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Object Runway 4: 'Wearable art' sashays back onto Anchorage catwalk this week

Consider Object Runway a bit like the slam poetry of visual arts and fashion. The creations are bold and resourceful. They usually speak to identity, culture and maybe a hint of politics. Metaphor is a common method of communication. And the humorous, even self-deprecating, messages found in the objects and comedic timing in the presentation might speak loudest about the artists themselves.

"It is whatever you make it to be," said photographer Michael Conti, who is participating in Object Runway for a second time. "I don't consider myself a designer, but there is some great talent and people who are pushing the boundaries. Then there are sort of hacks like myself who are just having fun with it."

Object Runway 4 takes place Thursday at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage. The International Gallery of Contemporary Art's annual fundraising event merges the concept of the catwalk with wearable art, with a panel of judges critiquing each walking canvass just like the fashion police on Lifetime's "Project Runway" reality TV series.

Participants wear objects made from materials of their choosing to be worn on the runway.

"Think of wearable sculptures or even more performative pieces on the runway," said Object Runway Artist Coordinator Michelle Hayworth. "We get all types of entries though, from fashion to barely wearable. It's a very inclusive event."

And in a town where visiting performers often have to cancel shows because of slow ticket sales, this local event, which attracts a statewide pool of participants, always sells out well in advance.

With more than 50 participants, five will emerge as finalists and one will be chosen from there as the overall winner. A people's choice winner will also be selected by audience vote.

This year's celebrity judge is Joshua McKinley, the Project Runway Season 9 runner-up beloved for his flattering feminine creations and intense opinions. He was also just eliminated as a finalist in last week's episode of Project Runway All Stars Season 2. Alaskans joining McKinley as judges include Shyanne Beatty, radio host and producer for Koahnic Broadcasting Corp., and University of Alaska Anchorage art professor Steven Godfrey.

A clunky corset of recycled office supplies

With an emphasis on experimentation and few if any guidelines, the ideas and materials reflected in the entries are bound to be as diverse as Alaska's arts and fashion communities.

"It's kind of hard to wrap your head around why people are doing it," participating artist Keren Lowell said with a laugh. "A lot of the pieces aren't comfortable and are hard to wear."

Lowell has participated in all four Object Runway events and says her own artistic inspiration usually has some kind of "smarty-pants" meaning. Her entries for this year's event offer a commentary of sorts on how the 9-to-5 work environment influences women's fashion.

"I'm definitely not the pretty girl," she said, or the girl who's out "to make everybody look pretty," she said with a laugh. "There's a little sinister element to pretty much everything I do … I'm not a fashion person, although, I may be getting into it, I think."

Lowell based both of this year's entries on female fashion antiquities that have emerged as popular costume garments. The first piece is a "funky sculptural undergarment" inspired by a workshop she took on Georgian Stays , a type of corset designed with boning, heavy-duty fabrics and tabbing along the waist to provide shape for skirts.

Lowell describes her other creation as a traditional skirt and top from the same [mid-18th century] period. But the not-so-traditional materials are what provide context for alternative interpretations.

Manila envelopes—think mail rooms or interoffice correspondence—form the fabric of these pieces. Lowell collected all of the used envelopes from her "office job" at the Alaska State Council on the Arts and treated and stained them.

They now look almost like leather, she says.

"These pieces took a hundred hours to make, and I've put hundreds of hours into my office job," Lowell said. "It's kind of a commentary on work."

Global warming as performance art

For photographer Conti, humor and theatrics have found their way into his Object Runway entry, even though he originally attempted something more serious.

"I had a thing that I started but I changed course," he said. "I had found this dead porcupine on the road from Homer and then I started tanning the hide … I was going to make this porcupine thing and have this gorgeous model wear it and be this untouchable gorgeous person."

"That didn't work out," Conti said. "So I went with my usual thing, which is cartoonish."

Conti's global warming survival suit, as he describes it, is an outfit for somebody to prepare for rising waters. He says it's less about craftsmanship and more about performance art.

"It will involve flippers and inflatable life vests and paddles, and it's maybe a little superhero-ish, too," he said.

"And it's going to involve a helmet cam, too, because the apocalypse will be televised, you know."

Conti called his submission a last-minute Halloween costume thrown together in the spirit of enjoying Object Runway -- no complex designs or hundred-hour projects or conceptual sketches -- but that it still left a little room for contemplation and interpretation.

"I'm not in it to win; I'm in it to have fun, get some people to laugh and maybe think about some environmental issues -- although that's not even really my main goal," he said.

Object Runway 4 is Thursday, Jan. 24 at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the show are now sold out. Please check the event's Facebook page for updates.

Anchorage freelance writer Leslie Boyd writes a regular column on local shopping and style. Ideas, information or tips? Contact her at akshopgirl(at)