Q&A: Annica Cuppetelli talks about how fashion constricts and transforms the female figure

Source: Special to Michigan News

Annica Cuppetelli

As a child, Annica Cuppetelli watched her grandmother sew, and it inspired her to pursue an undergraduate program in fiber and textiles. She started as a fashion designer and worked in design-related positions at several major corporations, ultimately falling in love with fabric — both the fabric itself and the conceptual meanings behind the materials. 

Her passion led to her creating art that brings together the overlapping boundaries of fashion, architecture and fabric, and she shares her expertise as a lecturer in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Cuppetelli is particularly interested in exploring how past and present fashion constricts the female figure — and how it ultimately transforms it. 

That was the subject of her latest exhibition, “Tight/Laced,” which ran May through September at the Muskegon Museum of Art. Her installation used sewing and patterning to create art that is reminiscent of corsets — two large funnel-like forms that extended from the walls of the gallery space. By showing how society has used fashion to control women’s bodies, Cuppetelli also shows women’s ongoing struggle to control their own bodies. 

Describe your work and how you use materials borrowed from the garment-making and fashion-design processes to create sculptures and spaces.

My undergraduate experiences helped me figure out how sculpture can live on or off the body — it’s a hybrid between what happens when a garment becomes sculpture or sculpture becomes a garment. The corset was in fashion for 400 years and it was controversial. Boning is the reason the corset is stiff in the way it controls a female’s body. The boning is very constrictive, and I want that tension to be shown in my work — it’s the tension in the past and the tension that exists now for women and their roles in society. 

How did “Tight/Laced” come about?

I worked on the piece for two years, and the curator was patient with me. My first idea was having two big tubulars referring to the female anatomy, and I wanted to weave them. But I had never worked with a piece that was 25 feet long. Getting closer to the deadline is where the a-ha moment happened. I knew I wanted to talk about torsion and tension, and I thought what if I patterned these to show the tightness. It became an installation whose forms are made from wood framing, fabric, lacing and grommets. It took lots of people. I hired seniors from U of M to help me with the project — they helped make patterns, cut and sew fabric and figure out the assembly. It was a big project with lots of hands.

You live in the city of Detroit. Has has the city inspired your artwork? 

I moved here in the late ‘90s for undergrad when I was attending the College for Creative Studies. Detroit is very creative, and I think it has influenced me to keep making things because there is a lot of good and a lot of bad — there’s a lot broken and a lot of fixing that needs to be done. As creatives, we respect the city and we are giving back to it, not taking from it, but trying to grow with it in a way. 

What are you working on next? 

Right now I’m back into research mode. After you do a large-scale piece, it’s time for self-reflection to know what direction to go in next. I want to give myself time to recover from that piece — I had never made anything that large — and you need to give yourself time to reflect on the smaller things.

What is the most important thing you learned? 

One thing that was interesting was the community that happened around it: bringing in former students and calling friends to help paint. It takes a village, a lot of support. It wouldn’t have happened without all of these other hands. Sometimes artists are very isolated working on their own and sometimes it’s hard to let go of things. Getting that help was an invaluable lesson. 

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