Bree Person: A Mind in the Clouds
How often do you look up into the sky? Absorbing the rays of the sun as you watch the clouds drift on their way? Scenic and set designer, Bree Person does, and she has for as long as she can remember. One may say she’s a bit…obsessed.
“Clouds exist regardless of how we manipulate the Earth. They are always moving to their own beat,” said Bree during our Zoom interview in late November. The formlessness of the clouds is what has always drawn her in. Clouds can bring people together to share a vision and allow people to have their own experience simultaneously, which for Bree, is what makes them so amazing. “Clouds just are what they are, and you can interpret them into whatever you want, based on your experiences.” Her favorite clouds are cumulus clouds. They are fluffy and white and isolated from the rest, and it is that isolation that allows the cumulus clouds to thrive.
That’s something that Bree and the clouds have in common—she also thrives in isolation. Having been born with sickle cell disease, the health complications that come with that have led to periods of isolation in her life. Through that isolation, she discovered the importance of transforming one’s personal and intimate spaces to allow them to be as free as they want. “Isolation gives me space to be in control of how I want to be present in the world,” she exclaimed. For Bree, the isolation is restorative and provocative. As Michaela Coel, an idol of hers, said in her Emmy award acceptance speech for her limited series, I May Destroy You, “Do not be afraid to disappear, from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” Many of Bree’s installations were created in her own bedroom, including her very first one, which was created on the campus of SUNY Purchase College, called Climate Control.
Climate Control was an exploration into her cloud obsession and the impact of the weather on our emotional wellbeing. The installation consisted of handmade cumulus clouds, which represented fair weather and balloons she blew up that symbolized the weather balloons we send into the atmosphere to report back and influence our weather forecast. She was interested in examining how the weather impacted the clothes we wear, the changes in our emotional and mental state via seasonal depression, and how to circumvent any negativity that may come with that. “I wanted to dictate the weather in my apartment. I wanted it to be fair weather because I’m always dressing comfortably. I wanted a safe space and for me to be ok with my environment,” she explained. At the time she was creating this piece, she was experiencing a pretty severe sickle cell episode which kept her secluded, so being able to manipulate her personal space revitalized her.
She continued to build off the momentum gained from her first piece. Her next installation was an interactive, interview focused series called Televise Me, and it took her three days, with no sleep, to finish. She spray painted strips of styrofoam and hung several of her treasured cumulus clouds to create the background for her set.
“I was just talking to different artists around campus that were really interesting to me. They were these people that majored in really interesting things, but their hobbies, it almost seemed like they were polar opposite to what they did at school,” said Bree. She reflected on two of her participants, Jahleel Hills, a film graduate who was primarily known on campus for his drumming, and Halima Konteh, a Ghanaian-American painter that explores her own americanization while holding on to her Ghanaian roots in her work. "Televise Me was really about giving people a platform to talk about the work that they do that they aren’t always able to explain to everyone…people see what you're doing but they aren’t always listening to what you’re saying, and I wanted a space where people can make it what they wanted.” Televise Me allowed Bree to combine her Anthropology major with the art she created, which resulted in quite an informative series, though that wasn’t it’s only purpose. “I wanted people to play with me,” Bree emphasized. Before the interviews began, Bree would scatter around props and toys in front of the set and she and the participants would just play. It would “loosen them up” and relax them before they delved into some pretty serious conversations. “I wanted people to have fun with me. I wanted to get into the habit of creating interactive art that goes into who people are outside of what they have been socialized to be.” Though Televise Me is no longer active, several of her interviews are available to watch on her YouTube channel.
When asked if she had a favorite project she’s worked on, Bree didn’t have one, but she did remember the strenuous ones. Like Urban Renewal, an installation that focused on reframing the narrative of those living in the projects into one of empowerment, as opposed to the ethnographies written by outsiders who deemed them inferior—it took two weeks to finish. And Safety, an installation centered on creating necessary boundaries for oneself, was made with caution tape that often required her to restart entire sections when one piece of tape creased. “If it creases, you’re just hyper away of all the mistakes of the last strip of tape,” she explained. She has attempted to remake Safety several times in different spaces but she eventually had to let it go because of the sheer amount of work it required.
These days, Bree is currently working on an untitled installation that includes vinyl record covers of mostly Black femmes from the 70s. “I love that it’s mostly Black femmes from this era because I feel like when you think of music from the era, you think of black men because they dominated the music scene. Black women had a space, but when we do talk about music that was revolutionary, we have a strong lens on Black men,” said Bree. She appreciates the intricacy of album covers from the era as we are so desensitized to that kind of medium today with our daily over-consumption of images. Her focus for this piece is to bring a hyper awareness to the presence of Black femmes in our culture and to be representative of the space that we are allotted and the space that we should be claiming. Some of the artists included in her installation are Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Melba Moore and many other artists that she is just discovering. She wants to do more interview based work with this piece, but she’s not quite sure yet how she’ll incorporate that.
We can’t wait to see the finished product and what she’ll make after. Her goal is to continue to create a platform for voices that need to be amplified. We wish Bree the best and know that she will soar as high as the clouds she continues to get lost in.