Behind me stand two of Strunks creations or, rather, headless, limbless mannequins (dress forms) wearing two of his creations. The artists craft of late has turned to corsets: elaborate metal ones, made of aluminum and copper panels as if for the trousseau of a tremendously sexy robot lady, except that flesh-and-blood women wear Strunks handiwork in specialty fashion shows. One of the dummies shows off an angular piece, all rigid facets of silvery metal cinched tightly at the waist. The other displays a work that represents Strunks most ambitious achievement yet a corset made of petal-like copper panels and held together with stainless steel rivets and the same fasteners he showed me earlier. (By now I get it: on the corset, the fancy screw-bolts gleam like gemstones. Polished to a sheen, the whole garment is breathtaking.)
Ive been invited to Strunks studio to see what he says is the last collection hell produce for the Dunedin Fine Art Centers Wearable Art show. The occasion is bittersweet: in front of me sits one of my favorite Bay area artists, widely known for his metal sculpture in the form of kinetic artworks and architectural interventions; behind me, evidence of his decision to retire from an event he has headlined for the past five years.
Gone from his Wearable Art line-up are the more Barbarella-inflected efforts of years past. (An aluminum brassiere that shot Silly String out of its nipples stands out in my memory.) For his last stand, Strunk has something more gallant planned. On Saturday night, his models will wear metal corsets and waist cinchers over dresses as they stride down the runway to the strains of Nat King Coles Unforgettable. Call it the end of a love affair.
Strunks swan song, though not wonderful news for the show, certainly wont spell its end. Wearable Art is DFACs most anticipated event annually, organizer Kaya Jill tells me later by phone. Each of its five previous iterations has sold out. Two years ago, the art center itself was deemed too small for the event with a maximum capacity of 400 people, so the festivities moved to an adjacent community center, which holds 850. Tickets arent cheap $75 and $50 for reserved seating close to the runway; $15 for general admission and people start calling for them as far in advance as February, Jill says.
On Saturday, another designer Rogerio Martins, a regular participant in past shows will close Wearable Art 6. A graduate of Tampas International Academy of Design and Technology, Martins has a more traditional fashion background than Strunk. In the past, his outfits made of materials including beans and chili peppers have wowed the DFAC crowd. If anyone has the creativity and skills to sustain the event in post-Strunkian years, its him.
Other participants are largely newcomers to the event. Joseph Mastropaolo, an architect, and Vicki Rich, an interior designer, have paired to create unusual garments including a paint chip top and skirt and a tile dress. Donna Mason Sweigart, an artist who lives in St. Petersburg and Texas, will showcase her sculptural, biomorphic jewelry. Local fashion maven Ivanka Ska and several other design teams round out the list. Couple the curiosity provoked by such a line-up with an after-party headlined by a popular local band Have Gun, Will Travel and youve got yourself a packed house.
I feel like people in Tampa Bay are starving for events like this, Jill says.
Strunk agrees. He thinks the Dunedin wearable art show could be even bigger. (Imagine if it were held in St. Pete or Tampa at a major venue.) But hes aiming even higher these days. Last year, Strunk scored a cash prize at World of WearableArt, a global competition held in New Zealand each year that attracts an audience of 25,000. Through that experience, he got a taste of what it could be like to compete on a global stage. (At the New Zealand show, a $25,000 best-in-show prize went to an Alaskan man who crafted an elaborate ball gown out of wood veneer.)
At the urging of his girlfriend, Bethany, Strunk applied for the competition, doubting he would even be admitted. When a call came that his outfit an aluminum bikini top and flared skirt had been accepted, he drove to his home state of Maryland to put his crate on a cargo vessel bound for New Zealand, doing odd carpentry jobs for old friends while in town to foot the shipping bill. He wound up taking third place in a division of the competition sponsored by American Express. Looking back, Strunk says, the aluminum pieces dont represent the height of his talents; when next years competition rolls around, hes going to send something that will really impress the judges: a copper corset.
Back in his studio, Strunk explains how to make a corset out of copper and hinges, stopping solicitously to ask whether the sweltering studio is too hot for me. (When a fitting gets too uncomfortable, he takes his models to a nearby McDonalds to cool off with a blast of A/C.) Demonstrating how he bends a flat panel of metal to fit a human body like fabric, Strunk shows off hours of research. When he started with the concept hey, lets do a corset, but made of copper he had no idea how such a garment could be constructed. On Saturday, the product of hours of invention takes to the runway at DFAC for a few fleeting moments.
Eleven minutes later, three months of preparation later its over, Strunk says of his process.
Oh, but what an 11 minutes.