- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000


An animistic "costume sculpture" by Sha Sha Higby dominates one wall at Arlington's Ellipse Art Center. Titled "Passage Into a Paper Sea," it is the most arresting of the 31 works in the unusual exhibit "Way Off the Rack: Costume as Sculpture."
Miss Higby, who looks to Japanese, Indonesian and Indian theater traditions for "wearable environments," is at the forefront of artists who regard clothing as a sculptural medium.
The idea isn't new. Think of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who dressed herself in fluted linen dresses, enormous gold necklaces and elaborate wigs. Consider, also, Japanese no theater kimonos and floor-length sleeves that look sculptural, even architectural.
The 13 artists of the show, including locals Marilyn Banner, Bonnie Lee Holland, Marcia Jestaedt, Ann S. Liddle, Donna McCollough and Sy Wengrovitz, use materials as different as wood, clay, Velcro, paper, fabric and photography. Exhibit curator Trudi Van Dyke has chosen works that range from carefully carved wooden coats to flowing gowns woven from monofilament fishing line.
Although these are intriguing, original works of art, Miss Higby's complex and poetic creations are the most fascinating. They also are meant to be worn, as in her evening-long costume-sculpture performance, "Folded, Under a Stone Sleeping," at 8 tonight at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Tomorrow, she will conduct a dance workshop from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the same place.
Miss Higby spent many years studying dance and crafts-making in Asia. For example, the cast-paper mask-faces, arms and hands of her works resemble those of the Japanese no theater. They're smooth and expressionless. In "Paper Sea," parts of an 11-foot-high figure hold flowing bands of wrapped wire, net, stiffened fabric, gold, handmade silk and paper, brocade and net.
The opulence of color and texture reveal her exposure to the royal art of Indonesia. She went there on a five-year Fulbright-Hayes scholarship to study puppet crafts and performance arts.
"Central Java is Old World royalty. Within their 'palaces' they've maintained the ancient, animist royal format. The arts are focused around that. Underneath is all this richness," she says.
Later, she received a fellowship to study the textile arts of India. Most recently, she studied the art of lacquer in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan.
Her "Cows Under a Pepper Tree" (1986) shows the cycles of birth, death and rebirth in a tiny town constructed of carved-wood gates, flaming houses, mechanical birds, spindles and mirrors. The materials are velvet, balsa wood, silk and wire.
The "Bee on the Beach" of rabbit's skin, glue, silk organza and ceramic has the by-now-familiar main figures with little monkey faces hung around.
Miss Higby considers the person in the costume less important than the costume. "To assemble the parts of a performance, I make things with my hands out of many materials. The handmade parts of the costume are my door into performance. The costume, along with its sets and props, takes nearly two years to develop," she says.
Raised in San Francisco, she became involved in costume-sculptural performance art as a child. First she painted and drew birds. Then she made peek boxes out of shoe boxes. Her stepfather taught her to sew, and she made dolls and finger puppets. Dolls were the first artworks she sold. From there, she went to Asia to study and develop her own form of movement-costume-sculpture art. She has performed throughout the United States, Korea, Japan, England, Indonesia, Thailand and West Germany.
Although Miss Higby works in the realms of the spiritual and ethereal, the other artists concentrate on exploiting just one unusual material.
Mr. Wengrovitz creates clothing from wood. The Springfield sculptor says his father was a "sample maker," a tailor who worked with a fashion designer to interpret the designer's sketch and produce a pre-production garment using actual fabrics. He says he may have inherited his father's ability to visualize how a garment is constructed.
"I find that carving folds in wood, draping material and creating details such as buttonholes, belts, buckles, laces and trims is a fascinating challenge," he says.
His work is both a tour de force of carving and a spoof on everyday life. "A Pair of Undercover Agents" refers to men's underwear and "Honey, Have You Seen My Other Shoe?" is a familiar household litany.
Miss Jestaedt, from Bowie, uses rust-colored, raku-fired tiles to create what looks like a Japanese samurai jacket. Miss Liddle, of Alexandria, creates a bright-red acrylic-painted jacket of handmade paper and wire. Miss Banner, of Bethesda, creates four floating, diaphanous dresses. Miss Holland, also of Bethesda, makes a slinky evening dress of cobalt-and-black pieces of Velcro. Miss McCollough, a Silver Spring artist inspired by the "mix of soft and hard materials" in an Edgar Degas statue of a dancer, sculpts "Untold Stories" of steel and wood.
Exhibitions and performances such as these are organized and supported through the Innovators program of the Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources of Arlington County.
The purpose is to bring in artists such as Miss Higby, whose work otherwise might not be seen here. Another program, the Arts Incubator Program, which connects arts to underused community facilities, won one of the Ford Foundation's 1996 Innovations in American Government awards. It was the first time such an honor was given to an arts organization.

WHAT: "Way Off the Rack: Costume as Sculpture"

WHERE: Ellipse Arts Center, 4350 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, through Oct. 21

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 703/228-7710

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