Natural Fashion

I came across Hans Silvester’s photography online a couple months ago and was so taken with it that I immediately bought his book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa.

Silvester travelled to Africa’s remote Omo Valley, on the borders of Sudan, Kenya, and Ethopia, to document the body art of the Surma and Mursi tribes. Traditionally nomadic, the people of these tribes have very few physical belongings. Without architecture, textiles, or handcrafted goods to tote around, they use their naked bodies as canvases, grinding earth and stone into powdered pigments and using all kinds of natural elements as added flourishesgrasses, leaves, pods, fruits, flowers, butterfly wings, animal pelts.

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Body painting, in some form or another, has existed for nearly as long as humans have existed, long before even the cave paintings of Lascaux, and yet the resulting look is strikingly modern, like something out of a high fashion spread in Vogue. There’s a spontaneous quality to the mark making and an intuitive sense of design on par with the greats of Abstract Expressionism. But unlike the paintings on the walls of a museum or gallery, these works are unattached to monetary valuation, fame, and art world critique (at least until tourism entered the picture).

For these tribes, who lived for thousands of years in a world without mirrors, let alone smartphones and selfie sticks, there is a beautifully un-self-conscious fluidity at play. Work is created without explanation or justification, for no special occasion other than momentary creative impulse (“People simply paint themselves for no particular reason and at no particular time”). I realize that it’s easy to romanticize older, simpler ways of life, and yet, in considering these images, it’s hard not to feel as if something vital has been lost:

“For Westerners, any such activity might demand great intellectual effort—which branch, what colour, how and where should they be arranged?—and the whole process could seem laborious, but here the people make their choices spontaneously but firmly, and with a particular instinct for what will work. They do not spend any time thinking about it. They live so close to nature that they also act naturally, and at quite astonishing speed.” 

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It’s difficult to describe how deeply these images affect me. They feel sacred in the truest sense, as if these artists are so in tune with the diversity of our planet’s life forms that they channel the same creative impulses effortlessly themselves. Each new expression is entirely unique: “These body paintings are totally free, and yet they never repeat themselves, and there is no underlying system. Each one is extraordinarily fresh.” They are also ephemeral, as all living things are unique and ephemeral. All it takes is a quick dip in the river to wipe clean the canvas, like the original shake of an etch-a-sketch.

These images reframe the modern art and fashion worlds in a much wider anthropological and environmental context, opening up new realms of possibility, and causing us to question much that we take for granted. Why is it that I wake up in the morning and paint mascara on my eyelashes, staining my cheeks with blush? Why do I cover my body with these particular clothes?What if I painted polka dots on my face instead, or wove grasses through my hair? At the very least, it seems worthwhile to wonder.

This is what humans have been doing for thousands of years, in all places and times throughout history: adorning our bodies, our homes, and our belongings with color and pattern, reinterpreting the world around us through our own art and design, and following our creative whims for reasons we can’t quite articulate, simply because doing so brings us joy.

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This mind-boggling display of creativity affects the way I think and feel about my own work as an artist, as well as my role as a creature of this earth. I have long been enamoured with the idea that the innate creativity of the world itself is inseparable in some way from the creativity of any one person. And that most art, if not all, is in some way a replication, even if it is unconscious, of the world we live in and observe everyday:

“If one really has to find a reference for this art form, it would have to be in its mimicry of nature and of animals. One man might paint his own face in a manner clearly inspired by that of a monkey; someone else will colour his torso like an animal skin; another will make his legs look like the hangings tree roots of plants such as mangroves. Each artist reproduces the things he has seem through his close proximity to nature.”

This notion helps me better understand some of my own creative impulses, like my urge to capture patterns in my environment and paying homage to them through photography and textiles. There may not be mangroves and monkeys in Portland, Oregon, but there are cherry blossoms and mosses and a million other textures, both urban and natural, to get lost in on a daily basis. Like this dappled sunlight I saw on the street last spring,

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which later became this floaty, silk voile scarf.

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Large Sun Dappled Scarf, $118

We take the beauty that is pre-existent in the world and make it our own, decorating our bodies with it. No matter who we are, or where or when we live, the creativity of nature inevitably informs our art. The Surma and Mursi tribes offer such a beautiful example of what free, playful, un-self conscious creation can look like. And the point perhaps is not to suddenly strip down and wear only seed pods and painted stripes, but to find ways to tap into that same fundamental intuition that unfolds flower buds and spots animal fur, that compels us to create something that has never before been created while channeling an impulse as old as time.

 

 

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Developing My Collection

Anddd we’re LIVE!! My online shop is open, and my first collection, Light & Line, is now available for sale! I’m so grateful for the love and support of all those who have been following along with me on this journey and excited to finally reveal what I’ve been toiling away at for all of these months.

To give some context for this collection, I thought I’d take a look back at how it came to bemy early explorations with textiles, the process of honing my artistic voice, and finally landing on a body of work that felt unique and cohesive.


Scattered Beginnings

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A few years back, while I was living in Brooklyn and working in publishing, I developed an interest in textiles and surface pattern design. I had always loved patterns and textures, but it wasn’t until Instagram entered my life that I began discovering tons of amazing brands and designers and a little voice that whispered you could do this too.   

I began by enrolling in a screen printing class at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I printed purple irises on tea towels and thoroughly frustrated myself by attempting a large-scale, half-drop repeat on two full yards of fabric. I also tried my hand at block printing, carving shapes into potatoes and little linoleum tiles. I took a weaving class, bought a loom, and made a few, brightly-colored wallhangings. I became enamored with cyanotype printing, creating Prussian blue prints on fabric from my photographs. And then, while interning with the amazing textile designer Rebecca Atwood, I learned shibori dyeing, and I loved that too. I LOVED IT ALL. I had several, small, distinct bodies of work, each of which looked like it came from a different artist.


Finding My Voice

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So yes, I dabbled. I made a lot. I studied the work of artists, designers, and brands I admired. I spent a lot of time wandering around fabric stores in New York City’s garment district. I scribbled down ideas on the subway, trying to pin down my vision.

I envied the cohesion I saw in other designers’ work. The way I’d come across an image of their product online, or in a shop, and know immediately who had made it. There’s a kind of fingerprint that artists develop over time, a secret sauce that no one else can replicate, and there’s no shortcut to discovering it. It involves time, patience, and persistence. It’s a slow, deliberate evolution. It’s throwing a whole bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. And, as with any art form, if you stick with it for long enough, your own voice begins to emerge. You develop a language that is yours alone.

I knew that if I had dreams of turning this art practice into a business, I needed to rein it in. It’s not that I had to shut out all of the possibilities for good, but I knew that entering the scene as a screen printer / block printer / weaver / cyanotype printer / shibori dyer was probably a bit much.

I needed to focus. I needed to edit. I needed to find the thing that was mine alone, not my version of what someone else was already doing better. For practical reasons, as well as stylistic, I needed to simplify. For the girl who can’t make a painting without using every single one of the colors, this was not easy.

But what I made my way back to, again and again, was what I had been doing all along: taking photographs of patterns and textures everywhere I went. I had amassed hundreds of these abstract images over the years. I couldn’t help but see that world in this way. It was a concept that resonated with me aesthetically but also just as a human. It made me feel present and connected, filled me with wonder and appreciation for this world.   


Developing a Collection

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When I first saw my photographs printed on linen, I felt like I was on to something. I started with a bunch of swatches, all different patterns and colors, each of them with its own story. They were bits and pieces of the places I had lived, the countries I had visited, the landscapes I loved. I ordered some larger pieces of fabric and began to sew, watching these moments and places take on an entirely new form.   

I loved the idea that this work was not just mine, but a collaboration with the world, with natural forces like erosion and decay, emergence and self-similarity. The inherent properties of the universe invented these patterns. I just got good at noticing them. I also liked that, at a glance, the patterns can seem totally abstract, but there’s this familiar, organic quality to them that makes you look closer and only then recognize the subject matter.

With so many swatches, it was, once again, time to edit. Basically my editing process looked like this: I pin a whole bunch of swatches up on the wall of my studio. I spend a very long time standing there, looking at them. I stay up way too late. I move things around, noticing which ones seem to magnetize to each other. I take things down. I put some back. I find myself drawn to a neutral color palette. I sew a few zipper pouches and consider those. And at some point I look at the edited group of swatches together and they sort of sing, like I’ve touched upon something greater than the sum of its parts. Then, of course, I doubt everything and consider starting from scratch. But I don’t. I keep moving forward.

I decided to go with antique brass hardware on all of my bags with black leather straps and zipper pulls. I thought about shapes and the way they echoed each other at different scales. With similar details, the collection felt kind of like a familydifferent shapes and sizes, but definitely related.

The final collection includes prints from faraway places (Thailand, France, NYC <3), and some taken in my own living room in Portland, Oregon. It’s an ode to my love of light and shadows, stripes and lines. It’s neutral enough for everyday and unique enough to make a statement. It’s quite a ways from where I began, but I am so grateful to have arrived.

Accidental Art

Growing up on the East Coast, day trips to MASS MoCA, a contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, became a kind of annual pilgrimage—a leisurely road trip through the Berkshire Mountains, a milkshake stop at Joe’s Diner, and finally the quaint, steeple-studded town of North Adams with the museum in its heart.

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MASS MoCA, like North Adams itself, is made up old factory buildings, dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. 26 buildings on 16 sprawling acres, the museum is “an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways rich with historical association.” As the museum’s site puts it, “Bridges, viaducts, elevated walkways, and red brick facades lend a distinct architectural ambiance to the complex.”

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Some of the gallery spaces are immense–large enough to house installations like the one below by Cari Guo-Oiang below, which involves several identical cars suspended from the ceiling, each rotated at a different angle. Illuminated in quick succession, they gave the impression of being one single car, spiraling through the air, like a life-size, three-dimensional flip book.

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For me, the buildings themselves are just as compelling at the art that populates them. Wandering through those impressive, labyrinth-like spaces, peering out the window at the old water mill, and imagining what it must have been like when these halls were filled with workers and machinery rather than bizarre sculptures and videos.

On one visit, I found myself struggling to connect with the exhibition but intensely drawn to the walls of the museum itself. The brick had been painted so many times over, layer upon layer of repair and decay, paint drips and chips, revealing and concealing stages of the building’s history. The art on display took a backseat as my perception shifted. What was once background, ‘empty’ space that my eyes skipped over, became all that I could see. The walls were filled with the most incredible abstract compositions.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photographs of the bricks, enamored with art that was not art, or art that was art but only by accident—incidental, unintended, and yet undeniable.

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As I did so, I felt something in my mind shift along with my sight. My mind became quiet, expansive, receptive. Though nothing external had changed, the ordinary had become extraordinary. I had entered a different kind of exhibition, one without a brochure or informational placards. It was like a self-guided treasure hunt.

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On the ride home, I scrolled through my photographs and wondered about what made art art. Did it have to be created by a person? Did that person have to know that they were making art? What does it mean that the universe, apart from any human intention, is encoded with these visual patterns and tendencies? Paint chips, walls crack, bricks crumble, and somehow the result is, at least to me, often beautiful. Maybe all abstract art was simply mimicking the shapes and colors and textures that exist in the world already, all on their own, all around us, all the time. Maybe all we needed to do was pay attention.

This is an idea that I have returned to again and again over the years. It has informed the way I see the world, the way I think about art making, about abstraction, nature, the unconscious. These invisible guiding principles that create our physical universe, the laws of nature, of erosion, of emergence and self-similarity, are infinitely diverse and, at the same time, predictable, like spiraling seashells, giraffe spots, branching rivers and our own vascular systems. There’s a fine line between art and non-art, and finding ways to bridge that gap makes the world a lot more interesting.

Icy Inspiration

It must be the chill in the air today that has me seeking out all of this icy inspiration. I’ve just emerged from a Pinterest rabbit hole of glaciers and icebergs—the most mind boggling swirls of sea glass blue, crystalline columns, solidified geysers, fluffy ice clouds, frosted pink stalactites. The beauty of this planet is seriously insane. Inspiration for a million lifetimes.

 

Studio Transformation

“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

—Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces


I came across the above photo on my phone recently, scrolling all the way back to last spring, to my first few weeks in Portland, and was reminded just how much has changed between then and now. So much that was new and unknown has become second nature, so much that was up in the air has now settled. The empty spaces, this one in particular, have been filled.

I can remember the rain in those first weeks, the gray I had been warned about, and the feeling I had as it began to lift, riding my bike around Southeast, getting to know the streets, strewn then in cherry blossom petals, like pink snowdrifts. This city represented a fresh start, not only in the sense that it was a new place, but also because I had decidedly entered a new phase of my life, less encumbered by ideas about what my life and career was ‘supposed’ to look like, firmly committed to letting my own creative work and ideas take precedence.

When we moved into our apartment, the first floor of a three-story house, this room in our basement was sealed off with plastic, like a scene from Dexter. Apparently a drainpipe had been installed backwards, defeating its own purpose, and the water-logged walls needed to be torn down and repaired. Over the next month, the plastic came down and the drywall went up. I marveled at the luxury of this extra space (four + years in little Brooklyn apartments will do that) and saw, for the first time, what it might become.

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The floors were cold and concrete, the ceiling was covered in black trash bags, and the spiders were plentiful, but slowly I began to claim it as my own. I moved a couple of tables down there, my sewing machine, an ironing board. I unpacked all of the screen printed pillows I had made in Brooklyn, found my paints and brushes, organized my fabric scraps. I made trips to Ikea and stood for hours amongst the storage solutions. I returned to Ikea to make returns. And returned again for more storage solutions, caught in an endless loop of stacking drawers and receipts.

Artist Studio Transformation

I had this grand idea that I would simply cover the crumbling, concrete walls with cork. The whole room would be a pinnable mood board! I had seen this on Pinterest. What could possibly go wrong?

I ordered a big roll of cork and quickly realized that it was not thick enough for pinning. No problem. I would first cover the walls with sheets of foam insulation and then cover the foam insulation with cork, so the pins would have something to sink into. I attempted to secure the foam insulation with concrete screws and discovered, cursing wildly, my entire body weight leaning into the drill, that the walls, perhaps, were made of steel.

I returned to Home Depot and explained to yet another kind, puzzled, middle-aged man, what I was trying to do, and came home with loads of adhesives: carpet tape, aerosol sprays, gorilla glue. This worked well. For about nine hours. Each morning thereafter, I’d come downstairs to find another piece of cork had fallen off the wall, or was dangling pathetically, ripped down the middle. From upstairs, I could hear the pieces come crashing down. I’d take a deep breath and go down to investigate, placing the most recent victim on the ground, tape side up, so it could get stuck to my socks when I wasn’t paying attention.

Around the time when my discouragement peaked, the best thing happened. My friend, sewing teacher, and super heroine, Ellie Lum, stepped in to rescue me from adhesive hell. Ellie, who runs Klum House, a skill-building workshop space in Portland, just happens to have an amazing basement studio of her own, and years of DIY wherewithal. With Ellie’s guidance (and her power tools), I ripped down the few sad, remaining scraps of cork from the walls, and made a new plan.

We began by covering the trash bag ceiling with a huge, canvas drop cloth, stapling it at intervals along the parallel wooden beams, and installing lights along the way, so the cords could run, concealed behind the canvas, to the nearest outlets.

It was amazing how much difference proper lighting made. We were a long way from finished, but already the room felt warmer and more habitable. Less like a basement and more like a place you’d actually want to be.

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In the coming weeks, the room filled with tools and dozens of mini projects: shelves were hung, flat storage was built, exposed pipes were painted…

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I mopped the floor and unrolled a piece of carpet I had found at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I bought a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood and placed it atop two wooden trestle legs, giving myself a large, central work table. I bought some stools on Craigslist. I installed a shower curtain to mask my flat storage shelves. I even managed to put up a single piece of cork behind my sewing table.

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At a certain point, work on my studio finished, and work IN my studio began. It’s became filled with color and fabric and zippers and joyful messes. It became my quiet, late-night escape, a meeting place, a full-fledged manifestation of the commitment I’ve made to my art practice, and the headquarters of my budding business.

This is what I had been waiting for all along. But I hadn’t anticipated the importance of the process itself—the clearing out and building up, the giving up and starting over, the asking for and accepting help. Sure, it would have been easier to waltz into an already beautiful space and set up shop, but there’s something about the slow transformation, all of the little setbacks and victories, that seemed necessary. Like the real work was happening deeper, as the drill whirred and the shelves went up and the plants took their place by the window and this thing that until now existed only in my mind’s eye began to manifest and I got this nervous spark in the pit of my stomach because this space marked a new beginning (another among so many).

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Eat the Figs

I came across this TED Talk a few months back, in which writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes a group of people she calls “multipotentialites,” those who “have many interests and creative pursuits.” Emilie talks about the way our culture has romanticized the idea of having “one great thing that we are meant to do during our time on this earth,” that we need only discover this calling and devote our lives to it.

A self-identified multipotentialite herself, Emilie explains how her problem has never been a lack of interests but an excess of them. In school, she liked English and math and art, she built websites, she played guitar in a band. As she got older, this lack of narrowly-focused direction caused her a lot of anxiety. It made her feel as if she was falling behind, had commitment issues, was self-sabotaging her own success.

Ultimately, her talk deconstructs these stigmas in a full-on celebration of multipotentialite-ism. She gives several examples of individuals who have created highly customized, multidisciplinary careersa psychotherapist who makes violins, a concert pianist turned financial planner turned full-time traveler and freelance writer, a jewelry maker whose pieces are inspired by cartography, data visualization, travel, and mathematics. “Innovation,” Emilie says, “happens at the intersections.” It’s the people who can bridge the gaps between disciplines that help us see the world in new ways, synthesize ideas, and solve problems.

This multipotentialite business resonates so deeply with me. I’ve spent the majority of my twenties dreading the “What do you do?” question (particularly ubiquitous in career-driven NYC) for this very reason, practicing and modifying my response, trying to condense the whole vast, messy, passionate, lost, creative, conflicted ecosystem that is my selfhood into some tidy soundbite so as to both satisfy the curiosity of the interested party and temporarily ward off my own existential crisis.

Over the years, I’ve wanted to be a poet, a jewelry maker, a professor. I’ve wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. I interned at a summer poetry festival and an art gallery. I applied to MFA programs in creative writing. I taught English for a year at a school in rural India. I completed one semester of graduate school in English literature and quit because I thought I might be better suited studying Eastern Religion and therefore best suited studying nothing at all that required taking on loads of debt. I considered applying to MFA programs in photography. I had the entirely unique and avant-garde idea of enrolling in a yoga teacher training program. I helped with a lecture series in which neuroscientists and artists had conversations about the workings of the mind. I did some freelance writing. I worked for a literacy non-profit. I decided what I really wanted to do was become an art therapist, so I looked into obtaining the proper undergraduate psychology credits. I self-published a photo book about patterns and cells and Google Earth and put all of the copies in a box under my bed. I was hired by a publisher of art and photography books and became a managing editor. I spent hours looking at wallpaper on Pinterest and decided to take a screen printing class. I made paintings in my tiny Brooklyn bedroom. I quit my publishing job. I interned for the amazing textile designer Rebecca Atwood. I became a member of Shoestring Press, a Brooklyn print studio. I began making screen printed pillows. I covered a wall of my bedroom floor to ceiling with images from microscope slides, abstract paintings, photographs of frozen lakes and tree bark, printed screen-captures of Google Earth, drawings made by the five-year-old I nannied for. I copied down, longhand in my notebook, my favorite passages from the books I was reading. I began recording all of my own thoughts about life, art, the natural world, the nebulous distinction between realism and abstraction, the art of seeing, of paying attention, of making things with one’s hands. I fell in love. I left New York. I traveled. Along the way I also waited tables, painted walls, was an office temp, even spent some long hours tying elastic strings onto red plastic clown noses (that’s another story).

This, I assure you, is the condensed version. This is the truthful resume. This is who I am and “what I do.”

Would life be simpler if I had known all along that I wanted to be an optometrist? Or an architect? If I had just fixed my gaze at a set point on the horizon and spent my days putting one foot in front of the other, walking that straight and steady line? Most definitely. But the results are in, and (drum roll) that’s not who I am. That kind of single-pointed career path would be excruciating to me. I feel claustrophobic just thinking about it.

Now that the big three-oh is coming into view, I’ve spent enough time observing and entertaining my curiosities, writing and talking through my feelings of aimlessness, and surrendering to the persistency of my intuition, that things are now, finally, beginning to manifest. I have a beautiful studio space in my basement. I have found a community of fellow creatives in Portland. I am well on my way to turning my once nebulous set of interests into a little business. I want to create, I want to make beautiful things, I want to write, I want to share the way I see the world, not in a bubble, not in a box under my bed, but in the open, taking up space, humbly, unapologetically. I want my art and life and work to be fluid, joyful, ambitious, and undetermined.  

I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath not long before graduating from college. I remember underlining this passage, penciling in a little heart in the margin:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I, too, have stared longingly at that glut of figs, sat paralyzed, starving as I weighed the options, already regretful. But life keeps happening. And even more sweet than those perfect, untouched orbs of possibility is the day on which we say fuck it, pull one down, and sink our teeth in.