Of wheat paste, flower power and fashion design: exploring new materials with Sara Stern

by Artist Development Fellow

Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator Sara Stern ’12 was awarded an OFA-Office of Career Services Artist Development Fellowship to spend a month at the Denniston Hill sustainable interdisciplinary artist residency in upstate New York, and to travel to Milan to attend fashion textile and interior design classes at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano (NABA). Stern is a proctor for the Freshman Arts Program (FAP) and has had her sculpture, animation, and scenic design work displayed in such Harvard venues as the Massachusetts Hall Student Art Exhibit, and the Harvard Student Art Show. Her work was also featured in the spring '10 production of Fat Men in Skirts.

I spent late May and early June at Denniston Hill, a young interdisciplinary artist residency in upstate New York. There was a garden, a river, a large field, and a house with history. Everything I touched had touched others, and everyone I met offered the advice one can often only find in such a house.

I did not know who I would meet until I was there. Some artists were in residency the entire month, others for only several days. As predicted, it was a time for conversation and reflection.

I was their first trial student intern. I assisted with the garden, helped with resident projects, and absorbed dialogue and knowledge that will continue to be significant. The rhythm of everyday always felt productive.

My work at the residency was infused with art practice. I did manual labor for the garden while thinking about tango and seriality. I collected all the matches used for the stove throughout the month and wheatpasted them together, as an unsolicited intern duty. And I made drawings using my typewriter and materials found in the house.

A few residents helped me understand the kinds of questions I need to be able to answer, and the language I must find for myself. I began to find answers, and new visual and textual language in the second half of summer.

I left Denniston Hill and went to Milan, to study design at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arte. I was originally going to take a class on textiles, but when it was cancelled, I decided to try fashion design. I have always been interested in the architecture of the body, and the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces.

On the first day of fashion design, I was told that the theme for the next two weeks would be flowers and flower power. I had a brief panic attack--I am not flowery, and I feel conflicted about flowers in women’s fashion. But then I began to consider flowers and fashion in their most basic forms, and I decided to focus on pollen dispersion as a metaphor for the global dispersion of fashion.

My collection was inspired by contemporary art related to global movement, systems, and commercialization (such as work by Mark Lombardi, Julie Mehretu, and Ai Weiwei). I also found a wall paper design by Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukacs related to the overwhelming beauty and monstrosity of nature. I photocopied the design several times (dimming the design, as a metaphor for duplication and dispersion), and then cut it up and used it as part of the framework for my drawn designs.

I worked on a dress form for the first time. I realized that my most exhilarating creative experiences always involve simultaneous creation and decision-making. Draping and working on the dress form, creating something that could be inhabited so intimately was unique and wonderful.

At first I was frustrated with the extremely commercial environment of NABA and Milan, but then it became very productive when I started to find ways to incorporate the corporate presence into my concepts. I am fascinated by the size and range of the fashion world, and I think that its global implications make it an important medium. In the second half of my month in Milan, I had an idea for a conceptual design collaboration that I hope to pursue in the coming years.

It is past nightfall in a small Italian farm town in the mountains near France, and clinking cowbells can still be heard against the other mountain sounds. I am here to learn simple weaving techniques, but passing through brings me back to a rhythm of early summer.

I have felt very removed from Harvard, and that has been helpful. I have grown to appreciate my education more fully, and I have gained insight into the most effective rhythms for my process.

This summer I realized that the art I most admire usually engages in a conscious critique or awareness of its own medium, whether physically or theoretically, and expands that into metaphor or poetics. I find myself most attracted to expandable simplicity, work that is accessible but also full of depth. I actively search for this kind of work every day.

While in Milan, I tried to find ways to make meaning more universally accessible. I got to test out my ideas and language frequently, and I gained confidence in my ability to travel between mediums.

Thank you to the OFA. I am amazed by how much I have grown. I did not expect to be moving in so many new directions, and I look forward to working with the OFA as I continue to work with ideas from this summer.

[Caption: Sara Stern '12]