Amy Krouse Rosenthal: A Beauty Salon” is an interactive exhibit that celebrates the life, work, and spirit of the Chicago writer, who died in March this year at the age of 51 from ovarian cancer. Rosenthal came up with the concept of a beauty salon—where “beauty” is defined broadly and “salon” as a gathering of people to exchange ideas—last year, after her cancer diagnosis but before she knew it would take her life.
When it became clear that the exhibit couldn’t happen before she died, she encouraged Ruby Western—her assistant and collaborator for the past three and a half years—and Carrie Secrist Gallery to continue the project. Western says that Rosenthal “wanted people to walk away with something new, not have it be a very sad thing.” “A Beauty Salon” includes Rosenthal’s published and unpublished writing, a seating area where visitors can drink coffee and read, books for sale, a film room, and a table (with swings for seats) covered with blank coloring pages and word searches. “I really hope it is a space where people feel they can come and be inspired and be working and making things,” Western says.
Rosenthal was the author of more than 30 children’s books and two memoirs, 2005’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which was published last year. She was a contributor to NPR and TED, and a self-described “tiny filmmaker,” writing in Textbook: ” . . . whether one interprets that as a person who makes tiny films or a tiny person who makes films, both are correct.” A column she wrote for the New York Times‘s Modern Love series, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” was posted just days before she died. It recounts meeting and falling in love with her husband of 26 years, Jason, and expounds on his excellence as a partner and father, in the hopes that he will find love again after her death. Like all of Rosenthal’s work, it was charming, vulnerable, and generous. It was so widely read that it will be made into a movie.
Many of her films were documents of her public art projects, such as The Money Tree, where she hung 100 $1 bills from a tree on a Chicago sidewalk and filmed people’s reactions, or Life Is a Marathon, in which a group of people met commuters disembarking from the el at the Belmont Red Line station at the end of a workday—Krouse Rosenthal’s team greeted passengers with high fives, water bottles, and signs that said “Yay! You!” and “Way to go!” Even her books were interactive: Textbook listed a number that readers could text at certain points in the narrative for responses or supplemental information.
So it’s not surprising that “A Beauty Salon” encourages people to respond to it. A wall that runs the length of the gallery is painted yellow, Amy’s favorite color. The words “I was here, you see. I was,” a quote from Encyclopedia, are printed along the top in Amy’s handwriting. A plaque at eye level reads: “Amy wrote things, she did—some mundane, some monumental. What have you done? What do you do?” Markers are provided for visitors to write their answers on the wall during the exhibit’s run, although the prompt will change periodically.
Western called the “I was here” wall, along with a plinth located at the entrance to the gallery, one of the “lode-bearing poles” of the exhibit. On display are many of the journals Rosenthal kept, random lists and notes, a cartoon she submitted to Dave Eggers for Might magazine (along with instructions on how it should be laid out), a Mad Lib page that she turned into an author bio, and early drafts of her work.
One handwritten draft of Textbook is turned to a page on her “midlife crisis,” when she became “weepy, chronically weepy.” “I wouldn’t describe the origin of my tears as ‘boo-hoo I’m so old,'” she writes, “but more ‘oh my, here I am living, and I would like to keep on living, preferably and indefinitely, but the hourglass if—if I’m lucky—half empty.'” The last journal she kept, found by her daughter after her death, is open to a page that reads “death may be knocking on my door, but I’m not getting out of this glorious hot bath to answer it.”
In an interview excerpt from around the time Textbook was published, Rosenthal said: “”You know how one minute you’re giggling about something and the next you receive dreadful news and you’re sobbing . . . and then a minute after that, you get the hiccups? I’m interested in a narrative—a reading experience—that reflects this truth . . . I think the weighty and the playful happen to be very well matched.”
All of her work incorporated the weighty and the playful, and “A Beauty Salon” is a reflection of that. The space is light and welcoming, with free coffee, couches and beanbag chairs, and a modified gumball machine that spits out temporary tattoos and art assignments for a quarter. But the exhibit also conveys the mournfulness of a creative life cut short. In a room at the back of the gallery, a few of Rosenthal’s favorite film projects are screened on a loop, including a music video of the song “Wanna,” which she wrote in the spring of this year with musician Nick Gage. Played over footage of her 50th birthday party, the lyrics read, “Wanna keep on breathing / so my kids aren’t scarred . . . Wanna meet the older versions / Of who they are” and end with “But if my time is up / I know I lived and loved hard.”
In early discussions of “A Beauty Salon,” Rosenthal asked: “What is the most interesting way for someone to leave this exhibit?” She decided on an EXIT sign that reads EXCITE. “That was her last very concrete contribution, which was fabulous,” Western says, “and in terms of her leaving the project was also kind of a perfect exit.” v