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Hollywood in Cambridge

Lisa Lesniak

ONE PERSON'S HEAVEN: costume designer Lisa Lesniak in her Cambridge studio. (Ben Barnhart photo)

Imagine the commotion. You emerge from headquarters – the makeshift dressing room where you must put 600 performers playing Puritans into undershirts, overshirts, petticoats, bodices, bonnets and shoes, and also get them out the door – bearing in mind strict orders from the rental houses in London and Italy to return the costumes in pristine condition. You’re also aware of urgent expectations by the actors that you’ll make them look good even in your limited palette of Puritan Umber and Judgmental Black.

     You’re at the edge of the set, or rather the location – a muddy, marshy strand on Hog Island, off Ipswich – across which, in the climactic scene now being filmed, the actors are asked to stampede. You’re trying to tell the actress in the hand-sewn Italian dress with the white silk collar to hang back, to go last, avoid the worst mud. But an assistant director has already grabbed her and is screaming “You! Run! Now!” Naturally, she trips and falls in the mud, ripping and sullying the collar.

     At such a moment, a person of less sturdy fiber might sag like an ill-basted hem. But if this kind of commotion is your kind of heaven, you coolly mend the collar in time for the next take.

     One person’s commotion is another person’s heaven, and for Cambridge-based costume designer Lisa Lesniak ’80, working on movies has always been paradise. For much of the last five years, this sculptor cum costumer has been an East Coast, on-location duds person for such Hollywood films as The Crucible, Amistad, Good Will Hunting, and The Cider House Rules.

     Trained in ballet and modern dance during her Springfield girlhood, Lesniak arrived at UMass with a balletomane’s consciousness of the body and how it might be adorned. Classes in performance art, and a Ford Foundation award in 2-D Design, moved her toward a double major in dance and art. A class in African art history with Josephus “Femi” Richards sewed up her decision to take a full-body dive into art: “Femi taught me to see fabrics as an area of serious scholarship,” says Lesniak. Twenty years later, her memories of Amherst are visual, visceral: “The landscape, the colors – every day the sunset from my dorm room in Orchard Hill was different – I found them very nutritious, very potent.”

     From UMass Lesniak took on the years of the apprenticeship gigs that are most artists’ way of paying their bills, and/or their dues. She did upholstery and tapestry conservation at the Gardner Museum in Boston and the Textile History Museum in Lowell. She did costume design for dance companies: “Choreographers who would say, ‘I want something flowing, but butch.’” She did huge fabric wall-pieces for corporate lobbies and just last fall showed her work at the Sandra and Phillip Gordon Gallery in the new Boston Arts Academy. Along the way, she squeezed in an MFA in fiber from the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan.

     Artists’ lives rely on what Carl Jung called synchronicity: Happy accidents, happily timed. Lesniak happened to have a neighbor who was a film editor. Noting in her work a persistent thread of innovative interactions with clothing, the neighbor said she should be doing wardrobe in Hollywood. She didn’t have to go that far. About the same time she found herself on the North Shore beach where 20th Century Fox was filming The Crucible, and where it turned out the costume supervisor was desperately seeking someone with Lesniak’s exact skills in fabric conservation. (Given the mud, the salt water, and number of cups of coffee the cast was knocking back, the desperation was understandable.)

     Lesniak and movies were an immediate fit. The writer of a recent film she worked on – The Blue Diner, a story about a Latina girl who suddenly forgets how to speak her mother tongue – calls Lesniak “an artist above all.” But adds Natatsta Estebanez, “At a human level, she’s also a good shrink. I mean, actors get stripped in front of costume people. Lisa knows that egos are a big part of what you’re dressing.”

     Lesniak, though, gives all credit to her medium – to cloth. “I have this theory about the absorbent quality of fabric,” she says. “The emotional, before-filming agitation, the actor who is jittery – the fabric says to them, ‘We’ll wick up all your emotion, like a baby blanket, like swaddling.’ The textile gives the agitation somewhere to go.

     “Sometimes, at the end of the day, I’ll go into the wardrobe and – I swear – I can feel everything the actor’s been through, in the clothes.”

– Ali Crolius

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