Time for Their Close-ups

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Art directing stories for Martha Stewart Living was a wonderful experience that put former Chief Creative Officer Gael Towey in touch with artists and growers and craftspeople all over the country. “I loved being able to tell their stories,” she says. “So today I am endeavoring to translate those 20+ years of experience as a creative director and editor into moving stories that allow us to hear the artist’s voice as they tell their stories through short films.”

Video is immediate, and it can be as visually-beautiful as a print story. So Towey looked for subjects that were seductive and lush in imagery. “I wanted to tell the story about how artists take risks and push themselves toward discovery and change,” she adds. “I was hoping that the viewer would feel like they were on that journey with the artist, which is why we tried to capture the sights and sounds of the studio.”

Her film series, “Portraits in Creativity,” focus on what she calls “working hands and the mess of creativity in action,” which she notes is a seductive and a great way to learn. I recently asked her to speak more about the films focusing on Gabriella Kiss, who creates jewelry that celebrates the wonders of the forest; Alabama Chanin, a fashion designer who has made Haute Couture that is bound up in the landscape and the legends of the region along the Tennessee River; and Sheila Berger, a New York-based painter and sculptor who uses encaustic, plaster and steel exploring the fragility of nature. (All films can be seen here.)

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Stills from the “Portraits of Creativity” episode on Gabriella Kiss. Photographs by Gentl and Hyers.

Your films seems to be the next step in the evolution that began at Martha Stewart. Fine artisans working in unique ways. How do you go about making these?

I have put together very small teams to produce and direct these videos and the process of shooting and editing a mini documentary has been very instructive. Each video is shot by a different cinematographer and they each have their own style: the amazing photographers Gentl and Hyers shot the Gabriella Kiss video and we used both stills and video to create the final edit, this gave the piece a distinctive, beautifully-composed style that really suited Gabriella’s personality.

Joe Tomcho shot and edited the Alabama Chanin video and we traveled to Alabama together focusing a lot on the feeling of the landscape and the natural beauty of the place that inspired Natalie to go home ten years ago and start her business. Sheila Berger was shot by Phillip Lehman, a young man I discovered at RISD, who grew up in video (not photography) so his style is more about movement and he has a bit more of a New York vibe. I hired composers to create an original score for each short film, giving each its own personality and emotional range.

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What is your goal with these pieces? Do you simply want to expose your subject’s talents to the world or is their a larger media plan?

My goal is to find clients who would like to work with me on this kind of video. These videos serve as a snapshot of my interests and the direction I would like to take in my work. I am hoping that people who need this type of video will want to collaborate with me in the future.

My media plan is to expose the videos to as large an audience as possible using social media and reaching out to the many friends I have made in my 20+ years as a creative director. I have used Instagram, Twitter, and have been picked up by a few blogs. It seems to be working; we have had thousands of views in just 2 weeks.

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Sheila Berger. Photograph by Phillip Lehman.

You focus on creativity and process. How do you select your subjects?

You will notice that my subjects are all experienced; they have been working in their respective fields for 20 or 30 years and they have the confidence to be risk takers. I believe that artists are comfortable saying “I don’t know where this will take me” but I am following my instinct and using my craftsmanship and knowledge of materials to investigate and discover a direction. I know or knew of all my subjects, and when I approached them I felt that they trusted me to tell their story with empathy because of my reputation guiding the Martha Stewart brand for so many years. These are women who I greatly admire; they are articulate and very focused on excellence. Their work is very beautiful and the visual nature of the work itself and the way the work is made gave us an opportunity to make the videos visually rich and seductive.

All three of the women – and the two women whose films I am working on now – are in transition, and they are doing something new that they have not done before. Sheila is preparing for her next gallery show, Natalie has just started a new business using her organic cotton to make machine made garments while continuing her hand made business, and Gabriella just collaborated with her husband of 27 years to make furniture after 30 years as a jewelry designer.

What’s planned in the immediate future?

I will continue to produce and direct the “Portraits in Creativity” series. I am working on two more short films about Maira Kalman and Rosanne Cash.

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