Exhibit explores paper dresses as symbol of female experience



In the late 1960s, paper dresses were at the height of fashion. They would soon become a symbol of a throw-away consumerist society.

But the paper dresses lining the windows and gallery of PRESS at 49 Main St. are symbolic of something deeper -- the challenges, struggles, opportunities and triumphs women experience daily.

"Overall, the dresses represent the freedom, but also the confinement experienced by women around the globe on a daily basis," said Melanie Mowinski, assistant professor of visual art at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and founder of PRESS: letterPRESS as a Public Arts Project.

"Paper Dresses," which runs through Nov. 25, features the work of 12 female artists, who created a wearable paper dress based around the overall theme, as well as 17 origami paper dresses for a "dress exchange" along with a two-dimensional work tied into the larger dress.

"A printmaking exchange is like a cookie swap," she said. "You make your ‘cookie' and then you get other ‘cookies' from everyone else who participated. In this case, our ‘cookies' are paper dresses. The only requirement was that the origami dresses reflect the theme of their larger dress."

Each artist made 17 dresses -- one to be distributed to each artist as part of a boxed collection, along with an archival collection, a collection on display as part of the show, with the rest being for sale.

Mowinski said the show was inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas D. Kristof's upcoming visit to MCLA and his book, "Half the Sky," co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof, whose book was selected as the 2014 First-Year Student Reading for new students at the college, is the featured 2014 Hardman Lecture series speaker. His lecture will take place Thursday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m., in the Amsler Campus Center Gymnasium.

"I realized I live in this bubble -- there are a lot of great, strong women role models in North Adams and at MCLA. I don't think that's true for the rest of the world," she said, noting the show's connections to current events. "I think with all the violence happening in the NFL right now, this [show] is very poignant. Wouldn't it be great if we all boycotted the NFL?

"Paper Dresses is a way to celebrate the power of women, but also to remind us that we still have a long way to go. A lot of the pieces start to get at that."

The artists used their dress forms to explore a wide-range of topics, ranging from longing for personal space to the challenges faced by breast-feeding mothers.

The paper dresses vary in theme and composition materials, although all have the basic elements of paper and typography at the core.

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Adrienne Gale's dress, which explores the challenges of motherhood -- from breastfeeding in public to the concept of having to share her body with her child -- is made from pages of maternity and midwifery books woven together and held in place by twine. Nearby, a dress fashioned with an apron, has multiple strings and ribbons streaming off it. The strings, which are tacked to the floor and wall, represent all the responsibilities of a mother and the multiple directions in which she is pulled.

Mowinski's piece features a skirt made from red cards with the words "Let Go" written on them. Members of the public wrote on the cards over the summer, detailing the items in their life they needed to let go of. The cards and the corresponding problems written on them will be ripped away over the course of the show.

Artist Yudelka Tavera, who participated in MCLA's Berkshire Hills Internship Program (BHIP) this summer, tapped into her past experience in the fashion industry to create her dress and complementary two-dimensional work.

"I studied fashion illustration," she said during an interview at the show's DownStreet Art opening. "We live in a society that defines four stereotypical body types as beautiful -- the apple, the hourglass, the rectangle and the pear. There are many more, which I explore here."

She said each body type, even the highly praised hourglass figure, comes with many negative connotations -- each which plays into the objectification of women and breeds self-conscious insecurities in women.

"The hourglass is an ideal, but it also represents the woman's fading beauty overtime," Tavera said. "The most common one we see in magazines -- the typical model and celebrity shape -- is called the lollipop. It's considered to be the most glamorous shape -- large breasts, small waist and long legs. But it also comes with the negative connotation that women of this shape are seen by men as ‘sex on a stick.'"

Artist Karen Arp-Sandel explored the idea of finding one's true path, or "Dharma," with a goddess dress made from vintage maps and the oldest type-face available at the gallery.

"I'm studying Eastern traditions. I'm a seeker," she said. "This dress helps you choose your path and propel you forward."

Her companion two-dimensional pieces, also created from vintage maps featuring locations she has lived in or traveled too, incorporate compasses designed to help a person "find their true north" and feature mantras derived from words one would see while traveling.

"What's great about this show is that it has so many layers," Mowinski said. "It's advocating for women, but at the same time, you can still look at each piece, not know the background, and still have an experience."

If you go . . .

What: Paper dresses and two-dimensional works created by Karen Arp-Sandel, Suzi Banks Baum, Kate Barber, Valerie Carrigan, Adrienne Gale, Anne-Maree Hunter, Melanie Mowinski, Tara O'Brien, Tammi Lee Oak, Diane Sullivan, Erin Sweeney, and Yudelka Tavera.

Where: Press:letterPRESS as Public Art, a gallery, studio and teaching space at 49 Main St., North Adams

When: Through Nov. 25, open Monday - Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.


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