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NEW YORK TIMES
Published: September 18, 2005
WHEN the film version of Steve Martin's best-selling novella, "Shopgirl," opens next month, audiences will see just how much of himself Mr. Martin put into the adaptation: he wrote the screenplay, produced the film and stars as Ray Porter, a wealthy older man who enters into a relationship with a shy, depressed clerk (Claire Danes) who spends her days selling gloves at an elegant Beverly Hills department store and her nights making art at her small dining table.
But they will also see the work of the woman who inspired Mr. Martin's tale in the first place: the artist Allyson Hollingsworth, who created the photographs and drawings attributed to Ms. Danes's character, Mirabelle Buttersfield, and who also served as a consultant on the film. Ms. Hollingsworth previously worked as an art assistant on "Cheaper by the Dozen," another of Mr. Martin's movies, and jumped at this new opportunity, she said, when he offered it. And this time, her own artwork figured into the process: for example, Ms. Hollingsworth recreated one of her original pieces - a charcoal self-portrait of her nude body suspended in dark space - so it could be filmed for the movie as the work progressed.
"To actually be able to be paid to create something while I'm creating it?" said Ms. Hollingsworth, 36, sitting on a chair in her tidy, 9-by-13-foot white-walled studio here, dressed in baggy beige trousers and a pink and white cowboy shirt. "Not that that is a huge motivation for an artist, because that doesn't happen very often, but to be able to sit there and draw all day? It was such a luxury. My whole life, I had day jobs and fit my art in between. This was absolutely phenomenal."
At the time, Ms. Hollingsworth had yet to see "Shopgirl," which was directed by Anand Tucker, but she did catch the two-and-a-half-minute trailer on the Internet. There is a scene where Ms. Danes, wearing a thin cotton gown, sets the timer on her Nikon camera and makes a nighttime dash into a faintly lighted grove of spindly trees. Then a click, and the image is captured. "It got me really excited to see my process reproduced: the car headlights, the freezing of the white figure against the trees," Ms. Hollingsworth said.
The result is like a giant replica of a series of Ms. Hollingsworth's ghostly, faux Victorian-era photographs featuring a sleepwalking bride, which appear in a show scheduled to open last night at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. "Oh, it was so cool," she said of the movie scene.
This is her second one-person show, but the first time she is being featured as just an artist, not also an employee. From 1993 to 1996, she worked at what was then the Kohn-Turner gallery cataloging other people's art. One day, Mr. Martin, a serious art collector and a regular customer, came by.
"As soon as he left, I looked at Allyson and said, 'He likes you,' and she got all red and embarrassed and said, 'No, he does not,' " Michael Kohn, the gallery's co-owner, recalled recently. "About an hour later there was a phone call, and it was Steve, and he asked to speak to her." When "Shopgirl" the book was published in 2001, it wasn't just the "To Allyson" dedication on the flyleaf that suggested who the book's inspiration had been. "It was the truck that she drove, the cats that lived in her apartment, the apartment that was at the back of the complex," Mr. Kohn said. "You didn't have to suspend any disbelief, because he was very truthful to the model."
And what is Ms. Hollingsworth's own calculation of the fact-fiction ratio in the book? She replied in a manner that could have been lifted from actions of the self-conscious young woman in "Shopgirl." First she stammered, then her voice trailed off, then she just fell silent. The flat expression on her face never changed, but discomfort seemed to roil just beneath the surface of her pale skin. The longer she remained silent, the heavier the molecules in the air grew. Finally, she spoke: "I'm a really private person. Even with friends, I have a certain reserve."
"I think it's from moving around so much when I was growing up," said Ms. Hollingsworth, who was born in Columbia, Mo., and as the daughter of a career Army officer attended 12 schools before graduating from high school.
Still, she tried to push beyond her uneasiness and provide a better answer. "There are definitely movies like 'Erin Brockovich' or 'A Beautiful Mind,' based on a person's life from Point A to Point B," she said. "I would certainly say this wasn't a biography. There were things inspired by experiences that I had, but they've been so changed in the process of writing fiction." Ms. Hollingsworth's hesitancy extended to any and all queries placing Mr. Martin and herself in a single sentence - including something as simple as how long they were a couple. "I don't discuss my personal life," she said. (Mr. Martin declined to be interviewed.)
Perhaps Ms. Hollingsworth would prefer that her art serve as the window into her soul. Having received her undergraduate degree in jewelry and metalsmithing at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and a master's degree in art at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, she now lives in Oakland and works in various media - drawing, photography, sculpture, installations - many of them made to look as if they were made at the turn of the 20th century. Even her playful pieces have an underlying sense of longing and sadness.
"For me, it's about ephemera - her work is a lot about elegy and the question of mortality, what's fragile," said Gregory Hinton, a Los Angeles-based novelist who owns a few of Ms. Hollingsworth's romantic creations, including a quilt made of glistening communion wafers linked together with tiny brass rings, a version of the nude floating in space from "Shopgirl," as well as an antique handkerchief with the word "once" embroidered in the middle. "It's like, 'Once, I loved you,' or 'Once I dreamed about this,' or 'Once I was here,' " said Mr. Hinton. "She works in the past - like a love affair that's gone."
Recently, Ms. Hollingsworth reread "Shopgirl" and found it "moving," she said. "It's really amazing because the story that he wrote became a kind of universal theme. I think people can identify with love, loss and transforming."
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