Ronalee Wear. An intriguing combination. A highly skilled, detail-oriented dressmaker/ designer and crazy-free spirit who can turn the most surprising ingredients into something magical. Ronalee is constructing the costumes for Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers‘s new IN-spired piece Brahms and Tights (Jan 22-23 and 29-30 at Cornish Playhouse). She works as a costumer and interior designer on her own,
does real-estate staging for Toll Brothers (whose motto is “America’s Luxury Builder”)…
… and puts up holiday decorations with Visionart at the Space Needle, the Tulalip Casino and other businesses and private houses, among other activities. At any given moment she might be found hunched over a sewing machine, participating with her grown kids—Devin and Dakota Wear—in a medieval fair, or up on an 18 foot ladder, hanging garlands. She grew up here in Seattle, and her unusual background plays into her current pursuits with the lively serendipity on which she thrives.
At a young age, Ronalee says, “My mom taught me how to work a sewing machine and follow a pattern, but I never could stick to a pattern.” Then from 2nd grade through high school, she lived with her eccentric dad who fostered and burnished her native ingenuity. Finding stuff in alleys or thrift shops to refine or re-purpose, thinking up wildly imaginative schemes, “He was,” as she says, “super-creative.” He taught her, by the way he lived, “what you can do with what you have, despite no money,“
At times things could be tough, but sometimes a check for $1000 for one of her dad’s workshops might arrive in the mail . “He always made even bad stuff into a story.”
If it snowed at 1 or 2 in the morning, he would get the kids up and take them out for a memorable walk. When there was only a rack of mismatched glasses and cups in the kitchen, he would ask, “How do you feel today? Like a goblet? A plain mug?”
No couch in the living room? He put together a pillow corner from discarded remnants the fabric store was about to throw ou.. And when the heat got turned off, he constructed big furry snugglies for his children—like blankets with their corners tacked down into sleeves—and called them “eskimo kimonos.” Her dad died of AIDS when her son was 3 months old.
Ronalee maintains that growing up she never thought of their situation as poverty,
but instead was excited by all the occasions to be risen to with ingenuity and humor. When they couldn’t afford art supplies, she learned to use the phone book for paper. Years later, raising kids of her own, she has been reluctant to buy pre-made stuff.
The theme of design improvisation has run like a brightly colored thread through Ronalee’s career. Teaching lunchtime art as a volunteer at Meany Middle School in recent years, she was at first struck by how the students were afraid to make mistakes. She told them, “What’s hardest is to make a mark on blank paper.” After that, she exhorted, “Just make it work, change your mind. It’s not selling out—it’s creating something new.” When she worked at Steven’s school, the kids concocted all kinds of crazy shapes of birdhouses to sell at a school benefit auction. In another project they concocted bugs. She and her friend Tracy Krauter had them to bring in things from their junk drawers and garages and contributed stuff of their own—hinges, beads, broken doorknobs and asked them, “What can you see? You don’t have to have a plan.”
With this sort of background, it’s not surprising that Ronalee had no formal schooling in design, but has always been learning all her life. How something is constructed continually fascinates her and she perpetually asks questions, wanting to know what she can add—to her own store of knowledge or to the project at hand. As a child, she did tiny stuff, designing and making clothes for Barbies. Since there was no money for buying stylish clothes, she discovered garments at Goodwill to take apart and remake, thus finding out all sorts of tricks to how high-end clothing was constructed.
Later, when she moved to the East Coast, looking for work and knew how to sew, she was taken on as a stitcher with a dressmaker in Hyannis on Cape Cod, who was also self-trained. Wedding gowns. Dresses like the Vera Wang ones so popular at the time, with white pure silk, and 80 yards of tulle. It was all a bit intimidating, but Ronalee learned more skills, of cutting and designing.
All that questioning and hands-on training stood Ronalee in good stead after she came back to Seattle and went to work as a stitcher for costumer Doris Black, costuming the Seattle Men’s and Women’s Choruses, Specrum Dance, and numerous other theatrical groups in the region. There was a lot of “period corsetting work,” she notes, “very detailed.”
The connection to Whim W’Him came about through dancer Tory Peil, who was a Spectrum company member and taught for the school, where Dakota Wear was taking classes. Tory assisted Dakota in dealing with her hyper-extension and helped her to find her center—physically and psychically—becoming a mentor to her encouraging her to continue in dance, which she has done. In return for Tory’s kindness to her daughter, Ronalee has made burlesque costumes for Tory.
“That is a particular sort of design,” she says. “The pieces must look flashy but be extremely sturdy, staying on when they should, then coming off at exactly the strategic moment.” Here as always Ronalee experimented—”and learned a lot about different kinds of snaps.”
In the performing arts, it’s the creative process, of rehearsing, of constructing costumes, that she likes best. For Brahms and Tights, Olivier wanted layered garments and intense colors—yellows, lime and an elusive sea-blue/turquoise—and Ronalee is just the person to provide them.
Much of the material and ready-made pieces come in white, so Ronalee has been thinking about colors as she combines them and piece them together, ready to be dyed, courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Ballet costume shop.
Whoever said Brahms was somber or dark…?