Designer Michaela Courtney, kneeling, with models wearing five of the eight pieces from her fashion thesis entitled ‘Requiem for Camp Ellis.’ COURTESY PHOTO/Francesca Petrucci

SACO — When self-proclaimed “ocean child” Michaela Courtney left hometown coastal Saco for fashion school, the stories of Camp Ellis’ coast ravaged by the effects of erosion followed.

“This problem has been in the background of my entire childhood, but facing it has allowed me to be intimate with myself about the tough emotions that it stirs, and open up to others about the healing that we need to do alongside our planet,” said Courtney in the introduction of her thesis collection entitled “Requiem for Camp Ellis.”  This past week was the first time the collection was photographed at the very site of its inspiration.

Courtney graduated from Thornton Academy in 2014 and after a short stint at Maine College of Art, went on to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design at Kent State University, located in Kent, Ohio where the closest “coast” is Great Lake Erie.

Kent State is one of the only universities to house a “Stoll ADF-3,” and a “Stoll CMS 520 C+ which, translated from fashion-speak, are large industrial knitting machines. Courtney took full advantage of these knitwear playgrounds, transforming several of her assignments into knitwear clad earning her the Knitwear Design Award at the Kent State annual fashion show two consecutive years. Currently, two pieces from her thesis (not featured in the photoshoot) are receiving international recognition at the Keimyung University fashion show in South Korea.

“Sustainability served as the underbelly to nearly all of my work in part because the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world,” said Courtney.

Models depicted in the ‘Requiem for Camp Ellis’ photoshoot are, from left, Models from left to right: Alexandra Kania, Emily Murray, Aislinn Travis,
Gaia Ayres, Gabi Thompson, and Gabby Poulin. COURTESY PHOTO/Francesca Petrucci

Her senior thesis blends art and fashion to tell the story of severe coastal erosion which has left 48 Camp Ellis homes destroyed over the past 50 years. The thesis comprises eight pieces named for each stage of the erosion crisis: Industry, Destruction, Reflect, Grieve, Protect, Fight, Community and After.

Science literature points its finger at two main causes for erosion. One cause is rising sea levels as a result of glacial melt due to climate change. The second is the 6,600-foot rock jetty which erodes existing beach and shifts it northward to Scarborough’s coast.

Courtney’s thesis fills the gap in some of the literature by depicting a two-fold cause for the crisis, beginning with the rationale behind the construction of the jetty. During the mid-1800s, the Saco River served as a navigable pathway which connected textiles along with other goods, produced in the thriving Saco and Biddeford mills, to the rest of the world at the dawn of modern globalization. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the jetty in order to clear shoal and sand which prevented trade ships from easily traveling to and from the mills.

“It was the economic promise that was housed within these mills that allowed my community to build and flourish, and it was the consequences of growth within them that is causing its destruction,” said Courtney.

This period, known as the industrial age, saw the sharpest rise in carbon dioxide than ever before in human history which has led to equally unprecedented increases in the Earth’s temperature. The warming has accelerated glacial melt and sea level rise, a primary contributor to coastal erosion of 90 percent of the world’s coasts from Maine to Malaysia to Malta.

“I wanted to focus on the loss and despair, but moreover, I wanted to create a platform to discuss hope and solutions for recovery. I avoided creating a doomsday collection marked by the sheer hopelessness which we so often see on the news,” said Courtney.

All of the yarn was either purchased from Quince & Co., a company housed in the Saco mills, or from companies which specialize in organic, domestically sourced materials.

“This is really important to me because a lot of times when you’re buying material you don’t know where it’s coming from and there’s no way to trace it and there’s a lot of problematic issues around material development and the health effects that it gives to the communities that process them,” said Courtney.

The materials are part of the entire message of the thesis because it shows the ways in which closed economic systems, centered on local industries, can pave the way toward a sustainable future, she said.

“I really wanted this project to speak mostly to Saco, but in the seventh piece entitled ‘Community,’ I wanted to show that erosion is a global crisis which is being tackled by people all over the world who have not been taken seriously by their governments,” said Courtney.

Five of the six models are Thornton Academy dance students and activists who resonated with Courtney’s thesis as they also use art as a medium for discussing current phenomena.

In a roundtable discussion, students said they feel the urgency to prevent the bleak projection of their community’s future as a result of climate breakdown from becoming reality.

“I think there’s a lot of power in the voice of the youth as a lot of us are coming up on voting age and we are really excited to get our voices heard on a more global scale and there’s a really positive movement of youth action coming out of the last couple years that is going to move our world in a really positive way,” said TA student and organizer Aislinn Travis who took part in the Portland School Strikes for Climate, a global youth movement inspired by 15 year-old student Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

“It’s our future, if the older generations aren’t going to do anything then it’s up to us to take action in times when action is needed,” said TA student and model Gaia Ayres.

Courtney said she will continue to bring sustainable ideas to whatever career she pursues for the health of the planet and future generations.

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