By Cathy Sky
On the two-lane heading toward designer Caitley Symon’s home and studio in Little Switzerland, one lazy bend just beyond a row of day lilies reveals a tableau that is at once lofty and intimate: sky and mist, tree and mountain. You have a feeling you could step off the edge and fly. “I just knew that this was where I needed to be,” says Caitley, who found this haven (or should we say heaven?) in 2008, immediately after resigning from her job as a costume dresser for a New York Broadway show. Her black and white cat Rogue, once a New York City orphan kitten, observed our chat with clear jade gaze as Caitley described, over tea, the journey which led her to Western North Carolina.
She set the stage by telling how, as a child living in Houston, Texas, she surprised her Mom with a precocious eye for the ornament, color, and design of her yearly home-sewn ballet costumes. Caitley spent her adolescence in Egypt, where her stepfather’s work took him first to Alexandria and then to Cairo. There, as a budding designer, she moved into a new identity as world citizen, surrounded by ancient Pharaonic and Islamic art that stole her imagination. Her home in Little Switzerland is full of the Middle Eastern artwork that she loves: a circular metal table, engraved with mandala-like repetitive motifs, a wooden box intricately inlaid with whorls of pattern-within-pattern, and delicate Egyptian perfume bottles etched with ephemeral flowers.
A year in London studying fashion design, fresh out of high school, wasn’t quite what she was seeking, so she enrolled in MICA, the Maryland Institute of Art, to study graphic design. Synchronicity ushered Caitley into costume dressing during her senior semester at the MICA. Tired of learning how to satisfy demanding clients instead of creating on her own, and adoring the costumes she was seeing in period piece cinema such as The Age of Innocence and A Room with a View, she told her advisor, “I want to do costume in films.” A door to this vocation swung wide open: “One of my illustration teachers was standing right there. They were shooting a Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine movie nearby at that time, so she handed me the wardrobe supervisor’s name and number, saying ‘Call her and see if this is something you want to do . . . That was the first movie set I ever set foot on, and I was in love. It was, ‘Oh my God. This is what I want to do!’”
In 1994, Caitley moved to Los Angeles and began working as a dresser for television shows and films. Though enjoying her work, she became aware of a growing need for self-expression: “I became restless with my career a few years after I started it. It was not quite the creative outlet I thought it would be, but it was something different every day, new people, new location, and a new story line with new challenges. It also started taking a huge toll on my body, not to mention my spirit.”
A snowboarding accident in 2000 was a wake-up call. “In truth I had no business on a snowboard,” sighs Caitley. “It did, however, become a key factor in my path today. It took me away from working on set for over a year. I got a job working as an illustrator for a homewares company designing art work for table top and kitchen textiles which were sold across North America for many years. I had no idea [that the accident] would lead me back to the place I am in now, nor did I have any clue that surface design was something I would actually have an aptitude for.”
After her recovery, the momentum of Caitley’s dressing career swept her up; in 2004, an opportunity to work on Broadway led her to New York City, a move both exciting and exhausting. “In the city and in the industry, it is constant motion and sound, energetically and physically… like the undercurrent of waves hitting the shore and pulling out to sea,” she reminisces. “You never find your grounding.”
Within a couple of years, discomfort with job and locale began to percolate, and a growing inner wisdom began to tell Caitley what she really needed.
“I decided at some point that each one of us has this God spark … our own true gift,” Caitley explains. “That thing that comes from the deepest part of our soul. The thing we are really good at. That thing that inspires us the most, the thing we cannot do without doing. The thing that makes us uniquely who we are. To deny this, from my experience, creates instant unhappiness and imbalance.”
The death of her father in 2006, from pancreatic cancer, moved Caitley toward making the leap of faith she needed. “I already had some struggle with my perspective on what we did and its importance to the world,” she confides. “I would watch a million dollar costume collection for an entire show, having never been used, be scrapped and recreated. Meanwhile, I grew up in a Third World country where children would pull at my skirts begging for food. After my father died I landed in a show that would be my last. Some shows are a dream; others are a nightmare. This one was a nightmare. It was when one of my actresses threw a tantrum over the ever-so-slight discoloration of a pair of tights, due to washing, that I knew I had stayed too long at the fair.
My perspective on life and what was important had changed. My idea of happiness changed, my tolerance levels for nonsense had changed. It was then I started to set into motion my exit plan. I wasn’t really sure of what that would look like, but I had to start being proactive about it.”
Remembering a lead from a dance instructor twelve years before, a good word about Asheville as “an artists’ community and a very progressive, healing place to be,” Caitley gave her notice and said goodbye to backstage drama. Remembering the first days after that decision, she says, “It was a bit overwhelming, like being dropped into the ocean with no land in sight. So I figured I should just start swimming in a direction and eventually I would reach sight of land; I went home and started searching [on the internet] for real estate in Asheville. That night I came across a small 1940s home, with acreage and a barn converted into an art studio for sale. It met all the criteria I had in mind. Within a week I was in NC and under contract to buy. I have never looked back or questioned moving here. I cannot have asked for a more beautiful place. When things fall into place like that, you know it is right.”
While Caitley prepared a cheese and fruit snack, she described the metamorphosis she’s experienced since moving here. It began with renovating house and studio, where she discovered the thrill of applying her own ideas and tastes. Next, she began painting to jump start her creativity. These days the studio is filling with textiles employing original Caitley Symons designs, some of which she displayed this year for the Toe River Arts Council spring tour: yoga bags, scarves, hand towels, napkins.
Surrounded with the stillness and beauty in which to stretch heart and mind, she has learned a different tempo for living. “Nature by design is perfect,” she philosophizes. “And under certain circumstances when it isn’t allowed to flow perfectly, it adapts perfectly. Aligning with nature and observing that process has been a key learning experience since moving here.”
Her work day begins with a walk through the gate separating house from studio, and the daily ritual of tidying the results of the previous day’s work, a process she calls resetting. Then she enters the flow. There are strands of time when a wave of creativity absorbs her complete attention, and days when she hits a wall: often it’s the need for a new technical skill to help her take the next step. “It can be scary as hell,” she says. In those cases, Caitley suspects she has inherited her instinctive problem-solving skills from her Dad, who was an aeronautical engineer for the NASA space program. She’s adept at finding a workshop, a self-teaching tool on the internet, or an inspiration from her library of resource books that will carry her into the bright unknown. Savvy and soulful Caitley is pleased with her new life yet grateful for the lessons of the past. “I’m a tough cookie.” She grins. “But I needed to apply that where it counts.”
Follow Caitley’s new directions at her website-in-progress: www.caitleysymons.com
Cathy Larson Sky writes novels, poems and freelance articles and holds an MA in Folklore from UNC Chapel Hill. A performer and teacher of Irish traditional fiddling; she currently lives in Spruce Pine, NC. Visit her at: cathylarsonsky.blogspot.com