From hemlines to fine lines

She was a seamstress known as Enaja Delgado, and an artist known as Sumi Dee, who died two years ago. Next weekend, a local gallery will feature a collection of her illustrations.

The phone message was simple: I used to work for a friend of yours, the woman’s voice explained. And I have some artwork—by a woman I knew who since has passed away—that you might want to look at.

Now, in theory, a writer looking for things to write about always should find time to talk to anyone with a putatively great story idea. But the reality is shaded by such parameters as time, workload and other filtering mechanisms. You learn to depend on intuition.

But there’s always the message contained in novelist Walker Percy’s foreword to John Kennedy Toole’s comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Percy, then a teacher at New Orleans’ Loyola University, was contacted by the mother of Toole, who killed himself in 1969 at age 32. She wanted Percy to read her late son’s novel; Toole was unpublished at that point, and Percy had never heard of him. He later wrote about the experience: “Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do”—among which would fall reading an unpublished novel in badly smeared mimeograph form. Still, something piqued his curiosity enough to get him to look at it.

So, when Melanie Bown called me, offering to come down with a sheaf of drawings by the late Midtown resident Sumi Dee, a jolt of intuition, similar to what Percy must have experienced, made me say yes.

So, who was Sumi Dee?

According to Bown, the woman formally known as Enaja Delgado walked into a former gallery, East Sacramento Art Garage, one day in 1999 with a sheaf of illustrations she was interested in showing. At the time, Bown worked at the gallery, which was owned by brothers Matt and Fred Haines, who still operate the 33rd Street Bistro nearby.

“At the time, I was young and didn’t know a lot about folk art and outsider art,” Bown recalled. “I didn’t really know how to promote her.”

Bown and Delgado struck up an acquaintance, though.

A few years later, Bown had a dress that needed to be altered, and she recalled that Delgado worked as a seamstress, out of a fourplex apartment on 27th Street owned by Peter Torza, proprietor of the nearby Harlow’s nightclub. While Bown waited for Delgado to finish the alterations, she began looking at Delgado’s enormous cache of artwork, most of the items watercolors with pen and ink on paper, or colored-pencil pieces.

Bown was impressed.

It’s got a sweetness to it—that’s how Bown described the work. “It just feels very personal right away,” she explained. “It’s like when you have a memory of something that really felt good, and you really loved being there; you loved that person. It had that kind of feel to it, that personal touch.”

Later, after Bown got to know Delgado, she noticed that the warm qualities of the artist’s pieces had a commonality with the illustrations in one of America’s better-known weeklies. “I tried to tell her to contact The New Yorker,” Bown said. “I tried to encourage her, saying, ‘You should send some images to them, because I could see your things working really well there.’ Yeah, we talked about The New Yorker several times.”

One of Delgado’s neighbors, Monique Wheat, had a similar experience to Bown’s. Wheat is married to Tesla bassist and recording-studio owner Brian Wheat; the lot occupied by their J Street Victorian abuts the back of the fourplex where Delgado resided.

Like Bown, Wheat—who still catches herself referring to Delgado in the present tense—needed some alterations done. “She’s a seamstress, as well, so I had to have some of my pants let out, ’cause I’m tall,” Wheat explained. “So, while I was there, she had a little studio set up there, and just piles of work, and a lot of it displayed. And she’d sell some of it at Burr’s Fountain. One day, she was all excited because they had some of her work up, and she sold a couple pieces. She’d have it, like, on the walls with prices on it, so her [alterations] clientele would see it and hopefully buy some, which they did. So, her work was everywhere in her apartment.”

After the Wheats bought their home in 1996 and moved in, they began noticing Delgado.

“Back where the studio now is used to be a parking lot,” Wheat said. “And Enaja would go back there every day and either read or sketch and hang out with her cat. So, just by seeing her every day, we became very good friends. She wasn’t a people person,” Wheat added. “She didn’t like many people. But she liked me and my husband.”

By the time Wheat started spending time with Delgado, the elder woman was into her 70s. According to Wheat, Delgado was born in 1924 somewhere in Europe, most likely Switzerland. Her parents were, according to her, members of some kind of diplomatic corps. She may have been incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp, and Wheat had the impression that Delgado’s parents had died there, but Delgado was free by the end of the war. She spent time in the Soviet Union but later escaped, through Central Asia and China. She claimed to be an agent for the British analogue to the CIA.

It isn’t clear when Delgado arrived in the United States, but she had been living on 27th Street for quite some time before the Wheats met her. By that time, Delgado was beginning to slip.

“She had dementia,” Wheat explained, “but they usually remember stuff from years ago. I mean, she couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast, but she could tell you what happened 20 years ago, what she did.”

Wheat became a caretaker for Delgado, helping her shop, fix meals and take care of herself. “I would find her with a coffee cup on the stove and the burner turned up all the way,” she remembered. “She needed help.” Sometime in late 2001, Wheat noticed Delgado’s skin had a yellow tone, and she implored the woman to go to a doctor. The diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, and Delgado soon had to move into a skilled-nursing facility, where she died the following May.

A month after Bown got her dress alterations done by Delgado, she found a coffee shop that was interested in showing the woman’s art. “I called, and her phone was disconnected,” Bown said. “I kind of panicked and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s dead.’”

When Bown went to visit Delgado, Torza, Delgado’s landlord, was busy cleaning out her apartment. Torza told Bown how to contact Delgado at the Fair Oaks Boulevard nursing home where the ailing woman had been moved. “So, I just started visiting her there,” Bown said.

“I was really taken by her, ever since I met her,” she added. “But we didn’t know each other as well at that point. So, when I would go visit her at the nursing home, one time she turned to me and said, ‘I’ve got to ask you: Who’s paying you to be here?’

“‘Nobody’s paying me to come here,’” Bown recalled saying, laughing. “‘I just enjoy your company.’”

She can’t recall precisely what the two women talked about—ideology, a few other things. “I felt a kinship to her,” Bown said. “Because, to me, learning stuff all the time was what keeps it interesting, and I think it was the same thing for her. She was a great lady.”

Though most of her interest was in the person named Enaja Delgado, part of what captivated Bown—who earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Bradley University, with an emphasis on printmaking—was the artist who called herself Sumi Dee.

“She was very into studying art and looking at what other people did,” Bown said. “A lot of her artwork was her trying to mimic other artists, trying to learn what they did. And she kept a lot of journals. She’s got some journals where it’s completely about books that she’s read on art. And she took notes about how people did what they did, or what her opinion was on something that was discussed, and how she used that in her own art. And then she kept health journals and personal journals.”

Both Wheat and Bown still possess a number of Delgado’s journals, along with a number of her illustrations. Bown has organized a show of Delgado’s works, set for the weekend of June 5-6, at Exploding Head Gallery, 924 12th Street, which graciously donated its space on a down weekend between shows. On Saturday, a reception will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., with music provided by Gutterboy—a local Mississippi hill-country blues combo—and songwriter Bobby Jordan of Red Star Memorial. The idea is to raise at least $1,500, enough to place a park bench in Marshall Park at 28th and J Streets, near Delgado’s former residence.

“We wanted to do something a little bit more personal and original—it would be cool to do a giant sewing machine with a little bird on top, and then the base of the sewing machine would be where you would sit—but there’s so many roadblocks to doing something like that,” Bown said.

A more modest bench will suffice. Buy a piece or two of Sumi Dee’s art, and you can help make that happen.