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  • Danielle Bennignus

Peacock Party: A Courting Gift

Updated: May 27, 2018


I've often been asked where I find the inspiration that goes into my work, and the answer is often somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Costume history, classical ballet, ragtime and traditional jazz, historic amusement parks, the Atlantic ocean, dandyism - if it's got something of a vintage element, it's likely in there. But the reason for one of my illustrations is easy to single out - that would be my husband, who inspired "Peacock Party".

I met Matt Tolentino just about twelve years ago, thanks to the networking capabilities of Myspace - I was still living in New York City, and we connected through mutual friends in the vintage music community. You may recall the platform's "top ten friends" feature? Matt was included on my friend Dan Levinson's list, and I discovered that both were traditional jazz reed players. Matt and I became modern-day pen pals, discussing the groups in NYC, and the musical projects he was working on in Dallas. Three years after that initial contact, I had returned to the Cincinnati area, following the passing of my late father. I received an email from Matt during that time, mentioning the fact that he was passing through the area on the way to a gig in Canada, and might he sleep over at my place? Without hesitation I welcomed him, and upon his arrival our friendship, now face-to-face, developed as though we'd known each other for years. We stayed up until nearly dawn talking about historic music, clothing, vintage social dance, mutual friends and influences. It pained me to see him leave the next morning, happy to have finally met with a wonderful friend. I began working on a piece for him, as a way of celebrating the new level of friendship we'd found. He toured with his gig for three weeks up north, and decided to come back through town on his way home to Dallas. We resumed our enthusiastic interaction, still platonic, yet mutually (and silently) hopeful that romance might bloom. This time we stayed up past dawn chatting, singing, joking, kvetching - and I finally took his hand, and asked if we were a couple, or not. It might not have been the most daring gesture, but it worked - and we'll be celebrating our eighth anniversary this summer. Fortune favors the brave - even if the moment of bravery is a tiny one! I gave him the illustration I'd created for him, as a token of our bond.

When Matt headed back to Dallas the following morning, I had no idea that within four months, I'd be relocated and living there with him - a risky, breakneck process with an enormous payoff. Upon my arrival, I found my illustration, "Peacock Party", hanging above his upright piano.

I should mention that one of Matt's favorite genres as both a musician and bandleader is the Oriental Foxtrot, an experimental style that was popular during the 1910s and 1920s. Along with the exploration of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, there was a sweeping enthusiasm for all things exotic, reflected in all areas of popular culture - jewelry, fashion, dance, interior decoration, entertainment, and music. The Oriental foxtrot ran the gamut from ethereal to novelty, with titles such as "Rebecca Came Back from Mecca", "Old King Tut", "Egyptian Ella", and "Lena, the Queen of Palesteena". These were creations of a naive era, meant as honest and joyous celebrations of the cultures that inspired them. I decided to put my twist on this genre with the help of an odalisque, a hookah and a peacock.

I should mention that for good luck, I made the peacock's tail feathers out of nazar boncugu - the much-loved Turkish charms meant to ward off envy. I've decorated my home, vehicle and person with these little wonders for years, and thought that Matt's place could use a few!

A fun photo taken in the late hours, while I was working on the piece. I've used that hake brush for many years, having found it at the late, lamented Pearl Paint on Canal Street in Manhattan. These brushes have just enough body to take eraser leavings off the bristol paper, but are soft enough to do no harm.

And finally, a fun photo from New Year's Eve of 2015, when Matt and I performed together onstage at the Kessler Theatre. I still create pieces for this wonderful man, nowadays consisting primarily of album covers, concert posters and advertising work - and wardrobe upkeep, as well! I've often told people that he covers the aural side of things, and I'm in charge of the visual aspects - a tradition that started almost immediately after we met. Here's to many more years of a perfect creative collaboration.


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