, the furniture, the clothes—they weren’t a reflection of what was inside of me, of the state that I was living in.”
Clearly, long before she learned the meaning of the word aesthetics, Bailey felt the energy of her surroundings and understood instinctively how they affected her. To CBB she recalled, “I noticed that even the restaurants we were cleaning, they were always interesting environments. And I noticed how it was easier to clean the really nice ones and a chore to clean the dumps because they never sparkled when you were finished; you couldn’t get that gratification.”
Bailey discovered in elementary school that she could communicate through the visual arts. When one of her teachers noticed that she liked to draw, she set her up with simple art supplies to play with after school. Once, Bailey spent nearly a week drawing a life-size bicycle. “I didn’t really know that I wanted one, I was just drawing this bike,” she told CBB . “At the end of the week my teacher invited my mother up to see this picture, and when she saw it she said, ˊThat’s nice.’ But later on—I got a bike! I thought ˊWow, this stuff works.’ It was like magic to me.”
At a Glance…
Born a 1955, in Seattle, WA; daughter of Joseph M. (worked for the railroad; proprietor of a janitorial service, dry cleaners, and pool hall), and Alice Olivia (a bus driver, day-care center operator, and janitorial service assistant) Bailey, Education: Attended University of Washington; Pratt Institute, bachelor’s degree in industrial design, c. 1978
Assistant to costume designer, early 1970s; taught art at community centers, late 1970s; worked for department of social services, late 1970s; began designing and selling hats, early 1980s, Designs have appeared in films, including Do the Right Thing 1989; television series, including The Cosby Show aid £ Different World; and numerous advertisements. Writer of folktales and cultural criticism.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 1114, New York, NY 10156.
Though her parents encouraged her interests, there were few avenues available to Bailey for further study in art. “I wasn’t particularly intrigued by libraries or books,” she told CBB . “When everybody else was into Nancy Drew [mystery novels!, I wasn’t, because I didn’t like where Nancy Drew was going. There didn’t seem to be books with the kinds of characters that I wanted to read about.” Bailey did not even know that an “art world” existed, but, she says, “I knew there was this thing happening in me. There were these ideas and there were these visions.”
The closest Bailey came to grasping this as a child was through her love of Disneyland and television’s Mickey Mouse Club .Bailey knew that people crafted animated films and the fanciful lands found in amusement parks, but it didn’t occur to her that she played a role in that world as the observer of such magic, and that she could be a more active participant in its creation. She nonetheless learned to sew by watching cartoon birds and mice miraculously assemble a ball gown in Disney’s classic Cinderella.
With no outlet open to Bailey in the visual arts, she turned to music. When her friends in the neighborhood took piano lessons, she insisted that they teach her what they had learned. One of their parents finally told Bailey’s parents about this, and they started her on lessons too. She did not learn to read music, however, because the songs used for instruction in this discipline bored her. Instead, she memorized each song.
Bailey attended the University of Washington in Seattle. She discovered ethnomusicology (the study of music that is outside the European art tradition) when she visited a graduate course in music. “I still hadn’t made the connection to visual arts yet because I thought everybody could draw,” she recalled to CBB . “So when I went to that class, that was it, boy. It was like a whole world opened up. I just got caught up in the instruments, the songs, and the cultures we were studying.”
Instructors from around the world introduced Bailey to sights and sounds she never new existed. She became fascinated by the way entire cultures could be glimpsed in their music, dance, and costumes. And though transfixed by the beauty of what she uncovered, her always evident practical side knew this was not something with which she could make a living. She didn’t want to become an instructor, nor was she interested in research. With that decision she left the university.
Bailey then started working for a costume designer in a local community theater. She had no real experience in sewing or design, only her innate abilities. After she mounted an exhibit of her creations in the theater’s gallery, a stage manager told her about Pratt Institute in New York City. Her subsequent application to Pratt was accepted, and Bailey moved to New York in 1974. It wasn’t until she began classes with her fellow students—young, trained artists from all over the world—that she realized what an honor it had been to be accepted on raw talent alone.
Freshman year at Pratt was not easy for Bailey; she had never even used a paintbrush, let alone the myriad tools now at her disposal. “I was fascinated and overwhelmed at the same time,” she told CBB, “because I couldn’t conceive of so many people with so much talent all in one place.” When it came time to declare a major, Bailey assumed she’d choose sculpting. Of the two art forms with which she had become most familiar—sculpting and painting—she preferred the three dimensions and enhanced tactile awareness that sculpting offered. But when a counselor introduced her to her other options, Bailey began to reconsider.
The counselor told Bailey about industrial designers, for example, who design telephones, cars, furniture, and many other consumer goods. Bailey told CBB, “While she was talking I was already thinking,” Well, people design telephones. I can design a better telephone. I can design a better TV.’ And all the packages designed for these products to make them sell better—I could do that.” The idea of pursuing commercial art, as opposed to fine art, also satisfied her practical nature.
Bailey spent the remainder of her education developing her character and style as an artist. But when she graduated from Pratt she found that she was unable to get a job in her field because her designs were generally too complex, perhaps too personal as she was still in the early stages of her artistic development. Still, she needed to find work. For a while she taught art classes at community centers. At one she met a woman who would be extremely influential: the crochet teacher. This woman, who had learned the art of fine hand work from children at an Italian Catholic orphanage when she was a child, taught Bailey everything she knows about crocheting. Because she had never been exposed to patterns, Bailey learned without them. “This way,” Bailey recalled her teacher saying, “you can create whatever you want.”
Bailey later accepted a position in social services, but after a year she realized that this work was not her true calling. She had spent so much time and money on her education; it was time she earned her living through her artistic gifts. She began designing wooden toys, then puppets, then dolls, and finally wearable art. “I’ve always worn hats, but they didn’t do what I wanted them to,” she explained in the New York Times . “The knit hats became unraveled and the floppy hats just had no style.” She told Essence, “I started doing the wearable art because I could make a living selling hats and also the garments—the coats, the jumper dresses.”
Bailey sold her designs at fairs and bazaars in New York City, sometimes even working as a street vendor. She had a stamp made with her business information and stamped slips of paper, passing them out as business cards. She allowed pure imagination to dictate her work, incorporating her design training throughout. Her hat designs evolved to continually pique her customers’ interest. She used contrasting colors to create a sense of motion. Her prints related to one another, demonstrating a cohesive overall use of color.
In the beginning, the shapes of Bailey’s pieces were inspired by African hairdos and African architecture. Later, decorative and ceremonial headdresses from Africa and other cultures served as inspiration. Hindu mythology, too, particularly the depiction of religious figures, also figured in her work. An all-girl Chinese drill team she saw perform in Seattle introduced her to Chinese opera head pieces. She would make each of these aesthetic ideas her own through original stylistic modifications.
Bailey wore her hats wherever she went; photographers she met regularly asked to shoot her work for their portfolios. After making a deal with one, she photocopied the resulting pictures and sent them to every fashion magazine she could think of. Elle was the only one to respond, but the magazine’s fashion editors’ overwhelmingly enthusiastic response was enough to get the ball rolling. Elle frequently featured Bailey’s designs; after a full-page article on her appeared in the magazine, other publications that had previously ignored Bailey’s requests for exposure in their pages suddenly came calling. Advertising agencies started ringing her phone as well, and her hats were soon gracing print ads and billboards as part of a high-profile Benetton clothing campaign.
Then Bailey was contacted by the costume designer at 40 Acres and a Mule, hip director Spike Lee’s film production company. 40 Acres wanted to use her headgear in Lee’sDo the Right Thing, which caused a sensation in 1989. It wasn’t long before a friend connected Bailey with actor/comedian Bill Cosby, who began featuring her pieces on his wildly popular TV series, The Cosby Show, as well as on its spin-off program, A Different World . She even sold hats to Cosby for personal wear. After that, museums around New York and eventually the nation began requesting her work for exhibits.
Late 1995 found Bailey stretching her creative wings, conceiving of a “coronation” that would include a performance piece and a short film showcasing her always changing hats. She planned to crown 12 people from all walks of life who, as she told CBB, “have upheld the basic principles of funk. I have to give my work an identity. People see it, but they don’t know what it is or what it does or how you use it. With the coronation they can put what I do in a larger context.” The multimedia crowning would travel to museums throughout the country.
In a broader sense, Bailey has always concerned herself with spreading the gospel of “funk,” the particular quirks or idiosyncrasies and spirit of improvisation we bring to our creative endeavors. As she told CBB, “The basis of any culture is a funkiness—everything starts with funk. Funkiness comes from a passion, a personal taste, and not necessarily from training. It comes from not having the materials you need to make what you want to make. There are no rules—whatever works works. Often, what starts as raw individuality gets polished, and then funk is forgotten. What I’m doing with this coronation is acknowledging the high brow of funk.”
Ultimately, everything Bailey does comes back to the creation of a specifically African American art that has its roots in the make-do tradition of funkiness. This principle extends to her work with architects to create interior designs, from textiles to furniture. It encompasses a cookbook of contemporary funk cuisine gathered from friends who have traveled the world and who have combined their exotic new discoveries with down-home memories.
To make up for the books she never had as a child, Bailey is writing folktales about African American heroes who use their funky talents to overcome adversity. In telling the story of one such character she devised an art installation comprised of a crocheted residential compound—teepee-like structures that are in some ways huge versions of her hats. Bailey has also taken to writing cultural criticism on the work of artists “with a sophisticated funky aesthetic.”
Bailey hopes that one day American design will feature not only Swedish-inspired products, or objects created with an Asian orientation, but distinctively African American pieces as well. To do this she is taking the spirit of Africa and, using the technology and influences of her American upbringing, education, and training, fashioning artworks in that strictly African American style. “Peanut butter is an African American food,” she reminded CBB, “but people don’t recognize it as such. I want people to say ‘as American as peanut butter,’ not just ‘apple pie.’”
Essence, May 1995, p. 70.
New York Times, August 19, 1990, sec. 1, p. 38.
Philadelphia Tribune, August 20, 1993, p. 1C.
Additional information for this profile was provided through a CBB interview with Bailey on December 26 and 27, 1995.
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