RoCo celebrates forty years with wearable art
By Stacey Rowe
Heather Swenson wearing her design
Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo) is turning forty this year and will be celebrating this milestone and its rich history with the launch of RoCo Threads —limited edition wearable art with proceeds benefiting the art venue’s Future Fund. “This fund supported the purchase of our building and is now an endowment to help sustain the long-term future of RoCo,” says executive director Bleu Cease.
“Rochester Contemporary Art Center and its early predecessor, Pyramid Arts Center, has a long history of fun, quirky t-shirts,” says Cease. In addition to a range of artists who have been involved with the nonprofit over the last forty years, RoCo is partnering a local printer on the project. RoCo Threads will be available for purchase at both RoCo and Peppermint (located at the Culver Road Armory). Cease explains, “We wanted to keep it special and local, so we’re very excited to work with Peppermint.” Prices will range from $40 to $100, with member and nonmember levels. Cease is also open to ideas and proposals from artists, designers, and fashion designers who haven’t exhibited in the past with RoCo and is considering reissuing some older designs from the early Pyramid days.
According to Cease, “We’ll be surprising people with the next crop of artist-designed RoCo Threads. We are planning on forty artists over the next two years.” He says that the first edition will be released to coincide with RoCo’s annual 6x6 exhibit and the second installment of designs will be released in winter 2017. Cease continues, “We want to offer ways for people to support the future of the organization with meaningful and well-designed fundraising items. The artists are excited to be involved and have been so incredibly generous with their time and artwork. Our goal is to truly honor these artists and their limited-edition items as very special works of art and great design.”
Meet the artists
“RoCo is a very important space because it provides a bridge between larger institutions like the MAG and smaller alternative spaces,” says Werth, who was born in Rochester. He continues, “Accessibility and a sense of community are keys to an open and inclusive discussion regarding the role of art and artists. RoCo does a great job filling that gap.” Werth holds a BFA in Printmaking from University of Buffalo and an MFA in Non-Toxic Printmaking from Rochester Institute of Technology. He is the president of the Print Club of Rochester and has collaborated with RoCo on a number of projects and events over the past three years. He describes his work as, “Exploring the relationships and interconnectedness between the individual and external world—often focusing on cause and effect and philosophical questions related to significant and insignificant. I have a few ongoing projects that are larger social experiments and also some studio work that utilizes emerging technologies remixed with centuries-old approaches.” Werth has designed a few wearable pieces in the past and continues to explore socially provocative themes. His design for Threads is about perspective and context. He says, “This work has an obvious connection to sensitive and relevant social and political landscape. Outside of the obvious, there is a connection to an art world that is being redefined by expanding definitions of what art is and how it functions, especially in art communities like Rochester.” He hopes to see RoCo’s programming grow in the future with opportunities like guest curatorships or international artist residencies.
Casey is primarily a painter who sometimes dabbles in printmaking. She currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio, and describes her work as, “Built environments and landscapes with very little land.” She has designed a t-shirt in the past for Parade the Circle, a Cleveland art festival. Regarding her Threads project, Casey says, “My piece depicts RoCo suspended in the air. I mean it in the best way—that it has room to grow in all directions. It is partnered with a swishing home to hint that it is hanging out with the people, part of a community. Forty years is a big anniversary—I am forty years old, too! I have fond memories of the show I was in at RoCo in 2010 (The State of the City), and working with Bleu was a big part of that, so I was happy to help out.” Casey holds a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and says, “I’m currently working towards a solo show at Zg Gallery in Chicago in the fall.” Upon being asked about her relationship with RoCo and Rochester, she replies, “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this question with no boots on the ground, so to speak. I need to come back and spend a little time in the future. I only got to spend two days in Rochester, but everyone was very kind to me, with smart questions, and my involvement with RoCo definitely gave me a good impression of Rochester and its people.”
Rochester-based Gilmore describes his work as rooted in geometry and color and his preferred media include pen, paper, Photoshop, and Illustrator. “My piece is a dodecagon, which is a twelve-sided polygon.” Gilmore continues, “I decided to donate my time and art to this project to honor RoCo’s contribution to Rochester and beyond.” Gilmore says that aside from this project, he is keeping busy with both personal and commissioned illustration projects. With an impressive client roster, his work has spanned the globe in various publications and exhibits. Additionally, he has designed a number of t-shirts and also patterns for footwear and outerwear. Gilmore’s involvement with RoCo has spanned over fifteen years as both a participating artist and a musician. “RoCo’s impact on the Rochester art community has been significant and essential in presenting a local and global perspective to the Rochester creative community,” he says. “I have no doubt that RoCo will continue to play a major role in influencing and encouraging Rochester’s creative community.”
Havens says of her Threads project, “Its design is taken from recent work based on my own telephone doodles. I like the wonky and often playful structures they always seem to reveal. Since our retirement to Florida and involvement with grandchildren, these smaller-scale collage works seem to suit my space and mood. I have also been doing some Madonna drawings arising from the birth of my grandson.” Havens is a graduate of Stanford University, and while she had some formal instruction there and at several other schools, she describes herself as mostly a self-taught artist. She has a long history with RoCo—she and her husband, Stewart Davis, became involved shortly before the twenty-fifth birthday of Pyramid Arts Center. She says, “Our vision then was to expand visibility and community involvement and to continue to present strong contemporary art programming. What a journey it has been—we own a beautiful building in the heart of downtown Rochester’s cultural district, have 950 members, and are thriving!” Havens attributes much of RoCo’s success to Cease’s leadership, passion, devotion, and brilliance. “When he called and asked me to make a t-shirt, I was happy to celebrate the success of these forty years and the community that has made it a vital part of Rochester.”
“I have been involved with RoCo since the first 6x6 exhibition,” says Swenson, who works mainly in silkscreen and collage. She’s hoping to get back into painting after a recent gouache purchase. She continues, “I’ve been a member for probably about six years now. It feels good to be participating in an organization that helps bring interesting work to Rochester. This relationship has also been professionally important for me because they have given me opportunities to show and talk about my work.” Upon graduating from the Conservatory of Art and Design at SUNY Purchase, Swenson returned to Rochester and exhibited in RoCo’s LabSpace. Last year, her work was also featured in Under Pressure show, one of RoCo’s collaborations with Print Club of Rochester. She is currently working on some ideas for new structural pieces and says, “I made several sculptures last year that I was very excited about so I plan to continue that work.” Regarding her Threads design, she says, “It’s a drawing of a wooden structure with small wooden pieces balancing on top. Behind this sculpture hangs a drawing attached to an implied wall with a piece of blue painters’ tape.” Swenson values RoCo’s ability to bring in work from artists outside of Rochester. She comments, “As an artist, it’s essential to look at work beyond your community and know what else is out in the world. I think it’s great that RoCo provides a platform for this.”
“Bleu was introduced to me through some mutual friends around 2009-ish,” says Ketchum, “I’m very fortunate to have shown some of my work at RoCo over the past few years.” Ketchum is now an official member who participates in the 6x6 exhibit when he can. As both a fine artist and graphic designer, he comments, “It seems I’m always making something.” He loves typography, textures, clouds, and working in black and white. In fact, the theme of his Threads design will focus on those colors and on alchemy. He is grateful to be invited to participate in the project and says, “RoCo has provided a nice space to check out cool work and meet interesting people. It has been very beneficial to me—primarily for the relationships with other working creatives.” Ketchum admits that with so much going on in the Rochester art scene, it’s hard to keep up. “I really know very little,” he says, “I have a few colleagues and friends that I see out and about when I make it to a First Friday. People around here love to make the stuff. From what I can gather, the scene is leaning toward good.” Ketchum also states, “My hope is for RoCo to flourish, to benefit our community, and to foster creative expression as a vehicle for common welfare.”
“I might be biased but I firmly believe Rochester is a hotbed for creativity,” says Asher, owner and principal designer at Peppermint and (585) What2Where fashion contributor. Raised in Dubai, she has lived in Rochester since 2006. She became an American citizen in 2013. “During my MFA thesis, I became intrigued with the intimacy of fiber and textiles—their textural, tactile richness, the pliable plane, the inherent grid of the weave, as well as the complex cultural roles of this medium,” says Asher. “There is a culturally ingrained preciousness to fabric. We must not tear, scorch, or soil our ‘good’ clothes. And yet, these textiles have a tempting vulnerability. My work is based on the act of violating this taboo.” For Threads, Asher is making one-of-a-kind multistrand wearables that can function as scarves, necklaces, or stand-alone accessories. “When I first heard about this project through Bleu, I was beyond thrilled because the entire scope of this project was fabric which is my media of choice for expressing my creativity.” She continues, “I saw this as an opportunity to collaborate with a gallery that I have supported and loved for many years.” Asher has been a contributor to her favorite exhibit, 6x6, since 2011. Regarding her thoughts on the future of RoCo, she answers with an important point about supporting the arts: “It’s no secret that the arts are incredibly well supplied but not well funded, which is why we need increased support from public and private sources. My hope is that RoCo continues to grow through symbiotic relationships between artists and benefactors. Art begins at home. RoCo is an important local resource. The way we support our cultural lifeblood is not just by visiting, but by investing in it.”
Victor “RANGE” Zarate
Zarate, who is known as RANGE, got his start in the street airbrushing murals and tagging. While he initially was a dropout, he went back to get his degree in commercial illustration and advertising from Monroe Community College. Conveniently, he’s been working on a t-shirt line under the brand Hustlers & Scholars. Inspired by growing up in the streets, RANGE says, “I believe growing up in the inner city, people reach the crossroad of education or staying in the street to make a living. This is about those who have both book smarts and street smarts.” For Threads, he has a different idea in mind. The design will consist of a graffiti-based character wearing a t-shirt of Frederick Douglass on the front. He plans on using mixed media to make Douglass more realistic. RANGE has been involved with RoCo for about ten years and participated in The State of the City, where he painted a graffiti mural inside. However, the anonymity of 6x6 has the most appeal to him, “I like buying it for what it is and not who made it.” Every year, RANGE buys a few new pieces while the show is up. He calls it “Art Karma.” RANGE says, “Every time I go, it’s growing more and more. I like to see how far it’s come and how big it’s getting.” Overall, he thinks the Rochester art scene is good, particularly movements like WALL\THERAPY. “Rochester can be conservative at times,” he continues, “The street art movement and cities accepting worldwide artists, and the abandoned subway show the other side that’s different from the typical art gallery.” Regarding his own art, he says, “It’s a gift to create awareness on any subject you want. Now that I’m older, I can afford different media. Everything is inspirational to me.”
On Facebook: THE FUA KREW
Castle is known as the father of the art furniture movement and is revered for his bold contemporary style. The Kansas-born and educated international artist has been working for decades as a sculptor, designer, and educator and has received multiple honors and awards throughout his career. He is also the artist-in-residence at RIT’s School for American Crafts, where he taught in the 1960s. Currently, he’s creating work for a one-man show in New York this spring. “Most of my work is sold in New York, London, and Paris,” he says. “I don’t really show in Rochester.” That will change this coming October as the Memorial Art Gallery prepares for Castle’s solo exhibition. He has two additional shows coming up in 2018 – a spring exhibit in Kansas City and a fall show in Louisville. Despite being very busy, Castle says of the Threads project, “I’m glad to be a part of it and happy to have something to contribute.” His design will be a drawing of a new furniture piece series called Picture Chairs. Castle used to visit RoCo when it was Pyramid Arts Center, and while he never exhibited himself, many of his friends did. “I didn’t exhibit until Bleu,” says Castle, who has been a featured celebrity at the annual 6x6 exhibit. When asked for his thoughts on RoCo, he says, “I think they do well. There aren’t many opportunities to exhibit on a high level. Compared with the art scene thirty years ago, they’ve taken an important position to fill a void.”
Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer based in Rochester. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @ladysensory and at staceyrowe.com.