On a recent idyllic spring day, two hours north of Manhattan, Sky High Farm teemed with life. Just-born lambs stumbled about on wobbly legs. Trays of seedlings filled the greenhouse as bees flitted outside. And amid a dozen russet-colored hens, the American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Cassandra Trenary pranced in the mud, wearing a gauzy skirt, white tights, and a T-shirt hand-stitched by Maurizio Cattelan—part of a limited-edition fundraiser that launches May 8. Even for Sky High Farm, a nonprofit run by the artist Dan Colen, it was a particularly ripe example of the place’s vision for cross-pollination.
“Honestly, it’s so funny how easy it is to find yourself in a farming metaphor or pun,” Colen said in a phone call from his adjacent art studio. He has holed up at Sky High throughout the past year, working with executive director Ora Wise and farm director Jonathan Wilson to shepherd its transition into a 501(c)(3) with a food-justice mission. “There are so many beautiful things you get to constantly witness [when] farming, and those ideas”—observing a kinship, say, between interdisciplinary collaboration and companion planting—“are a really big part of that,” added Colen.
Since 2011, when the artist acquired land on the border of Dutchess and Columbia counties, Sky High has found itself in the liminal space between creative output and community outreach: Colen’s latest series of landscape paintings taking shape as vegetables and meat ship out to local food pantries and families in need. But the official nonprofit status sparked an ambitious, year-long collaboration with Dover Street Market, centering around four product collections, with all proceeds benefiting the farm. Last fall’s sold-out run of streetwear—Sky High merch as created by Supreme, IRAK, Brain Dead, and more—brought in $130,000 for the organization. This next drop hits even closer to home for Colen: artist-designed T-shirts arriving in time for Frieze New York.
Rainbow-petaled flowers cover Takashi Murakami’s entry. Raymond Pettibon’s shirt, with a raggedy dog beneath a golden orb, reminds us that “the sun is hot and inescapable.” Kara Walker put forth a silhouette of a woman laboring in the fields, with an infant strapped to her back; the tagline on the reverse side reads, “Farming America since 1619.” That dark history—so entwined with modern-day issues around food insecurity and health care—finds an echo in a Rirkrit Tiravanija shirt: “THE ODIOUS SMELL OF TRUTH.”
“Our creativity is our strongest asset, so why don’t we create for ourselves and for each other?” Anicka Yi wrote in an email, expressing her “tremendous admiration for the mission of SHF.” Yi’s T-shirt design—a print showing microbial growth inside a Petri dish, taken from her 2015 show at The Kitchen—is a reflection of her expansive, science-minded work. (She is commissioned to take over the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in October.) The phrase “The Foul & The Fragrant” appears on the back of her shirt. “When I’ve worked with olfaction or themes of contamination, I’ve always asked, ‘Who gets to breathe the clean air?’ Dan is directly addressing these environmental questions through the farm’s work,” Yi wrote. “When he works against food apartheid in urban spaces, he is asking, ‘Who gets to eat the good food?’”
This T-shirt fundraiser (plus a few accessories, including a Gordon Parks Foundation tote bearing one of the photographer’s self-portraits) arrives on the heels of a year that reinvigorated grassroots activism. So many artists donated work to accessibly priced sales benefiting an array of causes, ranging from hospitals beset by COVID to organizations supporting racial justice and trans rights. Even as Colen now finds himself in the fundraising big leagues, tapping deep-pocketed supporters on behalf of the nonprofit, he sees these product drops with Dover Street Market as a way to build a broader base of support. “I really see everybody that buys and wears an item from Sky High as a donor, an activist, a philanthropist,” he said. Yes, he acknowledges, a wearable bit of charity feels rather fashionable. “I think it’s really clear to all of us that we’re living in a moment where every single brand—whether or not they stand for anything—will present the facade of some sort of mission,” he said. “Somehow we were the reverse of that: We were this mission that was somehow able to present some facade of style.”
Furthering that spirit of cross-collaboration, the campaign, photographed by Jack Pierson, spotlights dancers drawn from New York City companies. “Dan and I were very excited about this idea of putting dancers’ feet in the grass and being in the pens with the animals,” said ABT dancer Connor Holloway, who cast the shoot. (Trenary, Hee Seo, and Isadora Loyola also come from ABT; Claude Johnson dances with A.I.M. and Kevin Pajarillaga with Gibney Dance.) “At one point, I was in the sheep pen with my ballet shoes just covered in poop,” Holloway laughed of the welcome change of venue. “Dancers are so often on these grand prosceniums, but so much of what all of us love about movement is how human it is.”
If this past year put long-standing issues of food insecurity and inequity squarely in the headlines, it also granted space for reflection. ABT, for one, is directing fresh energy into ABT Rise, its effort to broaden representation in ballet (including new choreographer commissions and student workshops for underrepresented communities). A shared focus on expanding access—dance for ABT, food with Sky High—paved the way for a spring picnic gala later this month. The event—benefiting the farm, ABT Rise, the Stonewall Protests, and Black Trans Liberation—will include a series of dance performances, a symposium on food justice, and ritual led by Qween Jean honoring the Black trans lives lost this past year.
“More and more, I see the farm as part of my creative trajectory,” said Colen, who imagines the landscape paintings and farm life and fundraising collaborations on some kind of continuum. “I don’t know how to articulate how some of these things are connected, but it’s just more a matter of fate that by committing to the relationships, the importance of them I will come to find out.”
Even this T-shirt sale reveals those interwoven threads, new and old. Colen hadn’t known Jenny Holzer personally before she signed on for the project, putting the phrase “I WANT TO LIVE” on her T-shirt, evoking her text-based signage or carved benches. There are wearable remembrances, too. Colen’s contribution is billed as a collaboration with his late friend Dash Snow, and Kunle Martins, an artist and member of the IRAK graffiti crew, showcased his own drawing of Dash. Much has changed since that wilder downtown era, but there’s a sense of that same kinetic energy—just transplanted a couple hours north. As Martins remembers Colen in the late ’90s, “Dan was one of those people who just got me going, got me interested in things, got me excited about art and just life.”
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