Scaling the Heights: Arts patron Shen brings fashion into unique perspective
Had it not been for an invitation her father received to spend the summer living in his boss’ apartment in exchange for watering the gardens, Carla Shen may never have wound up living in Brooklyn Heights, the neighborhood she has now called home for four decades.
It was May of 1968 and having just completed his studies at Harvard Business School, Ted Shen and his wife Carol were living at her parent’s home on Long Island, hoping to find a month-to-month rental in Manhattan where Shen was commuting daily to his first job. Due to the uncertainty of his activation by the U.S. Army for basic training, signing a year lease was too much of a risk for the young couple.
Shen’s boss, aware of his situation, generously offered him the use of his own apartment through Labor Day as his family summered in Bermuda.
It seemed like the perfect solution until Shen learned the home was in Brooklyn, “a forbidding alien territory in which I had never previously set foot!” he recalls. He quickly thanked his boss and in an effort to circumvent the offer, explained he’d found an “ideal” living situation in Riverdale for just $200 a month.
According to Shen, his boss laughed and said, “I might find a 10-minute commute to Wall Street from Brooklyn to be somewhat more ideal than a one-hour commute from Riverdale, and that I’d be hard-pressed to find a more ideal rent than the one he proposed to charge: ‘zero,’ if we would be willing to water his gardens every other day.”
The boss encouraged Shen to at least come take a look and invited him over that evening. Admittedly petrified by traveling to Brooklyn in the dark, Shen made his way to 80 State St., which, to shock and surprise, turned out to be an “incredibly elegant, spacious triplex apartment that backed onto a deep, South-facing, beautifully landscaped garden.” Soon after, the Shens left Long Island and took up residence in the Heights for the summer “that began a love affair with Brooklyn Heights.”
Within a year, Carol and Ted returned to Brooklyn Heights, this time as renters on Remsen Street.
In 1971, they bought a townhouse on State Street with another family and lived on the first two floors.
Three years later in 1974, Carol opened The Brooklyn Heights Potters Co-Operative with four other women. The Co-Operative was located at 194 State Street between Court and Clinton streets and the space consisted of a street-level floor-through with a small retail section in the front and five pottery wheels in the back, as well as a full basement for the two kilns and for clay and glazing materials. The Co-Operative remained open until 1987.
Carla, the Shens’ only child, was born in 1977 and still fondly recalls the Co-Operative. “I always enjoyed spending time in my mother’s studio. My mom would let me play with the clay and use her pottery wheel all the time. This was probably my first exposure to art and it definitely planted a seed for my appreciation of it,” recalls Carla.
Pottery wasn’t the couple’s only connection to art. Carol was a part-time administrator in the Conservation Department of the Brooklyn Museum of Art where Ted was also a board member. Today, Carla proudly serves as a board member there as well and has fond memories of visiting her mom at work at the museum.
When Carla became of school age, she attended Open House for both pre-school and kindergarten and went on to Packer Collegiate for first grade and remained there throughout high school.
In 1995, upon graduating from Packer, Carla attended Yale University and majored in Economics. In 1999, she joined a training program at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), where on the first day of the program, she’d meet the man she’d eventually marry five years later, Harvard-grad Christopher Schott.
Although Schott mentioned early on that his plan was to one day move back to Boston, Carla had her heart set on staying in Brooklyn Heights, the only home she’s ever known, except for college and a brief stint in Murray Hill.
In 2003, Carol Shen passed away at the age of 56 from cancer, and a few months later Carla left her position at Credit Suisse, which by then had merged with DLJ.
A year later, in June of 2004, Carla married Schott at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room. The couple moved to 184 Columbia Heights, right next door to Carla’s father Ted, who remarried Mary Jo Wright in 2006.
Upon returning to the workplace, Carla took a position at New York University’s Stern School of Business in its Strategic Initiatives Group where she remained for a little over a year, moving to Sanford C. Bernstein to work in compliance from 2006 to 2014.
In 2008, Carla and Chris welcomed their daughter Clara into the world. Today, Clara is a third-grader at Packer and has even had some of the same teachers Carla did while a student at Packer.
Today Carla devotes her time to her family along with numerous charitable endeavors she’s involved in, plus a newfound hobby that ties her passion for art and fashion together and has made her somewhat of a local celebrity.
In addition to serving on the board of the Brooklyn Museum, Carla serves on two other boards: The Hope Program, a Brooklyn-based workforce development organization that provides job readiness programs to New Yorkers living in poverty, which was near and dear to her mother who also served on the board; as well as Greenwood Cemetery, where Carol is buried.
For nine years, Carla also served on the Packer Collegiate board, only retiring once she’d hit the term limit. As part of her mother’s legacy, the family formed The Carol Shen Art Gallery at Packer, which hosts exhibitions, gallery talks and educational programming for the student body.
Up until last year, Carla says the only “art” she created was dabbling in cross-stitch and embroidery. That is until she serendipitously uncovered a fun way to engage her love of fashion and art to create her own art.
It began when Carla and her family, along with David Berliner, now president of the Brooklyn Museum, and his daughter planned a private tour of Jack Shainman’s Gallery: The School located in Kinderhook, N.Y. Richard Mosse’s art was being exhibited and Carla wore pink, inspired by Mosse’s color palette.
To Carla and everyone else’s surprise, her pink ensemble blended in so well with Mosse’s work that it appeared Carla herself was part of the artwork. She posed for a photo in front of the artwork. This was just the beginning.
One year later, Carla has posed with 175-plus pieces of art, integrating herself into the work with her matching wardrobe selections.
“I’ve always followed art galleries and different artists on Instagram, but now I do it with a whole new perspective. I try to get a sense of what shows and exhibits are coming up and then I search through my closet for something to match”, Carla explains.
For her 40th birthday this year, Carla admits she took the pastime to a whole new level, as she planned a visit to the recent Kusama exhibit at The Hirshhorn Museum with a friend.
“This time, I went on Etsy to find clothing to match the artwork. The day of the show I wore a slip and kept changing outfits in between the exhibit rooms. All the people in line near us were fascinated and kept wondering what I’d come out wearing next. It was like they were all a part of the experience.” People started taking Carla’s picture and began following her on Instagram.
These days some galleries even seek Carla out and invite her to come in. Artists have also been known to reach out to her and ask her to dress to match their work. She’s even been recognized in the neighborhood. So, if you see Carla in the neighborhood with an overnight bag, she may not be going on vacation, she may just be on her way to another exhibit.
To follow Carla’s adventures and see what she’s up to next, her Instagram handle is @carlapshen or you can visit this link
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