Debra Rapoport is and always has been an artist; she creates wearable art pieces from non-traditional materials. Aside from her art, Debra speaks on a wide range of topics, including but not limited to personal style, wellness, and agelessness through the creative process. Debra starts every day with her ABC system; ABC is assembling, building, and constructing with texture, color, and layering. Debra uses the ABC system to create forms upon the body as if it were an armature. Debra’s creativity keeps us young, as she is never afraid to play. Debra was trendy and sustainable before it was trendy to be sustainable. Join us to make Debra your NYC mother too!
Speaker 1 [00:00:00] Creativity and a learning mindset are essential to succeed. Learn how these innovators put these skills to use to become the best in their fields. Welcome to Innovators to Know brought to you by ideamix.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:15] Today I’m thrilled to introduce to you Debra Rapoport. Debra, welcome to the ideamix podcast.
Debra Rapoport [00:00:22] Thank you. Delighted to be here.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:25] Debra Rapoport is a visual artist working with nontraditional and repurposed materials to create wearables that she often sports herself as today. Her hats start with what she’s called the ABC system, and I really want Debra to explain that acronym to us as we go along here. But in every way, she’s been a visionary ahead of her time. Years ago, embracing the idea that frugality is fun and constantly reinventing and curating her closet without being a conspicuous consumer. Debra was trendy and sustainable before it was trendy to be sustainable. Her work is in a variety of museum collections, including the Met in New York. Likewise in L.A., the Elias Lioness Museum in Athens and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, among others. Debra, we’re so thrilled to have you with us today.
Debra Rapoport [00:01:21] Thank you. Delighted.
Sam Jayanti [00:01:24] So, Debra, I want to take a quick look at this short clip which really talks about how you got started doing what you do. Let’s take a quick listen.
Debra Rapoport [00:01:34] This was an old soul that was in the street. So I picked that up and then I came back and in 5 minutes I made the hat. And again, it’s just debris, debris, debris residue wrapping for the floral embellishment. And this is just cut-up toilet paper rolls and naturally curls. And so it becomes like a blossom. I just love it. With the garbage over there. I want that piece of metal that love to whole. Recycled materials speak to me because they just show up in my life and it’s like we have a relationship, so something happens and they become like a friend and it’s like, I can’t walk away from you. I can’t let you go in the landfill. They need to take you home and befriend you.
Sam Jayanti [00:02:28] Debra, how do you begin creating style items from pieces that you found? And you’ve done this now for so long. How has your process changed over time?
Debra Rapoport [00:02:43] Well, I guess it really comes from curiosity and experimentation. And my mother was very creative and she allowed us to make things, stay home and be creative, dress up. And none of that was considered frivolous because it was a creative act. Yes. And self-expression. And that was the most important thing. So I think it started at age three. And then when I went to art school, I was really interested in materials that I found that were available even before recycle and sustainability mattered. And, you know, part of it, when you’re in school, you don’t have a huge budget. So you can’t go out. And, you know, unless you’re a goldsmith, you’re going to get gold. And I just started to. I went down to the local television station and they had old, thick videotape then. And I asked for reels of that. And I started crocheting with that because I come from a textile background. Yeah. So I did weaving and crocheting and knitting and macrame and other forms of knotting.
Sam Jayanti [00:03:47] And you learned that from your mother and grandmother?
Debra Rapoport [00:03:50] Well, a little bit. And then a tortoise knitting you know. And even though I was left-handed, Nana said, I can’t teach you knitting your lefthanded. I said, But Nana you knit with two hands. So I picked up my sisters and I said, Okay, Nana, help me out. So I just went off from there. Yeah, you know. So materials was part of it. Process was part of it. Hands-on was always part of it. We love being in the kitchen and cooking, so we love washing vegetables and cleaning them. Yeah. And so it was all. It’s all about the hands, you know. Yeah. And being left-handed my hands were important to me.
Sam Jayanti [00:04:27] Yeah. Sort of the tactile experience of working with materials of different kinds.
Debra Rapoport [00:04:31] Totally.
Sam Jayanti [00:04:32] And how does that evolve for you over time? You talked about while being in art school using this old videotape that really you started to crochet and kind of make materials with. How has that evolved over time for you?
Debra Rapoport [00:04:47] Well, I still am attracted to unusual things that are just showing up, like in the seventies. I came back to New York. I was living in California. I came back for a visit and I stayed a few months and I started finding found metal in the streets. And I started putting that together into wearables, just like what I’m wearing here. Only this is a current one. Yeah. And I did that all through the nineties and then cars were made out of plastic, so there was very little metal to be found. Yeah. Lately, I’m finding more. And I trained my partner, and he comes home every day with at least two pieces. And umm. And then, you know, it was just other things. Just old textiles, old rope, paper cord, love paper cord. Because I could on and ply it and make it flat. Keep it a linear element and anything else that just seems to show up. For some reason I find things and they speak to me. So it’s about the relationship. It’s not forcing it. It’s like I can’t walk by and not pick that up and take it home and have some kind of an agreement and arrangement with it.
Sam Jayanti [00:05:58] I love what you said in terms of that these materials speak to you because on the one hand, they’re a symbol of our society, right? At any given time. Like, what are we throwing away as a society and a community? And at the same time, there’s this really personal affinity and connection that you develop with these objects that really give them the life and meaning that they then go on to have, whether it’s in the form of a necklace or a work of art that you may create. It’s fantastic. Fantastic. I want to take a quick look at this clip from a TED talk that Debra did. Let’s take a quick listen.
Unknown speaker [00:06:40] Allow me to introduce one of the first women that I ever photographed, Debra Rappaport. She is a perfect example of someone who is aging with vitality.
Debra Rapoport [00:07:00] I was a very creative child. My sister and I loved to dress up. Instead of dolls, we would dress ourselves up. This was encouraged by my mother and my grandmother because they could see us develop and discover and experiment, finding creative solutions throughout life. I use that still today as a way of solving issues. As a child. I was a very intense, shy, and extremely big worrier. So much so that my father would say to me, I think I will hire you to worry for me. Creativity was my way out. I felt that with creativity, there are no rules. And without rules, there is no fear. We felt safe and we felt that there was no judgment. School didn’t always feel that way. My mother was a maverick. And a seeker, and we became strict vegetarians in the late 1940s. So she would keep us home for wellness days because we were never sick. And this was an opportunity to go museums and go antiquing and make art. Boy, was she ahead of her time being so shy and independent. I knew I had to structure my own life. But how I wanted to stay home while my older, very beautiful, sophisticated sister was out on the town. I wanted to stay home, dress up, dress the dog, and invent outfits that would embellish and camouflage and be tenting over my less-than-perfect teenage body. I call this ABC’s assembling, building, and constructing.
Sam Jayanti [00:08:59] Debra. You talked at your TEDx talk about how your creativity was fostered as a child. You mentioned it in terms of your mother and grandmother. And how we need to do the same for future generations. And some ways we’ve failed to do that as a society. Right. We, I think, started with industrialization and this idea that people had to become quite specialized and sort of get into a track and stay on that track for their whole career as an alliance. And we’ve almost sort of sucked the creativity out of work and professional engagement. And it’s reflected, I think, in the degree of dissatisfaction that people feel with the work that they do, that they don’t feel they’re fulfilling their sense of purpose. Tell us a little about that.
Debra Rapoport [00:09:50] Well, starting with the educational system, I think a lot of schools are cutting out the art programs and movement. I think now they’re beginning to come back because they recognize the importance. Yeah. Especially if children are underprivileged and they can’t do that as an after school activity because children have to create. And I found everything was okay until I went to first grade and then suddenly intimidation stepped in and I no, that’s not the way you do that. That’s not the way you draw it.
Sam Jayanti [00:10:25] All of these rules.
Debra Rapoport [00:10:25] Yep. And so one of my favorite quotes that I say is with this creativity, there are no rules. Where there are no rules, there is no fear. It’s the rules that just break you down, frees you, and intimidate you. So young children are totally fearless and we have to keep that active play and that youthfulness and say, well, you know, it’s a brain surgery. I can’t make a mistake. Right. So it’s wrong. You know, oftentimes when I teach a workshop, we’ll start out and make a very simple collage. Yeah, a piece of paper or a couple images paste. And then I say, okay, we’re going to tear it in half. Tear it and half my shift over. You’re going to make me destroy it in here. Yes. And if you tear it in half, give half of it to the person sitting next to you and now take the other half, do something with that. And then I say, okay, now we’re warmed up, now we’re ready to start because nothing is that precious. Yes. And when you make a piece of art and you don’t love it, you put it aside for a while. You look at it in a few days, it looks different. Maybe you take a part of it, turn it upside down, and suddenly it’s a brand new thing that that’s inspirational. And that’s the creative process. It’s a process. And you can’t be creative without making a mess. I have another story. My grandpa Russian Jews would come in the room. My sister and I would go stay over and we’d go to the sewing machine and we’d take out the button drawer and we’d dump it in the living room floor and start to play. And Grandpa would say, Oh, they’re making a mess. And Grandma would say, Be quiet, they’re being creative. And that runs to every cell in my body, you know? And God bless grandma.
Sam Jayanti [00:12:10] Absolutely. God bless her indeed. How do you feel, Debra? You’ve been doing this for a very long time. At this point, how do you feel your work impacts the next generation? And so many are now present. Right. And have had experiences of your work or had an opportunity to be in workshops with you. Tell us how you feel that impacts them well.
Debra Rapoport [00:12:34] I have like more 25, 30 year old friends than I have friends my age. And I just love that opportunity. And they are now aware of the state of the planet. Yeah. So they are into permaculture and recycling and all of that.
Sam Jayanti [00:12:53] Yes.
Debra Rapoport [00:12:53] And then when we meet up, we’re on the same page in a way and I just encourage them based that I’ve been doing this 55, almost 60 years and it didn’t have a title or a real purpose other than it worked for me now. So I am seeing the young people very, very intrigued and very committed. Yeah. To this movement and they’re doing great things. I’m so proud of them.
Sam Jayanti [00:13:19] It’s here to stay. Yeah.
Debra Rapoport [00:13:21] Yeah, and they’re taking it to another level.
Sam Jayanti [00:13:23] Totally. You know, as you look back on your career, what were the difficult moments? What were some of the challenges that you dealt with?
Debra Rapoport [00:13:35] Well, there’s always a challenge of how am I going to make a living? You know? Yeah. And I did teach at the University of California Davis for eight years, and it was a tenure job. And I loved it. And I loved my faculty. I’m still friends with all of them if they’re alive. Yeah. And but there was something about academia that just didn’t resonate with me. It was a little political, and I found myself having headaches and throwing up on my way home. And I said, there’s something wrong with this picture. So I said, I’ve got to leave. And of course, everybody thought I’d lost my mind. So I took a year’s leave of absence. And at that point, I was collaborating with two other women artists, and we were doing performance art also around food and healing and textiles and women’s issues. It was the middle seventies. And then I went back and I asked my chairperson, I said, Well, is it possible for me to come back and teach collaboratively? And he said, Well, we don’t do that here. And I said, Well, then I have to say farewell. So then I divorced. My husband came back to New York and I said, What am I going to do? I was still making artwork, exhibiting, selling some. But how was I going to pay the rent? Yeah. And of course, that’s always an issue. And that’s one of the reasons I never wanted to have children, because I knew would be hard enough to take care of myself, let alone an additional appendage. And so then my sister and I started a catering business and we catered the galleries and the craft museum and that circle of friends. And then shortly after that, I started a flower business with a friend who happens to also be a weaver. Yeah, and we did that for 16 years. And it was very similar to being a weaver because it was color, texture, placement, and she was very savvy and horticulturist. So she taught me that end. And, and we, we, we were so well known in the flower market and all over because we were over the top and we were older already. I was in my 50, she was almost in her sixties and we loved it until we were exhausted and couldn’t deal with it anymore because everybody thinks it’s the most glamorous business. But it’s hard work.
Sam Jayanti [00:15:43] It’s hard work very hard. And business is really hard work.
Debra Rapoport [00:15:46] Yeah. And no getting away and physical as well. Schlepping the plants and the water and the buckets and changing. Yeah. Anyway, so, you know, I figured well from start a business I want it to be something I can relate to. And she wanted to open a flower shop and I said, flowers, yes. Shop, no. Because I knew how difficult it would be to have a retail space, you know, then you have to start selling greeting cards and daisies and this and that. So we just kept it. It was called Institute and we worked on-site only.
Sam Jayanti [00:16:16] Fantastic. In a sense you what you’ve described in terms of leaving UC Davis and the reason you left UC Davis. Clearly, you were seeking collaboration.
Debra Rapoport [00:16:29] Mm hmm.
Sam Jayanti [00:16:30] In the two things you did after both with your sister as well as with your friend. And collaborations are they fuel our creativity. Right. And to your point earlier in your workshops where you want an interaction, engagement and collaboration among two participants so that they interact with but also are able to tee off each other’s work. How in your creative work, where’s the that’s the jewelry that you make. Has that collaboration piece been a factor or less of a factor there?
Debra Rapoport [00:17:08] Well, collaboration is a great word because you can really learn from each other. There can be competition. Yes, of course. But one aspect I see as collaboration is when you have things that are wearable, you’re walking down the street and people stop and talk to you. And so it’s immediate inspiration on that level. Yeah. Again, without intimidation or I’m in a workshop, you know, what am I going to do? Am I going to succeed in all that? Yeah. And Ari, Seth Cohen from Advanced Style years ago said, oh, well, you really have to do e-commerce. This was years ago. And I said, Oh, no, Ari, I’m not going to do e-commerce. I’m just going to do my commerce. Yeah. Walk the streets of people, stop, you know, give out cars. Anybody is welcome to come over and look at what I have or share the presses. And I made so many friends over the years, especially through Facebook and Instagram. Yeah, people all over the world that I visit, they come, you know, everybody comes to New York. So the collaboration continues. And in workshops again, because everything I teach is so low-tech, nobody is panic struck or intimidated by it. You know, we work with the toilet paper rolls, which we make the cuffs. The earrings are made from toilet paper rolls, you know, other bracelets that are made from the paper towels, like the hats, which I didn’t bring any. And so. It’s some of the work that the students do because they’re so excited. It just even outshines my work. So again, it’s a collaboration where I’m stimulated and I benefit from it as well as, you know, the back of the forth.
Sam Jayanti [00:18:47] What’s the most in terms of demographic that you love working with the most? What is that age group?
Debra Rapoport [00:18:54] Hmm? Either like, 20-30 or 80-90.
Sam Jayanti [00:18:59] Okay. Yeah. Yeah.
Debra Rapoport [00:19:02] You know, there’s a hunger there. So it seems to be that they’re very, very open.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:07] Fantastic.
Debra Rapoport [00:19:07] Yeah.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:09] So let’s shift gears a little bit, Debra. As you look back, what role has coaching at because we’re a coaching company at ideamix and mentorship played in your life? You know, we’re big believers in the importance of and the two are so interlinked of creativity and learning that as we go through our lives and careers, we’re constantly in a process of learning. And we look actively as individuals for ways to learn. And some of those are, you know, sort of independent ways through reading and watching and creating. Some of those are collaborating through working with other people, working with a coach, etc.. So what would you say the role of coaching and mentorship has been for you?
Debra Rapoport [00:20:00] I think it’s like everything. Like life itself. It’s like, um. You’re always sharing. You’re always answering questions. You’re always asking questions. How else do we learn? And trial and error experimentation. Yeah. Um, to me, that that’s the greatest, you know, to try to be fearless and try on new had told the time. Yes and apropos to that people say oh, I can’t wear hats, I don’t look good in hat. And I’d say, well, let’s just try one on. And the minute you put a hat on, there’s what we call hatitude. Something changes in the personality and people are suddenly Yeah, oh, you know, and it may not be the perfect hat. So you try a different one, you try it forward, you try it back, hair out, hair in. You know, again, it’s not brain surgery. Let’s just get back to playing. Yes. You know, it’s a creative process. Yeah, absolutely.
Sam Jayanti [00:20:59] And are there individuals that you feel were particularly influential in your evolution? Looking back.
Debra Rapoport [00:21:10] There are few designers that, you know, people say, Who’s your favorite Hollywood star? Oh, God, I just had her name earlier now. But God will come.
Sam Jayanti [00:21:20] No worries.
Debra Rapoport [00:21:21] She’s one of the voiceovers in the new Pinocchio doco, and she’s Scottish.
Sam Jayanti [00:21:28] Okay.
Debra Rapoport [00:21:29] It’ll come to me. Of course, I have had a couple of professors who were incredibly influential and other artist friends who, you know, I learn from them or we learn together. You know, I think living in a city well, really living in a city like New York with there’s so much stimulation, you know, you’re learning every day, your eyes are open and you’re taking it and of course, travel. Yes. You know, especially going to places like Turkey, India, South America, you know, where the cultures is so completely different than our rigid western western culture.
Sam Jayanti [00:22:10] Totally. So last question, Debra. What overall message would you like to convey as an ambassador for the advanced movement? And maybe tell our audience, actually, because we didn’t talk about this. I’d love you to explain in your own words both the advanced style movement as well as your ABC method.
Debra Rapoport [00:22:34] Oh, okay. So Advanced Style started in 2008 and I met Ari in 2009. And he was working at the new museum, managing the bookstore. And I walked in. It was a rainy day. I checked my umbrella, my raincoat, and he runs up to me and says, Well, can I take your picture? I take photographs of women over 60. And I said, How do you know I’m over 60? And then he said, Oh, but I forgot my camera. So he borrowed somebody’s cell phone. They existed already. And then I whipped out my card and I said, Well, why don’t you come over? I’ll dress up, I’ll undress and I’ll make you a vegetarian lunch. So I didn’t hear from him. Five days later, I called him. He came over. We spent the whole day together and the rest is history. And eventually he moved to L.A. with his husband. But I’m still like his New York mom. And so the whole advanced style thing was really I was encouraged by his grandmother, who had just passed away, who was a brilliant librarian and very creative. And Ari feels like he learned everything about the creative process through Grandma again. And so when he came to New York, he had never picked up a camera. And suddenly he saw all these incredible women and he said, I have to do something about this. And blogs were just happening. So he started a blog and, you know, he got in walking the streets of New York, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, that were the West Village, Harlem, you know, all day long. This, you know, doesn’t stop. Yeah. And so he said, Now what do I do with all this? And so he started doing a couple of videos. And then he met Lena Pliability. She was a barista, and she said, I want to work with you. And she said, I’m a video artist. And they were both in their twenties. Yeah. So. They hooked up and said, okay, we’ll try it. We’ll do a couple of videos of the women and see where that goes. And so Lena came over to my house and she’s from Lithuania. My father was from Lithuania, so I said, okay, I’ll be your Lithuanian mother in New York. So we did videos and the videos took off and that’s when they decided, okay, we’re going to go next step and do a film. And so Lena was the cinematographer and the editor, and the film is still out there playing. And in fact, we just two weeks ago did a piece on the Today Show about Advance Style. Ari flew in special and three of us women did our schtick.
Sam Jayanti [00:25:03] How great is that? And. Tell us maybe in closing about the ABC system. Yeah, I think that’s so powerful in terms of like a key takeaway for our listeners to incorporate into their own lives.
Debra Rapoport [00:25:18] Well, when I started back in the sixties, building forms for the body. Yeah, I needed to come up with a way that I could explain them. And so ABC to me was assembling, building and constructing, using texture and color and using the body as an armature upon which to build these forms. Yeah. Because they, you know, they weren’t going to be sewn or whatever they were constructed. Yeah. And I was building. And so today I still use my ABCs even when I get dressed. What am I applying on my body and how am I building it and how am I constructing it? And it says very simple to, you know, and when I get up in the morning, it’s like a morning meditation. It’s Who am I today? How do I feel and how do I want to express myself? And then it’s just intuitive how I just open the closet and pull thing, or I get a vision and I just pull it together and that’s it.
Sam Jayanti [00:26:17] I love that. That’s a wonderful thought to leave our listeners with a morning meditation made up of ABC.
Debra Rapoport [00:26:24] Yeah.
Sam Jayanti [00:26:24] Debra, thank you so much for joining us today.
Debra Rapoport [00:26:27] You’re very welcome. My pleasure.
Speaker 1 [00:26:31] Thanks for listening. Please subscribe wherever you listen and leave us a review. Find your ideal coach at www.theideamix.com. Special thanks to our producer Martin Milewski and singer-songwriter Doug Allen.
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