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ART MEETS FASHION

Tiffany Mendoza
This Article originally appeared in Tribeza

Meet Lisa Jennings, the vibrant founder of Dept. of Culture that showcases the artists she loves through limited-edition sweaters and shirts.

A self-described “philanthropic advocate for creative spaces,” Lisa Jennings lives up to—and exceeds—her title. A creative powerhouse in her own right (her impressive resume includes dancing professionally in New York City and working at a gallery in SoHo), Jennings’ shining talent seems to be finding talent. So creating her own company that integrates three of her leading passions—fashion, art, and charity—all while seeking out and collaborating with talented artists across the world seemed like a move in the right direction.

Today, she is the spinning wheel behind the machine that is DEPT. OF CULTURE, a fashion brand that commissions artists to create meaningful work for communities. “I felt if I were going to grow a company it would be one of positive change and a lasting legacy for my children,” Jennings says. With humble intentions, DEPT. OF CULTURE has become a fierce force of art and philanthropy. Its genius is in its simplicity. Step one: commission a thoughtfully selected group of artisans to bring their artwork to life through unique and fashionable apparel for sale at boutiques worldwide. Step two: use proceeds to create impactful community art installations.

So far, DEPT. OF CULTURE has already worked with seven artists for their capsule collections, which can be purchased in Austin at By George. The most recent capsule features cashmere sweaters with hand-stitched embroidery and beading of designs by Géraldine Federspeil, Cara CarminaCostanza Theodoli-Braschi, and Cameron Fielder. Proceeds generated from these sales benefited The Rise School of Austin, the city’s first school devoted to an inclusive early education for students with and without learning disabilities. “Having four children, I was emotionally moved by The Rise School’s inclusion of developmentally challenged kids alongside traditional learners,” Jennings says.

After spending nearly two years searching for an installation space in a children’s educational environment, DEPT. OF CULTURE teamed with Emily Greer, director of The Rise School, to create a mural for the new school’s entryway. Almost immediately, Jennings thought of renowned international artist, Tracy Van Duinen. The Chicago-based artist best known for his large-scale mosaic and sculpted murals found on the underpasses of the famous Lake Shore Drive was the man for the job, Jennings explains: “His extraordinary dedication to community art, the Chicago inner-city school system in which he has taught for 16 years, and his belief in the power of art made him the ideal candidate for the project.”

For one week, Van Duinen led DEPT. OF CULTURE and families of The Rise School in bringing his vision to life, just in time for the school’s grand opening in August 2014. The mosaic, which depicts a strongly rooted tree reaching toward the sun and a bird soaring through the sky, holds a symbolic power for the school. A single quote adorns the mosaic with a powerful message: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots and the other is wings.”

What was once an empty, cold, and austere entry is now a warm, interactive space, welcoming families into the school with an explosion of color and inspiration. “The children see their pictures up there, they run their hands along the tiles…this is what art does. It completely changes an environment,” Jennings says. “Upon entering the school, a visceral and personal relationship to the space is immediately developed, as opposed to a nondescript, uneventful, and unemotional experience.”

For the students, it has become integrated into their everyday life at the school. “To see a child who is unable to speak run his hands across a hand-painted flower and smile proves the emotional power of art and connection,” Jennings says. “We can intellectually marvel over the talent but what we react to is the profound and heartfelt detail. The more you look the more you’ll feel and the more you’ll experience joy.”

The Rise School and all who pass through its doors are sure to experience that joy for decades to come thanks to DEPT. OF CULTURE. The company continues to grow, and Jennings is swamped with a number of future projects already in the works. Though she wouldn’t give away too many details, Jennings did emphasize that 2015/2016 will once again provide artists an alternative canvas to showcase their work to a broader audience. You can stay connected to DEPT. OF CULTURE and find out how to support their work at deptofculture.com.

CREDITS

Photography by Jessica Attie