Dressed in COSTUME: The VISUAL Communication of Performance ART

LIGHTS, CAMERA, COSTUMES!  Welcome to the stage.  That’s the feeling I got when I stepped into the exhibit Wearable Art/Costume Design.  I didn’t know what to expect of an exhibit located at Chapel Theatre, a performance arts space near Portland, Oregon.  Just like it sounds, Chapel Theatre, was a Chapel now converted as a performing arts theatre.  Once inside, you’re immediately immersed into the space, imagining that this was once the interior of pews and an altar, now visually dominated by the energy that comes from the stories each costume tells.  Mounted on stage platforms with strategically illuminated stage lighting, designed by Dug Martell, Wearable Art/Costume Design was dramatic, magical, and intriguing right down to the suspended objects from the ceiling, accessories, wigs, and headdresses.

Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
Front facing pink costume, loaned from Poison Waters. An award-winning piece rendered, designed and built by youth designers Jill Hub and Julia Bond, the Young Audiences Right Brain Initiative SH/FT, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Art exhibits are a pictorial documentation of culture.  Costume exhibits are a visual documentation of the characters and actors of the performing arts.  Understanding the art of costuming, how broad the art discipline is, and its meaning within the art of storytelling is an educational experience.  The Wearable Art/Costume Design exhibit presented 40 objects across five performance art disciplines, of which I found fascinating, to display a diverse spectrum of costuming.  Curator of the exhibit, costume designer and fiber artist Amber Black, curated small capsules of important work of 10 designers, many of which are awarded designers and performers themselves, in the performance art disciplines of Film/TV, stage, live-action fantasy, cabaret, and cosplay.  When asked what was the driving force behind this exhibit, Black said, “Designers really put so much time and detail into creating pieces that are only seen a few times. This exhibit is an opportunity to really showcase the craftsmanship up close and also gain visibility in our community that Wearable Art is an art form. The exhibit is also a springboard for many more exhibits and similar endeavors to come. Between the incredible talent and art positive community in Portland, it’s a perfect time to begin to build something like this out.”

In examining the set-up, a U-shaped setting, I was delighted to engage with a room full of costumes.  Black, who exhibited three objects and is the resident costume designer for Chapel Theatre, simplified the experience with a detailed program of the artists’ statement/bio and object description.  Many of the costumes were upcycled from discarded materials or garments.  In a live performance, costumes have a pivotal role in the overall storytelling and specific to character identity.  The audience can appreciate the melding of the actor (wearer) and costume.  In an exhibit, the audience is up close and personal.  It is more intimate.  You see details of composition, materials, texture, construction (for movement), and have a better understanding of the creation around the body, actor, and character.

Because the experience is ‘up close’, audiences love a fashion, costume exhibit and Wearable Art/Costume Design audiences had something to say.  Thrilled with the feedback, Black shared their responses, and it’s motivating and uplifting for those of us who believe how the power of art can transform.  She said, “Attendees have really enjoyed themselves at the show! Most haven’t seen anything like this before and didn’t know what to expect in terms of presentation. It’s been really fun to watch the look on their faces as they walk-in, hear the positive comments and disbelief on certain pieces while viewing and leave saying they “get it”. That alone, makes it all worth it.”

The work from the designers/artists in the show, illustrate the uninhibited imagination, resourcefulness, and bold passion they each have in their art.

Award-winning cosplay designers Johanna Mead, Beverly of Downen Creative Studios, and AbbyCat Cosplay, go beyond creating, by educating, mentoring, and are influencers of the cosplay community.

Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
Mercy Hartigan cosplay. Designed by Louise Page for the British sci-fi show “Doctor Who”. Recreated by cosplay designer Johanna Mead. Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
Beverly of Downen Creative Studios, (l-r) Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons from the 2017 film Wonder Woman, Goddess Athena, Original, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
AbbyCat Cosplay, designer, (l-r) Count Chocula, Steampunk Wicked Witch of the West, Princess Wonder Woman, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Storytelling is limitless when it comes to telling stories, whether they are entertaining or capture real life episodes. Jimmy Murray and Jenny Wood costume the characters of the live-action fantasy series, “Tavern Brawl”, with grit, wit, and transformation.

Jimmy Murray and Jenny Wood, designers, character costumes from live-action fantasy “Tavern Brawl” (l-r) Lord Ashe, Aella The Barmaid, Locklynn The Huntress, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Designers, Amber Black, Carrie Anne Huneycutt, and Signe Larsen, who work in the Film, TV, and Live Theatre disciplines, uniquely have to collaborate with the production team of set designers, lighting, hair and makeup, etc. Script review, research, concept development, and sketches are all part of the process.  The magic is when it all comes together, when the curtain goes up opening night, or at the premier of a new film.  Signe Larsen was part of a local team that created 10 identical sweaters for the character of Sweet Dave in the 2015 western film “Hateful 8”, directed by Quentin Tarantino.  She made a duplicate of the sweater for herself to wear to the premier.

Signe Larsen, designer, duplicate of Sweet Dave’s sweater from Tarantino’s film “Hateful 8” | Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
Carrie Anne Huneycutt, designer, Feathered Gown created for Fox & Beggar Theatre’s Circus Opera, “Angamazad”, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill
Amber Black, designer, White Paper Wig, Red Apple and Rime from “Nature Crimes: A Story of Penance and Knowledge”, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Johnny Nuriel, co-producer of Portland’s BOYeurism at the Bossanova Ballroom, designs stage, cabaret and burlesque style costumes, with creative focus on adventurous, androgynous looks.

Johnny Nuriel, designer, (l-r) Burnt Orange, (duo) Transcend, Glitter Apocalypse, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Designers who choose a career in costume design do so because they don’t have to sell a product as you do in fashion design.  The environment and process is much more, the costume designer creates a believable imagery of a character as part of the art of storytelling.  Sydney Dufka believes you can achieve visual communication from both costume and fashion design and is exploring a fashion line based on her theatrical costume work, salvaging fabric from past theatrical productions, of which a few pieces of her fashion line were in the show.

Loaned from famed drag queen, Poison Waters, the pink dress costume was built by youth designers of Portland Metro region, Jill Hub and Julia Bond, of the “Young Audiences Right Brain Initiative SH/FT: An Experiment in Fashion Design” program – an arts-integration program with partnerships between school districts, local governments, private donors, and the cultural community.

Loaned from Poison Waters. An award-winning piece rendered, designed and built by youth designers Jill Hub and Julia Bond, the “Young Audiences Right Brain Initiative SH/FT”, Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Congratulations to Amber Black and all designers.

Wearable Art/Costume Design, curated by Amber Black, Chapel Theatre, Portland, Oregon | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

More about Wearable Art Exhibithttps://chapeltheatremilwaukie.com/2021/11/06/wearable-art-exhibit/

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor