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Wearable Art Show returns with a ‘Circus of Curiosities’
Ruby, Loren and Reilly McCue model their piece "Mc3" on Feb. 5, 2015, during the 29th Annual Wearable Art Show in the Ted Ferry Civic Center. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom, File

Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan artist Loren McCue knew she was hooked on the Wearable Art Show from the first moments she attended the event more than two decades ago.

“What is this? This is amazing,” McCue said regarding her reaction when she attended with a friend that first time.

This year’s Wearable Art Show, opening Thursday evening, will be McCue’s 26th year of participating in the event. The shows are hosted by the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council.

Surrounded by myriad fabrics, fasteners, mannequins sporting this year’s costumes and boxes of colorful supplies in her home art studio on Wednesday afternoon, McCue shared the reasons she has been driven to participate in the event for so many years.

“I think every show has its own energy and its own uniqueness and its own whole thing going on,” McCue said. “I don’t think there’s been a time I haven’t loved it. I mean, I’m addicted. It’s a passion, for sure.”

The Wearable Arts Show is like a themed fashion show with a wildly dramatic flair. In Ketchikan, artists — or models wearing artists’ creations — stride or dance down a runway through the crowd at the Ted Ferry Civic Center to music chosen by the artists. Costumes are often very dramatic — some featuring majestic wings, spinning parts, glinting mirrors or fantastic headdresses.

This year’s theme is “Circus of Curiosities.”

Ketchikan was the birthplace of wearable arts shows, and the phenomenon has spread far.

“We were the original people, 33 years ago, and now it’s kind of taken off and it’s worldwide,” McCue said.

The events begin with the Wearable Arts Show committee, of which McCue is a part, meeting weekly starting in November of each year. As the event looms closer, the meetings are more frequent.

“It’s a big deal to put this show together,” McCue said. “There’s a lot of moving parts that go into it.”

The committee’s goal, she explained, “is to get Wearable to the community,” and to train the next generation of artists. The committee organizes several workshops to support the event’s artists, such as a question-and-answer workshop for new participants, a modeling workshop taught by Ketchikan Theatre Ballet instructors and one taught by First City Players Executive Artistic Director Elizabeth Nelson.

Committee members also volunteer in schools that form groups of students who want to participate in the event. McCue has volunteered at Tongass School of Arts and Sciences to help with their preparations, and long-time Wearable Arts artist Halli Kenoyer works with Ketchikan Charter School’s students.

McCue also, until recently, had been Tongass School’s art teacher. She said she has been delighted to see the confidence and creativity her former students bring to their Wearable Art projects. They work with a tiny budget and donated materials — mostly cardboard, glue guns and paint.

“They’re unafraid and they’re having a blast,” she said of the students.

McCue added that she doesn’t require the kids to model their costumes, but so far, all of them have been enthused about modeling at the matinee show offered each year.

Adult artists also are not required to model their costumes, and McCue said they can find their own models, or the Arts Council will find a model for them. Artists can participate in the two modeling workshops as well, to hone their confidence and skills.

There also is a closed Wearable Arts Show Facebook group, McCue said, in which participants can ask questions and discuss issues as they prepare.

McCue’s involvement with Wearable Arts has long been a family affair. Her first year she entered, she performed with her daughter Karley Lesko, who was 2 years old at the time. Lesko’s brother, Kale Lesko, also participated in shows over the years, McCue said. Karley Lesko still jumps in to help when she is in town.

McCue said she created a couple of pregnancy costumes for herself when her younger daughters, Ruby and Reilly McCue, were on their way. Ruby and Reilly, now young teens, have been creating costumes and performing in the shows all of their lives. Their costumes hung draped on manikins Wednesday alongside Loren McCue’s in the studio, awaiting final touches.

Creating the costumes is a complex task, McCue explained.

“It’s challenging, and it’s problem solving and engineering and free-form thinking and there’s no pattern. If you want this crazy outfit, there’s no pattern you can go out and buy and get it, you have to figure out how to make it all yourself.”

McCue said that her attic is stuffed full of old Wearable Art costumes, and they serve as a source of pieces and parts for new costumes. She also receives many donated items from community members.

“People, knowing we are Wearable artists, donate the wackiest things,” she said.

McCue’s husband Ryan McCue jumps in to help with costume engineering challenges, Loren McCue said. He also awaits backstage for any support needed — and, support is often needed during the shows, she added.

The costumes, often extremely complex and sometimes fragile, are sometimes a challenge to keep intact throughout all four shows, McCue said.

“It’s temporary art,” she said.

She said her own favorite costume — a human waterfall — was also her most fragile and frustrating one.

The first night, the Velcro strips holding the costume to her legs gave way as she performed.

“I was just kicking it down the runway,” she said.

In the second night’s performance, the costume behaved even worse. She attached it to her legs with safety pins that night, and as she walked, “every one of the safety pins popped open,” she said. “There was just blood running all down my legs,” she said, laughing. “I just had to pretend it was working the whole time.”

She recalled finally solving the problem by sewing the costume to her leggings.

McCue said that most participants are forced to make costume repairs and adjustments between, and at shows. She explained that Kenoyer has a fix-it shop with “an army of volunteers” to help performers with their costumes.

Artists also bring supplies to work on their own costumes, but McCue said hot glue guns are the one tool not allowed anymore, after one burst into flame where she and Kenoyer were working one year.

The music that each artists performs to on the runway is a big part of the show as well. McCue said that although she is a dedicated Grateful Dead fan, she’s only used that group’s work once at a show. She said she usually chooses higher-energy songs from varied artists, including Marilyn Manson, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

“Sometimes my music spawns my outfit,” she said.

Getting ideas takes some time, McCue explained. She said some artists work all year on their costumes, but it takes a while longer for her and her daughters to come up with their ideas. She said they usually incubate ideas until they are ready to start building costumes at around Thanksgiving time.

“A lot of times, the most difficult thing is working within the theme,” she said. “There’s no obligation to work in the theme, but you really want to.”

McCue said there are many different ways a costume inspiration comes to her — sometimes it’s hearing a song, or an idea pops into her head in the shower, or a bit of fabric sparks an idea.

“There’s no set way to do it, there’s no rule book, there’s no instructions,” she said. “However you can creatively think to build it. There’s no right or wrong way.”

She said that creating the costumes is incredibly time consuming, but never seems like it, because it’s so enjoyable. Once she and her daughters get started on their costumes, she said they work about an hour each week day, and many hours of focused work on the weekends.

“We always have a system,” she said.

She laughed when she explained a more recent challenge of working with her now-teen daughters in the studio: McCue calls herself “a Dead Head from way back,” but one daughter wants to listen to gangster rap, and the other, eighties pop.

McCue said her family will put in quite a few more hours of work before next Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, which is a chance for the artists to see how their costumes will hold up, and for those modeling, to practice their runway moves before Thursday’s opening performance.

Each of the shows has “a totally different energy,” McCue said, explaining that Friday and Saturday night’s performances are especially high energy.

She said the opening act will be performed by Ketchikan Gymnastics Club members, an idea she came up with to mesh with the “Circus of Curiosities” theme.

The timing of the Wearable Arts events seems to bring out an especially enthusiastic response at the shows, McCue said.

“Everybody’s been locked away in their houses all winter, so this is the one big outing,” she said. “They get dressed up, they go to dinner.”

Doors will open for Wearable Arts Show performances at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2.

For more information, contact KAAHC staff at info@ketchikanarts.org.