A woman’s artistic journey through design, film, mental illness and several continents.
I first met designer, filmmaker and Cincinnati native Andrea Sisson outside a Cincinnati Ballet adult dance class. A beautiful, other-worldly creature who has little to no capacity for the superficial, Sisson makes it clear within minutes of conversation that she is wholly interested in how creativity and consciousness drive and inspire the human condition. Even before she uttered the words “Iceland, Fulbright, documentary, my brother Jake,” I was intrigued.
She is also 100-percent committed to whatever it is she intends so if she says, “I want you to meet my brother,” you will soon be on your way to meet him.
A week after I met her, Sisson, her husband Pete Ohs and I drove out to visit her younger brother Jake at a nursing home. The couple had recently returned from Iceland, where Sisson was a Fulbright Scholar, to support her brother; to launch their poetic documentary film, I Send You This Place; and to determine the next steps in the future of their creative union. Jake was recovering from a failed suicide attempt and now had broken limbs to accompany his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder (displaying both bipolar and schizophrenic behaviors).
We became fast friends and creative conspirators. In early January of this year, I sat down with Sisson at a Cincinnati coffee shop to fill in the blanks about her creative journey from Oak Hills High School to DAAP to Iceland to Yellow Springs and beyond.
As a young girl, Sisson spent hours in her parent’s Green Township bathroom making theatre. The second oldest of four and the only girl, the household was tumultuous long before Jake’s mental illness began to take root. Sisson's older brother Zack was born deaf and the adjustment process was a challenge for all.
Wearing different bracelets to represent different characters, the vanity mirror as a proscenium stage, she began to work out how the world worked by bringing life to the ideas in her mind.
“I had these imaginary friends. One had red hair that stood up and the other one had blue hair that stood out,” Sisson explains earnestly, emphasizing with her hands how, precisely, the red hair stood up and how the blue hair stood out. “They would argue in my head to work stuff out.”
It is immediately apparent that what Sisson describes as the products of her imagination are as real to her — maybe even more real — as the coffee cup in front of her.
“Creativity is listening to a certain consciousness. And I have always painted these characters to tell the story of my consciousness,” she says.
In middle school and high school, Sisson immersed herself in dance, drawing, painting and sewing. By her senior year at Oak Hills High School, she had organized her schedule so it was entirely comprised of art classes.
“Every night I went home and sewed my clothes for the next day,” Sisson explains. “It was the peak of my creativity.”
Her high school friends and teachers agreed. She was named Most Artistic student.
NOMADS, MUSICIANS AND ELVES
A high school art teacher’s suggestion that Sisson become a fashion designer led her to the University of Cincinnati's Design, Architecture, Art and Planning school in 2005. “In my first year Design Foundation course I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” she says. “Using art to solve problems and create functional solutions to assist society, well, I loved it.”
In her third year, Sisson started to move around to various co-op jobs in New York, Iceland and Italy. “I was thinking a lot about the nomadic lifestyle and finding places to rest. I was thinking ‘What do you really need?’” she says, so she was inspired to create a knitwear sweater/jacket that turned into a chair.
The next functional item that intrigued Sisson was making clothing for musicians, including then College Conservatory of Music student Eddy Kwon. “I made a suit for Eddy’s violin. To me it was functional art to the max, a tuxedo with back pocket,” she says. “I started making other characters. I could see Eddy in a world where people wear tuxes and violins.”
Ann Firestone, DAAP Adjunct Instructor of Fashion, recalls Sisson as, “a true original and an extraordinary outside-the-box — and sometimes the universe — thinker; a phenomenal intellectual.”
At times, Sisson pushed so far outside of the box that it limited her commercial viability. “I made some outfits that were like ready-to-wear mountain landscapes,” Sisson explains. “Some corporate people came to a [critique] and wanted to know who would wear it. I said ‘elves.’ The audience laughed. They blew it off and gave me a bad score.”
To know Sisson is to know that in her out-of-the-universe universe, elves would wear it. So would she. Only lately did she come to understand the crit. “Now I know what they mean,” she says. “Now I would understand how to go back to the outfits and alter them to make them something for people to wear. My desire then was to explore and push.”
Sisson worked her student co-ops in great cities for well-known companies, but many of them were dissatisfying to her ambitious, creative spirit, particularly the floor-sweeping, errand-running parts of the job.
“I reached out to an Icelandic designer because I loved his poetry and designs so I wrote him this long email and specified what I wanted to do in my co-op and what I didn’t want to do,” Sisson recalls.
He wrote her back an even longer email, replying to each paragraph.
“I almost cried. He received me and responded to me and was excited,” she says. “So I go to Iceland to discover he is crazier than I am and running a business. We made chairs out of concrete, we made a record case out of concrete, or we tried to anyway.”
For Sisson, it was a great experience. “All day long I would fold paper into purses. But really I was levitating above the table, in my mind space.”
Sisson returned to the Icelandic designer for her final co-op before graduation but was less satisfied, yearning for more of a creative partnership around ideas.
By the summer of 2010, she was back in Cincinnati, finishing up school and getting serious with her future husband, filmmaker Ohs.
“Then I got the Fulbright,” Sisson explains. “I got a letter from the U.S. Congress saying ‘We support what you do. Go do what you want.’ I thought ‘Oh my god, it worked! Being a little crazy is paying off.’"
The two married in August and two weeks later, with Ohs, Sisson moved back to Iceland to complete her Fulbright.
According to their website, “Lauren Edward is the superhero that was born from the marriage of Andrea Lauren Sisson & Peter Edward Ohs.”
Sisson recalls that in Iceland, “We started sharing everything," she says." We wanted to be very creatively open. Pete makes my stuff better, more complete. And we are very honest. I will say ‘That’s not good’ when he says something. As a team, what’s his is now mine so it has to be good. I like that.”
Ohs, who is as thoughtful as Sisson and works to understand the world with equally rigorous ambition and intellect, explains the dynamic in similar ways. “She brings truth and purpose. She brings unfiltered emotion and unfaltering ethics. She is the barometer," he says. "I can look at her and immediately know if we are on the right path or if we’re off course, if the pressure’s too high or if the stars are aligned. I put a lot of faith in her and I’m happy to do it.”
Ohs also appreciates Sisson’s “obsessive attention to detail.”
“Lines, pixels, colors, shapes, words, meanings; there are tiny details that can be subtly shifted within all these elements. It takes a gifted eye and a determined spirit to pay attention to all of them,” he says. “To borrow from the ‘forest for the trees’ idiom, Andrea lives in the forest and she absolutely loves each and every little animal, leaf and piece of bark.”
I SEND YOU THIS PLACE
Sisson’s obsessive attention to detail becomes a focal point early in the Lauren Edward documentary I Send You This Place. The film, shot in Iceland and Cincinnati, examines the nature of the mind when it becomes overwhelmed by place or circumstance. A love letter to Sisson’s brother Jake, ISYTP asks how we construct our ideas about what is and is not normal behavior. The visually poetic film follows Sisson’s journey as she questions if Jake would be deemed mentally ill in Iceland or by anyone who has experienced the tempestuous, brutal, strange beauty of the place itself.
ISYTP screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., the Reykjavik International Film Festival in 2012 and in New York at the Video Art & Experimental Film Festival in February, 2013. It also enjoyed a Cincinnati screening at the Emery Theatre last November. It was the first time Sisson’s brother Jake had seen the film. Jake rarely watches anything on television or film so his steady presence throughout the hour-plus documentary was impressive. Afterward, Jake talked with friends and fans about his primary interest: gods and goddesses.
By the time of the Cincinnati screening, it had been a little over a year since Jake launched himself from a bridge and Sisson and Ohs had moved back from Iceland to spend time with him. They became convinced that the traditional, institutional, drug-heavy approach to Jake’s mental illness was keeping him sick. Last spring, they set off to find alternative treatment for Jake and ended up on a multi-week road trip, caring for him in his highly psychotic, non-medicated state.
Sisson thinks of the experience now as a way to validate her brother as he was convinced there was a better way for him to get better. “We trusted Jake to lead the way. It was his journey, it’s his life and we were trying to help,” she says. “I think this was a tremendous thing for Jake and my family. Jake being listened to. Validated.”
“I also got to spend time with my brother,” she says. “I hadn’t spent time with him since we were teenagers, since the ‘sickness.' Pete and I wanted to stir up the situation, to help Jake, myself, others around him see him differently.”
EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS FAR AWAY
Part of the vision for Jake had been pastoral: Find a farm where he can live and heal. While it turned out it was better for everyone — Jake included — to return to his parents, Sisson and Ohs have spent the past six months living in a rented Yellow Springs farmhouse, making short films for Spotify and other commercial concerns, traveling to film festivals (including Sundance for “research”) and moving into the next iteration of their shared vision.
Sisson’s next source of inspiration is film. She just isn’t exactly sure yet where that will take her; perhaps L.A., perhaps New York or both.
“We want to make films,” Sisson explains. “We are shooting one this spring about two people walking through a desert. A young man is carrying a wooden robot head. It’s his girlfriend and he wants to find the parts to fix her. Then he meets another woman. She is looking for a mythological lake. They are searching for something better and realize maybe they don’t want to be better anymore.”
The title of this indie mirage narrative, likely to feature Sisson as the girl looking for the mythological lake, is Everything Beautiful is Far Away.
I ask Sisson for a word to describe what the next six months look like for her and Ohs.
“Nomadic,” she says.
Portrait by William Coupon, sweater chair photo by Michael DeGrazier, violin tux photo provided and I Send You This Place still provided