Artist Reveals "The Secret Club"

Laura Seftel, B.F.A. '83

Laura Seftel was pregnant in 1993 and excited about joining the sorority of motherhood. But instead she miscarried and unwillingly joined another community, one she calls "The Secret Club" of women who have lost a pregnancy (900,000 pregnancies end in loss each year in the United States). These women are linked by the emotional aftermath of "an indelible loss, like ink on a white blouse, something ruined.

"Miscarriage leaves no body for the couple to grieve," she says, "so it is also an invisible loss."

Seftel, now 41 and the mother of two sons, turned to painting to express her sadness. And she conceived The Secret Club Project, an exhibition of works by women artists who had lost a pregnancy. "I realized, I cannot be the only artist who must be finding this imagery in her art work," she says. She received a small grant from the Northampton (Massachusetts) Arts Council and soon found nine other artists exploring the theme.

The project culminated two years ago in an exhibit in Northampton, then evolved into an international effort that includes more than 30 artists. The response from audiences, as well as artists, has been moving. One woman wrote a long letter to Seftel discussing her own miscarriage, in 1956, and said she still wonders about the gender of the baby.

The combination of art and emotion was a natural for Seftel, who majored in painting.

"I always had an interest in psychology and literature, as well as painting," she says. "One of the reasons I chose Washington University was that it had a professional art school integrated within a top-notch university. I really wanted both those things. It provided this broad base to work from, this rich access to literature and learning and how to write and think critically."

After completing her undergraduate studies, she earned a master's degree in art therapy from the Pratt Institute and became a certified art therapist. In practice for 16 years, she works mainly with adults, both individually and in groups, in Northampton. She also leads training and supervision groups focusing on art and healing.

"You don't have to be talented to do art therapy—in fact, it often gets in the way," she says of her clients. "In art therapy the emphasis is on the process, not the product. We might end up with a black, scribbled-on piece of paper and have had a great therapy session."

But the artist in her wanted more. The Secret Club Project provided a vehicle for her not only as an artist, but also as a curator. Her goal is to use the project to heighten sensitivity to the issue, especially among medical professionals, and ultimately lessen women's feelings of stigma and isolation associated with miscarriage.

"I think women have been encouraged to be silent about pregnancy loss," says Seftel, whose mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law didn't tell her about their own miscarriages until she herself miscarried. "Why hadn't I heard these stories before?"

Besides the exhibit, which circulates as a narrated slide presentation, the project has grown to include a Web site and a slide archive. The Fund for Women Artists recently agreed to be the project's sponsor, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.

"I feel as if this is a project I could work on the rest of my life," says Seftel. "It's a slow, steady commitment. It's just one of several projects I do.

"And, I'm a mother."

—Susan Caba

17" x 20," acrylic on board



In 2000, Laurence J. Dorr (right) and his olderst son, Matthew, collected plants in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela to make herbarium specimens for the Flora of Guaramacal project.

Compiling a Botanical Record

Laurence J. Dorr, A.B. '76

Plenty of undergraduates change majors but few switch with the flair of Laurence J. Dorr. In 1971, Dorr was a freshman studying English literature at Washington University. By his junior year, he took a break, headed home to Boston, worked a bit, boarded a train for Georgia, and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in five months.

Still not ready to return to school, Dorr took his backpack and a plant press west to British Columbia, convincing a hiking buddy to join him. They hitchhiked through the province up to Prince Rupert and bought ferry tickets to Alaska and the Inside Passage. "As long as you didn't backtrack, you could get on and off as much as you wanted," says Dorr. For the next month, they island-hopped and Dorr collected alpine plants.

Coming home was tricky. In the 1970s, hitchhiking plant collectors returning from Canada could be mistaken for draft dodgers. Dorr was also short of money. He hitchhiked from White Horse, Yukon Territory, to St. Louis, where he re-enrolled in the University to study geology. Graduate students at the Missouri Botanical Garden helped Dorr identify his plant collection, and soon he was invited to seminars there. "People came from all corners of the world, from places I'd dreamed about visiting, and talked about plants," he says. "I got the bug."

Thirty years later, it's Dorr giving the seminars. Unlike scientists who work in a laboratory, field botanists go where the plants grow, collecting and compiling them into a botanical record called a flora. He has collected and catalogued plants from Africa and South America.

Having received a master's degree in botany from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin (where he met his wife, Lisa Barnett, who is also a botanist), Dorr worked three years in Madagascar for the Missouri Botanical Garden, returning briefly to Austin so his wife could complete her Ph.D. Then the New York Botanical Garden offered Dorr a job in the Andes; for the next five years, Dorr and Barnett divided time among New York, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Today, he is associate curator of botany at the Smithsonian Institution, a post he's held for the past 10 years. His major project involves collecting plants distributed over a mountain ridge in the Andes of Venezuela. This area is so rich in diverse plant life Dorr figures he'll need three volumes of 500 species each to complete the flora. Nearly two years are needed to complete the first volume.

"It might be hard to comprehend how poorly known some areas of the world are," says Dorr. Once a census of plants is completed, scientists can look for patterns and begin to understand how the world has changed or might be changing.

He is also researching the evolution of a group of plant families called the Malvales. And a few years ago, Dorr published Plant Collectors in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, a "bio-bibliography" of more than 1,000 people who collected plants in Madagascar. He'd like to expand on that book by writing a history of the collectors. A prodigious collector himself, Dorr has had six plant species named after him.

Although Dorr travels less frequently, his oldest son now joins him in fieldwork. And some old ties remain nearby. "Three of 15 curators in my department hold Ph.D.s from Washington University, and it was very clearly the connection between Washington University and the [Missouri] Botanical Garden that set me down this path," says Dorr. "I don't know what I'd be doing otherwise."

—Jeanne Erdmann


Talking the (Baby) Talk

Peter Gaido, J.D. '89

Parents everywhere have pondered the meaning of their babies' "goo goos" and "gaa gaas." Imagine how much easier a meal would be if only we understood their sweet, drooly drivel.

"Aaout? Inks upee but."

Say what?

Finally there's help. Goo Goo Gaa Gaa: The Babytalk Dictionary and Phrasebook (West St. James Press, 2002), written by Peter Gaido, J.D. '89, and Marc Jaffe, a writer whose credits include Seinfeld, offers a clear—and very funny—translation of "baby speak."

Take the mealtime gibberish. To the unschooled adult "Aaout? Inks upee but" sounds like—well, "Aaout? Inks upee but."

But, what's baby really saying? "Could you get that for me? I'm strapped in my high chair pretty tight."

Life for families everywhere just got a whole lot easier.

The book is the brainchild of Gaido, who has his own law firm, Gaido and Fintzen, in Chicago. He and his wife, Maria, have a son, Antonio, 4, a daughter, Dominique, 2, and another baby on the way.

During his hour-long train rides from his home in St. Charles, Illinois, to his law office, Gaido stumbled on the idea of a babytalk dictionary after jotting down some of the sounds and movements his then-infant son had made the day before.

"It started out very simple, with me just taking notes on what our family had done. It gave me something to do on the train," he says.

Eventually, Gaido's doodles began to look like a dictionary. He then leveraged some of his professional connections to meet with a Chicago-area literary agent. (Ever the attorney, he made her sign a nondisclosure agreement before seeing his book's first draft.) The agent loved the idea and shopped it around to publishers who were equally receptive, but they wondered: "Who in the world is Peter Gaido?"

That's when Gaido's agent suggested he partner a second draft with Marc Jaffe, a Cleveland-based comedy writer. Via e-mail, the two turned Gaido's alphabetical dictionary into more of a Berlitz phrasebook, offering not only translations but a peek into the "culture" of babyhood.

"Working together was lots of fun, very hilarious. Jaffe has three daughters, so he knows how to talk to babies," says Gaido.

Jaffe's name did help the book land a publisher, says Gaido. Jaffe wrote one of Seinfeld's top 10 most-popular episodes. (Note to die-hard Seinfeld fans: It's the show in which Kramer photographs Elaine's Christmas card.)

The final version is a handy pocket-sized book full of wit and wisdom on the language of babies. Sections include a look at diapering, toys, eating out, and—every new parent's hardest chore—getting babies to bed.

"The chapters coincide with a baby's world, from the time they get up to the time they go to bed.

"Well, it's our hope they go to bed," Gaido says.

—Nancy Mays

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