Identifying Fashion is a column by Susan Myer Silton which asks people with a unique fashion footprint how fashion shapes their identity. This month, Myer Silton talks with textile artist and designer Tobin Keller. Photos by Jose Estevez.
Tobin Keller, pictured above amidst fashion created from the fabrics he designs, is creative and prolific. His accomplishments read like a paean to the artistic soul: he is an artist, printmaker, fabric designer, clothing designer, art instructor and gallery curator.
Keller has been part of fashionART Santa Cruz since its inception in 2006. In recent years, he and design partner Barbara Bartels sent their youthful, skater-inspired line down the runway. In their collaborations, Keller hand dyes and screen-prints the fabric while Bartels designs the styles based on Tobin’s prints. Bartels will be profiled on The Penny Rose in April’s "Identifying Fashion" column.
The story of how Keller shaped his fashion identity is built in layers, from painting and drawing, printmaking and dyeing to fabrication of materials. In his own words:
“In art school in the late '70s, early '80s, I started paying more attention to how I dressed and how I looked. At that time, my art and what I wore hadn’t merged together. They went along separate, parallel avenues that didn’t connect until now.
My mentor at the time, Jay DeFeo was significant to my development as an artist. She was very beautiful and paid attention to how she looked. She was an influence when I started thinking about how I wore clothes and what they did to me physically and emotionally.”
In the mid-90s Keller transitioned from painting and drawing into printmaking, specifically Monotype printing, known as "painterly print." He then began printing on glass. "With glass panels you can stack them on top of one another in any way," he says. "The transparency of it was really cool, but things were getting heavy, fragile. I needed something much lighter." So he translated the technique onto diaphanous silk panels. "I liked the illusion. I liked that it fluttered and moved. I was just doing long panels. I wasn’t even thinking about wearable anything."
Meanwhile, he had been taking a sewing class and was doing costuming with Rose Sellery. "As I got more interested in screen printed fabric, my costuming became more artistic and more sculptural," he says.
Enter Bartels, an accomplished pattern maker, who was enrolled in one of Keller's painting classes at Cabrillo College.
"I collaborated with her on some simple garments that used layered silks," he says. "A transparent layer on top of an opaque layer. A heavy silk charmeuse and then an organza or a chiffon layer on top of it. I taught myself how to dye the fabric and dye-print and Barbara made the patterns. FashionART Santa Cruz was where I started showing costumes and that’s where we started showing the wearables five years ago."
DeFeo brought things full circle for Keller. “I come from a high art background, working in museums and galleries. It took me a while to really come to terms that what I do is the same thing as what I was doing before. It’s just a different form. Jay DeFeo said, 'Take that thing and go as deep as you can with it. Go as far as you can into that.' She was referring to my paintings at the time when she said it. But it had universal meaning for me. After that realization, I was able to really commit myself to the fabric and really explore how the dyes and the prints work. I think if she was around today, she would love what I was doing. She’d want to wear them.”
Keller is pictured in his studio, wearing a silk T-shirt layered over silk grandpa boxers, and silk sweat pants, designed by himself and Bartels. He's wearing Cole Haan sandals, similar here. Contact Keller or Bartels to learn more about their work.
Keller is standing at the entry of his home, in front of his sculpture, "Blue-Green Orb David." He is wearing a sheer silk organza shirt, designed by himself and Bartels, pants by Custo Barcelona.
Shoes by Cole Haan, similar here.