An FIT photography professor considers the fascinating visual abstractions expressed on the chalkboards of physicists and mathematicians. We have Professor Jessica Wynne’s remarkable project, her forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, “Do Not Erase.”
In September, 2019, Prof. Wynne’s work was given full-page treatment in The New York Times Science section, with Dennis Overbye’s article “Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies.” A flurry of top-tier media attention followed. We still wanted to know more, especially from a visual arts perspective. Here are a few of the things we discussed in our time together:
Q. Documentary photographers try to immerse themselves in the subject they’re covering. How do you do that when it’s the work of mathematics or physicists at a level most of us don’t comprehend?
JW: For me it’s not about understanding what’s on the board. I like that the symbols are mysterious and inaccessible. My interest is in the beautiful abstractions of the formulas. I also find a kinship with the mathematicians. We share similar intentions and are ultimately speaking the same language of discovery and creation.
Q. Does a conventional classroom or professor’s office with a chalkboard have the proper lighting for you?
JW: For this series I have photographed in a variety of locations; classrooms, math department common rooms, offices, and in some cases the boards are outside, in the woods. In fact, I am planning a trip to a math institute in the Black Forest in Germany, and I’ve heard that there are lots of boards in the forest.
Q. What are your lighting considerations? Flashes I don’t suppose work well with chalkboards. How do you get around that?
JW: I always use available lighting, preferably natural window light. I never use flash.
Q. You seem to have a great appreciation for math and science. Where does it come from?
JW: My real appreciation for math and science came from doing this project. Also, my parents were both teachers at a boarding school, so I literally grew up in a classroom.
Q. In one photograph (above), you’re using a tripod. The subject doesn’t move, so was this for depth of field or lighting purposes?
JW: It is actually for both depth of field and lighting purposes. I often do long exposures, which is why I need the tripod.
Q. There’s a stillness in the photos, but they’re not lifeless. Details you’ve captured, like the chalk dust and erasers make it feel as if there are people actively contemplating the equations. Were you aware of this dynamic?
JW: Yes, and I am glad that that comes through in the images.
Q. Are any of the chalkboards the work of multiple scientists?
JW: No, they are all done by individual mathematicians.
Q. Do the scientists see the boards as having an aesthetic or only the equations?
JW: The mathematicians have a great aesthetic awareness.
The British Mathematician G.H. Hardy explores the aesthetics of mathematics in his 1940 essay “A Mathematician’s Apology”:
“A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas that it contains…The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”
A. What from this project do you bring back to the classroom? And do you write on a chalkboard or blackboard in class?
JW By watching over 100 mathematicians writing their formulas on the boards, I have witnessed this beautiful performative act that is stimulating and exciting for students and myself. As a professor, I have taken that excitement and hopefully brought it into my own classroom, because teaching is performative, and if you do not have that visual stimulus in the classroom students will get bored and disengage.
My own classrooms have whiteboards, which most schools have now. In fact, I recently had to cancel a trip to Cambridge and Oxford because all of the chalkboards were recently replaced with whiteboards.
“Do Not Erase,” will be released in Spring, 2021. A solo show of the project will be held at Edwynn Houk Gallery in September, 2020.
Associate Professor Wynne has taught in the Photography department at FIT for 12 years. Among the courses she teaches are New Documentary Practices, Senior Photography Seminar, Creative Approaches in Photography and Photography 4: Project Development.
A common misconception about interior design, says Ielyzaveta Ignatyeva, is that it is a decorative pursuit geared toward the affluent. The sixth-semester Interior Design student has just been selected as the East Region finalist for the 2019-20 Interior Design Educators Council Student Competition for her design for HOPES, a community outreach center for the homeless.
“This project is important to me. I want to improve people’s lives through design,” she says.
Ignatyeva’s HOPES center would provide essential needs, temporary comfort and security for homeless visitors. It is suited for services focusing on “reinventing lives and gifting them hope for the future,” she says.
“Based on a robust research foundation, Ielyzaveta’s project illustrates the depth of understanding of the client, and fulfills programmatic requirements. It reflects sensitivity to the needs of the homeless population; it is elegant and beautifully presented,” says Assistant Chair of Interior Design Grażyna Pilatowicz.
Ignatyeva’s design proposal aims at combating the stigma associated with homelessness. “Furniture layouts and design would act to limit anxiety and be as individualized as possible, and will allow for a pragmatic design,” she says.
“My focus is on providing specialized activity areas, for counseling and career-building, technology and skill training, social collaboration, outdoor experiences, and areas for pets, to accommodate the concerns beyond just physiological needs.”
Her forward-thinking design for HOPES includes eco-friendly, upcycled and affordable furnishings, finishes, and materials.
“I want to help alleviate the fears that come with being homeless and looking for shelter. The visitors will be welcomed and not overwhelmed by an over-designed space,” she says.
HOPES reception area
Ignatyeva grew up in a small town in Ukraine raised by her mother and grandmother. Her first attempt at design was building an alcove-cafe in her backyard.
“My passions were landscaping and interior design. I was also interested in hospitality and residential design from an early age, being fascinated with beautiful homes, restaurants, and hotels,” she says.
This past summer, Ignatyeva worked for a New York City boutique specializing in hospitality and residential designs. “Since then, I started noticing a target gap, specifically, underserved communities, when it comes to interior design. My new passion is interiors that are inclusive of all income levels and social status.”
The message communicated through Ignatyeva’s design is: “feeling human, feeling heard and respected,” she says. “We need increased focus restoring the lives of people who have fallen victim to neglect.”
“We are proud and delighted that Ielyzaveta’s project will now be judged against the best Interior Design schools from around the country. In our eyes, she is already a winner, ” says Professor Grażyna Pilatowicz.
Photography Professor Conelia Hediger’s current work on view is not a blink-and-you-miss-it experience. Her large-format images are mounted on one of 34 Los Angeles’ billboards that are part of the Billboard Creative 2020 exhibition. Hediger’s duel photo montage, from her series “Into the Vortex,” can engage an audience from over 100 feet away.
The images from Prof. Hediger’s series seem serendipitously well-suited for a billboard treatment. According to her artist’s statement, the series explores “a whimsical world where focal planes are shifting and tilting, where characters, at times, are blown out of proportion and dwarf the landscapes around them.”
Prof. Hediger’s billboard is on Highland Avenue between Fountain and Lexington avenues. The exhibition runs from February 3-28. An interactive map that shows the layout of billboards is available at the Billboard Creative website.
Hediger is an award-winning photographer whose work has been exhibited throughout Europe and the U.S. Her work has been featured in Glamour Espana, PHOTONEWS, GEOkompakt, SHOTS Magazine, BLINK, The Wall Street Journal, ARTE, Photo Technique, PHOTO+, HotShoe, SNOCKS, Visura Magazine, New York magazine, Vision Magazine and elsewhere.
An upcoming film “Photomontage,” directed by Sam Vladimirsky will feature Prof. Hediger’s work.
To see more of Prof. Hediger’s work visit her website at: CorneliaHediger, and follow her on Instagram @corneliahediger
Skateboards may be vehicles for aerial stunts, rail stands and kick flips, but in Professor Leslie Cober’sPictorial Problem Solving class they’re another type of canvas. For their final projects her students experimented with alternative mediums for designing skateboard decks to the theme “optimism.”
“I like drawing pretty ladies and using limited color palates. I also love glitter.” – Yarlen Paulino @lemoncremeart
A skateboard deck is a departure from what’s most commonly considered as a showcase for illustrations. We’re attuned to seeing illustrations in publications, on posters, advertisements, book covers, and children’s books. “But illustration also covers art assigned for music, fashion, merchandise, home goods, paper goods, and drawings for package design,” says Prof. Cober.
“”Long live the stupid, corny radical 90s aesthetic that I unironically love so much.” – Cynthia Gaviria @mettamaxie
“I feel most optimistic when I’m at the ocean, so I submerged my subject in it.” – Matthew Anderson @MatthewDrawsPeople
Prof. Cober acquired 20 blank decks for the students to work on. The skateboard itself has three major parts. The deck being the board, usually made of wood, is what the rider stands on. The other two elements are the “trucks” holding the wheels. A skateboard can have any number of decks.
“To me, ‘good vibes’ is a tacky, neon bowling alley carpet from the 90s. It captures the feeling of happy and carefree fun.” – Niko Lopresti @WLZARDS
“My concept was to communicate a sense of balance. I thought that mermaids would be an effective way to fit inside the unique shape of the canvas and provide an illustration that could be viewed double-sided. Both sides contrast each other while still sharing elements of the other.” – David Wetstein @dvidsteinart
“I wanted to capture the essence of adventure. College is all about discovering the unknown, so it’s up to you take flight.” -Rico Ford
Students began by creating pencil and pen sketch ideas on paper. After final revisions they recreated their work on their decks, using mixed materials. “They spent time discussing, conceptualizing and sketching their ideas that would align with the assignment theme of ‘optimism,'” said Prof. Cober.
“I wanted to visually express inclusivity. The hands spell out love in sign language, and the rainbow signifies acceptance no matter your sexuality. People are climbing the hands to express overcoming the obstacles that love can have.” – Sarah Haskall @art1ofakind
The project and its theme are timely. A new film about skateboarding girls in Afghanistan has an emphasis on optimism and empowerment in a very rough part of the world. “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” just won an Oscar for best documentary short subject at the 92nd annual Academy Awards.
“I think students need to be encouraged to think in an optimistic way; it’s about motivation and encouragement. It’s part of being a teacher to be able to get students to think as artists,” says Prof. Cober.
“It can be hard to be optimistic in the current world, but it shouldn’t hold back pleasures in life,” says Elizabeth Yun. “I want to experience unforgettable moments and have a positive outlook.” – Elizabeth Yun
Photography Professor Curtis Willocks arranged for student photographers John Gutierrez and Anna Fitzpatrick to photograph the students with their skateboard decks.
These and other skateboard decks from Prof. Cober’s class, are on display outside the Illustration department office on the third floor of the Pomerantz, “D” building.
One of the things that intrigues Photography Professor Allen Hochman is the degree of “problem-solving” required to produce a stellar image. For their Introduction to Light final projects, students had to photograph a fictional or historical character. Several here discuss how they brainstormed, dealt with lighting and styling considerations, and in one case, put together a team for the day of the shoot.
In photographing Eris, the goddess of discord, Victor Pickens, encountered some tumult of his own. The day of his shoot, his team canceled. “I enlisted the help of a friend, a sophomore, and a fashion design student I flagged down in the hallway. It was a blessing. The student stylist draped the dress in classical style in keeping with the goddess’ chaotic nature.”
Aimed a light from above, cascading the elimination from the apple down toward the ensuing chaos.
Printed the photograph and prepared a wooden panel coated in gold leaf for contrast between the “simplistic and gaudy style of Byzantine icon paintings and the crisp, seemingly shallow, Classical style.”
Added highlights and text in egg tempera, with Greek words such as Kallisti (for the fairest; kano polemos (make war); Eris vikae (Eris prevails); xaos (chaos); and kati (evil eye). The halo is typical of Byzantine icon paintings.
“I love mixing fine art with fashion photography. I feel it is a successful image I am proud of,” says Perkins.
“I wanted to show the story of Medusa dying and turning to stone from her own reflection,” says Briana Bene-Espinal.
Chose a model with piercing blue-green eyes, to create the eerie look of Medusa.
Created a golden neckpiece of snakes, and applied gold and glowing makeup.
Photographed in her bathroom — where she was able to create a mist using a mechanism that creates fogs in fountains — she created the ambiance of an underwater cave.
Photoshopped part of the character’s face to appear as though Medusa is transforming into stone as she looks at herself.
“Choosing how to go about this assignment was a challenge at first,” says Kristen Jones. I’m proud of what I came up with.” Jones chose Huey Freeman, who appears in the T.V. show “The Boondocks,” an adult cartoon she says is “super funny and relatable.”
Steps she took:
Balanced her tripod on wooden boxes to get the camera to be taller than herself.
Connected her camera to her phone so that she could press the shutter button remotely.
Lit the photo by placing a scoop light on the inside of a bookend to create an even, diffuse light. In post-processing, she played with the lighting, shadows, and textures to create the filter seen in the photos.
“I had to position myself in order to mimic Huey’s expression, and to look flat-chested. While I titled this “If Huey Freeman was a Girl,” I wanted the photo to look as close to him as possible,” says Jones. “I’m proud of what I came up with!”
Celia Banbahji chose to photograph the clown from the movie “It.” “What better way to express my love of clowns?”
How it came about:
“Every October during Halloween, Six Flags has what’s known as Fright Fest where clowns and other scary creatures walk around the theme park and scare people…I told one of the guys with a chainsaw that I was a photographer and if he ever wanted me to do a photo shoot to let me know. I asked him if he had a clown suit and knew how to apply clown makeup and he did. We met and did a shoot near SoHo. It was probably the funniest and most amusing shoot I’ve done to this day,” says Banbahji.
Nina Glover chose a fictional version of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She did this by recreating Kahlo’s famous “Self Portrait as a Tehuana.”
Composed the image in two separate steps using photography and illustration. Took a photo of the combined image.
Created a headpiece by layering real flowers and a decorative place mat similar to what Kahlo wears in the painting.
Put white fabric over her body; printed the image on matte paper and drew Diego Rivera’s face onto Kahlo’s forehead.
Drew the spider web and the design pattern onto the image along with signature brows and facial hair.
Her final step: “I put the picture in a frame to present it as a painting,” says Glover.
It was at FIT’s Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET) last year where a costume design professor from the film department noticed Computer Animation professor John Goodwin at his workstation bringing the art of Greek vases to life.
“I animated the lion walking off screen and then back on,” says Prof. Goodwin. “We then added text for site-specific showings.” These included conferences as well as an event at the Iraq Embassy in Washington, D.C. in May, 2019, at which time five FIT Art History majors presented their research on the art of ancient Babylonians.
Watch for the final roar!
Prof. Nagel next supplied high-definition images of the a Winged Griffin creature, which also once adorned the walls of a court of a building in Susa.
“After he saw the animation, he came up with ideas for enhancing it,” says Prof. Goodwin.
FIT Digital Media Coordinator James Pearce added additional augmented reality (AI) for showing the animations in museums.
Augmented reality can create significant cost savings for museums says Prof. Goodwin. No significant equipment is necessary. A museum-goer points a smart phone at the artwork and a video plays.
This stroll along the ancient wall is another AI project for museum and presentation use. Professors Goodwin and Nagel are developing exciting new projects for 2020. Stay tuned!
Three energetic eco-conscious students from the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design program designed and created a window display on Seventh Avenue to feature Arch & Hook hangers and inform the public about FIT’s commitment to sustainability. The window display can be seen from the outside of the Pomerantz Art & Design Center.
Francesca Moy, Tenzin Sangmo, and Chumou Zhang created the educational showcase that illustrates Arch & Hook’s mission of producing high-quality, custom-made hangers from marine plastics. The project was overseen by Professor Anne Kong.
The students’ original sketches unfold into a compelling display depicting a full-scale whale’s tail (hand-carved and painted by the students) jumping from a water’s surface that is littered with plastic debris.
The students formed a giant wave out of hundreds of hangers to drive the message home and to introduce “Blue” the first sustainable plastic hanger.
The Arch & Hook donation was used to hang over 1,200 garments for the FIT community to shop and swap at the Loop For Good Pop-Up.
Francesca Moy assists Tenzin Sangmo in cutting the green foam board with a jigsaw for the construction of the whale tail.
“This was one of those projects that becomes more than just a project. This window helped us learn that we are more than ready as designers to graduate and show everyone what we can do. I have gained a team I know I can always depend on” says Sangmo.
The experience allowed students to experiment with techniques suitable for exhibition, and it serves as work that they can use for their portfolios.
“It was my first sculpting experience I had a lot of fun. I learned better time planning and management. I had the best teammates and we learned from each other during the project and afterward,” says Zhang.
“The process from developing the concept of the window, fabrication, construction, to bring it all together was an amazing learning experience. I enjoyed a lot working with my team and Arch & Hook to crate this amazing window,” says Moy.
The “Homegrown” exhibit at Museum at FIT from December 21 through February 8, 2020 will showcase work from Fine Arts Urban Studio club members. Exhibiting student artists spoke about their neighborhoods, communities and what makes home.
“This painting depicts my late grandpa Bernie, my uncle Greg, our neighbor, Mr. Ganesh, and my dad in the back kitchen, waiting for me to arrive at one of my childhood birthdays. Our home’s vivid pink walls have a significant presence in my early memories. My grandpa, shown at the head of the table, was a lively and joyful person whose kindness and good humor radiated. He passed away in 2012, and I still miss him every day.” – Mariel Tepper
“Growing up I was very shy and timid, however, in my mind everything like my favorite colors, tv shows and the memories around the blocks where I grew up, constantly danced around over and over again. I always knew that I could easily just break out of my shell but my mind was my comfort zone.” – Keyana Brown
“My art home is FIT. It’s the place where I learned how to make art. The people here make this a much better place. I’m so proud and happy I can use art to express my feelings. I’m so lucky to share them with my friends and family. I’m coming from China. I’m so lucky to learn art in this world. I feel I’m the luckiest person because of art.” – Iris Hu
“Urban Studio members are proud to be part of the first student organization to curate an exhibition at The Gallery at The Museum at FIT. The show’s theme was creatively conceived by our club president Mariel Tepper. Together as a group we are curating the show and producing the exhibition materials, which is important hands-on experience for students. I feel honored and lucky to be adviser to this brilliant group of emerging artists.” – Melissa Starke, Fine Arts Coordinator
“I was born and raised in the city, and I now live here. The busy crowds, people’s indifference, and scenery of the city have made me forget where I truly belong. I want to slow down from the city life and appreciate what has shaped me. There is always something to discover when I take time to stop and look around, like the beautiful reflection of the sky on the iconic New York Skyscrapers.” – Yeji Jang
“Working in a process-based style, I started each piece with a simple painting of a swing from a stencil. From that point on, each piece took on a life of its own. Through an exploration of different mediums and color circumstances, I used symbols that related closely to the landscape and architecture I grew up living in. Together, these pieces create a cohesive narrative and open a window to my imagination and the memories that are associated with these landscapes.” – Fiona Krugolets
“This is [one in a] series of drawings of my cats that is inspired by a photograph that I found of the first two cats I ever had. I wanted to portray my passion of being a cat person. Growing up with as many as 11 cats, I have valued their company, and consider them family. Since I moved to be closer to FIT, I added another cat to our family. I observed their adaptation to their new environment. Having cats has helped me through hardships because of their companionship. It makes me so sad to see the huge population of feral cats in Queens after coming from a home filled with cats. My heart wants to give them all a home.” – Kaili Woop
“Living in Manhattan Beach for most of my life, The Bay of Kings was painted as testaments to the heavenly sunsets of the Sheepshead Bay Canal, and the grandiose feelings it provokes in me.” – Matthew Leshchinsky
“My island is the embodiment of home. All who inhabit my island are a part of who I am. The water, palm trees and homes are the true meaning of the place I call home.” -Marchelle Fleury
“Koi fish represent Japanese culture, which sticks to me where ever I go. I feel uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. I think it shaped me.” – Miku Sekimoto
“Born in the vibrant city of Medellin, Colombia, urban settings have always been a part of my heart, soul and heritage. Manhattan is the epitome of the ultimate urban landscape. This abstract rendering of a building near 14th Street reflects my new home, where I am growing as an artist and living a new and fulfilling life. It is my home away from home.” – Rebecca Gomes
Professor Jerome Walford’s illustrations of everyday immigrant life explore aspects of the immigrant experience that merge into and enrich American culture. The images are a mix of the literal and dreamlike. The latest in his series are about to appear in Gwan Anthology, Volume Two, a collection of art and short stories by immigrant artists from around the world.
A woman contemplating numerous bagel choices; an American flag T-shirt worn under the jacket of a devout Muslim, a beleaguered stranger with a steaming cup of coffee, these and other images with “unintentional patterns and alignments of people and places,” as Walford calls them, are the basis of his work.
“I focus on unexpected sightings that shed light on human experiences,” says Walford who teaches Computer Graphics and is also managing editor of the collection. “They are glimpses of things we can relate to.”
The second Gwan Anthology, to be published by Forward Comix in spring, 2020, includes short comics, illustrations, and prose from over 30 artists and writers from 15 countries.
“Professor Walford’s work is inspiring for its ability to represent the immigrant experience and our city’s rich diversity, while imbuing all that he depicts with a sense of hope and beauty.” – Troy Richards, School of Art and Design
“Gwan,” or “Gwaan” is a word common in greetings in Jamaican patois. “’A what a gwan?’” isn’t just ‘How are you?’” says Walford, “but an invitation to a conversion about life and one’s personal journey. It makes it fitting as the title of an anthology centered on the immigrant and foreigner experience.”
Walford’s images of “seemingly ordinary occurrences” are often of things he notices on the subway, in parks, cafés, and other public spaces.
His “Mother Daughter” illustration (above) is of an encounter he observed at a subway stop in Brooklyn.
“It was striking, this young woman sees herself as American, while also wearing distinctive clothing suggesting an adherence to religion. It shows her love for the country and pride in her cultural background,” says Walford. She’s shown as “a typical teenager rolling her eyes at her mom while leaning toward her with affection.”
“Mother Daughter” was a Selected Winner for American Illustration 38, a hardcover, juried annual regarded as among the best sources for top image-makers. It was also on view at FIT as part of a year-long exhibit on theme of civility.
Other work portrays “fantastical transformations,” as a means of making a larger point, says Walford.
“‘Being Fruitful’ was inspired by something that is not often recognized. Immigrants who come from challenging circumstances are often the most fruitful in our society.”
“Jerome Walford offers a diverse and real view of the world in his beautiful work.”- Tim O’Brien, President, Society of Illustrators
The collection is not explicitly political, says Walford, yet it serves as a response to rhetoric on immigration. “We’re looking to present a strong and beautiful counter-argument to that,” he says.
Walford communicates in real-time with Gwan Anthology artists worldwide. “We do Skype calls. For some of us it’s the end of the day, and for others they’re just waking up! It’s fun! Some of the countries represented from abroad include Canada, France, Australia and China. In the U.S. artists hail from Nigeria, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Brazil.
Perhaps no food lends itself to the depiction of immigrant life like the bagel. “Being introduced to all these choices of bagels!” says Walford about the illustration “Lip Service.”
“If you can’t decide there’s an ‘everything’ bagel. There’s just enough information to tell you that this woman is not from Eastern Europe but likely of Asian descent. I cropped ‘the news’ (from a newspaper in the bottom left) because no matter what other events are going on, we need to eat!”
“Ascent” (above) “is a fictional piece with a real-world connection,” he says.
The illustration appears in Walford’s graphic novel series “Nowhere Man” that follows a young man who has visions of his father, a 9-11 responder, whom he envisions ascending the annual light tribute at Ground Zero.
His work on “Nowhere Man” was a way to use art to help process tragedy. “It started within the context of the story and evolved into something much more,” he says.
Walford wants the Gwan Anthology to challenge views “about people we see on a regular basis whom we may have initial perceptions about, ones that don’t tell much of the story of who they are, or what they’re going through,” he says.
“We use the phrase ‘looking for a place to call home,’” he says of the artists he works with.
In a forthright conversation, Dean Brown reveals his experience as a jewelry designer, being a student again, his industry experience, and what it is like being an African-American male in his major. He also talks about how a public library, a metal working father, and his community made a difference in his life.
Long story short:
I grew up in a family that worked in metal. My father came from Jamaica and opened an iron welding shop. When I was younger I didn’t care about it.
In high school I worked at a library and took home art books. My high school was next to a Michaels, back when there were only three in the city. I was making stuff out of polymer clay. I made a piece for someone and saw him wearing it. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
He said “Oh I’m taking this to the jeweler to get the real thing made.” That thing took me forever to get just right, set it, sculpt it and make sure that when I baked it so it didn’t crack. But I couldn’t be angry because he was really complimenting me; he wanted to see it in metal.
Jewelry-making takes form
I started to think how far I was from actually making my own jewelry. My father had come here with nothing, drove a cab to start and saved enough to open a metalworking shop. I grew up around metal.
Torches and centrifuges
I started talking with my dad about how he did it. He showed me how to use torches and different tools. I bought my first centrifuge, a broken-arm centrifuge to cast bronze. I wanted to see what I could do on my own with mold-making. I made a few pieces and fell in love with it.
Are people going to call the cops?
It was a challenge. I was literally doing it on a fire escape outside of my bedroom on a major street. Every time I lit my torch to melt metal, I was worried people would call the cops and wondering how that might play out.
I started succeeding. I bought more equipment to polish, and equipment just to get my stuff out there. I started out with bronze, but once I got good with it, I started working in silver because it is an easier metal to work with, and more people appreciate its value.
From coffee to professional metal working
I was working at a coffee shop. There are lots of people passionate about coffee; I’m not one of them. I was good at it. It paid the bills, but talking to people about the foam on their cappuccino when what I really wanted to do was sculpt wax and make jewelry wasn’t cutting it.
I got a job at a fabrication studio, Gotham Metalworks, working with large scale casting. I was casting huge sink dies to handle pressed-copper sheets for use replacing facades of historically significant buildings around the city.
Whenever those buildings got historic preservation designations, they became our customers. Their old copper-fitted facades eventually have to be repaired or entirely rebuilt. The old copper was easier to work with, as it contains lead, making the sheets softer. But when they’re restored, the copper can’t contain lead. It makes the job harder because lead-free copper is more brittle, harder. It is not as easy to press a design into it.
For large repairs, we would get a chunk of the original facade to make a die that looks exactly like that building. You end up reproducing a design that’s not necessarily yours, despite the joy of applying great craft. The craftsmanship is what people judge.
Jewelry for Buildings
The facade is what people see first. It’s like you’re making jewelry for buildings because these floral patterns and columns have to be preserved and done in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing but also structurally sound. They’re supposed to be up there for another 100 years.
I loved it. It was unlike anything I had done. I was getting health insurance. I thought I was set. My girlfriend and I were thinking about saving for a home. Then the rug got pulled from underneath us. I got laid off. Last person hired first person fired. They got outbid, or contracts dried up.
I thought I was doing such a great job, and felt I was being trained to replace my boss if he moved up to management. As someone who has never been laid off, been fired from a job, that mattered to me. It left me in a really dark place. Luckily I got good support at home.
A look back before applying to FIT
On the other hand, I learned a lot in less than a year there. I learned to solder. I got to use all those power tools. I learned to drive a forklift.
I had started toward a journalism degree at Brooklyn College, but stopped to work at Gotham because I was spending all this money and the degree I was working toward I had no passion for. I thought about FIT and how transferring my credits from a CUNY to a SUNY school would be good for me.
“Dean is a passionate learner. He is never afraid to start over. He never asks me to accept work that isn’t the best; he’s willing to do what it takes. Patience is a tool and he’s learning that. I predict he will create wonderful designs that include the DNA of his history and his hopes, beautiful, sensitive work with the ineffable taste of who he is, where he’s been and where he’s going.” – Jewelry Design Professor Wendy Yothers
I never know until someone tells me that I’m doing everything that I know; I just try to keep the ball rolling. I got my transcripts ready and applied. I was hiking with my girlfriend and kept calling FIT over the summer. People were getting their admission notifications with rolling admission. I applied in June, finished my application early July, and got accepted mid-July. I had to register that week and start classes in August.
My first semester at FIT has been my first semester at college after a four-year hiatus. It’s been really informative. It’s been really challenging.
Although I’ve been doing jewelry for almost eight years, I’ve learned so much in the few months I’ve been here. My soldering technique and putting different metals together, I draw this metal and this metal. I form these things and then I bring them together into a piece. That wouldn’t have been possible for me just a few months ago.
I melt metal and turn it into jewelry. People have no idea in my neighborhood that that’s how it’s made.
“I tell my friends that whether they want to be a sound engineer, or fashion designers or write a book or be in business of something, if you feel like you need to go to school to do it then do it because we can’t be YouTube students forever.” – Dean Brown
I just want to take all the positives from every experience. I come here and I’m kind of like a fish out of water because I’m like the only black person I see. I’m the only 28-year-old male that I see in this entire program. In fact, there’s only two other male students in the entire year of jewelry design.
For me, that’s nothing new. It’s not like my community doesn’t love jewelry. But I’m the only person I’ve known that casts and makes his own jewelry, over the last eight years. My friends and most people I know say that a lot of the process of how things are made has been lost. People would rather buy it on Amazon.
Not being able to have these conversations with anyone before I got here seems esoteric. It can get deep trying to explain what a broken arm centrifuge is. Yet I look at people’s hands and know that everything they’re wearing was made through that process. It’s like having a secret knowledge and then just wanting to go deeper into that world and I’m here!
I come from a family of makers. My mom was a sculptor and painter and my father is a metal worker to this day. But still, I’ve been alone in much of my pursuit.
I never pictured being here. Nine months ago I was on a different trajectory. Think about it, I started out being interested in jewelry because I was close to a crafts store. I spent a lot of time looking at crafts as far as the history of how other people make stuff. I’ve always been into fabrics. I’ve always been into enamels.
I love really complicated executions of what appears to be simple techniques. I like bright colors. My girlfriend is from Tibet so I’m exposed to a lot of Asian art.
Navigating the all-too-common surprise
The common idea in this country that criminality surrounds the black man remains the biggest challenge in my life. Someone being startled when they turn a corner and see me. Security guards giving me an extra look. I’ve dealt with that my entire life so surprise is not surprising to me.
I overcome it on a daily basis, on the train here, on the bike ride here. I still got to make it to this bench. I still got to finish my assignments. I still got to prove to myself that I can do it. At this point people are gonna be people.
I get to class and they say “Oh we’re going to go to the jewelry show.” I’m not terrified to be in that room because I don’t know anything about gems. I’m terrified to be in that room because when people look at me they’re not questioning what I know. They are questioning who I am and that hurts because it’s not just white people, it’s all types of people wondering how I got this far when I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere at all!
I have to play way straighter than the average person. I’m not saying that it’s like a gloom over my life because my life is dope like I have a dope partner, I have amazing friends, I’m actively doing what I’m passionate about, and I have people around me even my classmates; they’re maybe 10 years younger than me. Some of them look to me for answers and some of them treat me like the regular person that I am and I appreciate that.
Coming up from the library
I’m going to be someone who does workshops for youths because I’m someone who came up from a library that pretty much saved my life. I worked there as a volunteer in the children’s section before they hired me. I had to put in a year of volunteer work. My mom used to work there, too. We moved to her old neighborhood in Queens. The librarian knew her so they gave me a shot and It changed my whole trajectory of life.
I didn’t want to be a rapper anymore, I wanted to be a jeweler and probably because rappers wear jewelry.
The inherently political
We’re learning about stones and their impact on global trade and how they’re accessible and how they’re sold. When you start talking to people about that in our “intro into diamonds” class with gemology, learning in-depth about the stones that I see rappers and other celebrities wear? The knowledge behind that — knowing the destruction behind that as well, knowing what it takes to get some of these materials. Wow!
It’s gonna impact my work. I want to make political statements because it’s inherently political, you know whether you see it or not or whether to care or not everything with silver the brass whatever you’re working with trickles down to your neighborhood where people are wearing it but don’t understand how it’s affecting people on the other side of the world and I’m in a place where I’m working with this material.
I’m black and I can’t ignore that. It affects me one way or the other, whether I’m the black guy in the mine, or the black guy buying it from whoever. There’s this contradiction I’m trying to rectify. This space that I’m trying to fill where I can talk about where these things come from, but also why it matters that we have it in the first place because ultimately it’s just jewelry. That’s what I’m learning, this story I want to tell.
Learned so far:
I’ve learned metal forming, hydraulic pressing, how to properly use a jeweler saw to saw brass, new gold silver sterling silver, proper filing techniques, what sort of files to apply to get the cuts in the corners that you want in your pieces, a lot of finishing techniques, how to use magnetic polishers, the polishing wheels. I learned how to solder, how to care for precious metals like how to mix metals.
That’s just studio stuff. Talk about what I’m learning in Intro to Diamonds or Gemology, that’s a whole ‘nother bag. It’s a lot of science that I’m picking up in those classes. In studio fabrication we’re learning idealization, how to take an idea and put it on paper and generate it in either an image that looks like the final product in Photoshop, Rhino or just on paper with paint brushes and stuff, a lot of rendering techniques.
And then it’s still coming in and doing the studio hours to apply what you’re learning, so you’re not just hearing it and forgetting it. The list goes on. I never really stopped until now to think about it.
I never soldered anything on a small scale before. I had to learn how to draw down wire to the right diameter, to form bails. I had to learn how to make clasps. That all happened here in the last eight weeks since this semester started.
Prof. Frank Fraley provides a reflection
When Frank walked right in, I was like, alright, maybe they’re not racist in here. I have a Black professor teaching me jewelry design. Seeing myself reflected in someone who I think is successful who makes jewelry and has a foot in this industry makes me feel like I could eventually do the same thing. I heard you’re never too old to go back to school my entire life. But we have an administration that is not giving out any second chances.
If you have a dream, now’s the time. If this administration keeps operating the way it operates, it’s like it’s going to be harder to pursue your dreams coming from where I come from.
I just want this to be a sort of message to those people who are thinking of getting out of that coffee shop, getting out of that bike messenger life because I did that for a long time.
I tell my friends that whether they want to be a sound engineer, or fashion designers or write a book or be in business of something, if you feel like you need to go to school to do it then do it because we can’t be YouTube students forever.