Artist Frank Strunk III drops a tiny, stainless steel object into the palm of my hand.
"Just look at that," he says admiringly.
I look down.
I'm hardly a hardware expert — whenever something in my apartment breaks, I just call my ex-boyfriend — but I'm pretty sure the shiny doodad in my hand is a screw. Or a bolt. But, like, a really nice one. What I'm holding, I decide, must be some kind of high-class screw-bolt.
"It's beautiful," I offer, hesitantly. Strunk nods in approval.
We're in his Gulfport studio — a vast commercial garage packed with tool benches and pieces of metal, open to the outside air — having a late-July-in-Florida schvitz. Strunk offers me a bottle of water and a piece of organic dark chocolate from a small refrigerator and sort of apologizes for the horror flick playing on an old television in the background, but doesn't offer to turn it off. As the movie (one of the Halloween franchise) flickers behind his shoulder, he sits to face me, all of him — barrel chest, scruffy red beard and tattoos — pointed attentively in my direction.
Behind me stand two of Strunk's creations — or, rather, two headless, limbless mannequins (dress forms) wearing his creations. The artist's 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 Strunk's 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 Strunk's 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.)
I've been invited to Strunk's studio to see what he says is the last collection he'll produce for the Dunedin Fine Art Center's 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 Cole's "Unforgettable." Call it the end of a love affair.
Strunk's swan song, though not wonderful news for the show, certainly won't spell its end. Wearable Art is DFAC's 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 aren't 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 Tampa's 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, it's 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 you've got yourself a packed house. (Check out this week's See&Do for additional info.)
"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 he's 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 don't represent the height of his talents; when next year's competition rolls around, he's 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 McDonald's 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, let's 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 — it's over," Strunk says of his process.
Oh, but what an 11 minutes.