Cave fabricates fabric of existence

Using scraps of fabric, old shirts, bottle caps and twigs, former Art Institute of Chicago instructor Nick Cave transforms simple objects into symbolic fiber art. His introspective "spirit drawings" and fantastic wearable art -- included in over 55 exhibitions since 1987 -- challenges, enchants and enlightens.

Cave is currently a master artist-in-residence alongside composer Stuart Saunders Smith and poet Sekou Sundiata at Atlantic Center of the Arts in New Smyrna. Each residency is a multidisciplinary program that features three artists who have achieved national or international recognition. Cave works with 10 selected artists at the state-of-the-art facility to help develop their creative talents. His outreach lecture at Orlando City Hall on May 22 is one of the community programs.

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"Spirit Drawings," a sampling of Cave's work displayed at the Northern Illinois University Art Museum, will be on exhibit at Atlantic Center of the Arts through June 15. Most of the pieces are pocket drawings, "not painterly representations," says Cave, "but remnants of actual cloth that once touched a human body and played a role in someone's life."

He superimposes pockets of shirts onto a ground cloth of silk or sheer cotton mounted on a wooden board, then covers the surface with acrylic paint. By scouring away the paint with steel wool, Cave brings out the original color of the pocket and achieves a muted, antiqued finish. The result is often unpredictable, determined by the texture of the groundcloth, the natural imperfections in the wood and whether the pocket flattens or becomes wrinkled in the artistic process.

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These variables give the pockets "the messy, imprecise qualities of a person," says Cave. Some have buttons and are cut from shirts with patterned cloth; others have no ornamentation or texture, which he sees as a metaphor for human individuality. The wide borders of ground cloth symbolize the "frames" people use to distinguish themselves, including hairstyle and choice of clothing. He pairs simple and ornamented pockets together to show how different individuals relate to one another. By resting them freely in metal tracks, he allows them to be interchanged or grouped for fresh interpretation.

Displayed with the pockets are entire shirts done in a technique inspired by the death of his younger brother, Stacy. Cave never felt a sense of closure after his brother passed away in 1993 -- that is until he felt his brother's spirit visit him one night. Inspired, Cave began creating shirts that appear to float as though worn by an invisible person, displaying spirit, vitality and personality. He resolves his grief, yet he also challenges the viewer to look deep within himself for personal meaning and renewal.

Cave explores the theme of spirituality through his fantastical three-dimensional "Sound Suits," created from "objects that are taken for granted or laughed at or deemed less precious, yet have a certain significance in themselves." Bottle caps, feathers, twigs, old thrift store afghans and scrap fabrics all are integral to these wearable masterpieces which are designed to rattle or tinkle or clank when worn in performance. Cave says his main interest is how the inanimate art object can gain spirit when worn, not only through the interpretive movements of the wearer but through enlightenment of the audience.

It is this complexity, his unique perspective on the fabric of human existence, that makes Cave's art so compelling -- and proves that, in the hands of a master artisan, even the most ordinary objects can be fashioned into the sublime.

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