Artists Magically Turn Plain Denim Into Gold

Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

People treat the common denim jacket like an artist's canvas.

They can't resist embellishing it with embroidery, patches, pins or other stamps of their personality.

Like chameleons, these jackets can easily change their appearance. They can look Victorian, decorated with tapestry and lace, or street-tough, with metal studs and leather.

No wonder, then, that these modern-day works of art have turned up in a museum.

The Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach, better known for its contemporary paintings and sculpture, will exhibit denim jackets decorated by artists and designers from around the country for a fund-raiser presented by Barneys New York, a new clothing store in South Coast Plaza.

About 50 artists agreed to decorate jackets, which will be shown at the museum March 13-16, then sold at an auction at the grand opening party for the store on March 17.

The museum mailed jackets to artists featured in previous exhibits or its permanent collection, as well as sending them to fashion designers selected by Barneys. Each had a letter enclosed asking the recipients to decorate and return the jackets as a donation.

"You can ignore a letter, but you can't ignore a jacket," pointed out Maxine Gaiber, spokeswoman for the museum.

When they came back, the jackets had been adorned with everything from smashed bottle caps to a collage of old magazine ads.

"The artists either see the jackets as wearable art or works of art," Gaiber says. "One artist (Zadik Zadikian) actually submerged his jacket in plaster. He's turning it into a sculpture."

Some jackets wound up too heavy or stiff to be considered wearable art.

Meryl Waitz, a New York designer, covered her "Torch Jacket" with rows of long, thin beads made of blue, yellow and red plastic and pieces of metal cut in southwestern-style shapes.

"It's wearable, but it weighs a ton," Gaiber said.

Janice Lowry of Santa Ana, an artist who works with found metal objects, tried to maintain the jacket's comfortable appeal.

"The denim jacket is a very traditional part of our American heritage," Lowry said. "When I got the jacket I thought, 'How much should I alter it? Do I want it to be an object, or do I want it to be worn?' So I let it sit there until I decided I wanted to put medals on it."

Lowry already makes jewelry out of what she half-jokingly calls "modern metals for modern problems." She scours thrift stores, antique shops and abandoned mines and camps in Joshua Tree for unusual metal findings.

"They're mostly found objects that have been altered. I paint them, I smash them or I barbecue them to change the color of the metal."

She decided to decorate what she calls her "Full Medal Jacket" with flattened bottle caps, cutouts from metal doll houses, watch works and Mexican "milagros," colorful tin charms sold outside churches.

Lowry first wanted the entire jacket covered with her medals but realized it would be too heavy. Instead, she cut swatches of old floral fabric and sewed them on the front and back.

"The jacket's made for urban warfare," she explained. "I was thinking of the full metal jackets soldiers wear in combat. This is also a jacket you could wear into the city and you'd be protected, physically and spiritually."

Laguna Beach photographer/artist Laurie Brown had a different challenge: decorating denim with photographs.

"At first I thought, 'This has nothing to do with what I do.' I sat and looked at the jacket a long time, and I almost sent it back," Brown said. "Then I just pictured it in my mind, a jacket with fringe that wasn't fringe--it was palm trees."

She spent a couple of afternoons taking photographs of palm trees in Newport Beach, Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, then had the color prints laminated in plastic and sewn on the jacket.

"The fringe does relate to my work," she said. "I've done sequential landscapes, and the repetition of the palm trees on the fringe is actually reminiscent of that format."

Her jacket can be hung on the wall or worn as a novelty, but to wash it the owner will have to remove all of the palm trees.

For artists accustomed to painting on neat squares of pristine white cloth, the denim jacket makes a tricky canvas.

What to do with the sleeves? Many just ignored them, but one artist shredded his into ribbons. Another adorned the cuffs with rings of pouffed fabric ordinarily used to hold ponytails.

Some painted only on the jacket's back panel, the largest swath of fabric uninterrupted by seams. Artist Billy Al Bengston asked for two extra jackets, figuring ahead of time it wouldn't be easy to paint what Gaiber calls his "golden orb" on back.

Byblos, a New York designer, embroidered festive folk art on the back, front cuffs and collar of his jacket.

Others covered every inch of fabric. Tom Holland created a geometric design in bright orange and purple hues around the yoke, adding a painted strip of metal on each shoulder. Streaks of color run down the rest of the jacket.

Some artists used the jackets as billboards to broadcast obscure messages. Artist William Wiley wrote "The Homeless Are Cool," accompanied by a frowning face. Artist Les Levine wrote "Get More" underneath his painting of a pink pig. Andy Moses wrote the mysterious, "Microscopes Reveal Sea Hitchhikers" with an abstract painting in shades of blue.

"All the jackets are so different," Gaiber said. "No two are alike. I'm very pleased with the time they've spent" to make them.

The cost of attending the auction is $90 a person and proceeds go to the museum. For tickets, call 759-1122.

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