NEW YORK CITY is an incubator of imagination, a diverse place where new ideas can be tested in real time and where artists and makers shape and are shaped by the creative community. Here we shine a light on a handful of visionary individuals — visual artists, designers, chefs, playwrights, and futurist thinkers — who thrive on the city’s unique energy and strive to shift the status quo in one way or another. Though they work in different but often overlapping fields, all are united by a core belief in the power of individual ingenuity to lift up the collective.
‘We can come together on improving all of our lives and acknowledge that the work will never be finished.’
Hank Willis Thomas is driven by hope — a task, he reasons, not to be undertaken in isolation. “Collaboration is a central theme in my work because life and citizenry is a collaboration,” he says. “And we’re not always conscious of that fact.” A few months from now, “The Embrace,” Thomas’ large-scale sculpture honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and their love — as seen in the form of a physical embrace — will be unveiled in the center of Boston Common, America’s first public park. The colossal intertwined bronze arms of the couple will quite literally embody Thomas’ ideals of inclusion. He describes the work as “a call to action, for we don’t have enough monuments to love in our society. Most monuments celebrate or mourn acts of violence,” he sighs. In his work, he is constantly seeking curiosity and revelation in the pursuit of human and civic engagement. “We can come together on improving all of our lives and acknowledge that the work will never be finished,” he says. “It’s the struggle to accept, enhance, nourish, and improve the quality of life for ourselves and others.”
‘The core of what I do, like church, is what is comforting and universal.’
Cooking is chef and restaurateur Helen Nguyen’s love language. For her, meal preparation always represented gratitude for the community that carried her family in their time of need. “We hosted a lot at home,” she says of her younger years. “And my sister and I cooked at the food bank that supported us.” Raised in Seattle, Nguyen’s first career was in real estate. Only after assuring her family’s stability did she allow for risk and follow her calling to gastronomy, traveling across the country to pursue her dream. “New York was always known as the food mecca of the U.S.,” she says. “I gravitated towards the energy of the city.” She sharpened her skills at restaurant Daniel, training in classical French cuisine. But her ambition lay in cresting the wave of modern Vietnamese cuisine, which was then taking the city by storm. “The core of what I do, like church, is what is comforting and universal,” she says. Her restaurant Saigon Social opened days before the city’s coronavirus shutdown. Nguyen pivoted, and the restaurant “became a takeout window, commissary, and community kitchen.” From the beginning, she has produced weekly meals for local organizations focused on alleviating hunger. She has garnered a James Beard nomination for best chef in New York State, becoming a symbol of dedication and resilience among the city’s influential Asian American creatives, who are her loyal customers and supporters. When a fire ravaged the kitchen mere weeks after the restaurant’s grand reopening, it was customers who fundraised to get her operational within days, helping her rise like a phoenix from the fire.
Fashion designer and historian
Tremaine Emory is a master of semiotics. His clothing brand Denim Tears seeks to inspire young people to study the past by linking learning to desire. “I’m a communicator, and the best way to socialize the histories that I care about is through clothing, because that’s what young people care about. There is so much attention to what people wear; it’s the perfect Trojan horse,” he says. According to Emory, “kids need new heroes” because the valiant symbols of Black history are many and largely still unsung. “I thought, What if a brand did that all the time, and it wasn’t preachy?” He explains that the work began by “building the iconography before I started designing clothing.” The pantheon of Denim Tears includes Black Jesus and Mary, a cotton flower wreath, and the traditional beaded patterns of the Seminole Indian Tribe. Denim Tears deftly entwines the rich but widely unknown chronicles of the African diaspora into its garments while nodding to iconic sportswear from previous decades. Supreme, the mecca of perpetually sold-out teenage consumer cravings, noticed his work, and Emory was named creative director earlier this year. Raised in the historically Black community of Jamaica, Queens, he attests to the influence of his New York upbringing on his work. “So much of my mojo,” he says, “comes from weekends spent in the city with my parents.”
Playwright and producer
To say the last six years for playwright Jeremy O. Harris have been a rocket-ship ride would be an understatement. In 2018, “Slave Play,” which he wrote as a graduate student at Yale, debuted on Broadway to fanfare and controversy, garnering a record number of Tony nominations. He has since adapted his vocabulary to film (“Zola”), television (Season 2 of “Euphoria” and a much-discussed, multi-project HBO deal), and added producer to his credit list. During lockdown, he used proceeds from his various projects to compile the plays of Black auteurs that influenced him. “I ended up with a large catalog that doesn’t exist in most libraries,” he extols. As a result, he established “The Golden Collection,” which is “a starter reading list of the most significant plays by Black authors in our country,” he says. “I wanted it to be a thing wherein they might become formative in the canon for everyone.” In that same timeline, he engineered the production of “Circle Jerk,” a Pulitzer finalist that began its run via livestream, then moved to IRL this past summer Off Broadway. “I’ve taken a step back from personal creation and taken a step forward into development and incubation of other people’s work,” he says. “I’ve learned more about the work I want to make by seeing the work I constantly want to support.” Harris’ brand of drama takes audiences through different emotional stages: confusion first, then shock, followed by raucous laughter, leading to (in his hopes) a self-questioning of held beliefs. In other words, his work makes spectators think.
Multimedia artist Susan Cianciolo is guided by intuition. Cianciolo, who works in painting, sculpture, film, drawing, performance, and textiles, which she stitches and unstitches, has a solo show in San Sebastián, Spain, opening this month. Often the materials she uses spring forth from the gathering of neglected things (cloth, discarded papers, and trimmings of every kind), superimposed with illustrated visions inspired by nature. “I sometimes feel like I’m being guided, like I’m not involved, like I’m along for the ride,” she says. The idea at the center of her extensive body of work is that we don’t need more than what we already have. RUN, the collaborative clothing line Cianciolo founded in the ’90s, is the prototype for what are now mainstream ideals of slow craft and sustainability. The making of garments involved sewing circles as a means of communion and creation, constructing richly detailed dresses and patchwork jackets that elevated what we today call cottagecore to couture status. Cianciolo now works alone (or with the assistance of her adolescent daughter Lilac) in a domestic setting, spending “hours and hours with no sleeping and just laboring for the love of it — and no interest even in who’s going to buy it — just for the fun and the beauty of the process.” Recently, healing circles have entered into the work that she presents. Making use of this interactive medium, Cianciolo tries to “find ways to be free within a square and rigid box.” For Cianciolo, simplicity is the wellspring of creativity. Her art, she says, “is not about spirituality — it’s about learning to be yourself.”
‘It started with falling in love and motherhood. On the one hand, it’s the most mundane, boring thing — having kids. But actually, the experience was so wild and emotional. It made me giddy with playfulness.’
Batsheva Hay was a lawyer before she ever pursued her passion for fashion design. But marching down the path of prescribed adulthood, she felt stifled. Corporate uniforms worsened the feeling, including the drab suit she had to wear to work. Then a funny thing happened. “It started with falling in love and motherhood. On the one hand, it’s the most mundane, boring thing — having kids. It symbolized giving up,” she says. “But actually, the experience was so wild and emotional, exciting, different, surreal, and trippy. It made me giddy with playfulness. It was so out there that I couldn’t help but bring myself further out there.” And so Hay launched Batsheva, her namesake fashion brand, a wardrobe of dresses that are traditionally feminine yet also weird in the right places, conceived to clothe her evolving persona and identity. “I found freedom. I got older, had kids, and I began to have less fear around judgment,” she says. Hay adheres to the rules of Orthodox Judaism, and the dress code of her beliefs advises modesty, with a regulated hem length and sheltered clavicle. All sides of her lifestyle, then, are reflected in a pastel-blue holographic prairie dress or a high-collared midi dress in a quartet of vintage Laura Ashley florals. Hay now has her eye on expanding into homewares, and a line of repurposed furniture is already in the works. A brick-and-mortar outpost in Manhattan is in the plan as well. The city is a constant reference when she speaks of her designs. “[The dresses] are so very New York. You can put them on and bounce around,” she says. “When I wear them, they transform me and make me feel strong, powerful, different.”
Art world futurist
According to Lucien Smith, the systems of the art world need to be overhauled. Trained as a painter, Smith had early artistic success but grew disenchanted with the exploitative side of the art market. Now, he’s set out to construct “the railroad for creativity in the future” by putting into place the infrastructure for a broader spectrum of artists to participate in the cultural conversation. “I’m building a platform that welcomes the next generation of artists, who I don’t think will be just traditional painters or sculptors. They will also include programmers who use software to code poetry,” he says. With Serving the People, a nonprofit organization he launched with “the overall mission to aid artist equality,” he is developing digital tools for artists to operate outside the established systems (think NFTs). At the moment, Serving the People focuses on hosting artistic assets — artists and galleries can set up a profile on the blockchain-based database and share work in a referable way. When he looks ahead, however, Smith sees a kind of interconnected netting: a web tool designed with economic justice in mind that benefits artists, galleries, and collectors alike. Energized by the possibilities of connecting and giving back to creative communities on the internet, Smith has no nostalgia for his painting days. “I don’t think I was ever a traditional artist,” he says. “My interests were not being served by just painting, where I now think what I’m doing is more culturally responsible.”
In order of appearance from top: Jeremy O. Harris is wearing Gucci. Hank Willis Thomas is wearing a Salvatore Ferragamo jacket and pants, Bode shirt, Common Projects sneakers, LAPIMA sunglasses, Tiffany & Co. necklace, and Thomas’ own necklace. Helen Nguyen is wearing a Louis Vuitton jacket and shoes, Peter Do top and skirt, Tiffany & Co. earrings and ring. All clothing Tremaine Emory’s own. Susan Cianciolo is wearing a RUN top, Chanel sweater, earrings, and ring, and Dior skirt. Batsheva Hay is wearing a Batsheva dress, Tiffany & Co. necklace, and Cartier watch. Lucien Smith is wearing a Louis Vuitton jacket, Dior pullover, Smith’s own shirt and jeans.
Styling by Brie Welch
Polina Aronova-Cahn Writer
Polina Aronova-Cahn is an editor and writer who connects the interrelated dots of culture, style, and conscious living. Her work is focused on lifestyle communication, translating the tools of mindfulness and holistic well-being into approachable yet aspirational stories of deep human connection.
Andy Jackson Photographer
Andy Jackson is a lifestyle and editorial photographer based in New York City. Originally from Delaware, his work has been featured in Interview, Teen Vogue, InStyle, and W.