Cutting-Edge Domesticity and the Medicine Cabinet, circa 1938

Walter Gladstone Darbyshire in 1920 © Catherine Rutgers 2013Here he is. Walter Gladstone Darbyshire the first, who will be followed by my uncle and my cousin, the second and third. This is him in 1920, my grandfather, union man, long-time Detroit resident, and decoupage artist.

Grandpa Walter had a basement hideaway. We weren’t allowed in there without him, though sometimes we crept in anyway. It was a dark room, with an electric-lit fire inside a plasterboard mantle and a real deer head mounted above. I remember being picked up to stroke the buck’s nose. His fur was smooth going down, bristly if you swept up; he had long branchy antlers and shiny glass eyes.

I’ve never seen another room quite like this one: mysterious but comfortable, in an endlessly exciting kind of way.

My mother told me Walter sometimes dressed as a “swami” for Halloween, replete with turban, robes, and a crystal ball—seated in a dimly lit alcove where neighborhood trick-or-treaters drew the curtains aside to enter. It sounds spooky and perfect, though when I was a kid, it would have been hard to imagine him in this role. He was precise in everything I saw him do: sifting the dirt in his garden, pruning the raspberry bushes and the crabapple tree, building a patio from pastel-colored cement blocks.

In the dining room on Burt Road, the wall behind the head of the table, where he sat at every meal, was filled with a photo mural of forested mountains, perfectly applied and finished. Inside the kitchen cabinets, Grandpa had decoupaged pictures of kittens and flowers and other things like that. They always intrigued me.

When I moved to Brooklyn, so many years ago, one of the first things I did was glue strips of a poster onto the back of the bathroom medicine cabinet (installed in 1938). The paper bits were getting gnarly, so I scraped them off and saved them for a scanning project. As for the cutting edge, in this case it’s literal: the shelves are thick, clear glass, with a lovely rounded edge in the front. But the back side is dangerously sharp. Each of three panels slides (awkwardly) into metal slots. And you have to take them all the way out to clean them. What were they thinking? They’re heartlessly difficult to handle, and yet, these details of home life from the past are inspirations to me, and I wouldn’t dream of trading in this cabinet for a new one.

By the way, check out those moiré patterns on the poster fragments. Love them! And this is where I diverge from most digital art practice, e.g., “moiré patterns are often an undesired artifact of images produced by various digital imaging and computer graphics techniques” (à la Wikipedia) and 139,000 articles about removing them. Au contraire, mes amis, the dots are beautiful.

Jewel-Tone Trips © Catherine Rutgers 2013Inside the Cabinet © Catherine Rutgers 2013WGD the First 1931, 1930, and 1941 © Catherine Rutgers 2013Amaryllis of Kings County © Catherine Rutgers 2013She Swans © Catherine Rutgers 2013The Surface of Planet Venus © Catherine Rutgers 2013Swept Up © Catherine Rutgers 2013Stained-Glass Proxy © Catherine Rutgers 2013Kitchen Corner 2008 © Catherine Rutgers 2013Inalienable Situation © Catherine Rutgers 2013Columbia Quality © Catherine Rutgers 2013Images and text by Catherine Rutgers © 2013

About CatRutgers4Art

Original art by Catherine Rutgers, with musings on the media and the methods. Founded in 2010. “I believe in magic moments. Am not afraid to be sentimental, and adore a tweaked cliché. Two of my favorite pastimes are watching paint dry and observing green tendrils unfold.”
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12 Responses to Cutting-Edge Domesticity and the Medicine Cabinet, circa 1938

  1. tom burnett says:

    nice one tbyrd


  2. Martha Brown says:


  3. Susan Scutti says:

    love this one!

    one question: what do you mean by “the first of three, followed by my uncle and my cousin”

    • Thanks, Susan! I thought this might be one you’d appreciate. Didn’t mean to be obscure about that line: he’s Walter Gladstone Darbyshire, and both his son and his grandson were named after him.

      • Susan Scutti says:

        about five minutes after I sent this note I figured it out — such a silly girl I can be! When I first read it, I thought, first of three as in a family of three children (like you are the first of three). Still, I love this entry. Beautiful mingling of past and present.

    • Hi, Susan, and thank you so much for the second comment! Not so silly, actually, I’m thinking about a rewrite of that opening line. It makes sense that you thought about his siblings, which, actually, I know nothing about (there are many mysteries).

  4. Pingback: Posts that Inspired. 3/13. | Isobel Higley.

  5. I liked your post so much it has been featured in ‘Posts that Inspired 3/13’. [Cat4art note: Isobel Higley has a great blog, and I am continuing to be inspired by her work! Just noticed, however, that last year’s page is no longer available.]

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