On Feb. 1, it was announced that NWA Fashion Week and the Arkansas Arts and Fashion Forum (AAFF) were no more. The two organizations merged to create the new Springdale-based Interform -- a nonprofit arts organization self-defined as "the mutual expression of art, fashion and community."
The metamorphosis actually frees the creative team from some of the constraints of, say, having qualifiers like "fashion" or "week" in the organization's name, CEO Robin Atkinson reveals. The broader vision will allow focus to extend to further means of creative production, while maintaining the high-level fashion program that has grown into a community institution.
"We are an arts organization that also has a fashion focus, as much as we are a fashion organization with an arts focus," Atkinson puts it simply.
From the outside looking in, though, Interform -- and its debut community program Assembly -- seem anything but simple. And, Atkinson admits with a laugh, if the concept for the new body suffers from anything, it's the perception of doing too much.
But when you get right down to it, "the thing we're dedicated to more than anything else is professionalizing talent," Atkinson explains easily. "We want people in Arkansas to have professional skills that can help expand our creative landscape."
That goal manifested Arkansas' first designer residency program, EMERGE, late last year through AAFF. One regional designer was chosen for the in-residence position and collaborated with a cohort of 10 other regional designers. The group was mentored by, and attended workshops with, visiting industry professionals in the first program of its kind in the state to support designers and incubate the local fashion industry through increasing education and professional development opportunities.
By the time EMERGE II, the program's second season, commenced in the spring, the residency was under the Interform umbrella. On May 29, a runway event down the center of Emma Avenue in Springdale will highlight designers from the program's first season in a spectacle that will kick off a monthlong arts experience.
"The model that it's built on is an art biennial, so it's really built like an exhibition that's meant to be experienced over the course of more than one day," Atkinson says of Assembly. "The easiest [explanation] is it's a bunch of art shows all happening at one time."
The event is also the culmination of a four-month curatorial training program, adapted through Interform following a similar model as EMERGE, and also a first for the state.
The purpose of the programs, Atkinson says, is to expand the skill set of cultural producers in the state -- to provide a bigger toolbox for the talent already working here. Likening the training to a trades course, Atkinson says creators will achieve greater efficiency, professionalism and knowledge in multiple areas of curation and arts event production without having to commit to "a full lifetime of rigorous study in the arts space."
"For me, it's really about putting the means of production into the hands of people who have been historically left out of these production apparatuses," Atkinson shares. "It's saying, 'Look, the people over here, what they're doing isn't that special. The things the curators and the museums are doing isn't that complicated. It's not that revolutionary. Here's the secret.' I want you to be able to do it for your community. I want you to be able to do it for your practice, for your friends, for the people who live near you and work with you.
"If we really want to talk about inclusion, let's teach the people how to do the thing that we're not letting them do -- the thing that's keeping them out of the conversation."
For the inaugural Assembly, six young curators, including a member of the Interform team, were chosen to work alongside Interform leadership in selecting artists, handpicking artworks, coordinating exhibition spaces, creating a theme and installing their exhibitions. More than 50 local and regional artists will be featured in 13 exhibitions across downtown Springdale throughout the month of June.
"They just did such an incredible job of really thinking about what they were doing and being responsive to what they saw, and being responsive to their community," Atkinson enthuses. "And because they're all artists themselves, they were so thoughtful and respectful to the art. It was a really valuable experience."
WHAT — A monthlong series of community events, public performances and exhibitions
WHEN — Opening night May 29 with public preview and Girl Gang Market opening at 11 a.m.; EMERGE Runway at 6 p.m.
WHERE — Runway down Emma Avenue; exhibitions and performances at various venues in downtown Springdale
COST — Limited tickets to Runway event remain, $500 for table of 4; exhibitions free to visit
INFO — interform.art/assembly
Little Rock designer Bruce Davis is the founder of 22nd Element Clothing and Accessories. When he accepted the offer to be the first EMERGE designer-in-residence, he was tasked with creating 10 looks for the runway event. Davis enthusiastically turned out double that for his largest collection to date, titled "GLASS!" The collection is inspired by a Marsha Ambrosius song of the same name that focuses on a battle with self. His work will be highlighted during the May 29 event.
"When you look in the mirror the first time, you may think you know who you really are. When you take a look the second time, after you break down your flaws, do you still consider yourself worthy of the shell you temporarily possess?" Davis says of his influence. "My goal is to help people understand that just because we may be broken in some aspects, you don't have to stay that way. At times, glass is the most beautiful when being reassembled."
On describing his experience with EMERGE as challenging, but rewarding:
When introduced with the opportunity to be the first designer-in-residence, I had the mindset that I needed to prove to the other fellow designers I was fit for the task at hand. In actuality, I had to prove it to myself. Everyone associated with the program were more confident in my abilities than myself. What truly surprised me was that even though I am a self-taught designer, the feedback I received from the cohort designers was that I taught them a copious amount of things. Whether it was how to stay true to their aesthetic of design, or helping them understand the "why" behind their collections, my words engendered some type of positive change.
On the program's impact:
As someone who has dabbled in the arts since the age of 4, I can truly say that the EMERGE program has already, and will continue to create more leaders in the fashion industry. My first time visiting Northwest Arkansas, I was blown away by how much talent was in one place. These individuals just needed exposure. Robin has engendered a program that will not only challenge creatives, but actually force them to take a leap of faith with the abilities and talents they were blessed with. She is literally grooming the future of fashion before our eyes. I infer that this program will lead to the creation of a fashion district in Northwest Arkansas, creating more jobs and opportunities for the community.
On the organization's values:
I would truly like to thank Robin for keeping inclusion at the forefront the movement. She has been extremely vocal on where she stands when it comes to not judging a person based on their sexual orientation, skin color, etc. Out of all the choices she had for a designer-in-residence, she and her team took a chance on a self-taught, black man from the Southside of Chicago. With so much going on in the world, it has been a breath of fresh air to know that the person who granted me this opportunity didn't do it because it's what's trending, she did it because she witnessed my talent before the color of my skin.
Brandy Lee's work as part of the season one cohort will also be featured in the runway show. Lee was selected as the designer-in-residence for EMERGE II. At the program's conclusion, the education she gains through the training will go into a new capsule collection she aims to have completed by early autumn. A mostly self-taught seamstress and designer, Lee founded the Austin fashion design studio Big Sister before relocating the company to Northwest Arkansas.
On the need met by EMERGE:
These hobbyists who have real talent, who have real drive, who really want to push further, I think that we were missing giving them some really important skill sets to move their hobby into an actual business. Things like marketing, branding, business strategy, and even down to just creating a business plan, half of us had never really even done that. And moving a designer from being a hobby into a business, you're not just helping them but you're expanding the landscape in Northwest Arkansas, as far as businesses go.
On fashion as art:
By creating this multi-genre event, by putting fashion side by side with those other "conventional" art mediums, I think it's almost just going to click in people's heads this is an art form. It deserves to be included in this larger umbrella that we call art.
During the height of NWA Fashion Week, I think that there was probably this idea, even to designers, that you have to make something that is high fashion, that is super wearable, that is very commercial, very editorial. I feel like something broke free with the Momentary show. (A collaborative project between the contemporary arts space and EMERGE where the designers created looks in response to the exhibition "Nick Cave: Until.") It was like, "actually, you're allowed to make really weird art stuff and still call it fashion," because that's what it is. Putting Assembly together, I think it just gives the license to be able to say you can do high fashion editorial commercial clothing, or you can do super weird art stuff if you want. There is no limit here.
On her vision for what's next:
I have done a lot of soul searching as far as what impact I want to have on this industry. And I think it's the same kind of soul searching a lot of people have probably done politically by saying, "I've got to do something. I can't sit back and watch this all play out the way it's playing out without trying to do something, without trying to help, without trying to be a part of the system." So that's where my head is at. I really want the clothes or the products that I put out there, I want them to be a part of the solution and not just more clothing. And I'm hoping maybe to also just change the way people see clothing, and the way people want to buy clothing. I think I'm just really amped up to make a change.
The exhibitions comprising Assembly are spread throughout downtown Springdale and each varies in size of the collection, medium and theme. The training program's five inaugural curators (plus one Interform staff member) were already artists themselves before joining the program. The goal, Atkinson says, was to further develop the skills these artists were already using -- to build the confidence to curate and pitch exhibitions in their community after the program's completion.
Three curators from the program share some of their experience here.
Mexican-American artist Omar Bravo, known in his work as "Hungry," curated "(a)Typical Sanctuary." The exhibition is a colorful, playful world where uniqueness is celebrated, and the viewer can enjoy a sense of child-like wonder without judgment.
On display at 214 by CACHE, in the blackbox theater, 214 S. Main St.
"I wanted to bring something entirely new -- something that challenges what galleries are viewed as here in the Northwest Arkansas area and to try to bring out more of a welcoming tone with this gallery," Bravo says of his exhibition.
Avoiding the "traditional" or formal, Bravo set out to create an immersive experience, a safe place for all to enjoy the scenery. The curating experience was entirely new for him, he reveals. The experts and program leadership offered guidance in a way that let the young curators fully seize the process.
"Getting to learn all the different aspects of curating and how it can be taken on from many different angles was a bit mind opening," Bravo shares. "Funny enough, as a bit of an introvert, some of it was more than I felt I could handle at times. But I knew that if I pushed through it all, that something beautiful and amazing would come from all the effort I've put into preparing this gallery."
Natalia Franco is one of the artists featured in "(a)Typical Sanctuary." Her 2019 installation "Goop World" exemplified the playful uniqueness with which Bravo was looking to saturate the gallery space.
Franco created a new large scale sculpture for the exhibition to represent her imagination land of Goop World. "Goop Chunk" is a "large chunk of dirt and land" transported from the figmental setting and will be the centerpiece of the gallery space.
"The works that I have included in this exhibit are absolutely one of a kind. I create figurative sculptures that encompass the feelings of being alive, and having a life and body," Franco says.
"I often use round, pleasing shapes and color schemes in my sculptures, riding the line of deep emotion and colorful play. I enjoy creating sculptures that are fun to look at and be around, but also contain an embedded message that viewers find themselves drawn to."
"To me, this program will open up more opportunities for new ideas/perspectives/people to take hold of what art is, and can be, and display it," Bravo concludes. "It also allows for more of those ideas to be refreshed, recycled and built upon. New guests of different backgrounds will also become more of a part of these galleries, and it gives a chance for people of all backgrounds to be a part of the curating experience, too."
Marcela Rojas-Perez is a first-generation Chicanx artist and storyteller through photography, doodles and the written word. Rojas-Perez engaged Teen Action Support Center artists to organize "Skribbles @ The Station" with fellow curator Evelyn Sosa.
Their solo exhibition is titled "Flow" and is inspired by the term in behavioral psychology for the state at which a person reaches greatest satisfaction. Flow experiences occur when there is balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill one possesses in performing it.
On display at 214 by CACHE, in the main gallery, 214 S. Main St.
"I learned a lot about what goes into the curation process and was taken aback by how accessible it could be to creatives in the community if they were given the chance to participate," Rojas-Perez says of the program. "This was a space that I previously thought I had no business getting into because I didn't go to school for it. I realized, very quickly, that the skills needed to complete a project like this were taught to me in other jobs or experiences and that doesn't make me, or anyone else, less deserving or unqualified to be a part of this."
That level of accessibility is what's sorely needed in the Northwest Arkansas arts community, Rojas-Perez asserts.
"Even off the top of my head, I can think of so many people in my community that could pull something like this off if they just had the opportunity to do so," Rojas-Perez demonstrates.
"The people that come to mind are creatives with great work ethic that haven't had the opportunity to go to art school, usually due to how expensive and time consuming it is. For my community, I hope it leads to more creative programs with this kind of framework. For myself, I hope it leads to more opportunities as an artist."
Filmmaker and storytelling strategist Jess Whalen used the lens of the female experience to explore identity, relationships, social issues and worldview in the exhibition "Her." The exhibition engages the senses of sight, sound and smell in works all created by women, to mine the depths of the often intensely empathetic, visceral life experiences from the female perspective.
On display at Perrodin Supply Co. 126 N. Shiloh St.
"I think the program's focus on letting artists curate and showcase other artists helped facilitate a collaborative community," Whalen says, noting the educational, geographic, monetary and philosophic barriers that can often limit the masses' accessibility.
"Also, focusing only on local artists was a really important part of this program. As amazing as all of the art experiences can be, the focus in formal institutions can be more on bringing in touring pieces or really well-known artists on a national or global scale. This program's mission to look inward to the community and stay locally focused gives artists a platform that would feel impossible in most other contexts."
That accessibility seems to have extended to the curators themselves, as well. Seeing the breadth of diversity that surfaced in the artist open call showed Whalen that no matter how artists might struggle with feeling that the community is too full, this is a place for anyone and everyone willing to show up for themselves, she says.
Kellie Lehr is one of the artists featured in "Her." Through an energizingly collaborative process, Lehr worked with Whalen and another artist in the exhibition to actualize a bold and multilayered performative piece for the space.
"I also began making round paintings that come off the wall and hang from the ceiling," Lehr says of another of her contributions. "I like the movement and the way the viewer is encouraged to move around the paintings to see them. There is an element of time and activation involved as they can't be fully seen simultaneously."
The flexibility of the exhibition and synergistic effort between artists and curator was a refreshing experience, Lehr shares.
"Collaboration creates community," she offers. "Our region is rich with multi-talented, diverse artists. Interform provides a platform for interaction, community building and growth through the arts, and I'm very grateful to be included in the mix."
Whalen echoes the sentiment, adding: "The fact that I've been able to meet so many new artists and that my creative video pieces are being shown alongside people I would consider more 'legitimate' than me helps me overcome those imposter syndrome feelings that can sneak in to the minds of artists/creatives. I'm going to carry the simple but impactful growth of confidence and empowerment with me as I continue to pursue opportunities and community in the art field."
For a full schedule and a map of the exhibition locations, visit interform.art/assembly.