Costume Designer Creates Strange Fabric Characters From A Grim Fairy Tale

August 20, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

Costume designer Melissa Webb keeps some pretty strange company, all of her own making.

There's a Swamp Nymph, a Ghost Bride, a Grassman and a Topiary Woman, all looking like something out of an especially Grimm fairy tale. There's a Death Dance Bird, a collection of feathers on taffeta that is the stuff of an ornithologist's nightmare. And there are four Uppity Ladies, 8-foot-tall women swathed in silk and lace who, physically and emotionally, look down on the rest of us.

"They're dramatic, they create drama," Webb, 34, says of her fabric creations, a mixture of earth-toned wariness and unexpected whimsy on display at South Baltimore's Gallery Imperato through Sept. 12. "And they're beautiful."

That they are, in an Earth Mother-meets-The Addams Family way that suggests a presence both benign yet slightly menacing. Not to mention wildly imaginative. Ghost Bride, which Webb created in the days after 9/11, is a nightmare of violated innocence, a white gothic wedding gown that looks like something out of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Contrast that with the delightfully incongruous Uppity Ladies' light-colored skirts, perfect for the woman whose legs are twice as long as the rest of her body, worn by a quartet of upper-class snobs who use their servant gnomes as croquet wickets.

Many of her creations are made in collaboration with area dance and theater troupes, as well as other performance artists. Others spring from her psyche, reflecting what she's thinking or experiencing at the time. Webb's creations have delighted visitors to Artscape and the Transmodern Festival. Technically, they're just clothes, but emotionally, they're so much more.

Take Swamp Nymph, for example, a conical, blue-green creation of tulle, wool and feathers. Standing amid a ring of wildflowers, her arms extended in a way that seizes control of the space all around her, one can imagine her as a wizened, experienced woman, one to be respected but not messed with. It's as if an oasis of green in the midst of a decaying swamp had somehow sprung to life.

"That's supposed to be me, or at least me at the time I made it," says Webb, who appears neither menacing nor especially primordial in her present incarnation. In prepared notes, she refers to Swamp Nymph as "me moving through the muck of my subconscious at the time ... a woman in her own element, regardless of what she encountered."

Or maybe Swamp Nymph reflects what Webb wanted to be.

"I was a little bit trying to find myself as an artist, as a person," says Webb, a 1996 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she studied fiber arts, acquiring a knowledge of man-made and organic materials that has served her well in the 10 years she's been designing costumes. "She's in that deep, dark swamp, but she is not afraid."

Webb's costumes "are not just meant to be worn, they're works of art," says gallery director Cheri Landry, who first saw Webb's work at Artscape a few years back, where her costumed gnomes were busy enchanting visitors with their emotive, yet undecipherable, blabberings while selling rocks, sticks and pieces of moss for $1. "They're whimsical, and just a tiny bit creepy."

If you go

"In a Material World ... Costumes by Melissa Webb" is at Gallery Imperato, 921 E. Fort Ave., Suite 120, through Sept. 12. Gallery is open Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., or by appointment. Call 443-257-4166 or go to

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