Recycled into art

Jun. 06, 2013 @ 02:55 PM

Rubbish 2 Runway,” Frank Gallery, Chapel Hill, through July 7.
“Steamworks:  Art, Stories & Adornments,” Ackland Museum Store, Chapel Hill, through July 13.


This week recycle is the name of the game. At the Frank Gallery couture is created with bottle caps, plastic food bags, twist ties and film strips; at the Ackland Museum Store, Victorian fantasies have been recycled by some of today’s artists who are part of the Steam Punk genre.    Both shows are about flights of creative visions.
The designers spotlighted in the “Rubbish” show had to create an object that contained no fabric (could not begin with an already existing piece of clothing) and was wearable for at least several hours. The judges were looking for innovation, craftsmanship and wearability, and 31 finalists answered all the criteria. Among the entries were high school and college students and professionals; the judging was blind and the entries were critiqued equally. Torey Mishoe, the gallery director, told me she was so pleased that each category had a prize winner. Along with cash awards there were trophies made from recyclable materials.
Emmy Starr won Best in Show for her Black Sequin Sheath made of garbage bags, take-out sushi lids and metal discs punched out of cans. The dress was lined with bed sheet scraps. Hands down this garment was outstanding. Even on close examination it looked like the real thing. First-place winner Karen Anderson created a two-piece outfit. The top, fashioned with a stand up collar, was made from Trader Jo bags. Plain paper bags, cupcake papers and paint sample card strips magically became the ruffled skirt. She made the sash from an automobile tire inner tube. Both Starr and Anderson are professionals.
N.C. State College of Design student Salma Taylor won second place with her strapless short cocktail dress fashioned from paint chips, thread, Bristol board and fish netting, and East Chapel Hill High School student Sophie Price designed a dress with a tight bodice made from Dum Dum wrappers and a flouncy skirt of plastic grocery bags. 
Other equally creative costumes were Jeanmarie Griffen’s “21 Jump Street” primarily made of film strips;  Beth Bell’s “Ode to Dissertation,” made from cast-off PhD drafts; and East Chapel Hill High exchange students Siqi Ma’s and Yipin Han’s “Chinese Spring.” Their outfit was made from U.S. roadmaps encircled by a giant red arrow and inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
According to Mishoe, this is the first time Frank has sponsored a show like this and the response was so wonderful, it will go on the calendar for next year. When all is said and done, the message is not just about recycling our packaging refuse, it is also about packaging overkill.  
Just across the street at the Ackland Museum Store is a small gem of a show about Steam Punk. The Steam movement is an off shoot of sci-fi, based loosely on the interplay of reality and fantasy as gleaned from such Victorian myths as Frankenstein, Dracula and time machines. The show includes painters Elwira Pawlikowska and Ramona Szczerba, three-dimensional artists Mike Libby, Pamela Quevedo, Madelyn Smoak, Katharine Whalen, Tom Banwell and the writer John Bemis. Alice Southwick and Melinda Rittenhouse, manager and assistant manager of the store, put the show together, and sci-fi enthusiasts will love it. So will the rest of us, once we get the feel for what these artists are about.
The underlying core of Steam Punk is the steam locomotive, invented in the 19th century and capable of going faster than any machine up to that time.  Pawlikowska is probably the most well-known of the artists in the show and her watercolor of a train barreling through the gothic cathedral-like train station puts into visual terms the powerful engine and the significant object to mark this branch of art. And these contemporary artists reset their technological societies to run on steam.  
Steam Punkers also mine the dark side of the Victorian era. While the popular image of that society was prim and proper with dark velvet rooms, the contemporary imagination made those rooms settings for unbelievable horrors. Pair that with inventions of machines, especially the steam locomotive, which set the world on a faster pace than the ordinary person could absorb, and you have the perfect ingredients for sci-fi enthusiasts.
Szczerba illustrates children’s books, especially those about dark faeries and imaginary inventors; Banwell creates leather masks; Smoak designs antique-type jewelry made from found objects; Quevedo makes delicate jewelry by using the vintage stitchery technique of tatting; and Whalen, who is an award winning musician, makes fabulous hats. Libby has borrowed the Victorian hobby of insect collecting and moved it to another dimension. His bugs begin with the real thing to which he attaches tiny watch wheels and sprockets and then displays then in shadow boxes; they would delight any entomology museum. Bemis, the author of the “Clockwork Dark Trilogy,” is very popular with the middle schoolers; Southwick said they came to the opening in droves to hear him talk about his characters and get his autograph. 
Sci-fi in cinema and literature has been around for a long time but in the past few months the genre has invaded our art galleries.  I have become addicted.  Give it a try, maybe you will too.


Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment & More. She can be reached at or by writing her c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.