Growing up in the foothills of the Berkshires, I was fortunate to live among the many makers in my family. There were painters, sewers, woodworkers, gardeners and cooks, all within a short drive. I can still picture the still life set up by my grandmother alongside her box of well-used pastels that she generously shared with my sisters and me. My family taught me the joy of working with my hands to create things that were practical, delicious and beautiful.
I was a young teenager when my grandmother offered to pay me to sew her new living room drapes. After lessons from my mom on the use of the ruffler and narrow hemmer, I was ready to dive into my first paid project. I sewed and sewed, after school and on weekends, anxiously anticipating the day when my creations would hang in her comfortable yet elegant space. But as we neared the end of the installation, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment. The last set was too long and puddled awkwardly on top of the radiator. I was crushed. My loving and encouraging grandmother proclaimed, “Don’t worry; they’re beautiful!”
In creative pursuits, triumph and failure are often intertwined, and the lessons of that day are with me still: Mistakes happen; learn from them, keep working to improve and always measure at least twice!
Sewing soon became a consuming passion for me, and every weekend I begged my mother to take me to the local fabric store. As soon as I was old enough, I started working in the store so I could not only earn money but receive the store discount as well. Being around all those sewing supplies and fabrics really fueled me creatively, and the hours I spent sewing increased exponentially. During those years, I made many of my own clothes and eventually started to design patterns. This form of expression was particularly fun since I got to proudly model my latest creation through the halls of my high school.
“I don’t think outside the box, I think of what I can do with the box.”
— HENRI MATISSE
After graduating from the University of Vermont, I worked on the periphery of the fashion industry in retail and manufacturing but soon realized that I needed more of the creative and less of the business. I wanted to get back to my maker roots, and a fashion degree from Parsons School of Design in New York City was the path I chose. I was blissfully happy in that challenging and creative atmosphere: pattern-making, draping, drawing and sewing. All day, every day.
Sewing, art and design have been a constant for me, so when I chose to stop working full time to be a stay-at-home mom, I continued to create in whatever moments and ways I could find. I painted, sculpted, sewed and devised art projects for my kids, who had endless energy and interest. I often preached to them of my strong belief that process is always more important than product. When I discovered them painting each other’s bodies instead of the paper, I realized they were really listening! I did my best to take it in stride and thought: “There it is. Process, not product.”
SNOWY WAY / Model: Yina Moore, @Adamstheater
When my children started school, I took a job as a traveling preschool art teacher. There was only a tiny budget for supplies, so I needed to source lots of interesting and affordable materials to spark their creativity. That’s when I began to focus on post-consumer waste. What people called trash — eggshells and cartons, CDs, discarded paper, broken crayons stubs and plastic containers — became the raw material for sculptures, mobiles and collages. Where others saw junk, I saw possibility.
It was the beginning of my fascination with the things we throw away, things that will end up in a landfill for generations. And to the frequent frustration of my family and friends, I could no longer pass up a pile of other people’s castoffs without considering their potential to be transformed into something extraordinary.
My love of sewing and my enthusiasm for these offbeat materials converged when I launched Smooth Stone Clothing, a line of upcycled women’s clothing created from thrifted garments and fabric scraps, that I sold at craft fairs, online and to private clients. In my endless search for novel elements to incorporate into the garments, I was again drawn to the brightly colored, highly decorative packaging waste that I saw all around me and wondered, “Why not wear it?”
DIPSY CHIPS / Model: Shonda Evette
My son’s collection of Lay’s potato chips bags was the inspiration for my first wearable art garment made from post-consumer waste. After I carefully cleaned and dried his treasure of more than 100 glossy yellow, red and white bags, I began pinning them to my dress form. This journey of creativity, experimentation and joy had begun.
My supply of materials is infinite and endlessly inspiring.
My process is driven by two things: materials and mistakes. The materials dictate the form, assembly and composition. The colors, shapes and even sounds inspire the direction of the piece as I start to imagine how the garment might move or catch the light.
Different materials require different construction methods. When creating a piece from paper, I start by experimenting with many techniques of folding, cutting, stapling or hand sewing. I look for dress forms with a soft surface that are easier to pin into, which is very important when ideas are flowing. When using more sturdy materials like plastic and cardboard, I often use chicken wire, hot glue, hooks, zip ties and my P3 or B8 plier staplers.
In art as in life, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Wearable art is no exception. I try not to get bogged down by doubt and second guessing. The number of pieces that I have started, torn apart and started again are too many to list. My best advice is to view mistakes not as failure but as a way to see new possibilities.
I receive so much good advice and support from other artists, and my interaction with them is essential to my work. They don’t usually give me the answers, but they help me pose the right questions. And we laugh! A sense of humor is key, and it’s always a great day if I’m making art.
Flipping through my mother’s 1939 piano book, I was struck by the graphic character and subtly
aged tones of the old sheet music. I carefully cut out the pages and began folding them into various shapes
and holding them up against a dress form.Whether it was the musical notes or the shapes I created,
I knew that it had to be a tutu, and the title sheet of L’Arabesque by Burgmüller was perfect for the prominent bodice piece.
Deborah is represented by The WIT Gallery, Lenox, Massachusetts.