Otto Pierce is not your average fashion model. Originally from Vermont, he came to NYC with the intention of pursuing Hip-Hop and Modern dance. However, he was scouted within his first week of living here, and soon after he was touring the Paris/New York/Milan Fashion Shows. After making a name for himself (and some money), he founded The Sable Project, an artist residency committed to collaborative and sustainable community practices. And he’s done all of this before even turning 25.
Pierce shares with BASTARD fanzine his art making practice and the Sable Project vision. As I’m talking to him he tells me that he’s standing in boots and mud in Vermont – and that tomorrow he’ll be in New York shooting a high profile editorial. Such is the nature of Pierce…
Interview by Leah Mersky
Photography by Idris + Tony
What is the Sable Project and how did it come about?
The Sable Project is a unique kind of artist residency. For emerging artists of different media, it is off-grid, environmentally engaged, grounded by physical work and collaboration, and inspired by group genius. We ask anything and work hard to create inquisitive, elegant, and potent art.
The Project came about after I bought 15 acres of land in Stockbridge, VT in early 2013. Coupled with my passions for art, simplicity, and farming, the land became a vacuum for ideas, and inspired the vision of a collaborative, creative, and sustainable community. After a lot of hard work, a bunch of emails to artist friends (and others!), and an incredible amount of support from friends, family, and the local community, last summer we brought in twelve artists for the inaugural residency season, hosted two public showcases, and garnered an encouraging amount of interest and praise.
What was your inspiration for the project and where does the name come from?
The inspiration for the project was the land itself. Specifically, it was in no small part brought about by my 22nd birthday party, which I hosted at the land. A group of my family, friends and I cooked food, wandered around the woods, and stayed up till the wee hours of the morn around a bonfire, singing songs, reciting poetry, and telling stories. The space seemed to come alive with the influx of a group of young, creative people, and so the thought occurred to me, why not make this something that happens not just on my birthday? The next day I flew to Paris to live and model for 4 months (such is the nature of my almost comically dual lifestyle), and it was on my first day there that I wrote about the idea for Sable in my journal.
As for the name, when I was trying to think of one for the project, my fellow artist and now current Project Manager Jessica Lee suggested that I name the land first. So I pulled up a topography map of the area, and the nearest mountain is called Sable Mountain. “The Sable Land” was thus named, and “The Sable Project” naturally emerged from there.
What is the property like?
My mom had purchased 10 acres across the road maybe 5 years before, and since then I had always admired what would become The Sable Land. I thought it was an incredibly beautiful piece of property, with varying forest types, glacial erratics, cliffs, and even the possibility of a striking view with a bit of clearing. Then, in late 2012, while driving back from my mom’s land I noticed some ‘For Sale’ signs tacked to a few trees. My mom suggested I tear them down right away, which is exactly what I did. I contacted the landowner, and largely with the money I made from modeling, bought the land a few months later.
Since then, with the help of friends, neighbors, and resident artists, we have cleared a field in the bottom right hand corner, planted a garden and small orchard, built a studio, stage, dragon oven, treehouse, and more, and begun work on more clearing and even more extensive gardens. Oh, and that view I mentioned earlier? It really is quite spectacular.
How does an aspiring hopeful go about getting a residency and as the Founder/Director what do you look for in your applicants?
We have a fairly vigorous application process that consists of a questionnaire, a submission of your creative work, and if we like that, a phone interview. What I am looking for in an applicant is 1) really amazing, thoughtful, and inspiring work, 2) a well written application and a desire to not just advance their own work, but to be fully engaged with the collaborative work at Sable, and 3) a sense that they will work well in a community style setting, largely outdoors, and completely off the grid.
Other than being awarded a residency, is there opportunity to get involved with The Sable Project?
Yes! We also have a farm manager and a photo/video intern, both of whom came on through an application process as well. Another way we are involving others is through our “Food and Art Series” – a weekly showcase and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-up day – where we are currently seeking 12 guest artists (performers and visual artists alike) to come and present their work. Interested? Send us an email!
Last summer was your first year. Was it what you expected?
It is hard to say if it was what I expected because I purposefully went into the whole experiment with very few expectations. Perhaps the creative work was less collaborative than I had originally had in mind, but other than that, I was simply thrilled to be working with incredibly talented and smart young artists, all of who were invested and had a desire to see the project succeed. Also, seeing the reactions of guests that came to the land really let me know that we were doing something pretty amazing.
What were some of the obstacles you faced?
The most challenging factor was communication, hands down. We didn’t have the best (or much of any) systems in place for regular check-ins about both creative work and personal issues. That said it is something that we are really focusing on this year and hope to have some huge improvements on.
Living off the grid for 3 months with a relatively small group of people was incredible and incredibly hard. I made some amazing friends, got closer with friends I already knew, but at the same time, really ran into some serious issues along the way. Throw in the fact that they were a group of emotive, sensitive artists (it is that sensitivity that allows them to make the work they do), and you have a recipe for drama paired with deep empathy and understanding.
At the end of the season you put on an artist showcase. What was the theme/concept of the production?
Our final showcase was an amalgam of the input, energy, and physical work of all the artists at Sable last summer. Essentially, the showcase emerged organically from the ideas of each individual artists merged with the group. There was a trail through the woods, and along the way there were a series of performances and installations, incorporating sculpture, dance, acrobatics, music, paint, and theater. The trail finished at the field where we ended the evening with a series of three performances on our artist-built stage, the audience positioned above in the grass of our natural amphitheater.
Tell us about your individual piece.
I made two sculptural fish. The ‘rock fish’, much in the same way that the Sable Land was the inspiration for the Project, was inspired by the rock itself. After a whole day and a 6-hour train ride to/from NYC, I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to do. The ‘tree fish’ came about in much the same way. The arch was created when I felt a few trees and in the process managed to bend over a tall birch tree into a perfect bend (from the weight of another tree that had fallen on it). With fish already on the brain – for no real reason that I can think of – the bent over tree reminded me of the shape of a fish leaping out of water. Then, in what was definitely the second most terrifying act I performed all summer (don’t ask about the first), I proceeded to strip all of the bark off of the tree, drill holes in it, and insert sticks (with no adhesive) to mimic the shape of a trouts skeleton, all while dangling 20-25 feet off the ground swaying back and forth on a nearly vertical handmade 300 pound ladder tied to the tree to keep it from falling over. Just being up there for 5 minutes was completely exhausting because of how tense my entire body was. But it got done!
Where does your art making process come from?
The art I make is largely about telling a story – and then being able to share that with others. I’m not about making art so that it is inaccessible. Whatever inspires me at moment is what I make.
So what is your hope for the future of The Sable Project?
The future of Sable is happening every day! We are now a 501(c)(3) non-profit, just had our first board meeting, wrote our first grant application, and finalized our artists for the upcoming summer just last night.
As we move forward we aim to increasingly involve and educate the local community. We want to invite the Central Vermont community (and beyond!) to experience The Sable Land, and share with them our sustainable lifestyle and creative physical work. By exemplifying a community that cares deeply about how art can be collaborative, food can be grown organically and locally, and people can interact consciously with their surroundings, we hope to create a shift in the way that our visitors think and act in regards to these subjects. In short, we want to inspire creative minds and healthy bodies for the greater community!