How can art and design work together to solve a social issue, and engage and reactivate a community in the process? That’s a driving question behind Flint Fit, a collaboration between designer Tracy Reese and conceptual artist Mel Chin that turned plastic water bottles from Flint, Michigan into garments. Showcased earlier this year at Queens Museum, the result
was not just a capsule collection, but a prototype for future action.
Since 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan have been struggling with a severe water crisis. With dangerous levels of lead in their tap water, residents were forced to consume bottled water, given out at distribution centers. After assessments of water quality, the free bottled water program ended earlier this spring, but many residents still don’t trust the municipal water and
consumption of bottled water continues. Where does all that single-use plastic waste go?
Chin was already in Flint with his project Fundred, an arts initiative that activates children and families to call for a lead-free future. He wanted to come up with a project that not only showcased the problem in Flint, but provided solutions. For that, he had to ask the community what they needed.
“When I do a project that involves community,” says Chin, “I try to get community leaders from all parts [of the community]. They challenged me.”
The challenge was to do things differently than those who had come before him. The community had seen many political figures and leaders come through their city, but they were still left without clean drinking water, and skeptical of Chin’s ability to make change.
“They asked me ‘How will you as an artist exploit us to make your project?’” says Chin, who took that challenge to heart and responded with, ‘I’m glad you asked me that because I don’t think I can solve the water crisis, but can I pay you to collect the bottles.’”
Over a six-week period in the fall of 2017, Flint residents collected 90,000 empty water bottles. Those bottles were then taken to North Carolina textile manufacturer Unifi where they were turned into fabric, then designed into a capsule collection by Reese, herself a Michigan native. The final garments were sewn back in Flint at the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, an organization that empowers survivors of abuse and poverty.
“[It’s] A prototype to show and celebrate the community,” says Chin. “It’s not just a good story, it was an attempt to be a pilot to see ‘can we even do this?’”
Other partners on the project included the nonprofit No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum, who commissioned the first prototype capsule collection of Flint Fit on the occasion of Mel’s exhibition at Queens Museum All Over the Place.
“For Queens Museum, we’re committed to collaboration and dialogue with our local community, and this often extends to
the artists and creative producers we work with at the museum,” says Lindsey Berfond, Assistant Curator for Public Programs. “This is one of the first times we’ve worked closely with a community situated miles away in Flint, Michigan. Our team traveled to Flint several times to meet with activists and community members to determine the direction of the
While the end result of the pilot project was a capsule collection, as an initiative, the scope of Flint Fit is much bigger than just fashion. As Chin points out, it’s about “reginiting something more hopeful. Something that can be done while we are waiting for something to be done.”
Flint Fit is an example of a community driven solution to a community problem.
“Working together with the resilient citizens of Flint was absolutely crucial to making this prototype a reality,” says Berfond.
Now Chin and his team are looking to what comes next. “As a conceptualizer I think about not how things end but how they begin and evolve,” says Chin.
Flint Fit stage two involves thinking about how the project might be a prototype for a future Flint-led business endeavor, the chance to not just engage the community but reignite local industry.
“Flint, a city once well known for its automotive industry, was this place where everything used to be made and I’m thinking, why can’t things be made here again?” says Chin, pointing out the rich manufacturing history of Flint that Chin sees as a resource. As a larger prototype for social action, Flint Fit isn’t just about recycling plastic bottles, it’s about “recycling possibilities and expertise,” says Chin.
“My reward one day would be to be wear something called Flint Fit in the rain in Michigan. That would mean that we did
something together… that something creative was done in a crisis driven society.”
Flint Fit serves as an example of what’s possible, and how creative collaborations can help to find solutions to today’s pressing problems. “Creativity exists in all communities. It doesn’t take an artist to bring it in,” says Chin. “Sometimes you just have to be open. You just have to give possibilities.”