Hovering between an elegant 17th century Dutch master's still life and a woodsy enchantress for the 21st century, the performer wearing Nicole Dextras' huge hoop-skirted garden dress must feel as magical as she looks swishing about.
Part sculpture, part performance costume, the garden dress — or, more properly, the Mobile Garden Dress — is an exquisite but massive affair, "a self-sustaining ecosystem" as Nicole calls it.
The corseted top, woven from rushes and cattails, is trim to the body and decorated flamboyantly with cornhusks and a bright red row of chili peppers. But the hoop-skirted bottom is so big hidden casters are attached to the bottom to help move it.
Over a lining of chartreuse green cotton, the frame of willow and wood holds rows and rows of pretty little pots of that are edible or produce food. Tomatoes, fennel, lettuce, zucchini, basil — all sorts of vegetables and herbs you'd find in a healthy West Coast garden.
Each pot is carefully labeled so you know what's what and as Madame Jardin, the garden dress maiden, moves through her public, she carries a tiny watering can and invites you to water her garden. All sorts of conversations unfold about food, where it comes from, the security and politics of it, or anything else you might like to talk about.
Then, at the end of her performance she slips magically out of her skirt, which becomes a domed tent that can shelter her for the night, and prepares her public a tasty salad made from the plants in her dress.
Part sculpture, part performance art that's food, clothing and shelter all rolled into one, the Mobile Garden Dress draws on Nicole's storied background as a graduate and sessional instructor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and an accomplished multi-media artist for almost three decades. That includes a stint as costume designer for Vancouver-based Théâtre la Seizième. The dress is one of three "combo" creations Nicole is making for her Urban Foragers series.
"The Urban Foragers are designed to support a flexible way of living that can be adapted to a variety of climate changes," says Nicole. "Each outfit promotes growing your own food supply, from preserving seeds to planting herbs or harvesting local edible plants, which are integrated into the walls of the skirt."
The Nomadik Harvest Dress, which is based on the concept and materials of Mongolian yurts, was exhibited most recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and at the Roundhouse Gallery's Sustenance Festival in Vancouver. It's made from second-hand wool sweaters that echo the felted wool of the yurt. (In 2010, Nicole was one of 20 international artists selected to create installations in the Gobi Desert for the Land Art Mongolia Exhibition.)
The harvest dress is also equipped with a pot and stove to cook a communal soup from the local vegetables and plants that are stashed in the sweaters' pockets. Cholla and prickly pear cactus pads were the fare in New Mexico.
The Travelling Seed Bomb Dress she is currently creating — think of Norway's Doomsday Seed Vault in the Arctic, only much smaller, mobile, and more beautiful — will be part of an upcoming exhibit at California State University at Fullerton.
Fortunately, you don't have to travel so far to see one of these amazing creations. The Mobile Garden Dress will be on display as part of Nicole's artist-in-residency throughout the month of July at Lansdowne Centre on No. 3 Road in Richmond. Luckily there's a stop right there on the Canada Line, so if you're looking for a staycation idea or easy one-day getaway, it's the perfect excuse.
Called "StoreFront: objects of desire," this month-long installation and performance piece is just one of the many components in Richmond's robust public art program. (For details on this and other projects, including delightful 10-minute walking tours of some of the city's huge collection of public art, go to richmond.ca.)
The garden dress and other garments — all beautifully made from fragile, ephemeral materials like dried magnolia leaves and camellia flowers, including a platform shoe sporting blackberries and their thorns — blur the line between consumer culture and art. All the moreso since they're displayed in a series of retail shop windows in the main kiosk court of the mall like all the other "buy me" merchandise we consumer-citizens are subjected to every day.