Scenes on Wheels, Costumes in Motion
Robyn Howard, Butler College
When I was tackling the Couch to 5K running app, many of my neighbors thought I was “a runner.” I’d see them on dog walks, and they’d say, “When we didn’t see you run by our house last night, we wondered where you were.” Or they’d wish me a good run when they noticed me on the sidewalk simply adjusting my shoelaces. I’d laugh and respond, embarrassed, “Oh, I’m not a runner. I’m just enjoying myself.” I continued to be perplexed by the misconception until someone finally explained, “You run; that makes you a runner.”
By that logic, I used to be an artist. Like many, my childhood was filled with imagination and originality; I saw art in and made art of everything I could. While I was pursuing my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, I wrote an essay on what constitutes art, titled, “What isn’t art?”
Despite an encouraging curatorial commendation for my senior thesis exhibition installation, I was unable to actualize a professional, artistic path that would afford me the opportunity to support myself doing what I enjoyed. I embarked upon an unrelated career “in the meantime” that I rationalized with the consolation that it satisfied my organizational bent. I vowed to nurture my artistic will through hobbies and other endeavors in my spare time. But banalities of adulthood invaded mercilessly and, eventually, I noticed that I’d just stopped creating art altogether. A while ago. Without even noticing. My life was completely devoid of artmaking and, by definition, I was no longer an artist.
Then I learned about the famous Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade in the East Village of New York City: a massive, annual celebration and contest for people and pets in various levels of costume display. I eagerly attended with my new pup, a wiry, auburn Cavachon sweetly dressed as Hello Kitty in a pink dress, coordinating sneakers, and an oversized, plush Hello Kitty hat that Velcroed all the way around her furry face. She adorably embodied the popular character in three dimensions and auspiciously attracted an enormous amount of attention.
There were other store-bought costumes at that day’s celebration and no judgment I could detect; everyone thought their dog looked the best, and they were all right. But, surrounded by two types of entries, I found myself entirely fascinated by the originality, workmanship, and fanfare of the homemade expressions: opulent headdresses, glittery accessories, and all manner of handcrafted accoutrements. And then there were floats! Oh, the floats. Scenes on wheels, costumes in motion; my dog was amenable, and I was invested.
Our first homemade endeavor was a relatively understated peacock costume with upright plumage fanning out from around her waist and a small, feathered headpiece affixed to her head with Velcro. It was a delightful and delicate submission that perfectly suited her enduring puppydom. But, amidst the grander scaled costumes, it didn’t elicit much attention.
By the next Halloween, she’d reached full grown, small dog status: weighing in at 13 pounds with a fluffy, blonde coat. I’d seen the movie Woman in Gold and was inspired to depict its subject, artist Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. I began creating the garb months in advance, working in painstaking detail to hand paint a multi-layered costume that would adequately capture the breathtaking, shimmering design of the original painting, which is on permanent display at the Neue Galerie uptown. Enrobed in the handcrafted fineries and adorned with complementary jewels, never before or since has there been such a regal dog on display. It was only when we were already in the line that wrapped around the park in advance of the contest that it was revealed to have been a wholly esoteric venture. By the tenth spectator exclamation of “Cleopatra!” I was ready to jump in the East River just a few avenues away.
But there’s some poetry in the way an annual event absolves you of the past year’s triumphs and challenges you to strive anew. Undeterred, we persisted with our art theme; this time, with a tribute to the decidedly more well-known artist, Frida Kahlo. Previous costumes had been primarily assembled with hot glue, and we needed an upgrade, so I appointed my mom as our seamstress. Following my specifications, she expertly transformed a black camisole, the eyelet trim of a vintage pillowcase, and a remnant of embroidered ribbon into a dog-size version of a traditional Mexican huipil. With the ubiquitous floral crown atop her head, a tiny plush monkey perched upon her shoulder, and a fake mustache fastened to her forehead, my small dog turned indefatigable artist was a glorious sight to behold. The parade was rained out that year.
We then turned our focus to another artist, Yayoi Kusama, whose life’s work has been pervaded by a theme of dots and spheres. Her then recent Festival of Life exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea drew unprecedented crowds for the entirety of its run. Returning to my reliable glue gun, I hand cut bright pink fabric polka dots to festoon a small navy dress that paired with a matching pink wig and my dog’s uncanny imitation of the defiant glare captured in most popular images of the artist. But although New Yorkers had waited countless collective hours to view the show, none of them were amongst the crowd the day of the parade, and no one had any idea who my dog was supposed to be.
The tricky combination of recognition and relevance continued to elude us until I visited the Brooklyn Museum to see the Obama portraits. Amy Sherald presented Michelle in an imposing sculptural dress: a force of majestic determination. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack was striking and lush: absolutely inspiring. Within days I was scouring the internet for faux leaf panels to perfectly match the size, shape, and color of the painting’s background. With careful measurements and an obscene number of zip ties, I had soon wrapped a dog stroller until it was unrecognizable—a veritable mobile hedge. I’d been touched by the symbolism of the flowers depicted in the portrait, and I adorned the greenery with their artificial equivalents: the blue African lily a nod to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage; Hawaiian white jasmine for the state of his birth; chrysanthemums signifying Chicago, where his political career began. Outfitted in a tiny dark suit, black shoes, and a handmade, dog size watch—and once seated inside the transformed float—my ever-patient chameleon of a dog became Bark Obama by Kehinde Woofy, and the crowd ate it up. It was positively joyous, and I was elated.
We came in first in our category, third in the contest overall. But the highlight of the day, spent rolling through New York with an iconic portrait brought to life by my beloved dog, was when someone stopped me to ask where my artwork had been shown. “Shown?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “aren’t you an installation artist?” I beamed. For the first time in a long time, I realized I was.