Cheryl Zemke overcame a childhood of being bullied to emerge as a woman of strength, which is manifested in her art.
She brings her talent to fiber work and painting, but Zemke, who lives in Riverview, is best known for her fashion design — another reflection of her art.
Her work in fashion has won her a slew of awards, including a first-place finish in the prestigious American Sewing Expo’s Passion for Fashion contest.
In 2014, she was chosen as one of 10 finalists for the Detroit Institute of Arts/Detroit Garment Guild Group’s design challenge —Samaurai: Beyond the Armor — and she was named by StyleLine magazine as one of the top 10 “Designers to Watch” in the metropolitan area.
Decades of seemingly unrelated experiences have merged to bring Zemke to this point in her life as an artist and fashion designer, a career she dreamed of but never thought she’d have.
“When you look at all together, I needed all of it to do what I do today,” Zemke said. “Everything comes together, all in one. You just don’t know it at the time. God has a way of working in mysterious ways.”
She grew up in Lincoln Park as a shy girl with a speech impediment. She was pulled out of classes throughout grade school for speech therapy, and classmates were cruel to her to the point where she often felt “terrified.”
“I was really bullied badly,” Zemke said. “The more people would bully me, the more I would go into a turtle shell.”
When she was in the middle of seventh grade, her family moved to Trenton.
“They had art classes, and they were going to pull me out of that for speech therapy, but my mom told them they couldn’t,” Zemke said. “So I had my first art class.”
She always knew art was her lifeblood.
“When I was 4, my mother would sew and hand me scraps of fabric, and I would kind of create things,” Zemke said. “I’ve been artistic since Day One. If you’re an artist, you can’t not do it. It’s like your breath.”
After high school, she went to Lawrence Technological University to study architecture, following the advice of her father. During that time, she also worked for Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores part-time.
“The first few years in architecture is nothing but art,” Zemke said.
So far so good.
“But in the third year, you started learning about structures and heating and cooling and things like that,” she said. “They showed us collapsing buildings and bridges, and that terrified me.”
She took half a year off, and married Martin Zemke. Then she went to Wayne State University for classes in tailoring and textiles. She enjoyed it, but felt she couldn’t afford to continue in the school’s fashion program. So she went back to Lawrence Tech and earned a degree in marketing in 1989.
“I was always interested in fashion, but everyone kind of convinces you that you have to have lots of money and go to New York or Los Angeles,” Zemke said.
So with her degree in marketing, she hoped to become a fashion buyer for an upscale store.
“Nobody paid any interest in me,” she said.
The Zemkes moved to Florida for the next 10 years, where she earned an associate’s degree in merchandising management from the International Academy of Design Technology, and got a job as a quality control specialist for the Home Shopping Network. It was creating art, but it was work that used her marketing, fashion and sewing abilities, and that engaged her.
She met celebrities, including Ava Gabor and Donna Summers, and really liked the work, despite being bullied by some of the other women working in quality assurance.
“I remember crying for an entire weekend once,” Zemke said. “But it taught me something very valuable: You have to hold your own.”
When a new president took over HSN, hundreds of jobs were cut, including hers. When her husband got a job offer in Michigan, they moved back home.
“We were from there, and our son was not quite 3 then, and all the family was missing us,” Zemke said. “I really didn’t feel like Florida was a place for a young kid. There were no kids around where we lived.”
So back in Michigan, Zemke went to work as a manager for Jo-Ann Fabrics in Allen Park, and started freelancing at her Riverview home, doing alterations and custom sewing for other people.
In 2002, she left the retail job and started her own business — C. Creations Custom Sewing and Design. Besides fashion design and custom sewing, she began working as a costume designer for various theater groups and performances, including the renowned Grosse Ile Boar’s Head Festival.
“In 2009, I decided to take a trip to New York,” Zemke said. “I needed to know where I could shop for certain things. I paid for a fashion tour. It was almost like for the first time in my life, I was in the right place. I felt like I really belonged. I thought, ‘I can do this!’ New York woke me up, and said, ‘You can do this, what you’ve always dreamed about.’”
The tour paired her with a hotel roommate who had won her trip as a prize from the American Sewing Expo competition.
“We got to be really good friends running through the streets of New York together,” Zemke said. “She convinced me to enter the competition the next year. At that point, I could sew for anybody, but I didn’t know who I was or what I liked. I entered the contest at the very last second, and I got in. This was an 18-hour challenge similar to Project Runway consisting of 12 designers from around the nation, chosen to compete by the ASE jury. I took a third prize and the people’s choice award, and I was hooked.”
She went on to enter the contest for the next few years, always winning better and better awards until in 2012, she won first place.
In 2011, she organized successful fashion runway shows Downriver with proceeds going to charities. Along the way, she became an active cultural partner with the Wyandotte-based Downriver Council for the Arts, teaching classes and volunteering on the group’s Gallery Committee. Her sold-out fashion shows are held every year now at the DCA.
In 2017, Zemke launched her own glossy publication, Dedicated Magazine, which focuses on fashion, art, culture and community. She just released her 19th issue. The magazine can be downloaded for a fee, or a print copy can be ordered. (Learn more by visiting dedicatedmag on Facebook.)
“Last year, I decided to curate an exhibit at the DCA that went along with my fashion show,” Zemke said. “We talked about fiber art, and I talked to friends (Michele Porter of Southgate and Emily Kokay of Trenton) about doing an installation together. We planned for three months, and created the tree, and then each of us created three individual pieces and planted them inside the tree. It took the three of us 30 hours just to install it. The name of the tree piece is Emergence, Transformation, Liberation.”
The massive tree, made with burlap, chicken wire, jute, stone, fiber and more, extended from floor to ceiling with roots across the floor of the large DCA gallery in November 2019.
Zemke’s art pieces in the tree represented a caterpillar, a chrysalis and a butterfly — symbols of her own journey in art and in life.
“The caterpillar represents you learning and absorbing everything,” she said. “He’s a solid, consumptive form. The chrysalis form is made of twigs and colored pencils and thread spools and fibers. You have everything you need in this stage. You just don’t know what to do with it. You have your skills, but what are you going to make?
“The last piece is a dress form that turns into a butterfly. It represents a hollow vessel. Now the art has to come through you, process inside of you and it has to go back out. You have to funnel it through you and back out and get ready for more to come.”
Creating the installation with two other women in different stages of life was a joy for Zemke.
“Being able to work with two other strong, intelligent, artistic women showed that we can work as a team and we’re more successful in the end,” she said. “I like to support women and their causes no matter what I do.”
Her fashion work and her art are inseparable now, and her influences — from her early study of architecture to Japanese pottery — are myriad.
“One year it was the story of ‘The Little Prince,’” she said. “I loved his relationship with The Rose. One year, I did a whole collection based on The Rose. I embroidered the poem around the edges of a garment, put tulle roses in the back of dresses, appliqued roses…
“When I get sunk into something, there’s not stopping me after that.”