Material Girls

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Not all art is of the "don’t-touch" variety. For artists in the field of wearable art, the human body is a canvas and a room of one’s home is a frame to fill with custom color and design. Seeking objects of desire for your body or your home to wear? Meet 10 designing women who have the basics covered, from dresses and jewelry to throw pillows and soft sculpture. All of them work in studios in the Sarasota area, and although they show and sell internationally, their work can be acquired right here in boutiques, galleries, and sometimes, right from the artist herself.

At Ringling School of Art and Design, Sheryl Haler teaches about "cloth as a medium of expression," speaking with inspiring eloquence about how old buttons and fragments of vintage fabric can bundle us in family memories and lead to an understanding of cultural history.

"It creates a layering that, to me, is much more dimensional than a mark on the surface; it penetrates the surface," Haler says.

An old apron, a quilt, an old dress or her mother’s jar of old buttons are inspiration and raw materials rich in evocative qualities for Haler, who has loved fabric since childhood. Her great-grandmother quilted and sewed, her grandmother sewed and tatted, and her mother taught Haler and her sisters to sew. Haler’s work is not only a way for the artist to connect with her personal history and bring into her work a level of richness and depth. It’s also a process that is meditative and appealing.

Haler uses old cloth as a canvas for layers of stitching, embroidery, printing and familiar objects. Her work is exhibited at the Mira Mar Gallery on Palm Avenue in Sarasota and sells in the $350 to $3,000 range. (4515 45th Court, Sarasota. 360-2321.)

Trained at the Art Institute in Chicago and in Paris, Jackie Cully owned a business in New York with her husband, where she provided fabric designs to fashion icons Liz Claiborne, Bill Blass, Pierre Cardin and Oscar de la Renta. When they retired to Sarasota three years ago, Cully imprinted her designs onto silk, creating vivid scarves, jackets and tunics. The dazzling designs she comes up with are heavily inspired by Cully’s African-American heritage, and her motifs and symbols reflect hours of research and trips to West Africa.

"These are my roots and I want to express that," Cully says. "I want it to be known." Many of her printed and batik patterns celebrate the artist’s pleasure at a mind-body-spirit totality, in what she calls "the wholeness of life."

Cully teaches at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and sells her wearable art at private gatherings. $185 and up. (2737 Horseshoe Court, Sarasota. 379-6681).

A graduate of Ringling School of Art and Design, Vicki Rollo is a successful self-employed graphics designer who discovered jewelry making 10 years ago when a friend took her to a gem show and she bought enough beads to craft a bracelet. She was entranced with the process and now uses carved bone, smooth horn, Bali silver and stones such as silver leaf jasper and serpentine jade in her jewelry.

"I think people buy what’s in fashion, and they all start looking the same," says Rollo. "That’s not going to happen with my designs. They’ll get a statement that’s unique."

Rollo has little patience with symmetry–mismatched dangle earrings are her signature–and she says discerning Sarasotans can recognize a Rollo piece dangling from friends’ ears because of their bold style. She creates spontaneously, letting the gemstones tell their own story, and selects semi-precious stones for their look and affordability. Rollo sells her jewelry (in the $100 range) at craft fairs, private parties and trunk shows. (4863 Primrose Path, Sarasota. 349-4372).

A painter for more than 30 years, Marilyn Gross began creating jewelry just for fun as a teen in Missouri, using colored cardboard and found objects. For the past decade it’s been more than a lark. Working with layered and multi-fired art glass and metal, Gross fabricates contemporary lightweight earrings and pins with architectural authority. Her abstract constructions are worn as jewelry but collected as art, and some pieces actually come framed and held in place by magnets. When not hanging on one’s body, they hang on the wall.

"I love the glass because it is reflective, and has almost a spiritual quality to it," says Gross, who says she wears her pieces all the time. "I have people stopping me all the time on the street asking me, ‘Where did you get that from? It’s so neat!’"

Her work is sold at L’Attitude Gallery in Sarasota (and Boston) and Venice Art Center. $30-$250. (374 MacEwen Drive, Osprey. 966-4219).

A self-taught artist who markets under the company name of Hula Lula, Dolores Parker designs and stitches handbags of bamboo and designer fabrics. With bamboo root handles, luxury trim and Swarovski crystals, Parker’s chic, sassy bags are transformed into an art show on the move. Best known for her capricious tropical bags of monkeys and palms, Parker celebrates festive images taken from New Orleans Mardi Gras ball invitations in her newest collection, and South Pacific images from cruise liners in the 1940s.

"They’re fun and vibrant," says Parker, an avid handbag collecter and trendspotter who notes that box bags are back in vogue. "You definitely get a lot of comments when you carry one of these."

Hula Lula bags are at The Met and Ritz-Carlton for about $180. (7452 Mariana Drive, Sarasota. 929-9304.)

It’s nothing for Pamela Marwede to be surrounded by 40 yards of plain fabric that she will soon elevate to art with paint. The result is window treatments, table and bed linens, throw pillows, chair pads, even lampshades and floor cloths. Trained in England and known as a superior colorist, Marwede is equally at ease in a serene modern idiom, zany contemporary or Old World sophistication.

"I grew up in Spain, and when I was a little girl, I would hand paint unpainted ceramics for fun," says Marwede. "I like having color around me. I think it’s interesting to paint and decorate something in an artistic way and then use it. It enriches the environment."

Marwede usually works on custom projects for area interior designers. But examples of her work are available to a wider public at Garden Argosy on St. Armands Circle, Imagery Fine Crafts Gallery on Fifth Street and at the showroom of Sally Trout Interiors on Palm Avenue. Prices from about $60. (629 Payne Parkway, Sarasota. 365-6353).

Spending less time on art and more on administration lately, Barbara Frey is the president of the Nature Printing Society, an international group of artisans who use botanical and natural materials (including deceased birds and fish) to print on silk and cotton fabric. The result is art to wear or to enjoy as home decor objects. From Oct. 19-24 the Society convenes at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens for public workshops and to share techniques.

Frey specializes in silk scarves, which she hand dyes and imprints with leaves and flowers ($25-$75). The 65-year-old artist discovered her talent 11 years ago in classes with Renata Sawyer and Joan McGee, and now enjoys strolling in her garden in search of interesting leaves, vines and flowers to incorporate into her designs.

"Sometimes I use the same colors as nature, and sometimes I improve on nature," Frey says. (4739 White Tail Lane, Sarasota. 926-4739).

A native Floridian who discovered weaving in Arizona after experimenting with watercolor, clay, beading and silversmithing, Jan Driefer has kept a standing loom in her home for nearly 30 years and at one time owned a weaving supply shop in Sebring. Last year she took a top prize for puppets she crafted entirely on her loom, and this year she added a soft sculpture mermaid to her collection. ("I have a very patient husband," Driefer notes.)

But weaving cotton and silk clothing is her specialty, from shawls and jackets to ruanas (a kind of sophisticated poncho) that start at about $100. "It’s creative; I’m not a production weaver," says Driefer. "The excitement to me is in designing and dressing the loom and having it all come out the way I planned it."

Driefer’s work is available at Imagery Fine Crafts Gallery, juried art shows and through public events at Venice Art Center, Selby Gardens and the Fiber Arts Boutique (Nov. 21 and 22) at St. Armands Lutheran Church. (1280 Tree Bay, Sarasota. 349-1261).

A painter and printmaker educated in New York, Paris and London, Linda Salomon began experimenting with clay and cloth 10 years ago at the behest of a gallery owner who challenged her artists to create with a medium they were unused to. Salomon turned to clay and loved it. So did clients, who bought all her creations, and Salomon’s widely collected line of Librus Animals was born. She fabricates character animals–bears, frogs, dogs, monkeys and lions–which she outfits with luxurious vintage silk, leather and velvet, jewels and trim that reinforce the expression and bearing of her charismatic creatures.

"It’s like making costumes," says Salomon. "A sense of illustration has always been a part of what I had to say."

The artist, who loves animals and sells many pet portraits, admits that she sometimes gets a little too attached to her Librus animal creations. "My friends tease me because I hate parting with them," she says.

Librus Animals are exhibited and sold at art fairs and at Provenance Gallery on Palm Avenue in Sarasota, starting at about $300. (3920 Country View Drive, Sarasota. 921-5769).

Joan McGee imports silk from Italy and France, and silk yarn from Switzerland, hand dyes it, fabricates clothes, and markets her line of clothing–from outerwear to day ensembles to evening wear–in stores throughout Europe and America. McGee was a painter, high school art teacher and weaver before she turned to the art-business of weaving and silk dying to create lightweight wardrobes for international women. But her passion for her work goes back to her grade school days, when she began to make her own clothes and dreamed about becoming a fashion designer. She began her clothing line 25 years ago, and her comfortable clothing is inspired by the fabric she uses and marked by simple lines. "Silk is wearable, long lasting and a very beautiful fabric," says McGee.

McGee teaches at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, and her wearable art separates are available at Dream Weaver on St. Armands Circle in prices ranging from $100 for a scarf up to $3,000 and more, depending on complexity and fabric. She’s also in the process of renovating her new studio/store on North Tamiami Trail, Serendipity Gallery. (8246 Coash Road, Sarasota. 926-0465).