Marine Penvern is a French-born artist, clothing designer and essential oil mixologist based in Hudson, NY. I visited her atelier to discuss life, design, music, mothering and the art of staying sane.
FA: So what is this “Art Ain’t No Joke” motto that you love so much? How did it come to be?
MP: A friend of mine came by my studio while I was painting a while back. He looked at what I was doing and exclaimed “Is this a joke?!” I was like “Hey man, ART AIN’T NO JOKE!” and made it into a sticker.
FA: Tell me a little about your childhood. I have known you a long time, and I can say in all honesty, you are one hell of an eccentric woman. Not just your sense of style, but your outlook on life. Does it have much to do with the way you were raised, or is it just you?
MP: I don’t see myself as eccentric really, but since I am so attracted to eccentricity in people maybe I reflect that. I grew up in a dysfunctional family with two brothers. My parents had absolutely no business being together. I still wonder to this day what brought them together. My father was gay and decided to live his life as a gay man after he raised the kids, or should I say after my mother raised us, or should I say we were sent to boarding school at a young age. I grew up in a patriarchy, which I always rebelled against. From an early age I knew I wasn’t gonna take this shit forever and I left home early. So here you have it. I left because nothing was expected of me, the daughter. I was invisible. So in a sense I compensated this feeling by expressing myself through style. Maybe I wanted to be seen as different so I could feel I existed.
FA: What is your most profound memory from childhood? The one that you go back to most often.
MP: I must have been seven, I had very long hair because it never got cut. EVER. My father took my two brothers, age six and nine, and me to the hair dresser. He dropped us off there and picked us up two hours later. My hair was gone. The three of us had the same short haircut. We came home to my mother. She screamed and then cried. I thought something terrible must have happened, but couldn’t understand that my new haircut, which I didn’t ask for, was the source of her sorrow. From then I started to wear my brother’s denim pants and my skirts on my head. This was the new me and I was really proud. I loved my new style. This was a new beginning.
FA: When did you come to New York City, how did you feel about it then and how do you feel about it now?
MP: I came to NYC in 1990 at eighteen, with $200 in my pocket. I felt that I was home for the first time. I learned who I was on the streets of The Lower East Side. Today I feel like I learned everything I needed to learn, and I will carry this life everywhere I go.
FA: How did you start sewing? What pushed you in that direction? I know you have had some regrets about not becoming a painter, what does painting give you that designing clothes cannot.
MP: First and foremost I am and will be always a painter. I took some time off raising a child. There are many paintings in my mind’s eye to be done. I have no regret, because I am still a painter. I started to sew out of necessity. I was cold in my studio because there was no heat, but I had a roll of wool. I always loved fabric, to the point that I couldn’t make myself cut it. But the cold pushed me to make a long dress. Looking like a North African Djellaba, I asked my neighbor to come over and to draw the contour of my body against my wall. I then had to figure out how to turn this one-dimensional plane into a three-dimensional one. It took many trials and errors, but soon I got it and made myself a dress using my old secondhand Bernina sewing machine.
FA: Tell me about your relationship with dance, dancers and the costumes you have designed for them.
MA: When my atelier was on the Lower East Side some kids from Julliard would come and play dress up, I soon realized they were my best models. Since then I have designed for choreographer Emery LeCrone and NYC Ballet soloist Megan LeCrone. Also for Choreographer Adam Barruch, and for Adam H. Weinert’s acclaimed piece ‘Monument.’
FA: I know that one of your obsessions is Jazz, what is it about Jazz music that speaks to you so directly and inspires you as much as it does?
MP: I fell in love with this music when I got to New York City. There is something about live improv music made in New York by the greatest musicians which has no equivalence. I got the bug. This music takes me to places I have never been. I can listen to one piece of music forever. It’s been 30 years and I am still finding nuances listening to one tune. To me this is the most profound art form this country has ever produced. I am forever hooked, Jazz music is one of the greatest forms of inspiration for me. I have picked up the alto sax as a result. I know my limits and I can enjoy holding notes and working on my tone.
FA: How has having a child affected your ability to stay creative, or from my own experience, how do you get through the juggle of doing both, when both require everything we have to give.
MP: Having a child has humbled me. I thought I was too egotistical to have one, I thought my career as an artist would not permit me to have a child. I have fully embraced motherhood. I have taken ten years off from working, I realize the privilege I have had to be able to be with my son, and being able to care for him without having to work. I had a wonderful partner who was very supportive. I don’t think I would have done this any other way. I started making a home for us and making all his clothes. I have a whole collection for kids on the back burner. And maybe I will produce it one day.
FA: I often find that being creative is as much a curse as a blessing, if I am not creating I am in torment, if I am creating and not satisfied with the results I am even more bewildered, if I create something I am proud of, it’s very short lasting, and I have to start the process all over again. Can you relate to this or is your creative process different?
MP: When I was younger, I thought I would die if I didn’t paint. I was obsessed. Things are different now. I don’t think that it is so important. Of course I need to create everyday, but it is a way of life and I can create in the kitchen and in the garden. I don’t have to paint to be happy. I can enjoy a creative walk in the woods as much as making a piece of clothing. I have learned not to be hard on myself and to enjoy small pleasures.
FA: OK, I just started using your serum, I am not one to splurge on such things but this stuff is like a drug. What the heck is it made of and why can’t I get enough?
MP: It’s Nirvana in a bottle.
FA: Your ultimate decision to leave New York City and re-open your shop in Hudson is a brave move. How has this effected your state of mind?
When your are pushed to the wall, well, you have to make bold decisions. I don’t think it is so brave. It is about survival, and the instinct kicks in. After all it is not like I risked my life. I decided to leave New York City before I went completely insane. I know how I want to live and that lifestyle wasn’t possible anymore in the city. I moved my family to Hudson. I borrowed money from friends and family and opened my atelier. It affected my state of mind in the best of ways, I have little pressure, I can work and play. I have made many like-minded friends up here.
FA: In general I find you to be a brave woman and a person of old world values, do you feel in step with the times? Do you feel that our current reality is a good place to be?
MP: Oh well, thank you for thinking this of me, I guess bravery comes from not having any fear. I don’t fear, I know what I am made of. I have left my country and immigrated here with no fear, I was young. I have survived many things. I come from a place where I was taught work ethic, I can only exist through work. I value what I was taught. I think it is still relevant today. I apply my learning to everything that I do. I value any human being based on their character and qualities over what they have done or how much money they make. I can only accept my place in time, and now is the time. I am here and exist right now. I often thought I was born in the wrong time, but the time is right. The reality may suck but I create my own.
FA: We had a conversation once, that the deciding factor in buying a dress is whether it has pockets. To me a dress without pockets is like a suitcase without a handle. It could quite literally drive me mad. What is it about clothing that has this power over of us, why does a person who looks in their closet and decidedly has nothing to wear fall into an immediate nihilistic crisis? I would think it is silly if it were not so painful, what does one need to have in their closet to avoid this kind of existential nightmare from happening?
MP: I think we need very few pieces, well made and lasting. Pieces that become a second skin. We need pockets because we have hands. What if we had shoes without soles? I have a very simple system to getting dressed, I wear the same thing over and over, but I will style those pieces differently everyday. I apply this to food also, I eat the same food everyday, put together differently, there are many ways to cook an egg.
FA: If you could drop everything right now and have the perfect day what would it look like?
MP: I would take my son and drive to the ocean listening to Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard.
FA: What would sixteen year old you tell forty-eight year old you.
MP: Never fall out of love with love.
You can find Marine’s design collection, oils and artwork at www.marinepenvern.com
If you’re in Hudson, stop in to say hello and play dress-up!
701 WARREN ST/ HUDSON NY
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518 302 9105