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Originally published Friday, February 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Grand felt-forest art installation winds around a wee space

Vain, a Seattle salon, supports local artists with exhibition space and an artist-in-residence program. Currently on view: an installation by Coco Howard and Spencer Moody.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibition review

"What We Do Is Also Secret"

An installation by Coco Howard and Spencer Moody, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and by appointment, through Feb. 28, Vain, second floor, 2018 First Ave., Seattle (206-441-3441 or www.Vain.com; to make an appointment, contact Coco Howard at softlife@mac.com).

I'm going to tell you about a wonderful little installation in a funky little exhibition space, but I want you to know that it is ... little. Don't gather a big group of friends and tromp up to the space above the Vain salon expecting to experience the installation together — you won't all fit.

So, what's the big deal? This installation itself is worth seeing — it's cute and cozy and surreal — but, perhaps more importantly, it's part of an eclectic art program run by a local business that supports artists, and that's worth talking about.

First things first. Local artist Coco Howard (who creates fiber wall hangings, sculptures and stuffed animals), with assistance from Spencer Moody (frontman for two local bands, Triumph Of Lethargy Skinned Alive and Murder City Devils), transformed a 10-by-8-foot room into a little forest made of more than 40 pounds of wool and 50 yards of polar fleece.

On the one hand, it is a simple and playful installation with padded green felt leaves scattered across the floor and felted wool trees rising to the ceiling where pink blossoms spread across a blue felt sky. It's a sweet, comforting environment, kind of like a fantastic reading nook in a local library.

On the other hand, Howard plays with scale to create odd vignettes that whisper of creepiness.

Dangling from a tree branch, several stuffed creatures peek out from cocoons of pulled wool. They are big in comparison to their surroundings, about the size and shape of large, swaddled rag dolls; their innocent, needle-pointed faces don't let us know how they feel about their cocooned captivity or what kinds of forms they will emerge as. Throughout the forest, other, tinier, faces sprout from twisted tendrils of felt.

To visit this "needle-felted world," to use Howard's phrase, you need to enter through the Vain hair salon, go through the Vain gallery (a peculiar assortment of art, old records and miscellaneous stuff), ascend an old staircase, push open the big door at the top with no doorknob, and find the little room on the left side of a creaky hallway.

It's not exactly a high-profile exhibition space. (Note to Vain: You might think of improving the signs — I noticed several pedestrians intrigued by the window front that says "Gallery," but then seemed unsure about walking into a hair salon. They kept walking.)

Still, the folks at Vain, a successful salon, didn't have to devote a room to an art installation and they certainly didn't need to develop an artist-residency program that offers free studio space to at least one artist each year. They also offer low-rent work space to additional artists who can open their doors to the public during First Thursdays and Vain events.

Victoria Gentry, Vain's owner, is the force behind this commitment to art. In 2000, when Gentry took over the old three-story brick building in Belltown that used to be home to The Vogue nightclub (where Nirvana played one of its first Seattle gigs), opening a salon was a "vehicle for her interest in supporting the arts and political movements."

For Gentry, the business drives, and is driven by, a larger vision about community and self-expression.

With performances and installations that have filled different spaces of the building for various time spans, and a curatorial process that has been both formal and informal — artists have been chosen through calls-for-artists and word-of-mouth — the artistic activities at Vain are less a formulaic program than a resourceful work-in-progress.

Gentry's plans for the coming year include a "Recycled Residency," supporting art created out of recyclable materials, and an artistic project that simultaneously celebrates the centennial of The Vogue building and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.

Gentry says art "makes the world a more interesting place" and encourages other business owners to support local artists.

In our current economic climate, with developers scrambling to fill empty spaces, Vain offers a flexible, do-it-yourself model for how commercial space can be shared with artists for mutually beneficial purposes.

Sure, the creative, expressive function of this hair salon lends itself to a relationship with local contemporary art, but these kinds of relationships could certainly be developed elsewhere. And if you've got empty space, why not fill it with art?

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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