Dress for success: High school junior Quinn Lee, of Oakdale, sells clothing design to local artists
Quinn Lee, a junior at Saint Bernard School in Uncasville, wasn't planning on displaying the unconventional-materials-meet-high-fashion dress they made out of detritus found in an art classroom at the school.
With cotton fabric as a base, the dress was constructed of matboard serving as pieces of fabric, sketchbook paper crumpled in a way that resembles flowers, and dried paint brushes providing added interest at the waist.
Lee was convinced by their teacher, Marsha Regan, to put it in an exhibition at the Hygienic Art Gallery in New London that showcased work by students from Saint Bernard, New London and Waterford high schools.
Lee had no plans to sell the piece.
But then professional artists Mark and Juner Patnode, who are also husband and wife, saw it at the Hygienic. They loved it and wanted to buy it and display it at Sapphire House in New London, where Juner teaches art to all ages.
The Hygienic manager contacted Quinn's art teacher, Marsha Regan, and explained the situation. Regan spoke with Lee, and a deal was struck.
The Patnodes purchased the dress for $250, and the piece is now in the entranceway at Sapphire House. It provides inspiration to art students coming through the door, just as pieces by professional artists and some students do the same in rooms inside.
"I was ecstatic," Lee recalls. "I hadn't considered selling my designs before, so that was a big moment for me."
Mark Patnode speaks about it as a sculptural creation. He remembers seeing it and "I thought, 'Oh, my word, it's a candidate almost for a patent, because there are three criteria for a patent — it has to be novel, unique and unobvious to someone trained in the arts. I was standing in front of this, saying, 'David Smith and Henry Moore would not think of this kind of sculpture, Rodin would not think of that.' It takes things to yet another level, but it also touches on the aspect of textile arts or fabric arts being incorporated into sculpture. It just takes it beyond, especially when you look at it from a high school level."
Lee, he says, is "thinking beyond."
'I knew it was special'
The idea of using what was essentially classroom trash for the outfit was inspired in part by the fact that students at Saint Bernard are trying to restart the environmental club. Plus, Lee says, "I really don't like when things go to waste. So if it's not in use, then make something out of it."
So, when working on a quarterly project for the Fine Arts III class, Lee asked Regan for some matboard and used paintbrushes. When Lee brought in the finished product, Regan says, "I knew it was special. I knew it had to be in the art show."
Regan, who is director of visual arts at Saint Bernard, says that Lee has both artistry when it comes to making clothes and an absolute love for it. Lee makes pieces at home; it's like it's in Lee's blood, Regan says.
Regan adds, "You can only teach so much. They have to do the work."
Indeed, when Lee put in the time, everything suddenly clicked. Lee was able to see like an artist sees, Regan says.
Sewing during the pandemic
Lee was in second or third grade when they learned how to sew from their aunt. But they didn't continue with it until the pandemic.
With quarantining, they say, it was "free time, nothing to do and nowhere to go."
Ironically, they add, "The quarantine was actually the most active I've been in a while."
They ordered some fabric online and started to design and sew, on the old sewing machine her mother had used when she tried to make Halloween costumes back in the day.
Lee has always liked going to JOANN Fabric and Craft Store to look at the fabrics, especially the sparkly ones that, they laugh, "I gravitate to like a moth to a flame."
They first made an asymmetrical dress out of sparkly fabric that shifts from lighter blue to a darker hue, depending on the light.
Seeing the result, they recall, "It was, 'Oh, my God, I can actually do this, and it doesn't look terrible.'"
They have moved on to bigger projects, including a ballgown and a still-in-process prom dress they would wear to the Saint Bernard prom. (Like all students at Saint Bernard, Lee wears a uniform to school.)
Once Lee is done with a dress, they put it on and take a photo for social media.
Lee is also heavily involved in dance, taking classes at both Dance Extension in Waterford and AMA Dance Theatre in Mystic and doing a bit of every type of dance, from ballet to contemporary to tap to hip-hop. One of their teachers has been trying to get them to make dance costumes.
They haven't decided what to pursue as a career.
As for what they enjoy about making clothes, Lee says, "I used to like coming up with fun little outfits to draw when I was a kid, and now I can realize those designs as well as the outfits from shows that I watched when I was younger ...
"I love how I can make things that I imagine."