Thursday, May 24, 2007

Olney's famous homegrown “Avant-Gardistes”: Patty O’Donnel and Rachel Anne Greenberg

The year was 1965, and for some time the young Simon Gratz High grads Patty and Rachel, sales assistants and apprentice bakers at Fink’s Bakery on Spencer Street, had been experimenting with what they called “weed art”. They would wander through the abandoned lots and woods and construction sites of Olney with an Acme shopping cart and collect weeds and twigs and other odd bits of trash and detritus, and in the basement of the O’Donnel house on Sparks Street they began to create the masterpieces which would soon bring them fame and a certain amount of fortune.

After working in obscurity for a few months the girls decided to enter one of their favorite creations, “The Sticky Twig Man” (pictured above), at the annual Autumn Art Show at Sturgis Playground over at 65th and Second. Much to their delight they won third prize (a $50 gift certificate at the Mitzi Shoppe on 5th Street), and to their even greater surprise the very photo reproduced here was printed in the “Neighborhood Fun” section of the Evening Bulletin.

As it so happens the famed artist Andy Warhol and his entourage were in town that day for Andy’s first American museum exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Andy saw the newspaper photo of the girls and the “Sticky Twig Man” and pronounced it “really neat”. The “Factory” stalwart and Warhol right-hand man Gerard Malanga got on the case and tracked Patty and Rachel down. The girls agreed to meet Warhol at their favorite local stopping place The Three Babes diner on Fifth. Yes, it was a wild night at the Three Babes when Andy arrived with superstars Baby Jane Holzer, Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling and the ubiquitous Malanga, along with the writers Terry Southern and George Plimpton, the actor Dennis Hopper and, not least of all, the gallery owner Janet Fleisher. Andy loved Patty and Rachel and immediately offered them parts in his next movie, but the girls declined as they didn’t think they would be able to get their shifts covered at the bakery. They passed around snapshots of their work and everyone seemed to be impressed, not least of all Miss Fleisher, who made them an offer on the spot to show their work at her world-famous gallery downtown on 17th Street.

Well, we all know what happened next. Helped out immeasurably by the imprimatur of Mr. Warhol, the Misses O’Donnel and Greenberg sold out their entire maiden show that December at the Fleisher, fetching as much as $5,000 a piece. Not bad at all for a couple of Olney gals who were still living at home and working at the bakery!

But this famous first show proved also to be their last. Patty and Rachel, in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, said that they felt they had gone as far as they could with weeds and twigs, and that they wanted to quit while they were ahead.

Rachel took her money and put it down on a semi-detached on Acker Street, and shortly afterwards moved in with her new husband Dave, a mechanic at the Atlantic station down at Fifth and Somerville. Patty for her part bought a brand-new Thunderbird. Rachel continued to work at Fink’s until she and Dave had their first baby. Patty went to nursing school and worked for many years at Einstein Hospital on Old York Road.

Their most famous work, “The Sticky Twig Man”, was recently auctioned at Christie’s for $750,000.

(Kindly refer to the far lower right-hand column of this page to find links to many other fantastic "Tales From the O-Zone".)


Anonymous said...

I thought I would throw in a bit of a gossip update here on “The Sticky Twig Man.” Yes, the figure was auctioned at Christie’s. The buyer was that reclusive Katerina Hupkalesky –art collector extraordinaire who lives in her heavily fenced estate in Mullica, New Jersey. Ms. Hupkalesky was previously in the news for refusing final payments on “folk art” paintings which turned out to have been produced by a painter with academy training. Rumor has it that Ms. Hupkalesky has recently decided that all art should be returned to its natural state and using only the labor of free range goats has had “The Sticky Twig Man” dismantled. Sources say that Ms. Hupkalesky commented, “it was worth the money to return the elements to nature.” These reports cannot be confirmed and Ms. Hupkalesky refuses to comment.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, thanks for the info, Sparky. What the hell, it's Ms. Hupkalesky's money...

Rachel Anne (now Rachel Anne Blochman)sent me a nice e-mail, and asked me to forward her opinion of it all, to wit: "Some people have a hell of a lot more money than brains."D

Anonymous said...

Clement Greenberg had this to say about "The Sticky Twig Man":
"Meanwhile, south of here, through the darkest wilds of a state known as New Jersey, two women have transposed the simple act of windfall branch gathering into an important new aesthetic, socially and historically speaking. Without attempting to justify their trangression of traditional plastic arts or for that matter horticulture, the Misses O'Donnel and Greenberg (no relation) have juxtaposed their endemic rejection of the bourgeois gallery system with a playful yet detached ideological struggle against said system. Unpropitiously situated in the City of Brotherly Love, they have maintained a high level of idiosyncratic flexibility in their presentation of a heuristic class struggle in the tensegrity enhanced form of "bundle o'sticks."

Dan Leo said...

Clement Greenberg "got it".

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm thinking of another "The Sticky Twig Man" but could it be that Ms. Hupkalesky had second thoughts or perhaps an inspiration or even a really good proposal before the piteous dismantling?
I have a lingering memory of "The Sticky Twig Man" greeting one and all to MOMA's second floor. During the sixties "The Sticky Twig Man" probably often occurred often as both artistic inspiration and promise of resin-rich smoking enjoyment.
I was planning to peep into the museums sometime this weekend so I'll be reporting back.

Dan Leo said...

We eagerly await your report, Kathleen!

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, Anon, and I hope you visit often!