Here's the long written version of last week's speech, hopefully I can find a recorded version from the event. The response to this has been overwhelming. So if you have minute, feel free to read, share what ArtsKC is about and continue to support your local artists.
We are all born into this world with a certain purpose for our life. It's no accident that we are born during a certain era or into our family. It's a part of the intricate foundation that makes us who we are. But what if we weren't given an opportunity or exposed to something new that would have given us that extra push? Something that can be so readily available to the masses, yet the power of that "something" has yet to reach millions of lives.
I was born Whitney Mariah Manney in 1990. And yes. . . that combination is on purpose.
I know that my mama's love for the divas was the reason but with a name like Whitney Mariah Manney to live up to, I have had no choice but to make legendary moves. I was also born at nearly 24 inches, so I was hard to ignore even in infancy . . . & that trait would play a big part in my life.
My parents are both entrepreneurs. My dad had a carpet cleaning business, which I only helped him move a few rugs on Saturdays to get candy from his elderly customers. But none the less, whether my parents realized it or not…I was being conditioned into being a diligent worker, someone who wanted something to call her own.
That thing that I could call my own became art. My mama owned her own daycare during my early school years. So the encouragement to learn, no matter if I had homework or not, & the endless supply off glitter, glue and crayons was bestowed onto me.
Through those early messes and inexplicable creations, I knew that I wanted to be an artist. Over the years some crazy paintings, pottery pieces and creative writing happened but never once did anyone tell me no. My goal was clear – to be an artist.
I've always been a pretty self-sufficient kid, just make sure I have some snacks and I can entertain myself. I excelled in school by leaps and bounds. At one point, I had to change schools because I was relearning material I knew from years ago. I ended up at one of the most prominent private schools in Kansas City. I could hang with the kids academically; I had no choice because I knew how much work it took for me to be there. But what no one realized is the training I would get from there that didn't involve school work.
That private school was tough for me. It was hard to remind myself that I wasn't “less than” because I didn't come from the same background, have the same material things or look like everyone else. In such a small community, the things you would think are no one's concern become magnified.
But that's where Mrs. Hilvitz came in, my 5th-9th grade art teacher. Just like those early hookups of craft supplies from my mom, I had a new supplier of art books, style and wisdom. If I ever see her again I need to give her the biggest hug. She probably has no idea how much it meant to me to have somewhere else to be during lunch to keep from being embarrassed in the cafeteria, letting me take every one of her classes consecutively & telling the other girls to “cut it out because Whitney is going to do great things.”
My spirit stayed intact. Mrs. Hilvitz was my cool big sister and art became my place of peace.
We went on to leave KC in 2004 for Phoenix. I couldn't stand it. It meant that I had to break out of my shell and actually talk to new people. Somehow I ended up at Metro Arts High School, now in an incubator of young creativity. It was exciting, challenging and one of the most freeing experiences I've had. Art helped me grow up with a clear head during those years. I learned that keeping it all in wasn't always the best but putting that energy into something tangible was awesome.
I was good at a lot of different things. Drawing, photography, writing and I did a bit of the performing arts. But it was something about fashion that captivated me.
I taught myself how to sew and convinced my mom to get me a machine. At first I ended up with a toy machine out of the JcPenney Christmas Big Book. Then I got my first Singer at 13. My mom didn't sew, she told me she made a shirt backwards for my grandma in Home Ec, so I had to beat her at this one.
I didn't have the patience for paper patterns but taking apart clothes and making something new was exciting. This meant I could keep my favorite clothes longer, because when the Dr. has you on a trajectory heading towards 6'3 clothing feels a bit smaller within a few months. I took apart some clothes I wasn't supposed to and could be found sewing on the kitchen counters, I only got caught because I lost track of time, but my parents never said no. They never yelled about the mess or told me to put the machine up. They would simply be excited when I said 'look at what I made today'
But I wouldn't get my biggest push until college at Kansas City Art Institute.
KCAI introduced me to other kids who think like me. Kids who wanted to make the lifestyle of an artist their reality. I had a 4 year safety net, where I could take advantage of a teacher's experience, the access to tools/technology and the buzz of constant creativity. I was challenged, hard. Through a few tough critiques and horribly crafted projects, I was finding my voice as an artist.
Then it all clicked. A month long study trip in New York City during Summer 2011 brought me back to my center, it showed me that I was doing the right thing. I found my zone. The street art, various personalities, the lights, constant hustle and bustle…it all made sense and I felt at home.
Color, pattern and texture. Those have been the 3 key elements in my work even since my preschool days. Translating that into the workable format of fashion was a "mind blowing" moment. Fashion allows me to be a different me everyday. It's the thing that says "Hello, I'm here!" before I even open my mouth to speak. It communicates my feelings. It allows me to consistently experiment and reinvent.
What kind of fashion do I create? I create wearable art.I pushed to be respected for making "everyday" clothing or having an average audience. But I know that my audience isn't average. They are ambitious people, understanding who they are and being fearless about it.
At this point, I'm definitely hard to ignore at 6'0, 6'4-5 with heels, big hair, at least 5 colors on and a few mix matched patterns. My art is no different than the "traditional" mediums. My concepts are solid, my process to design textiles and sew is tedious. The only difference is you can put my art on your body, be uplifted and inspire the world you encounter.Then machine wash cold, hang to dry and repeat the journey.
So never count the odd kid out, they're probably thinking about their next steps & purpose in life. Don't tell them “no” w/o constructive reasons. Be that person to guide them to their place of peace.
ArtsKC helped me on the next leg of my journey. If you remember, I come from a family of business owners and the entrepreneur spirit was roaring in me. Artist Inc. was the resource for me to keep the plans of my clothing label in motion. Even though I had just walked the college graduation stage, I was already selling work in two stores and had about 5 runway shows under my belt. WHITNEYMANNEY, all caps one word is my reality.
I then went on to receive the ArtsKC Inspiration Grant in 2013 after my 2nd time applying. The 1st time I applied and got the news I didn't make it, ArtsKC let me know that I was going to need to work harder. I did nothing but build my portfolio and better my techniques.
I approached ArtsKC one more time to receive funding to help me create a collection of digitally printed fabrics for my new collection. Prior to this, all of my textiles were created by hand, limiting my imagination.
I got the green light on the grant and went full speed ahead, designing 6 full color patterns that were designed using my drawings, photos, dye samples and paintings. The designs were bought to life on various fabrics and turned into garments that made up a 15 look collection. That collection got me noticed by a few more people and solidified my place as a KC artist and fashion designer.
But what else could I be doing? What work was left?
A few career day speeches here and there turned in to weeklong workshops at area schools into a summer-long class at the HALO Foundation with 6 girls, teaching them how to sew. They learned more than the mechanics of a sewing machine, how to create a seam and bleach denim. They found their place of peace, that one thing to call their own.
Each week an 'I can't' turned into an 'I will', personalities shined through and girls were understanding the power of being themselves. The night they walked the runway of their fashion show in their new looks, the pride they exuded was priceless.
Who knows what unexpected encounters may come during the rest of my journey? What I do know is that no matter what highs or lows may come, I have the support of people like my family, fellow artists, my city and most importantly ArtsKC.
But the work that ArtsKC does shouldn’t end with one artist. We should all be able to stand on this stage and testify how ArtsKC has changed the face of arts in Kansas City.
I am a product of what this organization can do to change an artist’s life. When an artist is impacted in a positive way, we can't help but to share that energy through our work which initiates action in our community.
So today I challenge you to bring this inspiration full circle by supporting ArtsKC. I,Whitney Manney,and the future of the arts in Kansas City can't thank you enough.