Designer Noel Bennetto operates the online shop Brass Arrow from Philadelphia, first home to the Lenape people. On the site, Bennetto offers a sampling of her Indigenous-American art emblazoned on shirts, shorts, pants, tapestries, and more. It’s all part of an effort she describes as creating work that “resonates with my beliefs in the healing powers of positivity, sustainability and the handmade.” Emphasizing nature and spirit, with a tinge of romanticism, Bennetto’s designs apply traditional patterns and processes to contemporary garments like jeans, jumpsuits and more. In her words, the resulting products are “medicinal, mystical, functional and beautiful.” They interpolate centuries of history and fight through years of outsider-induced trauma and erasure.
We spoke with Bennetto for further insight on her processes, the importance of producing Indigenous-American art, and the seemingly complex colors and calligraphy she employs.
Can you explain the lens with which you approach apparel projects? How do you summarize your work?
I work mostly with my intuition and a sort of mental rolodex of my inspirations and cultural influences. I feel like I have a sort of visual vocabulary that I work from and approach design with a lot of storytelling. So, in a way, I’m using some consistent themes like words in a poem, and looking at each one differently, like archetypes explored in a thesaurus.
I make wearable, sustainable art that is made with intention for the collector, to embolden them and enrich self expression on a deeper level
I am very committed to sustainability and reworking materials. I love the history, the wear, and the romance of it—I’m a big romantic. I would say that I make wearable, sustainable art that is made with intention for the collector, to embolden them and enrich self-expression on a deeper level. And, with sustainability in mind, as well as the imagery I use, to create a stronger connection to nature and being in a relationship of care and protection for it.
What is your process for dyeing? How did your technique come about?
I use a lot of different techniques—discharge dyeing, natural dyes, batik, printing, painting, embroidery, and beadwork. I am mostly self-taught but that is to say I never went to college/university. I am incredibly lucky to have been born to wildly creative and supportive parents who know how to do basically everything. My mother is an artist and, traditionally, in our indigenous culture, we pass down our handwork skills as both spiritual and cultural preservation and practice. I also jumped headfirst into underground DIY art punk worlds growing up and that community, scrappy, “just do it” ethos is woven deeply into me.
Can you expand upon the importance of symbolism in your work?
I think it resonates back to what I’ve been saying: a vocabulary of symbolism that is both about indigenous cultural visibility, in both historical and modern First Nations art and design.
Sometimes you paint graphics, other times they’re dyed into the garment? How do you decide which route to go?
A lot has to do with the structure of the fibers—what can react or hold up to what, and aesthetic choices, too, like the best color/composition or the strongest method to convey the image. A lot of times I just close my eyes when I hold the garment, fabric, sketchbook, or whatever medium I’m working with, and it just appears to me.
How do you embody the aforementioned “medicinal, mystical, functional, and beautiful realms of nature and spirit” in your work?
Through interpretations of both archetypes and dreamt/imagined ideas, I meditate and have always had a lot of ideas come to me this way. Like David Lynch talks about, mediation is a way to “catch the big fish.” It really results and resounds with me the same, in subconscious visions. It’s my job to make those into beautiful, unique clothing that hopefully people will have forever or find sustainable ways to pass along, rework, or reuse. All of these are really just acts of love, which, to me, as an artist and a romantic, is the highest compliment or “success” I could find.
There’s significance to presenting and preserving Indigenous-American styles and traditions. Can you explain how you’re approaching this?
This is a very big question because our indigenous existence is constantly threatened by ongoing colonial oppression—from the lands we live on, the water we use, spiritual practices. Honestly, every part of our cultures has been appropriated or has been under threat to be erased or controlled. We’re survivors of global massacres, and there is so much to learn for non-indigenous people—to heal and to make serious reparations.
It’s very important that First Nations Peoples are able to thrive, to be held up and given safe space to share and create and just live life. We have a long way to go to be there, and I feel a huge responsibility to share what I do for other QTBIPOC (queer and trans black, indigenous, people of color) that you can do this too, and we’re not alone. To share our joy, creativity, and our struggles. I often want to retreat from public social media platforms because I’m now a guarded person from having a lot of traumas in my life, and social media can unfortunately be a magnet for non-BIPOC to ask a lot of us and it is a lot of unpaid and taxing, exhausting labor for us.
The thing that keeps me going, honestly, is that there is maybe someone out there, another very marginalized person like myself, looking for pathways and somehow what I do will help. I don’t give myself that much credit, but I know I grew up in a time where I didn’t see much visibility, people like me, and any tiny light that I found I clung onto. We need more of that, and social media has been truly awesome for visibility and connection. I do a lot of advocacy and activism to support indigenous peoples and the environment, and try to raise up and share other QTBIPOC voices as well.
There is a drive inside me that is from an ancestry of being on the verge of extinction and fighting and surviving
There is a drive inside me that is from an ancestry of being on the verge of extinction and fighting and surviving. I want to transform that into thriving, where we don’t have to be “survivors” because we are no longer unsafe, endangered from ongoing colonial systemic supremacy. If something beautiful I make and share causes someone’s heart and mind to open to learning and listening, being proactive around healing, then I’ve done my job well as a designer, artist and indigenous person.
Images courtesy of of Noel Bennetto / Brass Arrow