‘A Gold Slipper’ illustrates and illuminates Cather short story

by L. Kent Wolgamott

In January 1917, Harper’s Magazine published “A Gold Slipper,” a short story by Willa Cather about a coal magnate who winds up with the slipper of an opera singer whose Carnegie Hall performance he despised.

This month, 103 years later, Michael Burton has turned “A Gold Slipper” into a multimedia art exhibition that interprets Cather’s work through five digital video tableaux and 25 depictions of historic early 20th century objects lifted from the story.

“‘A Gold Slipper’ contains vivid descriptions of clothing, architecture, locations and personalities that eerily mirror points of view one might hear today,” reads the Kiechel Fine Arts exhibition notes.

And those descriptions become visual in Burton’s acrylic/graphite/spray-paint illustrations of multifaceted earrings (“Bejeweled”), a hair comb (“Opulent”), a derby hat (“Dapper”), a ’20s-style woman’s cap-like hat with a feather (“Swish”) and, of course, the title slipper.

Those objects were drawn from the collection of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design where Burton is an assistant professor of practice and gallery director. 

The pochoir print portraits “represent the opulence associated with (opera singer) Kitty’s character,” the notes read, as “All Over Paris” appears to be a concert poster of the story’s era.

The video tableaux, projected onto the gallery walls, represent key scenes in the story, including the singer’s performance witnessed by the magnate and his wife from seats on stage and the train ride the singer and the magnate take when she asks him why he didn’t like her performance.

Shown in pieces, the videos, which were based on live models, break apart Cather’s story, spinning it out of order, yet conveying much of the essence of what is found on the page.

Burton plans to assemble the clips into a short film, which would pull the narrative back together and stand on its own as another Cather story brought to film — something that didn’t happen, save for 1924’s “A Lost Lady,” until 1977 as the author banned film adaptations of her work.

Since then, Cather’s Nebraska-set Prairie Trilogy of “O! Pioneers,” “The Song of the Lark” and “My Antonia” has been made into films as have a handful of her short stories. But none, to my knowledge, have been animated and presented in contemporary fashion, ala Burton’s work.

The exhibition, which is on view through Feb. 14, presents the train in an alternate fashion — on a screen set inside a black frame that makes it appear to be a painting come to life, transforming it into a standalone piece that could hang on a wall at home.

It would have been interesting to see, and likely captivating, had a wall of framed videos been presented in the gallery. But as it is “A Gold Slipper” resonates as an innovative, insightful take on a piece by Nebraska’s most famous and important writer — and my 1890s predecessor as art and entertainment critic at the Nebraska State Journal.

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