In Residence: Artist Bethlehem Shalom on Music, Fashion, and Material Inspiration
January 26, 2023
By Francesca Du Brock, Anchorage Museum Chief Curator
As a child, Bethlehem Shalom felt out of place and under-confident in school, finding solace in her time at home, which she filled with music, art, and dancing. Her jazz musician parents were supportive of her creative endeavors, as were her grandmother and aunt, who passed on their love of sewing. Music was as an important place to process her thoughts and emotions. She recalls pouring her heart out in a binder of original love songs that she wrote when she was about eight, chuckling because at that age she had “clearly never been in love.”
Left: Shalom as a child. Right: Shalom performing a concert in 2022. Photo by @ron_offline.
Although music remains the core focus of Shalom’s artistic practice—and the main vehicle for expressing her ideas—she has also experimented widely with a variety of media, including drawing, photography, animation, and fashion design. Her creative interests are multi-modal and often feed into each other. For instance, she animates short films set to her own music, creates the set design and photography for album publicity images, and the clothes she makes are an important element of her identity as well as her stage persona (she uses her given name for both). It’s not surprising that she cites Lady Gaga and Laura Lee of Khruangbin as influences. Like them, she takes her vocation as a musician and performer seriously. Although Gaga and Lee work with teams of collaborators and stylists, Shalom says you can tell that “no one cares as much as they do—it’s their vision coming through.”
Sketching ideas for a logo design to embroider onto music merchandise.
The clothing Shalom creates is fun, irreverent, and colorful. Influenced by 1960s Mod fashion and vintage patterns and designs, she constructs pieces largely from thrifted, reused, or upcycled fabrics. Shalom delights in finding unique and affordable materials to create her designs by combing through Anchorage secondhand stores. A recent coup: a $5 sleeping bag found at Goodwill that she’s going to use to make a jacket. Although her focus on fashion didn’t start with an interest in sustainability, she says it makes her feel good knowing how to make and mend clothes. “Sometimes I forget that things end up in the landfill because there’s a tear or a rip or you lose a button, and you don’t know how to fix it or think it will take too much time.” She feels grateful to generations of women in her family that passed down sewing skills, which are a source of pride and confidence in her own life.
Left: Shalom in the process of sewing a bodice from her own pattern in the studio. Right: Sporting a cuckoo clock watch she created.
Although Shalom always made clothes for herself and incorporated those designs into her stage persona, in the summer of 2018, she started creating wallets for sale from a pattern she and her grandmother developed together. Over time, she moved into studio space at Tent City Press and began making more items for sale: bags, jackets, jewelry, vests. She also became obsessed with making pants—a very difficult and precise item of clothing to create the right fit. As she devoted more time to sewing, she developed her own patterns and approach to marketing.
Items from Shalom’s summer 2022 collection
When she’s feeling creatively blocked, Shalom says that looking at her materials will “light a flame… I start to think, what could I make out of that? What is going to serve its purpose? I want to make something that’s greater than what this was before I cut it up.” She has used sleeping bags, blankets, curtains, and tablecloths to make her clothes. Over the summer, she cut up a blanket printed with a reproduction of a Norman Rockwell painting to make a trench coat. When she posted the video to TikTok, she says she was shocked by the number of angry responses from some who saw repurposing the blanket as an act of desecration. But, for Shalom, the joy comes from the process of discovering a strange textile and transforming it into a one-of-a-kind piece for an appreciative customer.
Artist Bethlehem Shalom in her studio. Photo by Jovell Rennie.
Follow along with Bethlehem Shalom’s residency throughout February and March, via the Anchorage Museum’s social media channels, and stay tuned for her livestream studio demo at noon on Wednesday, March 29th via Facebook Live. The Virtual Artist Residency program began in 2020 as a way to support artists at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, it has been supported in part by Art Bridges, The CIRI Foundation, and The Alaska State Council on the Arts. Learn more about past artists-in-residence here.