Meeting new people is one of the perks of being a writer on the scene for AF and it has been a treasure trove of interesting people in the last two years. Late last year, I was introduced to Laura Mylott Manning who has been part of our art entourage and also an accomplished artist who surprised me with her prolific work. One of them was a dress made with vintage wrist watches and pocket watches that seemed very timely. In honor of Fashion Week, I decided to interview Laura to delve into the genesis of the watch dress, gain insight into her world, and pin down her style of art. Lights up! Kick up those heels! Get your couture art thinking caps on for some threads, spools and spinning some yarn for good measure. It is art and fashion for this Q & A, my darlings!
ARTE F– USE: You recently had a show where you created an art piece which was a dress fashioned out of wristwatches and antique pocket watches. What was the inspiration and how did it all come together?
Laura Mylott Manning: Kiss the Dark (Dress of Watches) is created for Chronos / Eclat International Magazine. Bert Kalisher, Executive Director of the American Watch Guild and his daughter Nancy passed by a previous exhibition of mine in the Garment District of New York. Bert immediately came into the gallery to introduce himself and invite me to create a dress out of his collection of watches. I was thrilled!
I consider much of my artwork to be an extension of that performance, 700 Spools of Thread (Keep it Together)presented by chashama and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It entails a woman wearing a dress I constructed out of spools of thread that feed into multiple sewing machines surrounding her. I draped the entire gallery space with yards upon yards of black fabric, while building up a lush jungle of colorful threads on top. The seven-day performance included over 15 participants and student volunteers from FIT and New York University.
I love the idea of making a dress out of watches. Not only have I always loved buying watches from places like WatchShopping as gifts for people but there is a lot of mystery in time. You have to embrace it and except the unknowns. This helps to move forward in life with confidence. A timepiece relays a form of structure. Each hour indicates a different responsibility, for example, getting to work on time, or having a meeting. The watches in the dress are all set to tell different times. Doing so allows the structure of the timepieces to become erratic.
I knew immediately I wanted to title it Kiss the Dark after hearing an ancient Irish poem at a reading in SoHo. For me,Kiss the Dark is a mantra. Repeating it gives me courage to face the daily elements that impact my life. It is about taking steps into the unknown, leaving comfort zones and having faith in one’s own success.
I grew up in the 1980’s and so my vision for this photo shoot went directly to the movie Coming to America. I pictured an alley, and a tan raincoat opening up to flash watches. I thought it would be fun to play on that reference a little bit, while including a sense of luxury and wealth.
We did the site-specific photo shoot in downtown New York in Cortlandt Alley. This alley is often used in films. It is suggestive of many different places and times. I wore the dress of watches underneath a vintage tan London Fog raincoat. To include an element of surprise, I flashed open the raincoat to reveal a silhouette made up of 100+ vintage and contemporary watches.
AF: Is Fashion – wearable art? Are the two related: Fashion and Art?
LMM: I studied Sculpture and Apparel Design at Rhode Island School of Design. These areas of thought are combined in my art practice. My work relates to the body and I often create garments for process-based performances. My experience as a Costume Designer for theatre and film also contributes to my wearable art. The found objects included in my wearable pieces range from watches, clothespins, pieces of chalk, and even solar-power toys.
In the past few years there has been a lot of overlap between fashion and art. The world is a very interdisciplinary place now. People depend on the clothing industry everyday and the workers that construct the garments. And wearing a high quality designer piece can make you feel like your on top of the world. There is a lot of value in fashion, but I think fashion and art are too different things.
Currently, I am working on a new series using paint on canvas and hand stitching thread into different areas. I intuitively connect and build up the threads, while thinking about an oscillation between opposites and layers of dimension. There is flatness and a great depth at the same time.
These paint and thread works feel like art to me. People can spend time looking at, contemplating and interpreting meaning from them. And it is fantastic to see the viewer’s reactions to this work. People relate the structure of the strings to an organized chaos, networks of electronic technologies, and as a metaphor for the fragility of human life. My goal is to empower the viewer with the ability to think critically and to build a stronger sense of self-identity.
Although the whole world is accelerating quicker and quicker. Fashion tends to move at a fast pace that sometimes only touches the momentary surface and in long term defines the cultural style of a decade. Art allows the artist and the viewer to resonate with each piece on a personal level immediately and for years beyond.
AF: Who is the most fashionable artist that comes to mind? ( Besides yourself of course!)
LMM: I always liked Andrea Zittel. I read somewhere that when she was starting out working in a NYC gallery; she created a garment to wear daily as a uniform to save on clothing expenses. Her wearable art pieces are at the foundation of her art practice.
I enjoy artists that have an influence from fashion and are still creating separate artworks as well. I noticed many of the artists featured in Baur au Lac’s Views magazine embody those qualities, including Mimi Smith, Rita Alaoui and Ghada Amer.
Of course Nick Cave is pretty fashionable. I love his Sound Suits.
AF: The element of hand crafted technique – how important is it in your art?
LMM: I think artwork should be intelligent and layered with concept. I also appreciate work that is well-designed and created with high quality and craft.
AF: Chime in on this: Is Art more a style or does it have to be a trend?
LMM: Personally, my art tends to lead me in the right direction, connect me to good people and to new opportunities (usually with challenging amounts of work to complete and very short deadlines.) I think there are trends in the art world but it is way more powerful and lasting to make work that is its own thing. Doing so is healthier for the artist; there is more passion and growth in the making. I believe creating genuine work will take you further.
AF: When you are not making art, what is your favorite thing to do in New York City that is not art related?
LMM: I’m usually in my studio daily making work. When I take a break, I enjoy going to my Equinox gym. Movement helps me process thoughts and harness energy.
AF: Your dream trip where you can indulge in both art and fashion.
LMM: Throughout my travels I’ve been inspired by many of the local fashions and textiles. The natural fibers of Ireland are incredible. And there is a long history to the knots and stitches used to knit sweaters, which indicate family clans. New Zealand offers many amazing fabrics as well, including knit wear using a variety of fibers such as possum fur. The medieval clothing and armor I witnessed in Prague stuck with me and inspired my sculptural garments using spools of thread.
In the future, I would like to go closer to the source. The first drop spindles created by humans were found in the East. It would be amazing to see the old textile mills of India and exciting to explore the threads and fabrics that are created there.
AF: In your opinion, was Alexander McQueen the closest we had to an artist and a designer all in one?
LMM: Alexander McQueen was a tremendous talent. He was able to reach a populist audience of appreciation, as well as make wearable garments sought after by high culture.
His retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art was put together very well and covered a variety of pieces throughout his career. He took risks, had an edge and made work that was of very high quality. I think people respond to that.
AF: Finish this sentence. I see this world differently because….
LMM: I am tapped into an amazing source of energy that I can hardly put words to. Each art piece I make is an attempt to capture that metaphysical substance and grow a deeper knowledge of it. I become privy to the everyday synchronicities and the magic of existence the more I engage in my work.
AF: Any parting words to anyone aspiring to be an artist?
LMM: I have always felt that being an artist was a calling for me from a young age. Creative people should be encouraged to express themselves through their chosen mediums. It is the best way for artists to communicate. If there sense of expression is repressed I think it comes out in negative ways.
Being an artist is a very rich existence with a deep understanding of one’s surroundings. Trust yourself, take risks, and network.
Fashion wise, I love Frida Kahlo and her unibrow with the flower arrangement on her head, Salvador Dali with his Pringle’s moustache with dramatic cape plus walking his sleek black ocelot, and Picasso with his striped Mariner sweater plus beret combo. I’d look silly in any of these but I can risk growing a unibrow. – OL
Manning and her recent artist residences include The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. In 2014, she is invited for an artist residency with Balzer Art Projects in Basel, Switzerland. Other projects include Dr. D vs. J Mama, Collectable Trading Cards, online at: www.drdvsjmama.com. She is a contributing member to a group supported by the United Nations addressing sustainability and the role of media.
Her work has been reviewed by the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Centerpoint Now, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant, Columbia Spectator, Brooklyn Rail and Time Out New York. To view and explore Manning’s interactive art pieces visit her website at: www.lmylottmanning.com
Interview done and timed by: Oscar A. Laluyan
Images courtesy of the artist: Laura Mylott Manning