Residency blends fashion and heritage
By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor
Alex Capps cannot imagine a more ideal place to find her voice as a writer than Tower View.
Once the home of her great-grandfather Alexander P. Anderson, Tower View today is an artist community where creativity is nurtured and given space to grow.
Capps — Alexandra Anderson Sargent Capps, named in his honor — is spending the month in residence at the Anderson Center.
It is “the perfect place for me to focus and make progress on a lifetime goal, to write and publish a book on the history of clothing, explored within a liberal arts context,” she said.
“The Anderson Center perfectly embodies my great-grandfather’s interest in invention, imagination, science and art,” she wrote in her application. A.P. Anderson invented the process that led to puffed rice and puffed wheat cereals, and spent his lifetime studying nature and natural phenomena.
Capps first visited Tower View when she was around 6, and has made periodic visits over the decades — usually to attend weddings and other family gatherings.
But she grew up with stories about the place, and especially about her great-grandfather.
“He was a larger-than-life figure” in family lore, she said. Anderson grew up on a farm near Red Wing, the son of Swedish immigrants. “He was a self-made man; he did what he set out to do” in classic rags-to-riches style.
Capps enjoyed hearing stories told by her father, Hugh Alexander Anderson Sargent, who was the son of A.P. and Lydia Anderson’s eldest daughter, Louise.
“He clearly recalled camping out in the tower,” she said. It’s among his fondest childhood memories.
Although she grew up on the East Coast, Capps got to know her great-aunts, the late Jean Chesley and Elizabeth Hedin, as “sweet, kind” women who traveled to visit the Sargent branch of the family for special occasions.
Strolling the walkway between the residence and the iconic tower, Capps said, “This is the family heritage I always heard about.” Inside the home, “I love seeing my family around the house” in the many historic photos that decorate the walls.
The estate has been transformed into an artist community under the direction of another A.P. Anderson descendant, Robert Hedin. The center brings together past and the present, blending history with current needs, she said.
“I can’t imagine a better use for it. I am amazed at how much is going on here,” Capps said. “I think Robert has incorporated the spirit of my great-grandfather in this place.”
She is particularly impressed by the success of the interdisciplinary approach, bringing together artists, writers and scholars who interact with each other while also focusing on their individual projects.
“I’ve been thinking about running my own creativity center” at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is a costume designer and senior lecturer on theater and fashion, she said.
Students there are good leaders and scholars but conservative test-takers, Capps said. “They love to come to the costume shop” for some hands-on play. She is drawn to the concept of a place on campus where young people could explore their creativity.
This month she is doing her own exploration while her husband and stepson are busy coaching and playing baseball back home in Nashville.
Capps is fueled by a desire to make a scholarly contribution to the field of art and design. She is working on a book that places the history of fashion in a multi-dimensional context.
As a teacher, Capps discovered years ago that there simply is no appropriate textbook that combines fashion and art history, clearly identifying the connection between the two.
The book she is writing will not be a textbook, but a reference book for fashion and costume designers, art historians and everyday people who want to know something about the widely popular topic of fashion.
She created an outline that establishes timelines and identifies artists and writers, trendsetters, significant dates and political occurrences. Each segment includes images that show what was happening at the time in terms of fine and decorative arts, furniture, fashion and architecture — all elements that contributed to the style of the era.
Capps is particularly intrigued by key people such as Queen Victoria, who not only led government and society, but they also determined how people looked.
She hopes to finish working out a couple of chapters so she can submit “Fashion and Art Through the Ages” to a publisher.
“Fashion is always in the news” she pointed out. It can educate, entertain and inspire, such as the TV show “Project Runway” and the popular red carpet events.
“Contemporary fashion captures the popular imagination and has a great deal of cultural relevance and power,” she said.
From an academic perspective, Capps has found that young people show a real interest in fashion as an element of history.
“Students are interested in things when they see how it relates to them,” she said. “Contemporary fashion reflects the past.”
For her community service while at Tower View, Capps will speak to the Red Wing Women’s Network on May 14.