Tell us a little bit about yourself—your background, major program of study, reasons for taking this trip, and anything else interesting you want to share (maybe something people might not know about you).
Hello, my name is Olivia Bickerstaff. I was born and raised in Vancouver B.C. and I entered post-secondary school right after completing high school, and I have just finished my second year of Kwantlen’s Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Technology program. In the future, I wish to explore the field of costume design because I am very interested historical clothing and the different techniques employed to create these unique pieces.
Apart from my studies, I am an avid historical dress collector, Disney fan, and I also enjoy sailing. I often spend my summers between Vancouver and Galliano Island, working as a cook in a local restaurant on the island. In the Spring 2016 semester, I will be going on exchange to Shih Chien University in Taiwan. There, I hope to explore Chinese traditional dress, as well as expand my worldly knowledge of a culture that is very different from my own.
I chose to participate in the field school opportunity to fully immerse myself in the modern art of New York and Venice. I have always been involved in creating art since a young age, but I have never taken any art history courses. I thought this opportunity would be perfect to learn more about the art world and connect with the heavily artistic side of my design background. I grew up taking a variety of art, painting, pottery, and performance art classes, so I am glad that this program has explored a variety of mediums that I can relate to. As a design student, I tend to be too focused on the research and heavily technical aspects of my learning, so I feel refreshed to change focuses to explore my creativity and learn from art history.
What has met or exceeded your expectations or surprised you about New York so far?
New York has surprised me with its massive amount of street art, from the attractive graffiti and subway art, to the larger statutes around the city. The large amount of public art gives the city a community feeling. In contrast to Vancouver’s streets, the public art makes the streets feel vibrant and resonant, despite New York being an unfamiliar place to me. The art has a way of transforming such a large and bustling city into a relatable and connected place.
I find that the city is very dirty. It surprised me that there are barely any recycling bins around in the public areas in comparison to Vancouver. In our own train stations, there are garbage and recycling bins at every station to help encourage people to keep our areas clean, but in New York, I find that the lack of disposal bins has really left the trains a lot dirtier. This makes me wonder why such a large city would neglect to implement an effective disposal system; is New York like London, where they don’t have public garbage cans due to bomb threats (people have hidden bombs in garbage cans, making this a public safety issue)?
The shopping here has greatly exceeded my expectations. Every store that I have ever heard of (plus way more that I have never heard of!) is available here. The flagship stores (Times Square and 5th Ave) here are multi-floored, with some stores having cafes in them. For example, even the Toys R Us in Times Square has a food section as well as a Ferris Wheel! I have never encountered such a comprehensive shopping network that combines shopping, dining, and entertainment so seamlessly.
Give us some insight into your assigned artwork from the Museum of Modern Art. Who is the artist? When was this work made? What is the content of this work? In what context and as part of what art movement was it made?
My assigned artwork from the Museum of Modern Art is a 12” by 12” black and white portrait of Patti Smith by artist Robert Mapplethorpe for her debut album Horses in 1975. Mapplethorpe was known for his sexually controversial photographs in the 1960’s and 70’s of the New York art scene. Originally, this piece was one of twelve photographs on a contact sheet that Mapplethorpe took of his friend and lover, Patti Smith, for the cover of her album. Now, it is exhibited at the MoMA.
Patti Smith is a singer, poet, and visual artist originating from the punk movement of the 1970’s. This art piece is a part of the photography and punk movements of the time. Also, this piece speaks to a time period where young people explored and were involved in different kinds of relationships; Smith and Mapplethorpe had a sexual and emotional relationship that was on and off, in addition to having relationships with other people. Because of Mapplethorpe’s intimate knowledge of Smith, he was able to capture her casually in a photograph using a comfortable and safe environment. He portrayed her essence using very simplistic techniques, which consequently made for a very powerful photograph.
This photo was taken in natural lighting in the penthouse suite of Sam Wagstaff on 5th Ave, New York in Greenwich Village. Smith is shown in a relaxed but confident posture in the center of the photograph. The photograph is very striking because of the contrast between the black and the white elements; her pale skin, white shirt and background contrast with her black hair, pants, jacket and the ribbon around her neck. Also, the ribbon draped around her neck gives the photo a certain vertical predominance. This creates a sense of power, strength and uprightness that conveys confidence in the subject. Apart from Smith’s hair, the lines and surfaces of the photograph are very smooth and clean. The contrast of Smith’s frizzy hair then serves to direct the observer’s eye to her face, which is in the shadows on one side to add mysteriousness.
How did you approach the creative task of responding to this assigned work in studio? What were your challenges as an artist to be in dialogue with the artwork and artist? Would you do anything differently now that you have seen the work in person?
Being from a fashion design background, I naturally decided to deign a piece of clothing for this creative task. Having researched further about Mapplethorpe, I discovered that he is also well known for his photography of flowers. My favourite of his images are of the calla lilies, and this was the basis of my inspiration for a skirt design. I created a calla lily petal-shaped skirt out of white satin fabric, wiring channels, and wires to help with the shaping of the skirt.
Living in a century filled with technological advancements, I was unable to readily access a traditional black and white camera, so I shot my garment in colour using my iPhone. This was one of the challenges in creating this dialogue back with Mapplethorpe, who worked with the absence of colour, because I had to edit my photograph a step further to create a black and white image. Using Photoshop, I edited the photograph to be grayscale, as well as smoothed the lines of the skirt slightly so as to better reflect the cleanness of the original piece.
A further challenge that I faced was that I consider myself more of a designer, so to step out of that role and be an artist was a different experience. I found that I had to focus less on the theory and research, and reach deep within my creative side to access the resonant, intuitive side of myself. Now that I have seen Mapplethorpe’s work in person, what I would do differently is that I would use proper photography equipment such as a better camera and lighting. However, I am still very happy with how my piece turned out overall because I feel like I connected well with the original piece and the artist.
After seeing your assigned art work in person (and any other related art from the same artist or art movement associated with the assigned work), what struck you most, and/or how did the artwork’s form, content, and context shift for you when seeing it?
After seeing my assigned art piece in person, I have the say that I am disappointed because I did not see any other of Mapplethorpe’s works. In my mind, I knew that the piece was only a 12” by 12” album cover, but I somehow expected it to be more of an art piece (larger print) rather than just an album cover with other related albums. The piece was displayed in the MoMA in an exhibit focused on music-related art pieces and other things as opposed to being in a photography section. I had expected Mapplethorpe’s work to be more relatable to other photography, so I was surprised by the disconnect between who Mapplethorpe was as an artist himself to the art piece.
I wish there had been examples of Mapplethorpe’s work to accompany the display of this piece. I feel like this image alone is not as strong as it could be if it were explained with the context and background of Mapplethorpe and Smith’s relationship. To me, this experience was similar to viewing the Mona Lisa in Paris; yes, it is a beautiful piece, but it is so small in comparison to how larger-than-life it seems due its depiction and significance in popular culture. When I had built up Mapplethorpe’s piece of work with all of its context, richness, and significance, it had become something iconic to me; but standing beside a sea of other album covers, it seems so small and empty in comparison.
Today’s activity was at a free day in the neighbourhood(s) of your choosing. What were your impressions of your exploration of New York? What will you take away of the experiences of this day? What are the most memorable moments for you?
Today was a free day, so the fashion girls and I decided to check out Times Square and 5th Ave (shopping areas) in the midtown neighborhood of Manhattan. We all dressed in our little black dresses and grabbed coffee and croissants before heading over to Tiffany’s on 5th Ave to have ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. We tried to recreate the first scene from Audrey Hepburn’s iconic movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because we are all avid fans of Hepburn.
Following breakfast, we walked to Times Square where it was packed with bustling activity, mostly tourists. My impression of this area was that there were many large stores, an abundance of tourist souvenir shops, as well as way too many people who were tying to get tourists to use their services and were being extremity pushy and rude. This overly-touristy element kind of ruined Times Square for me, because despite being a tourist myself, I am a seasoned traveller who prefers to explore the real living of each city as opposed to focusing only on the tourist attractions.
We then headed to 5th Ave where I was enchanted by the amount of high-end stores, the luxurious atmosphere, and the beautiful historic architecture. I loved how the shops were housed in the old buildings that gave each place character and the prestige of withstanding history. By this time, I started to feel more like a New Yorker, as we were not being bothered by annoying venders. I was able to peacefully wander the streets and immerse myself in the feeling of deep history, of all the others who had walked there previously, and of all the others who would walk there after me. It felt like a tiny piece of history was created that day.
Overall, I am glad that we were able to get around using the subway with no problems. Back home, I am known for being terrible at using transit, so I am thankful for the straightforward and very accessible transit system in New York. That evening was probably the most memorable moment of the day because we went to see an off-Broadway musical called Disenchanted. We were running late to the show and decided to take a cab but we were unable to hail one. Luckily, there was a limo parked right where we were trying to hail a cab and he offered to take us instead. So that is how we arrived at our show in a limo! The performance featured Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, the Frog Princess, and Mulan.
I loved it because of the witty humor, and how they depicted the princesses as being unhappy with the messages that Disney has been putting in the movies—that princesses are all damsels in distress who meet a guy one day get married. The performance carried an impactful message that despite all the original fairy tales being German (often depicting horrors, death, and bloodshed instead), they have become very Americanized through the translation. It also discusses how because it was men who drew them, that is why they all have big breasts and small waists. I liked how they tied in the topic of the sexualizing of women through humor.