story by Liza Simon
photos by Karl Backus
This may be the only time I conduct an interview under the wafting canopy of a gigantic dress constructed of doilies. I sit here cross-legged on the floor of the Golden Egret Studio at the behest of my interview subject: painter, photographer, collagist and self-described maker of "dress as architecture," Anna Peach. Anna weds her affinity for the wild with her passion for art’s transformative power; since our first meeting less than twenty-four hours ago, she has regaled me with anecdotes that intertwine her art with her Midwestern roots, global explorations and current capers here in Honokaa, a small town north of Hilo. This is a woman who’s so far out she actually loops around and hooks up with tradition, resurrecting the long-lost role of the artist as shaman, merry trickster, healer.
About this doily dress, for example: Anna traces its inspiration to memories of winter that spurred her to decorate her Honokaa studio’s storefront window with "snowflakes" she made from Goodwill doilies. One night she came upon a group of elderly women gathered on the sidewalk, gazing in the window. "It hit me that there was something about these pieces that was really historical, and soon after, it popped into my head to make something massive and over the top that would also be a sanctuary," says Anna.
Word on the project got around, and before long people were presenting her with heirloom doilies. She made them into a bodice fitted to a tailor’s dummy, then went to e-Bay and bought doilies from around the world for the skirt. It now hangs suspended—about twenty feet in diameter, made from some 700 doilies—from several studio walls. "This is a memory device," she says, glancing around at the skirt. "People see it and start gushing about a mother or grandmother who used to make doilies."
There’s even a paranormal connection between the past and the singular dress. But to appreciate the full chicken-skin effect of that connection, you have to understand how Anna got into the Golden Egret Studio in the first place. It began when she entered the costume contest for Honokaa’s annual Western Week parade with an elaborate saloon girl outfit of satin and lace. It caught the eye of octogenarian Mrs. Evelyn Andrade, proprietor of Honokaa’s vintage Andrade building. "She heard I was looking for an art space," remembers Anna. "I tried to tell her that my art wasn’t the conventional kind, but she told me she thought I had spunk, and I would make the town a better place."
Anna moved into the building, right on Honokaa’s main street. There were vague allusions that something unsavory had gone in the space, hints that a kahuna had been brought in to bless it. When Anna asked for details, her new neighbors—including the retirees who gathered regularly on the benches across the street—were not forthcoming.
Anna developed a sudden passion for sewing. Machines seemed to just appear, six in all: Some were gifts from townspeople; one she found in perfect condition at the landfill; one appeared at a second-hand store, where the salesperson begged her to take it away because it took up too much room. She hunkered down in the studio for all-night solo sewing bees. "And I always hated sewing as a girl," she says. "This wasn’t rational. Why was I doing this?" Mrs. Andrade happened in at five one morning, when Anna was ready to chuck the whole doily dress project. "That’s when she told me what I already knew on some level: The storefront was once a tailor’s shop, where the distraught tailor took his own life. This is how it goes for me: I make the work and then the story comes through."