100 Creatives

Dennita Sewell of Phoenix Art Museum on Why She Chose Fashion

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 86. Dennita Sewell.

Dennita Sewell puts it plainly. 

"I pursued a creative career because I didn’t want to be a farmer or work at Walmart," says Sewell, who grew up in Hale, Missouri, about 100 miles from Kansas City. 

That decision has served Sewell, who's now 50, well. It was Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion that helped her narrow down the field a bit. Sewell says the book was "incredibly inspirational to me, and was the seed of pursuing a career in historic costume."

She studied costume design at Yale University and then worked at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2000, she joined Phoenix Art Museum as curator of fashion design. During her tenure, Sewell has brought gorgeous touring exhibitions to the Valley institution and has curated memorable shows, spotlighting the couture collection of Ann Bonfoey Taylor and presenting an exhibition of made-in-America clothing. 

In 2015, "The White Shirt, According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré" earned both critical acclaim and national attention, as Sewell secured the show's sole stateside appearance from its Italian creators, the Gianfranco Ferré Foundation in Milan and the Prato Textile Museum. 

This year, Sewell undertook the project of highlighting some of the most exciting and notable pieces in the museum's 7,000-plus-piece fashion collection to celebrate a half-century of style in the desert — and one of the country's premier museum fashion programs. The result is "Defining Moments: 50 Years of Fashion," which strolls through styles from the 18th century to today and remains on view through Sunday, August 7. 

"My work is varied from day to day depending on where we are at in the process of mounting an exhibition," Sewell says. "It includes writing, negotiation, research, making mounts, strategizing, and the physicality of working with mannequins and boxes of objects."

And now, in addition to her curatorial position, Sewell is working with Arizona State University to craft and head a fashion-design program at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. In 2017, art students will have the option of fashion as a major. Which, to put it plainly, is awesome. 

I came to Phoenix with three vintage dress forms and an extensive art and fashion library as the base tools to build the national reputation of the Museum’s permanent fashion design collection

I make art because I get so excited by seeing the objects come to life on the mannequins and together in an exhibition.

I am most productive when I am around other creative people who are also contributing to a project.

My inspiration wall is full of snapshots of the objects in the upcoming exhibition. That is how I organize the story for the exhibition labels and for the gallery layout.

I’ve learned most from the objects in various collections. By observing them, how they are made, what they are made of, and thinking about the person and time they were worn, you can learn a lot of things.

Good work should always be the constant standard.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more national recognition for the breadth and dynamics of its cultural contributions.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski