Lucy Gentry Meltzer’s first art show — “Biophilia Collection,” featuring dresses made with and inspired by natural objects — opens Saturday, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ve already seen her work.
Gentry Meltzer, a costume designer, has created the wardrobe for many shows at Harlequin Productions. The latest, 2016’s “Hedda Gabler,” set in contemporary America, found the title character wearing expensive-looking clothes that were sleek, sexy, minimalist and somehow menacing.
The wardrobe Gentry Meltzer has created for her own show, at Salon Refu, is something quite different. The dresses might more accurately be called sculptures, though five of the eight can be worn. Most are built largely of natural materials, including shells, wood, bamboo, seaweed and moss.
“I really wanted to explore making costumes or sculptures outside of the confines of a script,” she said at her downtown studio.
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“Lucy is a magical person who’s been a little bit hidden away,” said Susan Christian, who owns Salon Refu. “She’s been doing these costumes, but you don’t see her on stage. I’m so happy that she’s making something that isn’t in service to anything except her own ideas.”
The work in “Biophilia Collection” combines the aesthetic and skill of a costume designer with a love for nature — aka biophilia.
“I go on walks all the time, and I collect things all the time on my walks,” she said. “When I’m looking at things from nature, I’m wondering: ‘Is that a ruffle on a sleeve or a skirt?’ ‘Is that a headpiece?’ I’m looking at them another way.”
Gentry Meltzer has vast costume-design experience, including shows for Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre and the defunct Tacoma Actors Guild, and she’s been bringing bits of nature home since her childhood on the Oregon coast. “I would collect rocks, bones, shells,” she said. “It was probably pretty naughty.”
Three years ago, Gentry Meltzer began to make art with the found objects. Several family members were living with cancer, and she created for them a series of 18- to 22-inch-tall sculptures of humanlike figures representing such archetypes as healer and protector.
Some of the sculptures, which combine papier-mache and cheesecloth with such found objects as twigs and medicinal herbs, will be part of the show.
After she created the small figures, she wanted to work with natural beauty on a larger scale, and so she has, with help from as many as 30 volunteers.
The collection’s dresses range from a massive 10-foot-tall sheath made of razor-clam shells to a delicate sheer synthetic gown decorated with dried flowers that have been cut and shaped into fantasy flowers.
“My daughter says it’s going to be her wedding dress,” the artist said, “but it won’t last.”
The one dress that doesn’t use materials from nature is nonetheless delicate. It’s a mermaid-style creation inspired by salmon and covered with paper scales. The artist plans to accessorize it with a necklace made of fishhooks and fishing lures.
The ephemeral nature of Gentry Meltzer’s creations is part of the point. “If I can show people how fragile these things are, maybe they will be better caregivers of our Earth,” she said.
She also aims to remind people of their own affinity with the natural world — their biophilia, a term coined in the 1970s and brought to prominence by American biologist Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 book “Biophilia.”
“In the ’80s, biophilia was just a hypothesis,” she said. “Now, it’s a proven fact that if you are sitting by the ocean or you take a walk in the woods, your blood pressure drops. You feel better when you are outside.”
A 2016 article in Business Insider (tinyurl.com/lqmrzdg) summarizes some of the research that suggests a variety of benefits to time spent outdoors.
Gentry Meltzer imagines a similar effect from being around the nature she’s gathered.
“Maybe when people come into the gallery, they’ll take a deep breath and feel better.”
And if she wanted to get away from working on clothing for the stage, the artist now envisions taking some of the natural dresses full circle. She wants to collaborate with choreographer Valerie Mayo to create a dance in which dancers will wear some of the “Biophilia Collection” dresses.
“Several of them were inspired by tutus,” she said.
What: Nature was the inspiration for costume designer Lucy Gentry Meltzer’s collection of dresses (some wearable and some not).
When: Saturday-April 23, with opening reception at 6 p.m. Saturday. Gallery hours are 2-6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
Where: Salon Refu, 114 N. Capitol Way, Olympia.
Information: 360-280-3540, salonrefugallery.com.