Window of opportunity

Maryland's Sandra Magsamen has seen her sweet book, 'The Gift,' transformed into a star-studded series of displays at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan

November 30, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK -- "Will this be used for Beyonce's hair?" asks Sandra Magsamen.

She fingers a strand of crystal beading at Spaeth Designs, a New York company that creates lavish decorations for department stores. Surrounding her are dozens of carpenters, painters and electricians all busily working to transform her illustrated children's book, The Gift (Glitterati Books, 2003), into holiday windows for Saks Fifth Avenue.

This is a perilous enterprise, as the original magic can easily be lost in the new version. Magsamen, a Maryland artist, knows this all too well. At various points in her life, she has shifted her creative energies between being a painter, therapist, potter, author

and gift-industry powerhouse. The stakes with these holiday windows are higher, though, than any she'd faced before.

That's because a few months after her book was selected by Saks, the store decided their windows would benefit Save the Music, a program sponsored by VH1 that raises money to keep music education in America's public schools. During the last year, then, and with a half-million dollar budget, Magsamen's humble tale of how a kind holiday note touches all who receive it was given a full, Hollywood makeover.

An 18-page advertisement for Saks in Vogue and Vanity Fair, for instance, now shows two girls having The Gift read to them by Sheryl Crow, identified in the accompanying copy as the "reigning queen of rock 'n' roll." Other musical royalty photographed in this glitzy campaign -- Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish), B.B. King, Gloria Estefan, Ashanti and Jewel -- make cameo appearances as puppets made of fabric, clay and styrofoam in the Saks windows as well.

"We had lots and lots of press agents involved," Tim Wisgerhof, window director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says with a weary sigh. "Bon Jovi was in; Bon Jovi was out. Dixie Chicks were in; Dixie Chicks were out."

Continuing to fiddle with the crystal beading (which in fact, is being used to create a Beyonce puppet's bustier, not coiffure), Magsamen, who is quite tall and wears her strawberry blond hair piled loosely on her head, maintains a bright smile.

"My idea was that the gift can't be found in a store, but is in everyone's heart," she says, her words barely audible over the din of Spaeth's workrooms. "This is all a little bit overwhelming, but I've learned in life to enjoy the journey, all the ups and downs of it."

The accidental artist

Magsamen grew up in Glen Arm, the third of five daughters. A curious fact of her family's history is that her great-grandfather and an uncle, William and Isaac Fuld, were early 1900s inventors who devised the Ouija board.

In fourth grade, she broke her leg and had to stay home from school for nearly a year recuperating. "She took this adversity and turned it into a talent," says her older-by-five-minutes twin sister, Susan. "She began to draw and explore color. She discovered she could express her point of view visually. I truly believe this is when Sandra found her artistic voice."

After graduating from Loch Raven High School in 1977, Magsamen earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Mass. Interested in the writing of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his notion of art as symbolism, her paintings at the time frequently included text. While at Swain, she met another artist, Mark Barry. "I saw his paintings and thought 'These are great; I could love the person who made them,' " she says. They were married in the summer of 1981 and now have a daughter, Hannah, 14. The family live in Glen Arm, where they share 3 acres with their 14 chickens.

Magsamen received a master's degree in expressive art therapy at Goucher College in 1984 and accepted a job at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, where she worked with men who were found not guilty of crimes for reasons of insanity.

During clinical exams, Magsamen often asked her patients to sketch a house, tree or person. Trained to interpret such drawings, she would use this information as a window into their mental state. Schizophrenics, for instance, often scribble instead of finishing an image, as they have trouble organizing their thoughts.

"You look at the aesthetic people choose to surround themselves with," she says. "Are they living with incredible clutter, what are their favorite colors? All these things can tell you a lot."

Windows that rock

What Magsamen's drawings told Tim Wisgerhof was that a child's imagination is really the "gift" of her book's title. From the moment he saw her manuscript, he was struck by its clarity of emotion.

"Sandra has an incredible sweetness in her drawing style," he says. "We worried later that the involvement of the celebrities might make the windows distasteful or commercially self-serving. To counteract this, we kept returning to the innocence of Sandra's artwork."

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