We Who Seek: Rebecca Chamberlain
You’ve seen our Rebecca Sweaters—now meet their namesake who worked with us to bring them to life: artist and designer Rebecca Chamberlain, whose multidisciplinary work we adore. Read on to learn about Rebecca’s dynamic creative path—from dancing to apparel to painting and beyond—and her new sustainable fashion project, which centers around giving new life to surplus and other found garments.
1. You’ve worked across so many mediums over the course of your career—from paintings and performance to fashion design. What first sparked or fostered your creativity, and when did you know you wanted to pursue artwork professionally?
I trained as a ballet dancer from the age of 5. I took to it early and was serious in my approach. At 12 I joined a regional ballet company outside of Philadelphia
and began auditioning for ballet schools in NYC. My father was an artist and my mother, who studied art history and sociology, seemed to be able to master any medium she approached. They had a ceramics studio in the house and made a line of pottery together. The house was filled with objects and furniture that someone in the family made or collected. Weekends were spent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or trailing after my parents at massive antique malls. So, I think creativity was the ‘soil’ I grew from. Ultimately, dancing did a number on my physical and mental well-being. I turned to drawing to escape the live performance of ballet and to be alone. My parents helped extract me from what I thought would be a dance career, by redirecting me to portfolio building and art school applications. I attended figure drawing sessions with my father and his co-teaching artist friends at Haverford Prep (where my father was head of the art department at the time) and finally landed at RISD. There, I assumed I would major in painting, but a quick pivot at decision time landed me in the Apparel Design Department. Something in me was afraid to put the financial pressure on painting--- I figured that people would always need clothing, I understood the human body as a dancer and I had been collecting vintage clothing and as much of the Japanese designers (Miyake, Yamamoto, Comme de Garçon) as a teens’ income would allow. RISD let me mine conceptual ideas and turn them into fashion collections. I loved tailoring, gender and history merging and was able to make shoes, photograph the collections, all through RISD’s incredibly well-equipped studios and in tandem with piers in other departments. Basically, I approached fashion like an artist.
2. Much of your painting and illustration takes architecture and/or dwelling spaces as its theme. How did you first become interested in this subject, and how has it continued to inspire you over time?
While working as the Men’s Knitwear designer for a new Gap division called Old Navy, I grew bored and frustrated with the corporate fashion environment. I enrolled in a 20 th century Fashion History course at the New School. There I wrote a paper called ‘White Collar Women’ that focused on women’s relationships with men in the workplace. I began illustrating these women in-situ using images of office environments collected from books, magazines and films form the interwar period. I was not terribly happy with them, because essentially, they felt like fashion illustration, and I was trying to pull myself away from fashion. Then I made a piece that depicted a receptionist’s desk, void of any humans. That empty space allowed for more nuance. It was ominous and more open to varied interpretations. I began searching for images of office and domestic interiors where the furniture, flora and light began to stand in as characters. The pieces went from single to multi panel to free standing plinths where the separate spaces had historical and conceptual relations. I began studying the architecture of healing spaces, like tuberculosis hospitals that became mental health facilities. Then I looked at the private homes and public housing these same architects built and found there were similar design solutions and styles. Then I would weave them together, overlaying and joining separate images to create a single space. As the work became better known, I was invited to work with landmarked buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman House at the Currier Museum and Het Vijfde Seizoen, a mental health facility and residency in the Netherlands. New shows often feel like an opportunity to learn about and work within a new place and to create an exhibit that is as much installation as a simple show of paintings.
3. You’ve also worked as a designer in the fashion world, including for larger brands like UNIQLO, and you recently launched a new label, R E G E N E R A T E D, which is rooted in sustainability and upcycling. What has it been like to dual path in fine arts and fashion? And does your work in one space ever inform the other?
I have had trouble reconciling the two paths. I often use one as an escape from the other. As I mentioned above, I was afraid to rely on painting as a means to income and despite making a good living in fashion, I have never been wholly satisfied. The commonality is an interest in convergent histories occurring in both. I enjoy the stories that lead to a single garment or piece of architecture. They are like ‘our’ fingerprints on the earth; what we wear and where we shelter. Recently, I was invited to a residency where I brought a new painting series and new R E G E N E R A T E D pieces to resolve. Since I’m horrible at ‘downtime’, it was perfect to shift between waiting for paint to dry and laying out pattern pieces. In both the R E G E N E R A T E D space and the paintings, I am working through puzzles of collecting, storytelling and production.
4. As a sustainable brand, we have so much awe and appreciation for R E G E N E R A T E D. Can you tell us a bit more about this project and how it came to life?
During the pandemic, I partnered with a vintage clothing store in upstate New York. While hunting for vintage I saw rows upon rows of men’s dress shirts (perhaps accounting for the shuttered office spaces) and racks of very large sized denim and suit pants. I’ve often looked to traditional ‘menswear’ for inspiration. I began seeing these garments as fresh bolts of fabric. The military garb (an obsession since childhood shopping at I.Goldberg Surplus in Philadelphia) felt protective in a way that resonated with the feeling of life during pandemic and protest. So, after collecting pieces, based on fabric quality and a garments history, I began puzzling them together or reshaping the pieces themselves – folding and cropping shirts, pleating and seaming denim, merging tropical wool suiting with denim and khakis and patching quilts (histories unto themselves) with military liners.
At first, I tried to keep garment sewing production local to the shop (and my home) in upstate NY, but seamstresses were very hard to come by. A friend who works in the Pratt fashion/ textiles department introduced me to a sustainability academic and board member of a New York City–based workforce development program called Custom Collaborative. They train women from low-income and immigrant communities to begin careers in the fashion industry and I have been able to mentor and employ three different seamstresses. They have become a real partner in the production of R E G E N E R A T E D. Last year Fondation Chanel granted $300,000 for their new Apprenticeship Program. This will allow me to hire an intern from Custom Collaborative to begin assisting me in all areas of R E G E N E R A T E D.
5. Are there any artists, places, or events that have been particularly influential to your work?
Gerhard Richter, Charles Sheeler for painting. Anni & Josef Albers for cross-discipline careers. Visiting the Zoonestraal Sanatorium where my guide was a man who was born their while his parents were recovering from TB. Margiela for his knowledge and reverence of fashion history and now, for his cross disciplinary work.
6. Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
I will travel to the places I sense I’ll be able to salvage garments. I can think about silhouette and style while my body is traveling. It’s always been my most effective workspace. --- Perhaps because I know something is getting accomplished by simply getting somewhere else.
I spend a fair amount of time at galleries and museums, which always feels like seeing the subconscious of the current zeitgeist.
And finally, I will peek at fashion shows every now and then to see what some of my favorite designers are up to.
7. At Seek, we value personal style as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression. How would you describe your personal style?
8. What’s the most recent piece of art you’ve felt moved or inspired by—whether a book, a film, an exhibit, etc.?
Also A Poet, Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me a book by my friend Ada Calhoun is a beautiful and difficult memoir about a family I know and love and learned so much more about through Ada’s account. It stunned me.
The Edgefield Potters exhibit at the MET is a jewel box sized show with an expansive history. It underscores the importance of art to tell stories. Kleo is a fantastic and curiously styled series on Netflix about a young female Stasi spy assassin who is mysteriously imprisoned then freed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
9. What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Make the thing (fill in the blank) you don’t see and wish you had. This advice grew out of a conversation friend and fellow artist. And---on a more practical level: I used to paint with ballpoint ink. I would blow the ink out of the dismantled pen cartridges. My lips and face would be ink splattered for days. My husband (then fiancé) suggested I let the cartridges drain into a container, gravity and the pull of the slowly draining ink doing the work overnight. --- Duh. A real game changer.
10. What advice do you have for those who are still trying to discover the best medium for creativity and expression?
What do you wake up wanting to touch, do, think about first? ---I would combine that with the advice above. Creative endeavors may change over the course of a life. Tuck into what is driving you and what connects you to others.
11. Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
R E G E N E R A T E D is beginning to take on more of a life. I will be ‘popping- up’ at Kate Huling’s The Shop Collective with 3 other small businesses. November 16-19. I lived in the South Williamsburg neighborhood for over 10 years. I started a family there and I’m really excited to bring R E G E N E R A T E D back to a neighborhood that feels like home. And for the first time I’ll be showing paintings alongside select pieces of R E G E N E R A T E D at a Santa Terra Gallery in Todos Santos, Mexico for the month of November.
12. What are you seeking more of this year?
Clarity. Always clarity.
Rebecca is wearing the Rebecca Sweater, Monty Coat, Tanya Top, and Terrain Pants