One time, I broke Janet’s serger.
I was serging flimsy fabric together, and only after decades of sewing did I actually realize what went wrong. Filmy tethers of the weave reached up past the knife and caught the looper, jerking it back with a CLANG that reverberated throughout the costume shop. I had no idea what had really happened at the time, but I knew it was bad. Blinking through the shock, I swiveled around in the desk chair and saw Janet, wide-eyed, rushing towards me, her red hair whooshing in the wind, gauzy scarves trailing behind her. And buddy, she was MAD.
Over twenty years later, now owning the same serger (make and model) that we used in the shop, I can never sew without regretting not catching my mistake, and making my beloved Janet steam up. But after she hollered, incredulously, “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?” she went to work tinkering and the next day, everything was miraculously back to normal within the guts of the machine.
Janet was amazing. She sang in the Winthrop University costume shop with me every chance she got, crooning Maroon Five’s “Buh-flies”, as it waxed poetic on the windowsill from the tiny black radio that seemed to be on every second of the day. She produced artful designs effortlessly, and I admired them every day, whether they were pinned to the board behind the desktop, taped to the mirror, lining the shelves of fabric stock, or spread out on the cutting table.
I got my first “job” in college with Janet. She hired me in the costume shop as a stitcher, but I really got to be so much more than that. I learned to create wigs from scratch, sew dancewear, and I hate to say it, but I gleaned more technical skills from Janet in 2-3 years than I did in graduate school. I had the benefit of asking 100 questions and receiving 101 answers.
She listened to me. She graciously allowed me to step in and create the first undergraduate costume design for the main stage in Blithe Spirit, a show that touched my heart. The giggly, soulful, jolly husband of Janet, Russell Luke, took it a step further by awarding me a tech award for that show that I didn’t expect, but still cherish to this day.
Janet taught me how to organize hanging storage, measure a bolt, took the time to artfully diverge within my major to create a technical costume track that didn’t really exist. She allowed me the room to learn, make mistakes, and grow in a field I was so very passionate about. She pushed me to URTAs, which lead me to the University of Georgia and to my life that I now lead.
Many years (or what felt like it) later, I was at UGA working on my Masters of Fine Arts, specifically on a trip to University North Carolina School of the Arts. They were hosting a symposium of sorts, a festival. What I remember most is getting a tour of the technical shops, mostly the special FX makeup, hair and costume construction spaces. Our group was breezing from one room to the next, and as I happened to look into a classroom, I saw Janet.
Instead of seeing someone in a space “they didn’t belong” and having a brain meltdown, I started to sob like a baby. I was so happy to see her, I couldn’t contain my joy, my love, my surprise, my blustering cries. I’m pretty sure I partially terrified her with my outburst, but it was genuine. I rushed into the room, interrupted nearly everything going on, and squeezed her tight. She was busy, the tour was moving on, and I had to go, but I was grateful for that fleeting moment. I really loved Janet so much.
More years went by, as I graduated from UGA and started work in Atlanta as a full-fledged real designer. I worked for Marietta’s Theatre on the Square, The Atlanta Lyric, The Horizon Theatre and more. All thanks to Janet letting me get my little foot in the door. I sincerely regret not seeing Janet after 2011, when my son was born, and I attended the wedding of Carly Mendez and Chris Brown. It was the biggest treat, getting to see Janet and Russell again. I still miss them.
I owe Janet a debt I can never repay. She gave me so much during my very few years with her. But what’s really amazing is that my story is not alone. It is one is a sea of stories, of students, colleagues, and cohorts that swam alongside Janet and picked up her teachings, mimicked her techniques and got a big push forward from her care.
The world lost two incredible lights in the span of a month this year. Janet passed on October 18th, 2023 and Russell less than a month later on November 14th, 2023. I know that if you’re reading this, and you’ve made it this far (thanks for sticking with me) Janet and Russell made the same indelible mark on your hearts. I can only hope to leave a legacy like the one they have left me.
Thank you, Janet Gray and Russell Luke, for everything. I love you.