For Altamont artist Anna VA Polesny, it all started with a pair of shorts.
“I was studying in Mexico one summer and the markets have wonderful threads and yarns so I bought some embroidery thread and there was a hole in the shorts so the butterfly [I embroidered] fixed the hole and it just continued,” Polesny said. Every inch of the shorts is encased in embroidery work, with bright butterflies and flowers and more abstract designs.
Since making them in the early 1970s, the shorts have been in the Altamont Fair, the Schenectady Museum, Levi’s Denim Art Contest and starting in November, they’ll be featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The shorts, along with a jacket of Polesny’s, will be a part of an exhibition called “Off the Wall: American Art to Wear.” It’s slated to give viewers a look at the Art to Wear movement, which began in the late 1960s and it will highlight some of the pioneering artists of the movement, including Polesny.
“The shorts were done over a long period of time when she was traveling, which speaks to young artists discovering themselves and other cultures. Many of these works were made over a long period of time [and] the process was so much a part of the end product,” said Dilys Blum, co-curator of “Off the Wall.”
The shorts are well-traveled, though perhaps not more than their creator.
By the time Polesny was 16, she’d lived on three continents, attended eight different schools and spoke three languages.
"We were refugees. After World War II, in Czechoslovakia, there was a communist takeover. My grandmother was the president of the women's Olympic committee and the coach of the gymnastics team, which won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1948. But she was very much for democracy and was very vocal about that,” Polesny said.
Her grandmother defected and went to London and as a result, her family was threatened with imprisonment, said Polesny.
“We escaped from Czechoslovakia and were in German refugee camps,” Polesny said, “Refugees are looking for a foundation somewhere and at that time there was a three year waiting period to get to the United States and my parents wanted to work not just stay in the camp.”
Her parents, Karel and Alena Polesny, found work in the medical corps of the Pakistani Army, said Polesny, adding “My mother was a captain and my father was a major. It was the first time in her whole life, my mother had to obey my father.”
During that time, she attended a convent school in west Pakistan.
In 1952, when she was eight years old, her family was able to get into the United States. Her family moved around for a few years and in Polesny’s early teens they moved to Schenectady.
Polesny graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1962 and went off to the University of Michigan, where she said she squeaked by. Out of college, she found a job teaching art. She taught in Flint, Michigan, in Beirut and, closer to home, in Scotia.
"I've always loved art but I think because my parents were in medicine I never felt free to pursue art. But by teaching art, I think I created a really strong foundation for ultimately pursuing art," Polesny said.
In between teaching jobs, she took classes at art schools across the globe, including at the Instituto Allende in Mexico. While she was there, she happened upon a used pair of Levi shorts in a market. There was a hole in the back, so she decided to fix them up with embroidery. Only, she didn’t stop when the hole was filled with a brilliantly colored butterfly.
"It was just fun and I was traveling so it was portable. On the train I could just whip it out," Polesny said.
From there, she did an entire denim series, which made a splash locally and internationally.
As many artists of the Art to Wear movement did, Polesny embellished each of her denim pieces with iconography from her childhood and from her travels, things that were personally important to her.
The jacket, which will be on exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum, is done in the same style as the shorts, with bright butterflies, a horse, a rooster and patches from her travels running all down the back and the arms.
Polesny’s shorts, called “International Levi’s” won a prize in the Levi’s Denim Art Contest in1974 and they were included in a global tour. Somewhere along the tour, they were seen by Julie Schafler Dale, perhaps one of the most famous collectors of wearable art and certainly a champion of the movement. Dale offered Polseny $500 for the shorts and Polesny accepted.
“I spoke with her recently and she said 'It's the best purchase I ever made,'” Poleseny said.
Dale’s collection is the backbone of the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as she’s donated 48 works to its permanent collection, including Polseny’s work. The title of the exhibition is also based off of Dale's book "Art to Wear."
“This is the first time that we’ve actually had enough that we’ll be able to look at [Art to Wear] in more depth. We’re borrowing from quite a number of other museum collections, private collectors and artists, as well as many of the works in Julie’s collection,” Blum said.
The exhibition (which includes 113 works from 61 artists) focuses on the American Art to Wear movement that began in the late 1960s and continued through much of the 1990s.
“Some see its connection to fashion. I feel it came from something quite different. It really starts in the late 1960s with changes in art education. They were really responding to what was happening in terms of social, historical and political events of the time and also in curriculum changes in their programs. None of them were really interested in fashion,” Blum said.
Many of the pioneering artists were fine arts students who started making works that could be worn on the body or displayed.
“Everyone was decorating denim. It was looked at as the new American folk art. This was a time period where there was sort of an identity crisis. People looked to other cultures and in denim, they could look to their own. It was that search for something, trying to find something to root yourself to. Denim was a way you could express yourself and swear allegiance to a group identity,” Blum said.
The artists worked in all different mediums and the exhibition draws from a range of them.
“There are things made with found objects, free form crochet, machine knitting, various dying techniques, leatherwork, you name it, it’s probably in there. Many works have a mixture of techniques and approaches to making something that you could either wear or when you’re not wearing it you could put it on the wall,” Blum said.
Polesny’s work certainly falls into that category, though both of her works will be featured on mannequins in the exhibition.
Her artistic trajectory was also just as varied as other artists in the Art to Wear movement, according to Blum. After selling her work to Dale in the mid-1970s, Polesny moved onto other work. She went back to college and got her master’s degree in psychology at the University at Albany and then she got her MFA in textile design at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
It was there that she met her husband, Renato. They got married, started a family and continued to travel. During that time she was focused on raising her children and creating a community wherever her family moved to, thus, much of Polseny’s artistic pursuits were put on hold until nearly a decade ago.
For her high school class’s 50th reunion, she and a few others decided to make a film that encompasses the experiences of their classmates in the context of social and political history.
"There's nothing like having an interesting project that stimulates you emotionally [and] intellectually. There were people in the class that I knew but [not well]. They would welcome us and it was as if we had been friends forever. Every interview was like that," Polesny said.
They interviewed many of their classmates, traveling across the country to do so and made the entire 86-minute-long film, called “Turning Pages: A Generation Looks Back,” in less than a year. Once it was completed and the reunion was over, it was shown at Proctors and it went on to win a merit award at the Northampton Film Festival.
These days, Polesny is getting back into textiles, including leather wearables, silk batik, and others. She has also explored the idea of reusing and reworking materials and fabrics to draw attention to sustainability.
While it was difficult to get back into doing shows and exhibitions, over the last few years she has done several, particularly in the Northampton area, where she lives part-time.
She plans to continue working on designs that she’s passionate about, and creating something of value.
“Today, through clothing, I continue to explore, reflect, create [and] imagine,” Polesny said.
“The one thing that old people have is time and I think it behooves us to use that time and continue the journey.”
Her journey and that of her “International Levi’s” will continue on November 10, when “Off the Wall: American Art to Wear” opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For more information on the exhibition visit philamuseum.org.