City as Master and Muse

Exploring the fruitful yields of creative collaboration.

story by Emily Hopkins | photos by Justice Smithers

In a serendipitous moment of creative connection, Sarah Nsikak and Justice Smithers came together. They formed a fast friendship based on the principles of community, resourcefulness and simplicity — all through the careful cultivation of their Instagram feeds. Drawn by Smithers’ clean-cut aesthetics and structured portraiture (as well as a few mutual friends), Nsikak knew he’d be the ideal person to capture the spirit of her emerging brand, Stone + Harper.

Sarah Nsikak modeling an original designed | photographed by Justice Smithers

Nsikak went back to her roots in the formation of Stone + Harper. A first generation American, she re-familiarized herself with her Nigerian heritage through the beloved, traditional craft of sewing. Armed with Nsikak’s classic pieces and Smithers’ trained eye, they produced a lookbook more characteristic of a seasoned fashion brand than of a couple of Oklahoma up-and-comers, as well as exhibits and happenings around town.

“I wanted to come back full circle with the things I was given as a child,” she said. “In Africa, being a seamstress is admired. It’s a career. But in America, it feels like it’s looked down upon to be a seamstress. A title like ‘pattern-maker’ often seems cooler.”

Nsikak is correct in noting that Smithers’ unsettling approach adds much to her branding. “I really like the way he positions models and directs them. The poses are often very unnatural, which is something Oklahoma hasn’t seen much of.”

Take Smithers’ recent photo series, Fragility. In it, he features minimally clothed female models shrouded in accoutrements such as animal skulls, antlers and freshly cut greenery. He’s drawn to the unusual, Smithers said, a propensity fueled by his work at a local thrift store.

“The grosser the better,” he joked, indirectly describing his ability to dig deep in a pile of used elements and emerge with a true gem, whether it’s a prop or a piece of clothing. 

Last spring, Nsikak and Smithers collaborative web grew to include The Wild Mother, an e-zine by a trio of sisters specializing in floral designs, but adept in everything from poetry to beekeeping to photography. Lauren Palmer, lead designer and contributing writer, says the sibs were drawn to the project because of their friendship with Nsikak and their appreciation for Smithers’s whimsically modern representations of reality. The group used Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for aesthetic inspiration, ending up with a project at once ethereal, natural and inspired.

“Other people’s creativity helps to inform and inspire our own,” Palmer said. 

“Living in community and working in community is paramount for us because it helps to broaden our ideas of what is art and alter how we treat our own art.”

It’s clear a creative tide is raising many Oklahoma artistic impulses. Musician and artist Jerrod Beck collaborates within this cluster, and others. He believes in pushing values and visuals that often go under appreciated here. “Many people turn away from, and find themselves uncomfortable with, art this is very raw, bare and vulnerable,” Beck said. “Within the lines and contours of either Sarah’s clothing or Justice’s photographs, there’s much to be interpreted. Commentary on the human condition, frailty, insecurity, empowerments, tradition, society, good, evil, God and the refusal of God—you can transport yourself into another’s reality and analyze your beliefs and self-identity with their work.” 

Nsikak, Smithers and their peers help cultivate an environment where any type of creative person is welcome, regardless of race, religion, gender or creed. The tearing down of walls, of bringing social justice to the forefront in a state that all too often veils itself in a red blanket of ignorance, remains top of mind.

Stone + Harper donates 5% of all sales to arts and music education. “If young kids were learning these things in schools, I think it would alleviate a lot of the problems we see in adults,” explains Nsikak. “Being well rounded as an individual is important.”

On the horizon, Nsikak has a Marfa shoot planned with Brittany Phillips (the amazing photographer who shot our spring cover), and Smithers will continue to bombard Instagram with his airy reflections of beauty in between a lookbook project or two.

For more info, follow their feeds and see StoneAndHarper.com and JusticeSmithersPhotography.com.

Justice Smithers on Instagram | @justicesmithers

Stone + Harper on Instagram | @stoneandharper