Monstrously cuddly sculptures

Baltimore artist Jennifer Strunge never knows what she's going to make, until it starts growing eyes



The room is slightly larger than a two-car garage, which is why it's surprising to find it half-filled by a three-eyed, six-tentacled, green sea monster.

The billowy thing-from-the-deep, crafted from an old nylon parachute, floats more than 10 feet off the ground - aided by a powerful fan. It's bug-eyed with nine pointy teeth but still somehow less menacing than playful. Part of an exhibit called The Inflatables, it will be on view in Pearlstone Park next weekend as part of Artscape, the city's 25th annual celebration of the arts.

Its creator, Baltimore fiber artist Jennifer Strunge, also has made an enormous "dragon slug" for the event. This is the first time she has tried her hand at inflatables - and the first time she's made anything this big - but the monster theme carries over from the art she makes and sells for a living.

Strunge specializes in soft sculpture, creating toylike critters from used fabrics and clothing she finds at thrift stores. Her fantastical portfolio has a few two-toned octopuses and a fish with hands along with her signature multi-patterned, square-headed monsters, but all of her creations feature vibrant multicolored eyes and gaping mouths with plush fangs. She sells the cuddly art on her Web site,

The 24-year-old wants her art to be a part of life, something that begs to be touched, tickled and prodded. Most of her sculptures are sold to people who not only display them, but also hug and treat them like well-loved stuffed animals. Her focus is on art that tempts people to interact with it, she says, and her soft creatures do just that.

"Even if I put them in galleries, people pick them up and play with them," Strunge says.

The inflatables are an extension of this philosophy. Though they are four times larger than a small child, when inflated the monsters sit low to the ground - available for hugging, if anyone can get arms around them.

"I'm excited to have them be seen and touched and poked," she says.

The 2004 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art began creating monsters in her senior year as a fiber arts major. She took as many varied classes as she could, she says, and her studies somehow coalesced into the making of her otherworldly creatures.

"I was doing some quilt-making as part of my thesis, and I was also in a children's book illustrations class, and this toy class," she says. "The quilting has aspects that became the eyeballs of the monsters."

Her first monster was a puppet made for the Black Cherry Puppet Theater, a traveling theater for which she fabricates characters. She also works with the theater's community art programs teaching children how to script and perform puppet shows.

When not working with the theater, she's holed up in her studio at home. It's a tiny room with a sewing machine, tons of polyester fiberfill and lots of secondhand cloth, like the nylon she found in the theater basement and the parachute she used to make her inflatables.

She made them the same way she makes all of her creatures - without a pattern. "I did a couple doodles, but I work more intuitively, just adding things as I go," she says.

That can be tricky, especially if she has to take the creature apart when something isn't right. Although there is a method for making 3-D patterns, which she says her MICA teachers would cringe to know she doesn't use, she likes going into a project with no set plan and without knowing where the creative process will take her.

Strunge learned to sew as a child from her mother, a quilter. After years of working with fibers, she has little difficulty visualizing her creations and achieving proper proportions. With the inflatables, Strunge began with the eyes and worked out.

"In the making of them, there was no way to know whether they were going to work," she says.

Now, after two weeks of work, the creatures blow up into magnified versions of her adorably fanged and tentacled soft sculptures. Still, she's a bit nervous about how they will fare after hours in the outdoors.

"Hopefully they won't get stabbed or rained on," she says.

This is the second year for The Inflatables exhibit - Artscape organizers invited Strunge back because her monsters were such a hit, says Tracy Baskerville, communications director for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for Artscape, initially approached Strunge to design something for the exhibit because he'd seen her work around and thought it would translate well into this project. "I thought it would be an interesting experiment for her," he says.

Strunge decided to make two creatures this year, but now she wishes she'd planned to do more. Nonetheless, she's looking forward to seeing her gigantic creatures amid the Artscape crowds: Half the fun is seeing how people react to them. Sometimes customers send her photos of themselves with their monsters, which she posts on an online photo journal. One shows a monster relaxing with a beer in hand. Several others feature toddlers cuddling them.

"I really like that my art has a life outside of me," Strunge says.

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