Giant snakes, tropical trees and a young man lying on a bed with a wading pool in place of a mattress are some of Ashley Mettelus’s most popular set designs. The 21-year-old storyteller describes her sets, which clients hire her to create for Instagram or personal photos, as magical and fairytale.
Metellus is 5’1, but her physical height doesn’t compare to the height of her passion for storytelling and fashion.
“My mission is to work with ordinary people to tell extraordinary stories, through the use of photography and fashion,” said Metellus. “Taking pictures is easy, but telling a story through fashion takes more than just a backdrop.”
Metellus, known as @iwreckart on Instagram, has only 29 posts, but her account has over 1400 followers. She has earned about $900 for her art, which is part of a new industry, where designers work not necessarily for filmmakers or homeowners, but for people who want to use a set to project an image.
While attending North Miami Senior High School, Metellus realized she had a passion for design while creating small sets for her English classes. After her graduation in 2017, she followed her sister Shirley, 23, to study fashion, attending Miami Fashion Institute, where she graduated in 2019.
The photographer started focusing on sustainability in 2018 because of her professors’ teachings, she said. They regularly railed against the harsh reality of fast fashion at MFI, which is affiliated with Miami Dade College (MDC).
“In school, they were all hands-on and stern about sustainability in fashion, so that got to me,” said Metellus. “People don’t understand that when we buy props, we end up damaging marine life by throwing waste in the ocean. It’s time that we all learn about this issue and do something to fix the problem.”
Asanyah Davidson, who is chairperson and a professor at MFI believes sustainability is a lifestyle that can be practiced in several ways.
“Many of our students gather reused clothes, said Davidson. “Others take their parents’ clothes, and some start vintage shopping, which leads them to try new things like sewing because they want to alter their clothes. There are so many different approaches to fashion sustainability.”
Sustainable fashion is a phenomenon in Miami. Local designers want to implement eco-friendly practices. Stores such as Pivot Mkt, located in Little Haiti and open since 2019, strictly sell sustainable clothing.
Metellus has worked for 5 individuals and 24 dancers during her short career. She takes about a week to build the sets, going to different thrift stores and searching dumpsters to find materials. Her most challenging set to construct was for the “Heal the World” photoshoot she did this past October when she worked with eight giant snakes.
Troy Mckalla, 22, is a Metellus client who has worked with wildlife since he was six years old. He owned the eight snakes and wanted the photos for his Instagram account. He believes the snakes were a crucial part of bringing the shoot to life.
“We were really having fun,” he says. “The collaboration was very smart because I have been working with snakes my whole life, and Ashley is very creative. While I was in the water, the snakes kept swimming out, and Ashley had to pick up snakes for the first time.”
The artist says she conquered her fear of snakes, as the reptiles frequently moved, slithering everywhere, attracted by the water and grass. She recalls that four of the snakes continually snapped at her. However, she put her fear aside and continued working on the shoot.
“For me, it was hard because I had to make sure that each shot was taken correctly,” she says. “ I have a deep fear of snakes, and the snakes were a handful. However, I believe everything was executed better than the way I wanted.”
The artist’s clients and followers are captivated by her social media. In her detailed Instagram captions, she explains what each story is about and the altered props she used to fit the story’s theme.
Metellus prices range from $180 to $400. For a social media post, that price range might seem high, but her clients believe it is worth the product.
For her final project at MFI, Metellus collaborated with Eunice Nodado, a classmate and friend, in a photoshoot she called “A Series Story.” The photoshoot theme helped Nodado regain her confidence. Metellus’ set-design props included different size mirrors, bed sheets, and an old wooden laundry basket.
“People pay her because the quality of her photos is the best, she is a perfectionist, and you can see it in her work,” said Eunice Nodado, 21. “She is detail-oriented, organized, and you know what you get from her,” “I am very shy, but Ashley made me feel comfortable and confident.”
Metellus’ favorite work was with a large group of dancers a year ago. The artist directed the dancers and produced a music video called “Seven Days Intro: House of Women,” where she sang and composed the music.
House of women
During filming, the weather became a challenge as pouring rain caused the dancers to frequently take breaks. The dancers experienced seeing Metellus bring the set to life as she directed them.
“Even though we had some challenges, the shoot for me was a creative party,” said Stephanie Navarrete, a dancer, and model who appeared in the video. “I loved seeing how Ashley experimented with a lot of props. She used buckets, mirrors, recycled items, and made everything work perfectly.”
The storyteller hopes to set an example for other young creatives and to be a creative director who works with all types of artists and creators on videos and photoshoots.
“I am a creator that doesn’t disrupt a person telling their story, people should have the control to create their narrative, and I want to help my clients do that,’’ said Mettellus.