By Beth Donze
Three eye-popping dresses “sprout” from flowerbeds in the entrance foyer at St. Dominic School.
Or do they?
Closer inspection reveals the garments, modeled after the shift-style dresses popularized by the late American fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer, are made not of billowy material, but of stiff papier-mâché.
The dresses’ vibrant, tropical-print fabrics, each an original Pulitizer pattern, are the result of the skillful application of acrylic paint.
The flowers at the base of each dress are also “faux,” formed out of tissue paper in hues that match the garments above them.
“The main reason we picked Lilly Pulitzer (as our inspiration) was because she used bright colors,” said seventh grader Mariah Malliett, one of the 13 St. Dominic sixth and seventh graders who created the riveting dress sculptures for last month’s “Art in Bloom” exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“We wanted to make Lilly’s art and designs come alive, to draw in both younger children and older people with the bright colors,” Mariah said. “We wanted it to be poppy!”
The students, guided by St. Dominic art teachers Claudia Nelson and Kristin Frank, pulled off the elaborate project in just two months, working after school and on weekends.
Their concept was to suggest that the three Pulitzer dresses had been cut out and placed on dress forms – like giant paper dolls.
After creating the basic dress shapes out of papier-mâché, the student-artists used graphite pencils to sketch the fabric patterns onto them – outlines that they later filled in with acrylic paint. They considered dozens of possibilities from Pulitzer’s vast collection of fabric designs, settling on three: a fuchsia and green botanical print; orange and yellow tigers lounging on a pink, flower-decked field; and green-eared, pink elephants that appear to be floating in a turquoise sky.
The latter was seventh grader Kate Anderson’s favorite to paint.
“It was just a really fun pattern and the elephants were small enough where you could (include) a bunch of them,” Kate explained.
To reinforce their paper-doll theme, the artists incorporated tabs and displayed foam boards showing the “negative space” created by cutting out the dresses. They backed their tableau with panels covered in a collage of black-and-white pages photo-copied from a book on Pulitzer.
“The whole project made us feel like we were actually making a certain type of clothing,” Mariah said. “It made us all feel like actual artists, making actual things that came from Lilly. Our teamwork just came together; our collaboration, our ideas just made everything come alive.”
Nelson, who has taught art at St. Dominic for 12 years, became acquainted with Pulitzer when she worked at her French Quarter boutique in the 1980s. Despite the designer’s reputation for dressing the ”aloof” elite, the Florida-based Pulitzer was incredibly charitable and down to earth, Nelson said.
The student-artists remained true to Pulitzer’s habit of hiding her signature in her fabric prints. “Lilly” can be spied in the veins of the leaves; in the tigers’ stripes; and in the elephants’ tails.
The students made a head and a crown for their central sculpture, fashioning an exotic headdress out of crepe paper and cardboard sunglasses in response to Art in Bloom’s 2018 theme, “A Queen within Adorned Archetypes.”
Seventh grader Kyle Fisher worked with Jessica Guastella, St. Dominic’s STEM teacher and robotics coach, to engineer sturdy bases for the unwieldy sculptures.
“We took a cinder block and old boxes and made a stand. We placed Styrofoam into the cinder blocks – we had to literally jump on it to get it in,” Kyle said.
“I like the stand because it reminds me of gardening,” Kyle added. “I like how it looks like Lilly – flowers are everywhere.”
The team’s biggest thrill came when they spotted NOMA visitors taking photos of their art installation.
“We had quite a few people come up to our exhibit and ask, ’Is this your school? Did you do this?’” Mariah said. “A lot of kids pitched in to help and make this project come alive. It makes us feel honored and proud to have done (a piece) for something so big. It was something that we don’t get to do every day.”
In addition to the students quoted in this story, St. Dominic’s Art in Bloom team was composed of seventh graders Isabella Costanza, Olivia Labruzzo, Serenella Velez and Brenden Villavaso; and sixth graders Madelyn Bunol, Krystal Fernandes, Elise Holloway, Katie Collins, Abby Meyaski and Madeleine Thorne.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.