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How Printmaker Holly Brown Democratizes Art Through Denim

For Holly Brown, the owner of Clockworks Press in Brooklyn, printed denim is more than just a fashion trend—it’s art.

A printmaker for more than 20 years, Brown, whose prints can be found in the permanent collections of The Library of Congress, Yale University and Princeton University, began using denim as her canvas in 2016 for a sustainable alternative to paper.

“I was typically printing on paper, but always concerned with keeping my practice eco-friendly and sustainable,” she said. “With my images already being so urban and industrial, what better material than denim to give a try—a material for all people,” she said.

For Brown, it turned out that denim and print making were a match. “The reaction of the ink to the denim was fantastic, the natural fade patterns of the indigo were the perfect juxtaposition for the values in my images,” she said. “The velvety quality of the ink was unlike anything I had seen on paper.”

Brown’s artwork blossomed into wearable art with the addition of printed denim clutches. The first prototypes of her denim clutch were shown at her October 2016 solo exhibition in Delft, The Netherlands. She finalized her current clutch pattern with the guidance of denim consultant Christine Rucci of Godmother NYC and launched three designs at New York Denim Days in 2018.

Made with 100 percent reclaimed jeans and and pigments produced using textile waste, the clutches feature scenes of New York City icons like the Manhattan Bridge and its famous water towers. Brown worked with with Earwings and Park Avenue Trimming to establish full manufacturing in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District. The clutches are available through clockworkspressco.com.

“In addition to my sustainable goals, it has always been very important for me to produce locally in New York City,” she said. “As a printmaker, I knew I wanted to do a limited edition with each bag having its own unique story.”

Here, Brown shares with Rivet how denim helps to make art more approachable and collaborative.

Rivet: What is the general feedback that you hear when people realize your prints are on denim?

Holly Brown: When I tell people I print on denim, or that I am a denim printmaker, it usually evokes an instant smile and inevitably they will start telling me a story about their favorite jeans. I love that people bring their own personal connection to something I created. Denim is a comfortable fabric for most people and sometimes art is not comfortable. I really love that I’m encouraging people to touch something you normally would not.

Rivet: How do you source denim for your artwork?

HB: I started to collect jeans as donations from colleagues, friends and family. But as I’ve needed larger quantities, I also source from my local Salvation Army in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The denim industry is working hard to change its reputation and I am so proud to be a part of a larger sustainability initiative. One of my big pushes in 2019 is to source samples and deadstock fabrics from brands to further my collaboration within the larger denim community, helping build a fully circular economy.

Rivet: What are some commonalities between denim and printing making?

HB: Printmaking is an inherently collaborative art medium as it typically requires you to have access to studio with equipment like presses, screens and chemistry. I have found that the denim industry is also a place where collaboration exists.

Rivet: What is your most memorable project?

HB: My most memorable collaboration to date is definitely the “Magic Happens” project with Officina 39+, Tonello and artist Juan Manuel Gomez (a.k.a De Ver Azul) for New York Denim Days 2018. This was the first time I made artwork in full collaboration with another artist. Juan and I met in Amsterdam to discuss the project in summer 2018 and then in Biella, Italy at Officina’s lab to work simultaneously on four pieces that would inspire a small garment collection and T-shirt design. The entire aim of “Magic Happens” was to push the connections between creativity, technology and sustainability. We worked with Officina 39+’s Recycrom pigments, dye stuffs that are made from 100 percent textile production waste and combined them with the sustainable laser and washing technologies of Tonello.

Watching my images combined with those of Juan Manuel get lasered onto the denim was an incredible experience. It was also very unique opportunity as an artist to have access to a denim lab where I could experiment with Juan Manuel, who has such a vast knowledge of processes with denim. This collaboration pushed my work in a new and exciting way with lasered layered images, printed repeats and transparency being at the forefront. The crossover of art, technology and sustainable approaches is heavily impacting the way I continue to develop my prints and wearable artworks.

Rivet: What is your next project?

HB: Currently, I’m in the development stages of my next handbag which will involve both repurposed denim and repurposed army camouflage fabric in a new style. It will be manufactured again in the heart of New York’s Garment District.

Rivet: There is a strong connection between art and fashion. As an artist, how do you feel about this?

HB: As an artist, I think the connection between art and fashion is two-fold. I love the concept of wearable art and in turn making it accessible for more people. However, we must be ever mindful of respecting the artist. In the ever-increasing visual world, it is more important than ever that ethics and respect are at the heart of any collaboration between artist and fashion houses. I believe art and fashion can cohabitate when the best of each are celebrated and not degraded. The desire for artist designed, one of a kind, unique pieces is where this can happen.

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