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Gemma Taccogna

Gemma Taccogna by Gemma Taccogna

Extracts of Gemma's unpublished book have been kindly sent to us by her close friend Jackie May.

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  • Date addedAdded: February 25, 2007
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When I first started it had to do with a toy thing. I was making toys for myself. They gave me great pleasure. Making them useful, practical...

One practical - one not!
One practical - one not!

...or not!

I have no idea where all this creativity was coming from, except that it was there and it was bubbling up and over. I worked feverishly with the medium, trying out many things, experimenting in shapes and forms, and even chemically with new paint bases and pigments.

One of the things I was most successful at was to come up with a coated finish to the dolls that looked and felt like porcelain, a semi-gloss enamel that gave the figures a really attractive look. The finish came to me quite by accident. One night I worked till very late, and I put too much glue on the piece. But in the morning when I saw the beautiful satin patina on the piece, I thought, "How did that happen?" When Elmer's glue dries, it dries clear, and with a matte satin finish. It was so beautiful.

I then experimented and put gypsum down first. You can sand the gypsum 'til its smooth as a baby's ass. Then paint with Elmer's glue slightly diluted. The features were done with watercolor over the glue. Then you lacquer with clear lacquer. And it's wonderful.

Jackie speaking:

Gemma was in New York and sold her papier mache creations to stores like Sak's 5th Avenue, Nina Ricci, Sciapparell and more. She went on to create other amazing window displays and designs for the famous hat designer, Mr. John who was very famous at the time on 5th avenue. Mr. John loved her heads and used them to display his hats.

With my objects he started a whole boutique. It was for him that I invented the lipstick, those little pincushion heads, and usually as you can see they receive things. They are open like a cup is open.

Open topped heads
Open topped heads

Jackie speaking:

Years later...

And then, quite suddenly... everything changed in my life. I was having my appendix removed in a hospital in Westchester County, and this doctor, Juan del Rio, who was serving internship there came into my room and I was drawing in bed. He liked it so he came up later that night and gave me some pre Colombian heads. We chatted and naturally fell in love...

We married... had our daughter Gemmy... and a couple of years later went to Mexico to live. It was 1954, ... I was 28.

Of course Mexico influenced my work. Eventually I opened a papier mache studio to produce my designs. It was a huge success. It was a wonderful time. We also had an outlet of our own. It grew very large.

Collection of items
Collection of items

I had a great responsibility as the head of a big manufacturing company, with 60 employees working at my studio. That's a lot of people, but I worked right along with them, had doctors for them, all kinds of good things. I worked day and night and loved it.

But underneath it all I was the envied American; though people were very sweet, some took from me, sold materials, sold pieces, or started to work in competition with me (Jackie: copying her designs). I hadn't figured on that.

And then SUDDEN FAME! Peggy Guggenheim came to one of my exhibitions and she bought like crazy. This was before she had her Venice museum. But when she did take them to Venice - VABOOM! Suddenly my papier mache objects were featured on the front cover of all kinds of French, German, Dutch magazines!

I didn't even know they were going to be in those magazines! I never even knew about it, other people brought me the magazines. And it was so joyous for me because not only did I have the joy of creating it, but that it inspired fun and whimsy in other people! Great. My job was complete. It was all fun.

Two magazine articles
Two magazine articles

That opened up the world of export, and by chance it didn't weigh anything, the import or export duties were minimal. The only thing that did happen though is that many were opened because they were thought to contain drugs. Including the pincushions, they opened some of those thinking it might have stuff in it.

I consider myself a sculptor so I experimented with all kinds of forms. When Neiman Marcus saw it I was commissioned to do a whole set of chess pieces....they took up a whole room! I sent him 3 complete sets.

Sometimes I used to place objects on the papier mache much like collage. I added lace; actual lace. At the time, though, I was bothered while I was doing it because I felt that I wasn't making the figure in its entirety. I was using someone else's creation. Those were little quibbles in my mind. Now, looking back, I think that it was rather creative to incorporate new elements into my work. Its perfectly legitimate, and I now encourage it in my students.

Jackie speaking:

This a picture of Gemma and her papier mache bracelets that were so popular in the 1960-70s. She decorated them mostly with string and cabochons, then of course paint, gold leaf, etc. She encouraged us each to make at least one. We usually started with the cardboard from an empty tape roll, or she would slice up a plastic water bottle.

Gemma with bracelets
Gemma with bracelets

I closed the factory in 1966 and came back to the United States. It was sad, sure. But I knew I left something good because I made it possible for many people to have not only work, but have their own companies. A host of small companies sprang up that were doing papier mache. And there were individuals doing it, little villages doing it, and women in their homes doing it. Its exactly what I am doing here; trying to encourage people to be their own people and work and make it happen.

On leaving Mexico I felt a deep sadness. A great sadness. I loved living there. We came to a beautiful home I bought near the water in Palos Verdes, California.


Lion
Lion

Additional photos
Additional photos