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Adrien Broom '94, a renowned fine art, commercial, and portrait photographer whose work has been shown in museums and galleries across the globe and written about in publications from The New York Times to Smithsonian Magazine, returned to campus to accept The Country School's 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award. Taking her audience through a "journey in pictures," she told students, teachers, parents, alumni, past parents, and former teachers about her evolution as an artist and the philosophy that has guided her along the way.
"It all just kind of started because I knew I wanted to create," she said "You can't get caught up in the details of everything being perfect – you just have to do it."
For Adrien, "doing it" means creating imaginative, sometimes fantastical works that often combine photography with painting, set design, costume design, and even film. The end product usually conveys some sort of narrative, and many of her pieces exhibit a strong sense of place.
One example, from Adrien's "Being" series, is this photo taken at Wentworth Woodhouse outside London.
Beginning with a photograph of herself with her younger sister, Margot, TCS '98, and the remarkable snowwoman they built one winter, Adrien talked about her artistic journey. While she is the daughter of creative parents, she said The Country School helped instill a love of art as well. "I remember teachers, including some here today, really encouraging a sense of creativity, and that was important," she said. "I kind of took that with me through high school and college and it made me proud. I wasn't always the best at history or math but art was always my thing."
After studying animation and graphic design at Northeastern University, Adrien said she wasn't sure what she wanted to do, so when a musician friend asked her to join her band to document their road tour, she said yes. "Their career grew as my career grew," Adrien said. "It was a very cool introduction to photography."
She learned how to capture specific moments, how to handle lighting, and a lot about what it's like to live on the road. But eventually she found herself wanting to produce her own projects so, again on that notion that you "just have to do it," she grabbed her camera and her sister Margot and headed to an antique shop in New London, which she thought would make an intriguing setting for some photographs. "I got caught up in the storytelling part of it," she said.
At right, Adrien shares a photograph from the antique store shoot. The store's owner had a collection of taxidermy animals, and Adrien used the animals and models to come up with a series of fantastical images, including this one featuring Maggie Keeler '14.
The photos in the antique store led to a request from a lighting company to do a project using their equipment. Adrien arranged a photoshoot in East Haddam, for which she built a set and photographed more models and animals (this time live animals, including a "zonkey" – half donkey, half zebra – at Ray of Light Farm). "That was when I realized that set design and set building, creating these other worlds, was what really got me excited," she said.
Perhaps her largest project to date grew from that experience. "I had this idea one day that I wanted to build worlds based around each color – white, red, orange, yellow, etc. – and stage a story of a girl waking up in a room without any color and rediscovering all the colors of the rainbow," she said. She and her team (collaboration, she has learned, is a key to all her projects) engaged in a lot of brainstorming and then a lot of building as, over the course of three years, they built different sets embodying each color of the rainbow. Once the set was built, they would shoot photographs and film, and then dismantle it, starting fresh and creating a new set in an entirely different color.
"This project ... really kind of solidified who I am as an artist – other worldly set building or world building," she said, sharing time-lapse videos (eliciting oohs and ahhs from her audience) which showed how she developed the orange world, for instance, or the purple world, or the final world – the rainbow world. Click here to watch a time lapse video of the development of Adrien's World of Green.
World of Blue from The Color Project.
World of Red. See more from The Color Project.
The Color Project garnered attention from many quarters, and Adrien was asked to do projects in New York, Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans, New London, and elsewhere. Eventually the Hudson River Museum asked her to do a show based on fairy tales, something she's long been interested in. "Even at The Country School I'd been obsessed with folk lore and fairy tales and mythologies," she said.
Like The Color Project, the Hudson River Museum project won her a lot of accolades and some nice reviews and articles, but she began to be asked the same question: "That's nice, Adrien, but how are you going to pay the rent?" To which Adrien has an answer. "I pay my rent in a couple of different ways," she said, pointing out that she has done ad work for the likes of Disney Philips (click here) and a wedding dress company as well as private, commissioned portraits for individual and family clients.
One of Adrien's portraits. See more portraits.
Her latest projects take her away from set design and allow her to explore already established settings in new ways. "I had become known for my sets, creating these other worldly things, but to be honest, you kind of want to test the water a little bit and it was kind of exhausting so I decided I was going to shift a little bit and find locations that needed no adjustment."
The idea was that she would reach out to historic properties, see if she could gain access to them, and "kind of stage my own stories within these magical locations." Her first project in this new realm took place in Wentworth Woodhouse outside of London, "my dream location for my first excursion," she said. Instead of set design, she focused on costume design, sewing thousands of LED lights into a dress, creating "one piece of artwork that could change the whole image."
That project led her in a whole new direction, and recently she partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a series she's calling "Holding Space: Historic Homes Project," an exploration of historic homes of artists and writers. Essentially, she will be going around the country, staging narratives within these homes. She starts by researching the house's former resident and then creating stories to convey those individuals. The stories are "directly related but with my own fantastical twist," she said.
Adrien with her photo of the Mark Twain House behind her.
Twain House exterior by Adrien.
Twain House interior shot.
A future destination in this series may be Gillette Castle, the stone castle close to the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, near where Adrien grew up.
Students and teachers loved hearing about Adrien's work and her evolution as an artist, asking her questions about everything from where she found her props to where she finds her inspiration. As Mila Pantovich wrote in the Huffington Post recently, "There are many different types of artists out there, from photographers and painters to sculptors and filmmakers, and some artist are talented enough that they excel at more than one medium. It's pretty darn amazing, though, when someone has so much creativity spilling from their minds that they do all of it, and that's exactly what Adrien Broom does."
Thank you for sharing your enormous talent with us, Adrien Broom. More than a few young artists in the audience – and several older ones – were deeply inspired by your work. And more than a few teachers felt proud to know that they might have played a small role in encouraging your development as an artist.
Head of School John Fixx and Adrien and Margot Broom catch up with former teachers Arn Krugman and Sarah Barber, both of whom returned to campus to see their former student receive her award.
The Distinguished Alumni Award is presented annually to a former student who embodies The Country School mission. Part of our mission speaks directly to creativity: "As we honor the creativity, sense of wonder, and exuberance in childhood, we inspire enthusiasm for learning as an exciting, lifelong activity. We value imagination and diverse ways of thinking." Who could embody these attributes better than Adrien Broom? For more about Adrien, go to https://www.adrienbroom.com. For more photos from Adrien's visit, click here.
To read about previous Distinguished Alumni Award winners, visit https://www.thecountryschool.org/about/alumni/distinguished-alumni-award