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Better Than the Mall 

Wearable art show is the place to shop for that perfect, uhmmmm, whatever

If a strictly "fine art" show is what you are in the market for, then you might want to wait six weeks before your next stop to the main gallery of the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. On the other hand, if you are not put off by the occasional appliqud sweatshirt or patchwork vest mixed in with more traditional art forms, Better Than Nude, which opened last Friday night, is worth a visit.

Of course, the word "traditional" might be misleading in any description of this exhibition of wearable art, which certainly diverges from the norm at the BAC.

"This show could have turned out to be wacko, or it could have been painfully traditional," said Executive Director Rodney Wood. "I'm glad it's not that."

One of the great things about the show from the BAC's perspective, is that it brought in a number of people who have never shown there before. Out of the 50-some artists with work in Better Than Nude, Wood estimates that 70 percent are people he's heard of before.

Exhibitions Director at the BAC, Heather Merriam agreed. "There are lots of new people," Merriam said. "It's a little more difficult to figure out this time whose work is whose."

There are garments made from bicycle tires, chain mail, rubber, leather and a variety of offbeat building materials. There are pieces of clothing that cry out to be worn, and others in which you would be afraid to see someone. There is fine jewelry, and there are hats and scarves. And then there are the shoes.

One of the truly creative things Wood and Merriam did with regard to this show was change the way the entry fee worked. Instead of the usual $15 or $20 an artist pays to get his or her art into the exhibit, the price was lowered to $5 -- and a pair of shoes. Yes, each artist was required to create and donate an article of wearable "foot art" as part of their submission. And the shoes ended up serving as one of the major highlights of the show.

There are shoes made of candy and shoes made of glass. There are gold children's sneakers with translucent green laces and multicolored springs that shoot out of the toes. There are vivid red stiletto heels equipped with silver blades for ice skating. There are open-toed bedroom slippers with fingers where the toes should be and pills where the feet should be.

The shoe entries are made more interesting by the fact that very few artists use shoes as their standard medium. It's fun to see what a creative mind can do when pushed into using a different mode of expression.

Some of the artists, like Sarah Asleson, seem to have adapted especially well to the idea of the shoe as art. Normally a two-dimensional oil and acrylic painter, Asleson saw the advertising for Better Than Nude and tried to think of a way to convert her usual techniques to wearable art.

Asleson knew she had to do at least one pair of shoes anyway and ended up entering a total of 11 pairs for the exhibit. "I had so much fun doing those that I know I'm going to do more," she said. Two of her best are size 13 men's shoes in exciting patterns of yellow and blue acrylic. "I went to Goodwill and got some leather ones and sanded them down," she said. "My friend who was with me said, 'Oh, you've got to get the big ones.'" In addition to providing a larger surface for her work, Asleson says, the larger models can fit her sibling. "I have a brother in Minnesota who's kind of an artsy guy, and I figured I could send them to him for Christmas," she said.

Another of the show's highlights are the jewelry submissions of artists like David Caricato and Mathew Crawford. "This is very sophisticated," said Wood, pointing out the work of Crawford. "It's got it all -- great gems, great design. This is very high quality."

One of the fascinating techniques used by Crawford is called shibuichui, an ancient Japanese technique of melding metal and stone. "This could've been in a metalsmithing show," Wood said.

Similarly, the jewelry of woodcarver Caricato stands out among many of the other entries. His oversized flower necklace of reddish woods, set against turquoise beads and a roughhewn wooden stem is breathtaking.

Among the apparel items in the show, entries from Pat Musick and Sue Ann Rische are especially entertaining. Musick's richly enameled plates arranged on a chemise of heavy metal screen seem to shout out attributes of a hypothetical wearer. "Remote, moody, paradoxical, cryptic," they say for example, causing the viewer to wonder whom the artist had in mind as her model.

Rische's gothic black rubber body suit with its shoestring lacing along the arms and sides is another piece that makes the viewer speculate about a possible model. Steel rivets adorn the piece, joining what appear to be strips of bicycle tires into a sleek and shiny garment. The formfitting suit itself conjures up images of Mad Max movies and Rocky Horror Picture Show get-togethers in the dark of the night.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are several hand-painted scarf entries from painter Mimi Mitchell, which would transform the blandest of outfits into an opulent and more traditional ensemble. With painterly organic designs set in rich complementary tones, one gorgeous piece seems to capture the depth of the sea as it laps against a shimmering mountain shore.

Other entries feature equally innovative compositions ranging from formal deerskin blouses ornamented with mink fur and seashell buttons to an evocative black rubber bikini with embossed designs.

"I think it's especially important at holiday time to have something fun," Woods said, and portions of Better Than Nude definitely fall into that category.

"There is a lot of whimsy in the gallery this time," added Merriam, who did the work to get calls for entries out to a largely different set of artists and crafters for this unusual show.

So, if you're determined to appear at a Christmas party this year in something absolutely no one else will be wearing, or if you can't find the right thing to give that special someone, the items in Better Than Nude are for sale and all of them are art on some level. And, if you're just sick of looking at the usual stuff in the big department stores, a trip to the BAC should give a different perspective on the whole holiday gift-giving season.

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