N.C. Museum of Art develops online fashion course for students

ajohnson@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2012 

When Raleigh fashion designer Stephanie Sevilla saw the Anselm Kiefer piece hanging in the N.C. Museum of Art’s West Building, it felt familiar. “It has a heavy, yet complex vibe to it,” she said.

Kiefer’s untitled work – made of oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, lead, charcoal and straw on a photograph, then mounted on a canvas with stones, lead and steel cable – is described as a “vast, cosmic mystery … a scarred landscape.”

Which, in Sevilla’s view, made it a perfect complement to her fall collection of mostly sleek black pieces in silk, wool, linen, jersey and leather, evocative of the danger and mystery of a femme fatale.

“They share a feel and a mood,” Sevilla said. “I like strong contrasts. And texture you can appreciate close up and far away.”

The notion Sevilla expressed – that fashion is art and that art can inspire fashion – was the reason she and fellow local designers Zac Schell, Anthony Wilson and Marissa Heyl had gathered on a recent Friday evening at N.C.M.A. along with museum educators, fashion experts and professionals, art teachers and students. The museum and the N.C. Virtual Public School are collaborating on a creative arts curriculum for the state’s public high school students, in this case, creating a course called “The Art of Fashion,” which aims to launch next fall.

It’s another way the museum hopes to make art, and the N.C.M.A., relevant to young people.

“We’re trying to provide multiple entry points to our works. This isn’t just a museum, it’s a performing arts center, a park,” said Michelle Harrell, coordinator of teen and college programs at the N.C.M.A.

To date about 300 students across the state are taking virtual courses shaped by the museum and Virtual Public School, including ones focusing on the art of photography and the art of game design. The virtual classes are electives with course credit.

“We think fashion will be widely popular,” Harrell said.

To develop a course, a think tank of subject-area experts brainstorms concepts and content – a process that takes six months. The fashion think tank includes Uvo bag designer Gigi Karmous-Edwards and Cynthia Istook, a professor in the N.C. State College of Textiles, founders of Fashion Worx, a nonprofit incubator aiming to help members of the state’s fashion community.

“We’re all about education,” Karmous-Edwards said. “Our whole concept is growing the fashion industry in North Carolina. The more we can educate and get people excited, the more people we get going to schools like N.C. State’s College of Textiles and do something fashion-related.”

Fashion Worx used its ties to local designers to pull in Wilson, Sevilla, Heyl and Schell to show some of their pieces, especially for the recent think tank gathering, and the art that inspired them. Schell showed a fitted leather chain-mail dress as he stood before artist El Anatsui’s “Lines That Link Humanity,” made of discarded aluminum and copper wire. Heyl’s three looks from her fair trade Symbology Clothing line, which features textiles inspired by Indian prints, was paired with the colorful “Raqqa II,” by Frank Stella. Anthony Wilson’s elegant draped dresses matched the feel of “Pi,” by Morris Louis.

And indeed, the inspiration helped. Although originally the models were set up as pieces of art to remain untouched, fashion’s strong tactile pull prevailed. The designers invited guests to feel the fabrics. That gave the think-tankers something to consider: How do you bridge that gap in this different facet of art education?

“I think we’re at the point of what are the possibilities,” Harrell said. “Bringing in local designers might be that tactile element we’re missing.”

In any case, the show and the course are just the beginning of the museum’s look at fashion as art, Harrell said. She hints at a blockbuster fashion event in 2014.

“There’s so many natural connections between art and fashion. I love that we’re pushing to limits of what is art and what should be in a museum. It’s exciting for the museum to be part of that conversation.”

Martin: 919-829-4751; twitter.com/amajomartin

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