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THE DISTRICT LINEJune 16, 2006

No Pane, No Gain

City employee finds fulfillment in window dressing.

By John Metcalfe

Glass Act: Hecht’s dioramas are real productions.

(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Only once has Suann Hecht’s artistic ambition been thwarted.

For George W. Bush’s second inaugural parade, Hecht had anticipated installing something momentous in her venue—a ground-floor, Pennsylvania Avenue–facing window in her office at the D.C. Public Defender Service. Hecht wanted to dress up that window with an all-black diorama. A supervisor batted down that idea before Hecht could paint a single tchotchke.

“She said it can’t be political,” recalls the 63-year-old Columbia Heights resident, who requests her job title not be printed at the request of her superiors. So Hecht went with a runner-up idea instead. When the crowds lined up last January for Dubya’s motorcade, parade attendees who turned around could see in Hecht’s window a little circus scene, complete with an elephant on a flying trapeze.

Since 2004, Hecht, true to her department-store surname (no relation), has glamorized her window with a rotating exhibition of commemorative displays. Last month it was Emancipation Day: bears wearing American-flag suits, construction-paper chains and shackles, and a cutout picture of a freed slave sharing a basket with a mutton-chopped white guy as flying eagles carry them up and away.

This month, it’s a beach scene with real sand.

On a recent afternoon, Michelle Willens, an archivist for the National Gallery of Art, stands on the sidewalk checking out the window. Inside are little bunnies holding a rake and a wheelbarrow, a teddy bear lounging on a boat, and dolls drinking tea.

“She has permission for this?” asks Willens. “Really?”

Willens isn’t exactly Hecht’s target audience. “There’s nothing for children in this area,” explains Hecht. Her building would be like any other in this bleached corridor of Northwest, except for Hecht’s crazy window. Day-care workers pushing huge, plastic trucks of children invariably wind up in gridlock around the colorful displays. “The window is really for the children—and for the child in us,” says Hecht.

Of course, it’s much more than that. “This is a new form of art: We call this ‘worker window art,’ ” says friend Diane McDougall, 58. “You could write a grant to the D.C. Commission on the Arts [and Humanities].…Then people around the city could start to do their windows, and it could be a new—not like a fad—but a new thing.”

Hecht traces the birth of the window concept to her move into the office about two years ago. Back then, she was struggling with an artistic crisis. For years, she, McDougall, and others had been meeting at a private studio on O Street NW to draw and paint. All the other artists composed from models—good-looking, naked, male models—but Hecht found the assignment tedious.

She was able to keep her concentration by drawing the model’s face, she says, then skipping over everything else to draw the penis. But even that grew old. She switched to watercolors of flowers and, after that, collages ripped from magazine pages. Unfulfilled was what she felt. And then Hecht saw that slab of glass and had an epiphany.

“I was needing something new, but I was not doing much,” she says. “And I sat in front of this window, and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I could decorate the window!’ ”

Her first swings at window beautification were strictly organic. She put out plants. They died over the weekend after suffering intense heat stroke. Hecht then gathered a contingent of cacti, mounted them on stools and pedestals, and sent them out for duty.

Hecht’s bowerbirdlike bent began to assert itself. “I don’t see myself as an artist, but I have this creative streak in me,” says Hecht. That streak tells her to collect geegaws and arrange them throughout her immediate surroundings. “I even interior decorate when I’m in a hotel,” she says. “I get a jar of something. I always have flowers. I have shells.” And bits of broken glass and fabrics she buys from second-hand vendors.

To enhance her cacti, she draped a string of lights above them. She added small bear figurines and then bigger bear figurines and then other specimens from kitsch’s dead-eyed biosphere. “They always have to be different colors,” elaborates Hecht, “just for the whole biracial/bicommunity/bi-international whatever.” She started hitting up Michael’s, Jo-Ann Fabric & Crafts, and many a yard sale to outfit the window. And since she wants to keep it on the cheap—“That’s the kind of project it is”—she also trolls her social network.

“On Saturday morning, that’s when she does her gathering,” says co-worker John Bess, 56. Bess once tried to abort a Hecht materials-gathering mission by telling her to swing by his house at 6:30 a.m. No dice. “I tell my wife, ‘I got to get up at 6:30 on Saturday morning because Suann’s going to be knocking on the door,’ ” says Bess. At 6:30, Hecht was indeed knocking on his door.

Recently, she found herself thinking about how to “expand into the other windows down the hall,” she says. “I said, Suann, get control of yourself. Just stay with this window.”

Hecht has done Halloween with flying witches, Christmas with light-up houses, a Dominican Republic–themed mishmash, and a Sakura Matsuri blowout with two bunnies in Japanese garb driving a cherry-red cardboard automobile. The auto’s license plate bears a picture of a rabbit, the number 4, and a picture of a dove: “Bunnies for Peace.”

Betsy Biben, Hecht’s boss, steps in whenever her underling’s political beliefs protrude too much. Biben offers cautious support of the project. “It’s, uh. Uhmmm. Uh. It’s been fun for the community involvement both inside the agency and out. It’s delighted many a passer-by,” she says. “No, I don’t want to say that.”

The biggest admirers of the window, besides preschoolers, are tourists. A tour conductor for the Old Town Trolley used to stop across the street, ring a bell, and point at the window. And then there are the regulars. Some walk by and flip the peace sign. Others try to talk to Hecht through the window, which Hecht only notices when she happens to look up and see their mouths moving. Bothersome others tap on the glass. Hecht apparently handles the distraction well.

“I tease Suann, because Suann sees these crowds, but she doesn’t look up. She. Is. Cool,” says Bess. “She says, Yeah. Those people are checking out my window.” CP