Friday, July 17, 2015

Art=Toys=Art in Cathy McClure's hands

Cathy McClure at July 11 CQA meeting.

Seattle-area artist Cathy McClure was one of 10 kids in her Arkansas farm-country family when she made a visit to a local carnival, an event that was to provide the key direction for her ensuing artistic journey. McClure led a fascinated CQA audience along this journey--complete with a menagerie!--at the group's July 11 meeting. "I was both attracted to and repulsed by what I saw at that carnival," McClure related, "by the carnies themselves....and especially by the toys offered as prizes on the midway." This was her first real exposure to massive quantities of the stuffed (and overstuffed) toys that would later become the basis of her art pieces.

McClure demonstrates one of her "bots" at the CQA meeting.
McClure earned a BFA in metalsmithing at Texas Tech in 1995, enjoying the creation of 3-D pieces from flat, 2-D materials.  An MFA at the University of Washington followed, in 1997. That was also the year she was selected from among 428 applicants as the winner of the 19th annual Betty Bowen Memorial Award. She had been creating such "functional" pieces as a sterling silver teapot (truly an art piece!) when she felt she could be doing...more.
McClure's silver teapot is actually functional!

The "more" turned out to be kinetic art, with a key initial piece being "Carnival of Life," a zoetrope [Sugg. see Wikipedia] involving placing the work on a rotating table in a dark room illuminated only by a strobe light. The viewer would see what appear to be elements on the rim of the table continually bowing down and standing up in sequence as the table revolved, whereas in reality all of the pieces were fixed in position. [A video of this piece  in action may be seen on McClure's website:]
The toy market is measured in billions of dollars per year...
...and too many end up broken or discarded.

Around 2003, in a further return to thoughts of that carnival of her childhood and the garish midway toys, McClure began to collect broken toys from toy and thrift stores. "This is a gluttonous arena of overstuffed toys," she said. "The toy market in 2012 was over $84 billion, with $20 billion of that in the US. Mostly they were all made in China, so broken or unwanted toys were just thrown out. There was no way stores could return them to the manufacturer," she said, "so I began to experiment with other ways to use them."
McClure begins the process of "de-stuffing" a broken animal toy.

McClure cut away the fuzzy or shaggy outer "skins" of the toys (mostly animals) and removed all the stuffing, leaving only the plastic body skeleton and, most important, the battery-operated mechanisms that caused the toy to move and speak.  In a lost-wax process, she replaced the plastic shape with metal--silver or bronze--with the aid of a small casting operation in Rhode Island. Some of the original plastic parts from the original toy are retained as a reminder of the toy's origin, an example being the flexible, segmented trunk of a toy elephant.

The plastic "innards" of a stuffed elephant, above, and McClure's silver version, "Trumpet," below, with original flexible, segmented trunk and battery-operated mechanism retained.
McClure calls the finished animals "bots," and the critters are both amusing and slightly eerie as they honk, bark or squawk while performing their original walking, bobbing, hopping or scurrying moves--but in elegant lines of polished silver or bronze metal instead of colorful fuzz! "Somehow they sound louder, more cranky, kind of upset once they're de-stuffed and cast in metal," she laughed.
Above, a stuffed bunny reduced to its plastic skeleton, and McClure's "Silly Bunny," below, in bronze (left) and silver (right).

In 2006, McClure created a zoetropic piece titled "3-Ring Circus" that combines bots with other constructs, complete with appropriate music "that sets the tone as the piece lures you into a deceptively magical world," said McClure. [A video of this piece may be seen on her website:]
Above, scene from McClure's two-months' residency in New York, with the artist at work (below) getting down to the innards of an Elmo toy.
McClure's "Hokey," based on an Elmo toy.

Not all of the toys she works with are reconstituted in metals. McClure had the pleasure of a two-month residency in New York where she had workspace and the equivalent of a "storefront" in which to create art pieces from both the "skins" and the plastic bodies of toys. The de-stuffed plastic bodies were displayed on shelves, and she made wall pieces out of assemblies of discarded skins sewn on canvas. Making use of the traditional "everything but the squeal," she went on to create rings out of the eyeballs removed from the toys!

McClure sewed an assemblage of discarded toy "skins" on canvas for wall hangings.
A true "hairy eyeball" (above) made into a ring! Other rings, below, created from eyeballs removed from toys.
One of her installations involving just the plastic "innards" from toys is endlessly fascinating--18 plastic "Mickey Mouse" figures, independently hard-wired to an activation button that a viewer can push to start the figures moving. With arms flicking up and down, the "Mickeys" move forward, back and slightly sideways in an ever-changing pattern that's both balletic and slightly militaristic as they bounce off one another. [See video on her website.]

Above, McClure "de-skinning" one of 18 "Mickey Mouse" toys (below).
The finished installation of 18 "Mickeys," each individually hard-wired to a viewer-activated button.
The toys--bots--that McClure renders in metal form are where she creates income, so their parts are created in multiples, e.g. 50 of a particular leg or body, and lined up in her studio ("a 2-car garage!") awaiting assembly. "As I need one of the battery-operated mechanisms for each piece, I sought out and was lucky to find a source for the original mechanisms," she said.

Line-up of cast toy parts in McClure's studio.
She frequently has other artists helping create parts of her installations, e.g a woodworker putting together the "rings" for the revolving parts of her zoetropic carnivals. "I often have to solve problems en route," McClure said. "For example, I was having trouble installing the elephant bots on 'Midway' and finally ended up using small chains--which I realized also symbolized the plight of elephants' lives in carnivals and circuses," she added.
A woodworker friend creates "rings" for McClure's "Midway" installation.
Above and below, stages in the creation of McClure's "Midway" installation for exhibit at Bellevue Arts Museum.

McClure's "Midway" exhibit was featured at the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2011-12. She will have an installation at 1925 3rd Ave. in Seattle later this summer as part of the Seattle Art Fair.
Above and below, McClure's "Midway" installation at BAM, 2011-12. That's her "Chicken" bot in the glass case, above.

She is currently working on paintings for a children's book and--a bit mind-boggling--she is making plans to create a human-scale "Hokey" figure, based on the innards of the Elmo toy! It will resemble her bots of the same name, but at that size definitely will not be made in sterling silver! "I want it to be a balance between the artist and the viewer, between seriousness and play, between childhood and adulthood," she explained.
An obviously hokey photo of McClure's planned human-scale "Hokey"!

For more information about McClure and photos and videos of her works, go to

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Rachel Brumer presents "Work and Meaning"

Rachel Brumer contemplates a question from the audience at the June 13 CQA meeting.
CQA's June 13 speaker, Seattle-area artist Rachel Brumer, is a thoroughly modern person who includes some antique methods in depicting her chosen themes that also tend to look back:  "tribute" and "memorial."

Born in Oakland, CA, Brumer came from the background of an immigrant New York Jewish family. "There were no garment or quilting sewers in my family," she relates, though several of her grandparents were tailors. Dance became her first means of self-expression, as she began ballet lessons at age 10: "I was already quite tall," she laughs. Her dance training taught Brumer all the basic elements of art, but in the framework of the body on a stage. From ballet she moved to modern dance, and for ten years was a professional modern dancer in New York and Seattle. She holds a BFA from Mills College and, after more years of training, worked for several years as an interpreter in American Sign Language for the Library for the Blind.
One of Brumer's first quilts, "Danny, Are There Really Five Moons?" created for a friend who died of AIDS. Friends contributed to the borders. Below, closeup of part of a poem created for the quilt.

For the past 18 years, Brumer has been a mixed-media studio artist. "Common themes in my work are tribute and memorial," she says. "I am always asking myself, 'Why am I interested in remembering? Why does my work harken back....?'"

Her work takes many forms: quilts with mostly traditional materials; mixed-media pieces involving fiber and photography, and full-wall installations with photography, silk-screening, metals, paper, wax and other materials. Some of the photographic treatment involves a light-reactive process developed in 1842--VanDyke printing--for achieving images on fabric. "It's like cyanotype," she adds, "except that it's brown-printing instead of blue-printing."
Part of the installation for "Cover Them," with the quilt "Paula Jonap, 2/11/25" at left, and pages from Klarsteld's book at right

Brumer has worked in series for many of her pieces, often creating a public installation with the results. One, "Cover Them," was an installation at the King County Art Gallery in 1997. She was inspired to create this work by Serge Klarsteld's 1996 book "French Children of the Holocaust," which she searched to find names of girls who shared her birthday. She created 10 large quilts (over 80"), each named for one of these girls, that were then crudely quilted and nailed, unbound, to the gallery walls. Some of the quilts included rubbings from pebbles and gravestones.
"Mathilde Dziubas 2/11/28" above; closeup below. Fabrics hand-dyed; birds appliqued
"Francoise Kadosh 2/11/26"
"Marie Fitzman 2/11/32"

Another part of the installation she made was a stack of 30 small, utilitarian-type children's quilts. One of these was hung from a peg beside a notice encouraging visitors to take that quilt for a child, and to hang up another from the nearby stack. "I received a number of notes telling me where some of these quilts were taken," she relates.
Sign at left invited viewers to take the quilt off the peg for a child, and hang another from the stack at the right. Local quilters donated quilts as the level of the stack would go down.

Another series, created in the late 1990's, is called "Marker" and comprises 20 quilts inspired by headstones of women buried in cemeteries across Washington state. Most include the figure of a dress form as a stand-in for the woman, and embroidery of phrases taken from the headstones.
"Marker I"
Detail of "Marker I." Words from gravestones were embroidered on pieces in this series.
"Marker II"
"Marker III"

"Slumber, the Nights" (2007) was a gallery installation of seven small  "beds" in a room, evocative of a dorm room or an orphanage, inspired by a friend's adoption of child from Kazakhstan. The only light in the room came from the beds, which were really light boxes. Brumer punched tiny holes in the form of traditional quilt patterns in the "bed covers" for the light to shine through and illuminate the room.
Tiny holes punched in the "covers" in traditional quilting patterns allowed light to show through and provide the room's only illumination in "Slumber, the Nights"

A delightfully quirky installation, created in 2006 as Brumer's part of a 12-artist exhibit, is "Describing 10,402 Days of Dairyness," which used an old wooden library card-catalog cabinet in depicting the lives of a couple who owned a dairy farm. The "cards" in the cabinet were fabrics in different colors of white ("like milk") dipped in beeswax to stiffen them!
A library card-catalog cabinet holds "cards" made of white fabrics dipped in wax in "Describing 10,402 Days of Dairyness"
The times carved into the boards represent the times of daily milkings: 3:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

In 2008, Brumer made a trip to Poland and Ukraine with her mother and several relatives, resulting in a series titled "Memory's Main Gate" depicting objects from her grandparents' history. The purchase of some pieces of antique lace in Krakow resulted in a series of mounted wall pieces, "Krakow Fragments," where the lace was distressed, then combined with photographs of the same lace intact, intending to represent the destruction and renewal of buildings seen in the area.
"Memory's Main Gate" 2009. Fiber on board.
"Memory's Main Gate I" 2008. Fiber and metal. Statue of Liberty at left--the first view of America an immigrant sees; portion of Brumer's grandmother's bowl at right.
One of Brumer's "Krakow Fragment" pieces

A project Brumer started in 2010--depicting still lives with objects of meaning--grew into a much longer-term commitment than she realized, but was one with great personal rewards. She asked 15 friends to select some objects that had meaning for them, and to sit with her and tell her all about them--meetings that, by mutual consent, could extend over a whole evening. Photographed, the images were brown-printed on hand-dyed fabric; the backgrounds were then bleached out and the pieces printed again. One result, comprising a number of images, is a quilt titled "Small Regional Still Lives"; larger, single-image pieces are board-mounted in a series titled "Large Regional Still Lives."
"Small Regional Still Lives" quilt, 63 x 68

Among Brumer's newest series are large oval or circular pieces, some completely in fiber as  wall quilts; others mix fiber with additional materials in often tiny individual pieces that have to be mounted independently on the wall. One of the latter is "Partial Floor Plan of a World," which combines board, fabric, paint, French knots and's definitely 3-D! Her "Enhanced Sunspots After Galileo" pieces are round, created with a sun-print process, and entirely fabric--and loaded  with French knots and tiny hand-painted flower "petals."

"Partial Floor Plan of a World" 76 x 61 x 1

Closeup from "Partial Floor Plan..." showing 3-D structure. Pieces of torn fabric are "lifted" off the board by beads underneath. French knots decorate the tops.

"Quire: Book of Findings" wall exhibit at Seattle Art Museum
Closeup of a section of "Quire..."

Brumer references the written and printed word in one of her newer series, "Moveable Type," with tributes to books and libraries. Some pieces use  her own visual "language" (in "Printers' Ornaments") created by photographing small, similar-sized found objects (e.g. bottle caps, etc.) and combining and photographing them into what appear to be rows of letters. Views of these letters were also a major element in "Quire: Book of Findings," a large installation at the Seattle Art Museum in 2001 that also includes fiber and metal.

Closeup of a portion of "Printers' Ornaments," showing the small found objects Brumer collected and photographed to create a "language"
Some pieces portray the outer bindings of books as art objects--for example, "Chemise  Binding Green"--where she notes that the original name for a book cover was "chemise." Her love of doing massive numbers of French knots is clearly evident in the "Illuminated Letters" series. More books are on display in her "Shelves" series, where paint, embroidery, fiber, wax and hand-dyes are combined in objects on purpose-built wooden shelves.
"Chemise Binding Green"
"Upright Readers' Brigade" from Brumer's "Shelves" series. 39 x 15 x 2

This prolific and versatile artist obviously spends a lot of time working in her studio, where she says she loves working at night when it's quiet and distractions are lessened. However, she has also taken her creativity "outside," in several three-month residencies at the Mission Creek Correctional Center at Belfair, WA, where she goes twice a week to conduct three-hour classes at this women's prison.

Brumer is represented by two galleries: Friesen Gallery in Ketchum, ID, and Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle, where she will have a solo show opening July 2 for the "First Thursday Art Walk" and running to the end  of July.

For more about Brumer and her work, go to, her excellent website that is loaded with photographs and informative artist statements. There is also an extensive, interesting interview with her, with photos, at