Published May 15, 2023

A Designer Original

Katie Pourcho poses in front of the White House wearing colorful dress designed by students.Katie Pourcho’s student-designed dress has been worn to the White House and displayed at the statehouse. Now, it has a permanent home in our house.

In April, Pourcho donated to the museum two dresses, shoes and accessories that she had worn to Washington, D.C., when she met President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden after being named 2020 Indiana Teacher of the Year. The clothing was designed by her K-2 students at Danville North Elementary School.

“Art is meant to be seen – and it’s not meant to stay in my closet,” Pourcho said. “And from the very beginning, as we were putting this together, in the back of my head I was thinking that after the trip to D.C., it would be just too amazing if it was actually in a museum and my at-the-time second-graders and first-graders and kindergarteners could say, ‘I have work at the museum.’ How cool is that for a child to say?”

The museum’s interest in the dresses started when Paige Sharp, the Indiana Arts Commission’s deputy director of programs, asked to borrow mannequins and pedestals from the museum to display Pourcho’s dresses at the statehouse.

Mark Ruschman, senior curator of fine arts and culture for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, became interested in the story behind the dresses and contacted Pourcho about donating one or more of them to the museum’s permanent collection.

“As an art teacher, part of my job is to advocate for my students and to uplift their work so that more people can see it,” Pourcho said. “It was such a monumental thing that we did together – a dress that went all the way to the White House and got to be seen by the president and the First Lady, the secretary of education and teachers and educators from all around the county.”

The gala dress and the White House dress both started out as plain white; the designs were created through two different processes. For the White House dress, Pourcho collaborated with her student Hadley Archer, whom she credits for the main idea: incorporate different aspects of her school in pictures but also show a road from Danville to Indianapolis.

Other students submitted ideas or drawings for specific locations like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lucas Oil Stadium, then each student painted on the dress. As chief designer, Hadley did most of the painting and came up with the artist statement around the bottom: Indiana is the crossroads of America. The design includes crossed paths, crossed roads and crisscrossed lines.

For the gala dress, Pourcho showed the students sparkly shoes and earrings she’d be wearing and had them design something to match the accessories. She selected nearly 20 different designs, “and the whole dress became an homage to all of my students’ ideas,” she said. When the students returned to school, those who contributed a portion of the design got to sign their name on the dress.

Pourcho, who now teaches at the Oaks Academy in downtown Indianapolis, said she didn’t get any unusual reactions to the student-designed clothes, but “wherever the pieces went, I would see people’s faces light up. I wasn’t the focus; it was the students’ work that was the focus. I was just the picture frame walking around with it.”

Mary Figueroa, curator of history at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, said at least one of the dresses is likely to go on display on the second floor of the museum in the section that addresses social issues and diversity. Designing the dresses and accessories took place during the pandemic and, at least initially, brought the kids together via Zoom.

“I like the way these pieces exist between our textile collection and our art collection,” Figueroa said. “They even go into pop culture a bit. It’s important because it speaks to a tradition of Hoosiers being creative with their clothes and it’s also a Covid project. It’s a great example of people coming together during that time to make something special.”