Needle and brush open doors to other worlds

Sarah Smellie
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NOTICE: Show postponed for a week due to Saturday's weather forecast

NOTE: Due to Saturday's weather forecast, the show has been postponed until Saturday, Feb. 16.

On Saturday, February 16 at 3 pm, the Leyton Gallery will be the site of  "Living Gowns" - a performance art fashion show by Brent Coffin.  Brent's oil paintings are narrative and surrealistic in nature.  In addition to his paintings,  Brent designs and creates stunning gowns that are featured in his paintings.  The opening will start with this fabulous fashion performance and champagne and chocolates will be on the menu to also celebrate Valentines day.

The exhibit will be on display until March 2, 2013.  The Leyton Gallery is located on Clift's-Baird's Cove, off Water Street. Admission is free.



In a room half-destroyed, a woman looks up defiantly from her book. A table is knocked over in front of her, a shelf has collapsed behind her. She’s standing on a toppled bookshelf, books spilled and torn around her feet. A cracked mirror behind her reflects and approaching figure.

Brent Coffin thinks that figure is a soldier who has come to arrest her for reading. This is a world where knowledge is burned, after all.

Coffin dreamed up this world as he created the woman’s dress. The world is depicted in a vivid oil painting hanging on the wall in the Leyton Gallery. The dress, made entirely by Coffin, is fitted onto a mannequin in front of the painting.

The dress and painting are part of “Living Gowns,” an exhibition of intricately designed gowns and their accompanying painting. Coffin designed, sewed and fit each of the gowns to a model he selected for it, and then created a painting featuring that model in her dress and in her dress’ world. The show opens at the gallery Saturday at 3:30 p.m., with a fashion show that doubles as performance art featuring each of the models in their frocks. (That’s weather permitting. Call the gallery or visit to confirm.)

“As I’m building the dress, I think about the woman who would wear it,” says Coffin. “If she wasn’t bound to be in the time that we live, where would she live and what type of person would she be? What would be her story?”

That story can be seen just as clearly in the dressmaking as it can in the painting. The dress belonging to the woman with the forbidden book is made of swatches of white stretch satin covered in words and headlines, like newsprint.

“I’ve always been really inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and the idea of burning books,” he says. “The image of that really inspires a horror in me, and also the idea of knowledge being destroyed so that people can be controlled.”

Coffin took the newsprint fabric, covered in words from what he calls “the gobbledygook that comprises pop culture,” and cut it up into pieces, from which he assembled the dress.

“I thought it would be a great idea to have the bodice of a dress be almost like a billboard of all the crap that we’re fed each day,” he said. “And it’s also about access to information, so what I did with each of the pieces is cut them into little pages and burn them systematically with a candle just to create the illusion of things — books and knowledge — being burnt.”

The skirt flutes at the back to give the illusion, he says, of pages falling.

Though his garments have corseted bodices, intricate stitching patterns and, in one case, thousands of sequins hand-stitched one by one to form the head of a peacock, Coffin has no formal sartorial training; he went to Grenfell for painting and sculpture. He began sewing things out of circumstance.

“It started as a strange journey,” he says. “About six years ago, I was going through a really rough time. I moved out here to St. John’s from Stephenville with my aunt, and I had no space for a few months — I never had room to paint. So, I would go to the Salvation Army stores and get fabric swatches and hand sew them together and cut them up and make interesting little things. All that stuff I’ve thrown out, but it was more about the experience of making it.”

From there, his parents bought him a sewing machine and he bought himself a dressform. He taught himself everything he knows.

“Mom bought me a pattern set for an old baroque corset and it took me weeks just to figure out the language of what the right side and wrong side of the fabric is,” he says. “I can’t even say all the technical terms, I still don’t really know them, I just learned the forms of them and the movement. I started tracing out the patterns onto fabric and, after a lot of cursing, I got through three or four attempts. Then I’d tear it apart, taking the boning strips out and starting again. So, it was sort of an obsessive process.”

But, as evidenced by his use of the term “building” when he refers to making the dresses, his fashion designing is not that much of a departure from the sculpture training he received at Grenfell.

“When I started, I was looking at it not from a designer perspective but as a sculptor,” he says. “That’s why I think I was really attracted to the corset design. It’s not about compressing women — I don’t like the old Victorian ones where it really compresses everything. But I like ones that use the plastic boning strips inside the seams just to accentuate the curves of the body.”

Making dresses seems to have the same therapeutic effect as making those original fabric sculptures, even though his gowns involve maddeningly minute detail and an enormous amount of time. The thousands of sequins on the peacock dress took him three months to sew on. The work caused him a lot of frustration — he had to sew on a second layer of peacock feathers after the first ones didn’t work out — but that frustration is all part of the dress’s narrative.

“It’s the work and the time that I think adds the value to it, that obsessive quality of it,” he says. “Because I think that in itself is a story. I think that’s what I love about looking at works by Alexander McQueen and Gautier and Givenchy: the intricacy just blows my mind.”

“I think just the experience of creating something like that almost makes me feel like I’m in one of the paintings,” he adds. “Like I’m working for some shah or some royal figure. It’s almost like I’m living in a little fantasy world.”

It’s a world he wants to share. He has planned the exhibit’s opening fashion show as meticulously as he has stitched its gowns so that gallery goers feel like they’re part of the stories. Even the models he chose to wear the gowns were selected with care and an eye for detail.

“I selected them from people that I see around,” he says. “I see how other people in their environment react to them and I think, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of the reaction that I imagine the woman who would wear this dress would get from people.’”

The woman modelling the newsprint dress in the painting is CBC Radio One’s Chris O'Neill-Yates. Another woman with long dark hair in a sweeping black gown pictured in a cathedral, is a co-worker of his. They both work at Dollarama, where he bought all of his sequins and feathers.

“I tried to give (the models) a glimpse of the idea as I went along with the dress,” he says. “It might not add a whole lot to their performance but I suppose I like the feeling of them being in on the story.”

“I mean, I work at this day job and then I go home and create these wacky things,” he adds. “I want to take people along for the ride.”

Links and a typo have been fixed in this story.

Organizations: Salvation Army, CBC Radio

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