Sage Lewis keeps files on artists whose work interests her. Sometimes those files consist of clippings from newspapers. Maybe an email from a colleague recommending an artist or exhibition, or a page printed off a website.
Lewis, assistant curator at the Portland Museum of Art, had her eyes on the work of Lauren Gillette long before she learned the artist lived close by in York.
Specifically, Lewis zeroed in on Gillette’s storytelling project involving re-imagined leather jackets. Seven of Gillette’s sculptural jackets form the backbone of “Refashioned,” the latest exhibition in the Circa contemporary art series at the PMA. The Circa series features the work of living artists from Maine and beyond.
“Refashioned” opens Saturday and remains on view through July 31. The show also includes work by two other artists who narrate with fashion: Angelika Werth of British Columbia, Canada, and Anne Lemanski of North Carolina.
“Refashioned” explores how these women use garments and fashion as storyboards. Gillette with her jackets, Werth with hand-felted dresses and Lemanski with sculpted hairstyles over time tell stories of heroes, of women through history and how outward appearances convey information.
Gillette takes worn leather jackets and creates biographical sketches of sometimes famous people by stitching and affixing accumulated imagery and text. She reworks the jackets, adorning the lining, cuffs, zippers, collars and buttons with words, images and objects that tell stories about the subject. Her subjects are public — Patty Hearst, Sammy Davis Jr. — and private.
“They struck me as being akin to artist books in the way an artist uses text and images embedded in curious ways in book form to tell a story,” Lewis said. “With the jackets, there is a powerful narrative in each one literally embedded in the linings, cuffs and collars.”
Lewis first came in contact with Gillette’s work when the artist applied to the museum biennial a few years ago. Later, Lewis helped judge artist grant applications for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Gillette was a finalist.
“I had been following Lauren’s work from a distance,” said Lewis. “I hadn’t even attached a name to the person doing this work, but I had seen the work in a few different places, and it intrigued me. When I finally figured out whose work it was and that she lived in York, I took a closer look.”
Gillette has lived in Maine for about 14 years. This is her first museum show, and it marks the first time she has been able to display so large a grouping of jackets. “Refashioned” shows seven; the most she has shown together before is five.
“I really don’t know why I use jackets, other than I was making one for myself and thought it would be an interesting thing to do. It affords a wealth of storytelling,” Gillette said.
Gillette began the project six or seven years ago, and intends to see it through. She has three jackets under way now — one a tribute to a local environmentalist, another to a rock ‘n’ roll groupie and a third to a political matriarch.
To fill out the show, Lewis chose artists whose work complements Gillette’s.
Lemanski studied women’s hairstyles in the 20th century, and created an iconic look for each decade. The result is her series “A Century of Hair.”
Werth created a series of 12 hand-felted dresses, titled “Madeleines.” She made her dresses for notable women through history, and altered the styles to accommodate sporting activities that would have been outside the social norm for women of that time.
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