“I don’t think about it, I just go for it.”
--Ashley Dequilla Black
I shared a class with fellow William & Mary student Ashley Dequilla in 2007. Under the tutelage of Professor Brian Kreydatus, we holed up together in the Matoaka Art Studio from winter until spring, our hands silver with lead as we toiled away at Life Drawing II. That semester, the picturesque location on the lake was worth the windy walks from Old Campus, and three-hour studio sessions with live models, accompanied by George Harrison on a cassette player, lead to some of my best student work. Then I graduated. I lost touch with Ashley, despite our camaraderie through critiques at Matoaka, though I remained wistful of those long afternoons and evenings on the lake.
In the decade since our shared studio experience, Ashley and I both maintained our respective artistic practices. Ashley’s art career has included several exhibitions and a significant portfolio of artwork dealing with themes of re-indigenization and exploration of her Filipino heritage. My own artistic practice lead me to use clothing as my canvas, creating wearable art inspired by modern and contemporary art masterpieces; ultimately establishing my website and clothing line, Artfully Awear.
When we reconnected recently via social media, Ashley and I discovered an affinity to each other’s work, and bonded over the struggles and triumphs of developing and maintaining an art career. I was intrigued by the issues she explores through her painting, and she was interested in the way that I use clothing to examine and understand the meaning of art. In a Facebook message, she attached an image of one of her works, a large-scale painting entitled Psyche, and asked if I’d be interested in creating a garment inspired by the work. I immediately noticed something exciting in the piece – the gestural abstraction and color palette caught my eye, and I had so many questions about her process. We agreed to collaborate, and I began the process of creating a dress inspired by her painting.
Understanding the artists’ processes and inspirations is the most important part of what I do through Artfully Awear. Making my own garment inspired by a work of art is the ultimate learning experience – to put myself into the mind of the artist and figure out how it was made gives me a very deep understanding of his or her challenges and how they were overcome. In a long conversation with Ashley, we delved into the meaning behind her work, and I began to understand and appreciate it much more deeply.
Black is based just outside of Washington, DC, where she has been expanding her artistic practice over the past several years. Of her work, she says, “I think of painting as an alchemical practice—meditative—mixing ingredients and components which becomes a tangible spiritual practice and release.” The convergence of many disparate elements is evident in her work, where the palette and subject matter run the gamut, referencing Mexican Renaissance painting, German Abstract Expressionism, and Neoclassical Baroque Renaissance painting. Her work is a hybrid of elements taken from all of her inspirations, with their own underlying themes: complex mythologies, the exploration of archetypes, religion, witchcraft, and the work of Carl Jung. In the particular work I was studying, Psyche, Black explored the marriage of figurative work and abstraction—striving for inhibition through her process. Of her vibrant color palette, she says, “Whimsy informs my palette choices. I don’t think about it, I just go for it.” You can truly feel this urgency in her work, as she explores themes related to gender and cultural heritage.
I created the dress inspired by Psyche from my own studio in Brooklyn, NY. While I was working on it, I sent photos to her so she could see the process and provide input. Her advice: “allow the final mark-making to be entirely random.” Inhibition isn’t something that I explore as much in my work; fabric is less forgiving, and, similar to watercolor, each mark is permanent. But once I started to get into the rhythm of painting in Ashley’s style, I realized that it was absolutely necessary to release control in order to obtain the essence of her work. That lesson was the most valuable part of this project for me, useful in life as in art – learning to let go and allow the work to grow, uninhibited.
When the dress was finished, I packed it up and traveled from New York City to Washington, DC, to solidify the reconnection between Ashley and myself and between our work. Over black coffee, she and I talked through the process and connected over some of our similar struggles. Then we took some photos of the two pieces together, and of us, recording this collaboration that began a decade ago at Lake Matoaka. In many ways, it felt like a homecoming – the two of us, nearly a decade after our William & Mary art classes, collaborating once again. Auspiciously, we’ve learned a few things along the way, such as the value of releasing your inhibitions and letting your creative spark guide you.