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Now at SAM: Art by Nick Cave that's furry and sequined

A Cornish College of the Arts dancer in a Nick Cave Soundsuits "Invasion" at the Seattle Art Museum
Photo by Barbara Kinney
A Cornish College of the Arts dancer in a Nick Cave Soundsuits "Invasion" at the Seattle Art Museum

What's the new show at the Seattle Art Museum look like? Think Chewbacca painted neon yellow and bubblegum pink, without any eyes in a cone-shaped head.

There's a tiger-masked creature with a huge cage surrounding his body. The cage is made up of ceramic birds.

There's a jumpsuit stitched from hundreds of Beanie Babies. And suits that look like astronauts made entirely of mother-of-pearl buttons.

There are more than 50 otherworldy, jaw-dropping creations featured in the exhibit, "Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth."

The show is the first museum tour for the Chicago-based artist (not to be confused with that other Nick Cave). It's a riot of texture and pattern that can be experienced in two major ways.

The first is within the museum itself.

Recycled, Reused

Cave's creatures are made out of items he finds at second-hand and thrift stores: Buttons; metal flowers that come off of sconces;  Victorian lamps that have been cut away and reassembled.

"Everything you see comes from this sort of recycling and recollecting of things. I'm into this renewal," Cave says.

He grew up in a household where hand-me-downs were the norm. He is the second of seven children raised by a single mom in Missouri.

Cave says his mother instilled in him the power of creating art. When he constructed cards for her, she reveled in his work -- a memory that's still vivid more than four decades later.

Cave's work has been described as a cross between African and Mardi Gras ceremonial garb and haute couture. It's incredibly joyful and playful work. But it stems from Cave's reaction to the Rodney King beating 20 years ago by Los Angeles police.

"I was interested in how they (the police) sort of described his character. 'Larger than life. Worked out with prison weights. Scary.' I was just envisioning, 'What does that look like in my head?'"

What he came up with were the twigs he found on the ground. He sculpted thousands into his first "suit," a kind of armor against how people typically put others in "boxes" and are quick to judge.

You can't judge Cave's creations according to race, gender or class, even though they look human-like. You really can't judge them in that way when they actually start to move.

All of Cave's creations, which he calls "soundsuits," are, indeed, wearable and in every city that hosts his art, he lends them to local performers. In Seattle, those include Spectrum Dance Theater dancers as well as students from Cornish College of the Arts.

Outside the Museum, Seattle a Stage

As part of the museum exhibit, spontaneous Soundsuit "invasions" are occurring throughout Seattle: in a Nordstrom's window, on light rail, at the downtown Omega store. The invasions are supposed to be surprise encounters but if you want to catch one, the museum will post hints on Facebook and Twitter.

Samantha Whalen is 20 years old and she's been a fan of Cave's ever since her teachers at Cornish introduced her to his work.

"I learned how he was pretty revolutionary in mixing dance and performance with sculpture and costume making and kind of crossing all these boundaries. He’s made art playful," she says.

Cave wants his art to uncork our imaginations. He wants us to dream. "We just sort of exist and sort of live in this day to day without really thinking about what the possibilities are. So hopefully I’m able to jumpstart that."

You can answer that for yourself. The exhibit continues at SAM through June 5.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.