About five years ago, Felena Hanson purchased the domain name “Art Meets Fashion.” Working with the nonprofit Fashion Opportunities Connect Us (FOCUS), she'd long been interested in the intersection of fashion and the arts, and she thought that someday she might come up with a project that merged the two.
When Hanson met Patricia Frischer, coordinator of the San Diego Visual Arts Network, in 2009, she had an epiphany: With her fashion background and Frischer's arts background, Art Meets Fashion could become a reality. A few meetings and many discussions later, Art Meets Fashion is a full-fledged, countywide collaborative project that encompasses three neighborhoods, 11 venues and hundreds of people in the local arts and fashion communities.
“It is a very large and confusing project,” Frischer admits.
“But, actually, going into it, one of our goals was to make as many collaborations as possible.”
That word—“collaborations”—is perhaps the most important part of the project and one of the reasons it's so large.
In April 2010, Frischer and Hanson put out a call for San Diego County artists to participate in Art Meets Fashion. The premise was relatively simple: Four people—a fashion designer, an artist, a documenter and an educator—would make up each team. The teams would be responsible for creating garments for a runway fashion show and artwork to display at an exhibition. Throughout the process, the documenter would capture all the action, while the educator would create a lesson plan based on the team's work.
The lesson plan would later be made available to teachers in hopes of bringing the arts back into public schools. Aside from the basic outline, however, the project had little to no other guidelines.
“Felena and I don't like to say ‘No,'” Frischer explains.
“If somebody wants to do something, we like to say ‘Yes.' And that's why the project has expanded to be so complex. These are artistic people, and they don't need to have those kind of boundaries.”
By mid-July 2010, a dozen teams agreed to take part, despite there being no budget and, therefore, no pay. In most cases, team members already knew each other (Frischer and Hanson encouraged teams to assemble prior to signing on to the project), but there were several teams whose members were practically strangers. Such was the case for the Arts Collide team, whose members embarked on a nearly yearlong journey with people they hardly knew.
Arts Collide was a late-forming team, with only two of the final members having been in from the get-go. In the first four months, the team lost both their documenter and fashion designer, leaving them to scramble to find replacements.
“You worry about a team like that,” Frischer says. “You worry if they'll be able to pull it together after those setbacks.”
Instead of succumbing to the challenges, the two remaining team members—Thomine Wilson, the educator, and Marilyn Mitchell, the artist—decided to forge on. Wilson contacted Debbie Solan, co-owner of Fusion Glass Co. in La Mesa, whom she'd seen around at arts events always wearing a camera around her neck. Solan isn't a professional photographer or filmmaker—she's more of an artist—but after meeting with Mitchell and Wilson, she agreed to serve as the team's documenter.
Still, they were in need of a fashion designer.
With the deadline looming, they eventually found Jennafer Grace, a young local designer who, without even meeting the team (they chatted on a conference call), agreed to join.
Each team picked a theme. Arts Collide settled on an idea pitched by Mitchell—diatoms, a microscopic type of phytoplankton that has an outer cell made of silica. It was something Mitchell had been fascinated with ever since first reading about them in the '70s. Invisible without a microscope, the tiny creatures have bold, bright coloring and a distinctive structure. As it turns out, Wilson had read some articles about diatoms, too. She informed the team of diatoms' rapidly declining numbers, which has been attributed to global climate change.
“Because of their beauty and because of their impact on the environment, we decided that it would be a good theme,” Wilson says. “Because we could portray both the beauty and the impact and build on that.”
The team began to discuss what they each wanted to create for the project. From the beginning, the members' specific roles didn't seem to matter. They didn't want the title of “artist” or “documenter” to define what the person could contribute to the project.
“We utilized all of the different strengths from the different people,” Solan says. “And it's not like each person only had one strength.”
“We straddled the roles,” Wilson agrees. “And I think, for us, that was a challenge, but it was also a big advantage.”
That meant it wasn't just Mitchell making art, or Grace designing clothing. Solan, who works with glass at her studio, ended up making glass jewelry for the models to wear in the fashion show. Each member transformed a hulahoop into a work of art, inspired by the colors and shapes of diatoms, and Wilson crafted a hat out of a lampshade to accompany one of Grace's designs. Mitchell sketched out a diatom dress that ended up being a focal point of their final exhibition.
“We all probably had an initial vision,” Solan says about the process. “But you do lose sight of your own personal vision, being forced to collaborate. You have to let that go. The final result is not at all what I thought it would be, but I still like it.”
On April 16, Got Diatoms? opened to the public at the San Diego Art Department in North Park. A crowd lingered inside, inspecting the artwork and drinking wine out of plastic cups while passers-by stopped on the sidewalk to gawk at the hoopart installation through the gallery's large glass window. The four-person collaboration had finally taken shape as one cohesive exhibition.
“Being in a group is a tremendous risk,” Mitchell says. “You're attaching your name to other people's work,” Grace adds.
In the end, they said they felt the exhibition was uniquely Arts Collide, and if any of the members hadn't been involved, it wouldn't have been the same.
“All in all, it represents the four of us,” Wilson says. “And I think that was the goal of the project.” CB
Got Diatoms? is on view at the San Diego Art Department (3830 Ray St. in North Park) through May 14. A catwalk fashion show featuring all of the Art Meets Fashion team designs will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 6, at NTC Liberty Station in Point Loma. Visit artmeetsfashion.org for a full list of Art Meets Fashion events.
Marilyn Mitchell with her hoop art
Jennafer Grace's “Purple Diatom Dress”