Staying Power: A fashion curator who took some time warming up to Phoenix

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 11:55am
Updated: Monday, December 11, 2023 - 12:11pm

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Phoenix Art Museum sign
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Phoenix Art Museum in downtown Phoenix.

Last year, The Show featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow. 

This time, we're back with a new series called Staying Power, that looks at people who have made Arizona their home. And we continue it with a conversation with Dennita Sewell, a fashion curator whose journey to living Phoenix started out rocky.

And now let's turn to the next edition of our new series Staying Power.

Interview highlights

Dennita Sewell
Arizona State University
Dennita Sewell

GILGER: Meet Denita Sewell. You might recognize her name. She spent most of her career at Phoenix Art Museum, where she was curator of fashion for nearly two decades.

SEWELL: I find that really exciting when you do something and fashion can be that common ground.

GILGER: Today, she's on the other side of the equation heading up A S US fashion program which has just merged with L A's Fashion Institute of Design and merchandizing fit. But she started out far from the fashion world.

SEWELL: I was born in rural Missouri. I grew up on a farm about 100 miles from Kansas City, near a small town called Hale, Missouri.

GILGER: It was there that she learned to love making clothes with her mother and grandmother at the kitchen table.

SEWELL: You know, this was very common there that people were of a generation that were self sufficient, that "mend and make due" generation if you will. But my mom actually enjoyed it and she was a very creative person. And so there were fabrics and machines all around the house.

GILGER: She told me she was allowed to use the sewing machine before she could read.

SEWELL: I was making Barbie doll clothes. I was making little pillows. I was crazy for sewing. So I think it's just always been there. It's always been around. I've always been interested and, you know, I really feel lucky because I learned sewing. I learned about this like some people learn a second language when they're a child, I feel like I learned sewing.

GILGER: It wasn't until she went to college the first in her family to do so that she discovered fashion history and costume design at her work-study job at the University of Missouri was in the costume shop.

SEWELL: I walked in that first day and Janet Arnold patterns of fashion was lying on the table, the cutting table and I just looked around the room and I knew that I had discovered what I was interested in.

GILGER: From there, she was off and running. She interned in New York, went to Yale for graduate school and landed her first job out of the gate at the Met.

SEWELL: Working in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was exceptional experience. It is the one of the world's best collections. And I learned so much about the clothes there because my office was actually in the archive. My desk was actually in the archive.

GILGER: What did it feel like to be, you know, this girl from a small town in Missouri and end up at the Met living in New York City in this incredibly different world?

SEWELL: I really loved New York. I still love New York. I find it extremely energizing. It's, it's really my favorite place to be. I it was hard though. I mean, I went through a lot in that transition. I think the one thing I brought was I knew how to work really hard coming from the farm, and I knew how to do a lot of things. Other people knew more about social structures or, you know, different things that come into play at the Met than I did. But I observed, and I learned, and I was so interested that I, I wanted to learn and I just kept going.

GILGER: Did you feel like you had made it at that moment?

SEWELL: Well, I walked to work from the Upper West Side where I had a room on the third floor of a brownstone, and I would walk across the park and there's an employee entrance there on the north side of the park. So you could go in there. But sometimes I walked around to walk up the stairs and go in the main entrance because I, I always felt grateful. I don't know if made it was the right word. But I felt grateful every day that I walked in to work there and I never forgot that one day.

GILGER: So how did she go from the Met to Phoenix?

SEWELL: I, I will say that the possibilities for advancing there are very, very difficult.

GILGER: Sewell wanted to have her own visions come to life to conceive of her own exhibitions. She wanted to be a curator and those are jobs that could be hard to come by. So she applied for one that was open in Phoenix.

SEWELL: I hadn't even thought about Phoenix. I hadn't heard much about the collection. I just decided to try and go for it. So I end up getting the job and I left New York with, with tears in my eyes and I arrived and that first weekend I drove up and down Central Avenue and I went back to my apartment and I face planted on the bed and cried my eyes out. I thought I had ruined my life.

GILGER: It was January of 2000, and granted Phoenix looked different then. But for Sewell, it was a turning point. I spoke with her more about how her perception of Phoenix changed over the years as she changed it and why she's still here making her mark on the next generation today.

SEWELL: You know, I was such a part of a rich community of scholars, professionals and people in my field, not just in the arts but in fashion. And so New York is the fashion capital of America and, and the lectures that I went to avidly, I knew that I wasn't going to have those same exposures, but gradually it evolved. First of all, I was still paying off my student loans and I said, well, now Miss Dennita, just bear down and give this a try and see what and make it work. And I, and I did, I got to know the new collection, the Phoenix Art Museum's Archive. And in the end, I am so happy that I had that opportunity and I am very grateful and it's part of why I've stayed, I did in the 20 years, almost 20 years that I was at Phoenix Art Museum. I did 50 original exhibitions one after another and to have the ability for that creative expression, to work with a collection with the freedom that I did under the leadership of Jim Ballinger who, who let me propose ideas and, and come up with ideas was incredibly exciting.

GILGER: So, I mean, so there's the professional side of it, right, that side of it. What about the Phoenix side of it or the Arizona side of it? Like, did you ever, or when did you, I guess change your mind about this place?

SEWELL: Well, I met a gentleman who was a backcountry guide and the Grand Canyon river boatman. And we went hiking all throughout Arizona. We went down the Grand Canyon or I went with him several times on these trips. And I really started to develop such an appreciation for what the landscape for what these experiences were offering me. I really started to want to become a part of the community at that point. You know, you think about coming to Phoenix and, and somehow this idea of a big brown sand dune comes into your mind. But when you are out in nature, you realize the refined palette that is part of Arizona, the nuances, even of the color green. And I realized that I was learning very important lessons. Not only was I learning about a different landscape and how the American West became such an important plays such an important role in the American identity. And I would have never stopped to think about that. I would have never experienced it the way that I did without living here. If I would have stayed in New York, I probably would have continued on a narrower view of the field and of culture than I have now, having this experience. I was born in the Midwest. I've lived on the East Coast and now I've experienced the American West.

GILGER: Yeah, it's interesting you talk about it in colors.

SEWELL: I'm visual.

GILGER: So you, you talked briefly about your 20-year, 50 exhibition career at Phoenix Art Museum and sort of the things that you were able to do there, the opportunities that were available. I think this is a theme in Arizona, right? Like this, this this low barrier to entry and high impact kind of place. The other side of that though seems to be that for a lot of folks there feels like there's a ceiling, like there's only so high you can get in a place like this. Did you ever feel that?

SEWELL: Well, being in fashion in Phoenix, Arizona, definitely has challenges. One of the things that again that I learned by being here was that the shows the objects, what I wrote about them had to be very direct, had to be very truthful. People weren't impressed just because it's Comme des Garçons. They have to know why, you know, it was a very interesting grounding. I think of what objects can really mean to a general public. And so that was very exciting. But yes, getting fashion houses in New York in Paris to, and, and Italy to loan things to Phoenix was really a challenge. It was not always easy, but it was very rewarding. It felt like the greatest challenge.

GILGER: So, you talked a little bit about the, the sort of impact that you were able to have here. Do you think you would have ever been able to have that kind of impact in another place?

SEWELL: I, I mean, it's one doesn't really know what your impact could be, but one thing I made peace with early on here was, was trying to keep moving forward and never regretting coming here. I feel like I've had exceptional opportunities here. I feel very lucky. I've, I've worked really hard. I've had the opportunity to work and meet great people that have become friends that have become colleagues, I think, moving to ASU and starting a new fashion program. I mean, not many people have the opportunity to do something like that. And so it's really an exceptional opportunity to develop a new undergraduate degree to have it thrive. Now, we've moved to a new building in downtown Phoenix with incredible technologies and equipments. The students have, have really been, they were getting jobs, which I'm super excited about, and I'm seeing them working not only here in Phoenix and in the state, but there's a handful in New York now there's a handful in L A and I mean, that's really exciting to be a part of and very rewarding and, and that happened here.

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