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Mention Washington, and some people think of Congress, others of crime. A few, however, think of classicism.
Returning to the city after several years spent in London and California, Tom Heffner was one of the latter. “There’s so much amazing stuff,” Heffner realized. “Washington is almost like the Paris of the U.S. It’s just so beautiful.”
The neo-Greco city that Heffner rediscovered wasn’t just beautiful, though. It also dovetailed with one of his obsessions, the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Victorian fabulist who portrayed what he imagined to be the everyday life of the ancient Romans. “It’s like a lovely little perfect world,” says Heffner of the painter’s romanticized vignettes.
Heffner admits that Alma-Tadema is not well known in the U.S., although a revival of interest in his work was partially due Candid Camera‘s Allen Funt, who began collecting the painter’s canvases in the ’60s. There’s one Alma-Tadema painting in the Corcoran collection, but the artist is better known in Britain, which is where Heffner developed his interest.
Rather than collecting the painter’s work, however, Heffner has developed a modern-day homage to it. Using neoclassical Washington settings as a background, Heffner has posed himself and his friends in pseudo-Roman togs before such American imperial backdrops as the Russell Senate Office Building, the District of Columbia War Memorial, and Arlington Memorial Bridge—all structures derived from Roman or Greek models.
Photographed by Paul Fetters, these tableaux are then reproduced on contemporary mass-market art items: notecards, T-shirts, posters, postcards. Heffner calls these views “Washington, D.C., as you’ve never seen it before,” and supplements each image with a little blurb about the architecture and history of the site.
A former art director who now works for an architecture firm, Heffner has also designed a 1996 calendar and a dressing screen, although the latter is too expensive to have gone into production. He calls this product line the L.A.T. project, in homage to Alma-Tadema’s proclivity for monogramming everything he owned—even, says Heffner, all the screws in his piano.
Though his commitment to these neoclassical interpretations of Washington landmarks is unmistakable, Heffner doesn’t take it all too seriously. Showing the photos, he points out the plastic breastplate and the electrical tape used to simulate Roman sandals, and notes that he met one of the models “when we were extras in Forrest Gump.”
A moment later, however, Heffner is utterly earnest. “It’s my total obsession,” he says of the project. “The stuff in this city is amazing. And it’s all overlooked.”
For information about “Washington, D.C., as you’ve never seen it before,” write L.A.T. Project, P.O. Box 53087, Washington, DC 20009.
World Music, World Clothing
Though MTV and other demographics-conscious music outlets don’t spend much time thinking about fans over 25, people in their 30s and even 40s still buy CDs and cassettes. They’re increasingly less likely, however, to buy those items in record stores. That’s just fine with Dan Storper, who 20 years ago founded a Manhattan folk art and crafts store, Putumayo.
Storper’s store now specializes in clothing inspired by Latin American motifs, much of it designed by its owner, and has expanded to three other locations, two in New York and one in Washington’s Union Station. Recently, his influence has become more widespread. Putumayo’s products are now available at the Nature Company, Rand McNally, museum and zoo gift shops, and even record stores. It’s not the chain’s clothing that these outlets carry, though, but the products of Putumayo World Music, the offshoot that Storper admits has come to occupy the majority of his working hours.
The label began when Storper heard hard rock playing in one of his stores. “I said, “Basta!’ ” he recalls, and began making tapes of folk and world music to play in the stores instead. “Music completed the whole experience,” he decided.
From this beginning evolved The Best of World Music, a series Putumayo began with Rhino Records, one of the companies(along with the likes of the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s) whose executives Storper met at conferences of Businesses for Social Responsibility. That relationship lasted only about a year-and-a-half. The discs “got lost in record stores,” says Storper, who subsequently hooked up with REP, the distributor who handles Rykodisc. “We right now are still selling two-and-a-half times as many copies in clothing and gift stores than in record stores,” he notes. The label’s best-selling The Best of World Music: Instrumental has outsold its vocal counterpart, for example, because the Nature Company doesn’t carry the latter.
Putumayo followed the “best of” series with Shelter, a two-disc collection of singer-songwriters (including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, Freedy Johnston, and Sarah McLachlan) that benefited the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. Now he’s released compilation albums by individual artists: California-based Afropop band Kotoja, Seattle “Afro-Celt” singer/songwriter Laura Love, and Scottish environmentalist and nationalist Dougie MacLean, who appears April 21 at the Birchmere. Storper says such acts, who’ve been releasing albums on their own labels, “represent the undiscovered and unrecognized talent out there.”
Storper concedes that his compilations were originally designed to encourage people to buy his clothing, and purposefully avoid the harsh and challenging. “There’s a pop flavor to them. They’re intended to appeal to a Western ear,” he says. “It’s really more an introduction. Maybe it should be subtitled “the best of upbeat music that will make you feel good.’ ”
That emphasis seems to suit the albums’ buyers, who tend to have outgrown the adolescent frustration and hostility expressed by metal and rap. “I think it serves the record industry as well,” Storper says of Putumayo’s samplers, which have furthered the careers of some of the performers featured on them. Though he doesn’t expect Putumayo to ever issue music recorded especially for it, he plans to keep releasing about six albums a year. “I’m hoping that it can develop into a record label that’s self-supporting.”
It’s also, of course, an exercise in cross-marketing. British artist Nicola Hendl, who designs all the album covers, also designs handicrafts for the stores, and an upcoming Caribbean music collection will echo the motif of a new line of clothing.
“I’d like Putumayo to develop into a sort of lifestyle store,” Storper says. “If you like our music, you’ll probably like our clothing, and if you like our clothing, you’ll probably like our music.”
Putumayo World Music’s address is 627 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.