I spotted Tracy at J.Crew’s presentation last season. Her long, dual french braids and Georgia O’Keeffe-esque demeanor immediately drew me to her. This was the season they used friends of J.Crew to model in their show – and as I was soon to find out, Tracy was in fact their set director, building her career in visuals at J.Crew over the past 23 years. When I dug a little deeper into the woman who creates not just the sets for every catalog, but also paints brilliant florals in her spare time, I found out so much more. So it felt like the perfect opportunity to explore Tracy’s creative process a bit further and all the stories that came with it.
Where did you grow up?
Detroit! But I lived in Chicago for six years where I started working for J.Crew in-store. I’ve worked for them for 23 years. I’ve been here for a long time…
So you started in the stores?
I was a visual director in Chicago and they moved me here (to NYC) to run the Prince street store as the visual manager. After a while I was like “I’m done!” and got pulled into the corporate office to help work on the direction for the windows. Eight years later, I was looking to do something different and created the job of set director for myself. Ann Johnson, who was the art director, came on set with us just when the catalog had started to really change. She wanted props so I said, “I’ll get it!” and I just started sourcing all of these props. Fifteen years later, I’m still doing set direction!
How did you get into painting, is it something you’ve always done or went to school for?
My friend was a technical designer and decided to go back to school. He got into Princeton for a 5 year PhD program and he said “Girl, if you fucking want to paint, you paint!” and it just woke me up.
I’ve always loved painting. I love art and I never stop going to shows. I used to go to Chelsea every weekend to see every single show. Now, I use most of my weekends to paint here as much as I can. In the beginning I painted really abstract things, I didn’t think I could do very realistic work so I pulled colors over things.
And look at me now! I had a show at Bergdorf last March with 45 paintings on their 5th floor. It was up for three months. They let me curate it and I put up everything that I had. After that show I walked through the new Whitney and looked at the work of all these American painters and thought “This is me. I’m an American painter too.” I’ve always wanted to be a part of that. When I first moved to New York 20 years ago, I made friends with an abstract expressionist painter who was big in the 50s (she passed away at 84) and painted with De Kooning. She would run around with all these amazing painters and owned a gallery on 10th street, right next to where our J.Crew office is now, where all the galleries used to be. She always called painting the “magnificent obsession”! It’s a hobby but I can’t not do it!
I have to ask, has your hair always been really long?
In the 80s, it was crazy, short, shaped out and big.
Do you have photos of that?
I have a few but nobody really had a camera back then! It’s so funny because my brother had a shaved head with spikes and we would go to concerts in Detroit when I was 16, with our crazy hair. Now Detroit is such a mecca for artists. It’s kind of like the Lower East Side 20 years ago.
Ok, back to the paintings in your studio, they are so beautiful, such brilliant, bright, happy colors!
I usually paint two paintings, two versions, at the same time. One with a background and one without. Usually I’ll pull in color over things. Starting with a floral arrangement as a base, that I end up pulling paint over, kind of like weaving. I risk losing everything, but then I bring it back.
Did they sell?
I sold three paintings from there, which was wild.