Stacey Vest’s exhibition at Covington’s Pique gallery is titled Immerse, and she is trying to keep her head above water as Friday’s opening draws near.
The wigmaker has spent the past couple months inside a studio at Pendleton Art Center wading through a veritable ocean that includes mounds of artificial hair, piles of videotape, LED lights, glow-in-the-dark paint, swimming pool noodles, chestnut hulls and 600 cut-up plastic jugs. She apologizes for being slow to open the door to her undersea world on a recent afternoon, but explains that she was in the middle of pinning foam shark’s teeth onto a version of the pope’s mitre.
For more than a dozen years, we’ve watched Vest create “art for your head.” Her sky-high wigs resembling everything from bath bubbles to broccoli have topped off Cincinnati artist Pam Kravetz’s parade appearances (including for BLINK), Art of Food extravaganzas at The Carnegie in Covington and elegant parties for clients around the world. But rather than fulfill others’ visions this time around, the Park Hills, Ky. resident is giving us a look at what’s inside, rather than just on top of, her own head.
A survey of the sea, religion and more, Immerse is Vest’s first solo show. Yes, she’ll have live models and mannequins in fantastical headdresses, but the onetime graphic designer is eager to take over Pique’s entire gallery/Airbnb with a multidimensional installation — wall art, costumes, jewelry, lights and music — that goes all the way to hell and back. As visitors wander farther from the beach in the front gallery, they will pass a colorful reef and then enter an abyss/purgatory where a fluorescent balloon “anemone” might actually be “an enemy.” The final space, an area of reflection with mirrors and a slideshow of the making of this exhibit and Vest’s previous work, is “whatever someone wants it to be,” she says.
“Is there something after heaven or hell?” she muses. “Unconsciousness? Complete consciousness? It could just be a resting place after going through these trials and tribulations and troubles.”
Vest had intended to explore only the depths of the ocean. Then waves of religious symbolism started washing over her original concept as she noticed, for instance, that heavenly halos appear to glow inside jellyfish. She’s turning a tent into an interactive aquatic temple with an illuminated figure that could be either the Virgin Mary or a Portuguese man-o-war.
Immerse also considers threats to our environment, imaginations and memories. Visitors will encounter a shoreline of decaying trees, a crown of thorns made with plastic coffee stirrers, Victorian-style mourning jewelry and a quilt created out of old wigs. Repurposed materials are everywhere. The suction cups on a tentacled, half-human figure are the tops of milk cartons.
As Vest operates on caffeine and little sleep to prepare for the opening, she laughs about her varied inspirations — everything from the reality show Dragula to a nature walk with her 6-year-old daughter — and the exhibit’s blurred storyline.
“It’s like Voltaire meets Salman Rushdie’s kids’ books meets Tim Burton — if that means anything,” she says. “You’re kind of being baptized by your own imagination, and art.”
Voltaire was the French philosopher who challenged Christianity during the Age of Enlightenment. Rushdie’s allegorical Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fantasy about what happens when creative storytelling ceases to exist. And Burton is the director of eccentric films such as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice — which brings Vest back to the pointy teeth on the pope’s pointy hat. “It reminded me of the sand snake in Beetlejuice,” she says.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, Vest describes herself as “probably agnostic” as an adult. Yet she finds Catholic icons and other deities fascinating. “I think religion can be beautiful. I also think it can be really evil,” she says. “Growing up, there was so much judgment, no matter what religion.”
Vest doesn’t intend to offend any believer, or nonbeliever, with her art. She’s attached baby doll heads to the side of the papal hat/shark’s head but is leaving it up to the viewer to decide if the children are protected or at risk. The exhibit will include quotes from Voltaire (“Crush the horrible thing”) as well as the Dalai Lama (“The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others.”)
“I’ll find the beauty and the ugly and mix it together,” Vest says, “because I’ve always loved things that are a little off.”
Vest’s day job is real estate agent, but her background also includes working at Lightborne Communications, having a burlesque act and being a partner in the old Daughter Judy vintage shop in Northside. The wig making started after she decided to dress as a cuckoo clock for Halloween. While she’s been part of group shows and events at Brazee Street Studios and the Contemporary Arts Center, she says her first solo exhibition represents the opportunity to embrace complete creative control “and delve deep into the ‘right’ side of my brain.”
She will be installing Immerse days after returning from her first visit to the Wearable Art Awards in Holland and a hoped-for tour of the Amsterdam studio of one of her heroes, the avant-garde fashion designer Iris van Herpen. The research trip was made possible by a grant from the Great Meadows Foundation, a philanthropy that supports Kentucky artists. Vest doesn’t have an entry in the Dutch show, but next year she intends to enter a similar contest, the World of Wearable Art competition in New Zealand.
Vest has already witnessed how a wig can transform a wearer’s personality. With Immerse, she’s dipping a toe into deeper waters as an artist.
“I’m terrified, but it’s just like how I learned how to swim,” she says. “I learned how to swim because my grandma threw me in a pool and said, ‘Swim or die, kid!’ ”
This time, she just might walk on water.
Immerse opens with a 7:13-10 p.m. reception Friday at Pique (210 W. Pike St., Covington). On view through May 25. Free. More info: piquewebsite.com