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Interview: Connie Fleming

Never Apart Magazine Editor Jordan King chatted with New York City artist, performer, model, and “door bitch from hell” (her words) Connie Fleming via Zoom.

Jordan: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Miss Connie Fleming. We’re getting ready to launch our first open house of the summer this Saturday for people to experience your work.

On behalf of the team, thank you so much for being part of our summer season here on the main floor gallery. I can’t wait to share the work with people.

Connie: On behalf of me, thank you so so much. I am so overjoyed and proud to be invited by the Never Apart gallery. I think your work is incredible and so needed and vital. I am honoured.

Well we are trying we’re keeping creativity, positive energy and love vibrations happening as best we can. I want to talk about the role that art has played in your life.  I’ve interviewed you before so I know that you’ve been an illustrator for basically your entire life. Is that correct?

Yes. It saved my life in school, it was something that I did well, and that I was applauded for.  It gave me a respite, it gave me a safe haven for my thoughts and my dreams.  Art gave me a look on to the world.  A look on to the world that things are cyclical.  They come and go, fashion is in fashion is out. But ability and beauty is forever.  Art feeds us and informs us about our lives.  We can look at a Gauguin painting or a Toulouse Letrec and know about that time, know about the fashion, about the society itself.  That’s what always kind of fed me as a kid, that there might be something ahead and not to get … bogged down in the now. Because there are ebbs and flows.  There can be a future.  So that fed me.

Did you did you ever go to art school after high school?  Or did you ever think about going to art school?

I was thinking about going to either Parsons or FIT.  But then the Connie Girl was born and I hit the stage.  I still want to in a way.  I had had enough of school by the end of high school, because it was complete torture.  I was sexualized … and, you know, … bullied.  There was a part of me that wanted to continue my education. But there was another part of me that had had enough.  [In the] back of my mind. I was thinking, you know, from the first grade on, things were just escalating.  What if …  Going further with my education, things escalated to a point where I would no longer be here.  That was always in the back of my mind.  I still wish that I would have kind of gotten up the chutzpah and just forged ahead.  But I took night classes, and I kept on drawing.  When I was performing and modelling, I had sketch pads, I doodled and all of that.  While I worked at Boy Bar, I created backdrops for the shows.

Wow I didn’t know that.

So I had chances to still be within myself and still express.  With fashion and with styling, and modelling, it is all an expression.  Now that I look back, all of that was an art education.

Absolutely.  It’s funny, because I don’t know when it was that I first learned that you were also an illustrator, because I feel like I’ve just always known it about you.  I didn’t know about the Boy Bar backdrops.  But as far back as I can remember knowing about who Connie Fleming was, I knew that you also were an illustrator. Can you talk a little bit about that time period, I guess, into the 2000s?  I know about some of the stuff you were involved with. But can you share about those projects?

Well, after I stopped modelling, Patricia Field called me up one day.  She had hired a new designer, the great David Dalrymple.  They were about to embark on doing fashion shows for the CFDA at the Library.  They said, you’re the only one that we know that has been backstage in the fashion world. So will you cast the models for the show for us.  That started my career with Pat uptown, let’s say on Fashion Avenue at their showroom. So this went on and then I started to do PR for them, as well as fashion show production.  One day, they needed a drawing for something that needed to be submitted to a magazine.  So I raised my hand and said, well, I can do something and I’ll bring it in tomorrow and see if you like it.  That was almost 25 or 30 years ago.  That started it.  It went on from there to working with Pat and David, with their fashion collections, with Sex in the City, with The Devil Wears Prada, doing all of these illustrations for the projects that they were involved in. It was an incredible learning experience. Working with singers and actors and film and stage.  One week we would be doing something, David would be doing something for Beyonce, and I draw that up.  Then Pat would call me up and say, Oh, I need something for Swarovski. And I would do that. And then came the time when they both were doing the costumes for a production of Barbarella in Vienna and I did all of those illustrations.  It was just such a, you know, hit the ground running and learning experience that is so invaluable.  It was invaluable in the way of not just fashion illustration, but working for a designer for film, that would eventually be a costume for someone.  I took from my experience as a performer and could, don’t put that sleeve on, because while they’re singing and performing, they can’t be slapping the backup dancers with a giant gorgeous sleeve throughout the number.  It was a great give and take and a great way for my life experience to feed the art and to feed the client.

It was having a role in the fashion design process, but not necessarily the construction, per se or the entire design, it was really a part of that collaborative experience. That’s so incredible.  I didn’t know any of that. I have to ask, do these illustrations live somewhere?  Are these works in an archive somewhere?

Some of them went to Pat.  I eventually started to document things.  I have most of it, David has a lot of it.  But some, that’s also what it taught me is to let go. You know, sometimes you have to.  And to not … try to make that line more perfect. Or make it into, you know, all fire and music to quote Betty Davis in All about Eve.  It all can’t be fire and music, which we hope and want.  But sometimes it’s just fire. And then you get a little, a little ring tone at the end, and then you have to be satisfied with it.  Some of it I have digitally. Some of it David has. Some of it the clients have.

We were so excited to show your illustrations at Never Apart.  This is a whole collection of new works that we’re showing in this exhibition, that are specifically for this exhibition. We have the like absolute privilege of showing to them to the world for the first time, especially in this way, in a gallery show. Can you talk about the series “Ink” a little bit?

Well, we were all home in our confinement.  I had had enough of just sitting around. And, you know, I wanted to occupy my mind and not just be sitting here worrying, thinking should I have washed my sneakers when I went out to walk my dog?  I couldn’t watch the news anymore because it was too depressing. And … you retreat to your device, looking through Instagram, I thought “all these cute boys have tattoos, when did tattoos become this thing?”.  With the political turmoil with 45 (the former president) and BLM, I wanted to illustrate this time and show on the body what I thought the subject thought of themselves or wanted to project about themselves. Some of it was thematic, some of it was just a statement. Some of it was just a cute boy.  Or a cute girl.  I got obsessed with do-rags and head wraps, and how they are worn. Underneath it, it is doing something … it’s not only a style, but it is a hair setting tool. It’s setting the waves, it’s keeping them in place.  But it’s also an expression, it’s a fashion. So I wanted to document that and document wearing your feelings and your hope on the body and on the skin.  Skin is the largest organ on our body to display, also what we feel without speaking.

Hearing you reflect on the artists like Toulouse Lautrec or Gauguin, I think there is something that is … Your work]is a comment on the current moment in time.  Some of this culture [is] very specific to the moment that we’re in that I don’t know if people would necessarily see right away without considering that.  I’m really grateful to learn about that layer, and to have that at the forefront of my mind when I when I look at the works now, I’m excited for people to hear about that aspect of it as well.

I wanted to ask about your your inspirations or your influences, some of which I’m familiar with to some extent, but is there anyone whose style of illustration or style of art was something that you look to or that you were you feel you were influenced by?

It started with cartoons, with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.  Then, as a child, one year we went to the Ice Capades.  The program was illustrated by (George) Petty who was second to Alberto Vargas, which was one of my heroes. But Petty’s women were a little bit more athletic.  I think it was his sister or his cousin or maybe his girlfriend. And one night watching The Late Late Show, as I did growing up all the time, there was a docu-drama made about him. I can’t remember who played him.  But it was such an eye into his art and to his world.  Then that started me going to Erte who is also a hero of mine.  That just opened up the world of fashion illustration.  I was always a fan of Toulouse Letrec and his style.  I loved Rene Gruau, who did all of the Dior fashion illustrations, their styles were kind of similar in a way, the graphicness and the line which is all I’ve always been obsessed with.  Line is one of the most beautiful things I think that we as humans can create in art.

Erte is just a whole universe unto himself, to dive into not only the illustration but also the costume conceptualization.  It’s pure magic.

I know, his work spans from the Ballet Russe to the Ziegfeld Follies. Yeah.  The world that he created is so incredible.  All of that started my journey into fashion illustration.  I discovered all of these great artists, from the 50s, going up to the 60s.  Then one day, I saw [George]  Stavrinos’ work in a magazine, I think maybe in Italian Vogue.  There was a Stavrinos, a Tony Viramontez and Antonio Lopez, and that just blew my mind.  I can’t pick one that has more influence, because they’re all so different, not just within their style, but within their lives.  How can you compare Tony Viramontes to Antonio Lopez, I mean, both of their lives are so incredible.  Going to Studio 54, then going to Paris and your roommates are Jessica Lange, Grace Jones. And then you find this new discovery Jerry Hall, like, really?

Meanwhile, they were shooting Polaroids, and they were doing illustration . . . that much creative energy, I mean, we would be so lucky to come in contact with that in our lifetimes.  That time period, when illustration was a valuable art form, it was really valued in fashion, and it was so much a part of it.  I had known a bit about that, the inspiration that you drew from, but of course] the time period that you were coming up in New York, the early Boy Bar era, it would have been that generation of illustrators in fashion media.

Yeah. That’s also what informed my, should I go to school decision, because they were all of these giants that were in the business, and I thought, okay, there would be a place for me, but when the plague (HIV/AIDS) started, and all of them started to die, that eye and that energy left with them.  Then it really turned everything over to photography. And  I questioned, will I be able to support myself?  Will I be able to make my way in this world as an illustrator?  That is dwindling and disappearing?  You would see every every now and then some illustration, but I thought how do I get there?  I don’t have a formal education, and I don’t have those connections. So how would I get there in this world that is [now] more concentrated on photography… All of my heroes were gone.  I couldn’t exactly reach out to them.

It’s interesting to think about how much … just disappeared with the passing of not only those legends, but all the people around them. It was an absolute decimation which I’ve heard people speak about it in that way, in the 80s.  Creative worlds were snuffed out completely.

Yes, all your heroes, friends, people that you met in passing, like you would ask, “oh, what happened to …?”  And the response was, “oh, they’re gone.”  You had to gird your loins and pick up and keep on going, not only for yourself, but for them and for a light out of the tunnel of all of the devastation.

Well I mean, I think the future is so bright.  I think as people get to know you now also as an illustrator and as a visual artist, I think, we don’t even know yet what what will be in store for you.  I just want to say on behalf of Never Apart and myself personally, having been involved in bringing this show to life … I’m so grateful.  I’m so grateful to know you and to have had so many incredible conversations with you.

It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and to know Never Apart, that there is a space like this that is championing and inclusive and ready to share artists with the world.

(Interview has been condensed and edited.)

Photo: Jeiroh Yanga

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