Children’s Hospital day patients tour whimsical world of massive, ornamental costumes

“I’m always looking for shows that might be interactive and engaging for the kids,” said Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for the Children’s Hospital Colorado. “This one just seems like a perfect fit.”

By ADAM GOLDSTEIN, Staff Writer

DENVER | It would be easy to mistake these massive body suits for some modernist spin on the Muppets.

Measuring up to heights of 8 feet, the costumes boast bright colors and unorthodox materials. There’s fur, fluorescent red and blue lengths of human hair, buttons and feathers. One of the outfits has vintage toys attached; another a giant, creepy clown mask. These “soundsuits” created by modern artist Nick Cave on display at the Denver Art Museum are more like wearable works of art than usable outfits. There’s no practicality here. It’s all about the statement.

Nick Cave Exhibit

Skylar McDonald (left) and Robert Minor (right), both patients of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, look at a piece of Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Skylar McDonald, 16, a patient of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, soaks up pieces of Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Robert Minor, 16, a patient with the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado takes a picture of a piece by artist Nick Cave, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Hundreds of buttons make up a creation of Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Miracle Bassett, 12, a patient of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, takes a picture of her favorite dog while touring Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

(From left to right) Belicia Lopez, 15, Ashley Garcia, 16, and Devin Hughes, 13, all patients of the Medical Day Treatment Program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, list off items they remembered seeing in one of Nick Cave's textile pieces, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado are excited to see a sock-monkey suit at Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Patients from the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado tour Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Devin Hughes (center), 13, a patient of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, dances during a tour of Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Skylar McDonald (left), 16, a patient of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, teaches Devin Hughes, 13, how to dance gangnam style during a tour of Nick Cave's "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Nick Cave Exhibit

Skylar McDonald, 16, a patient of the Medical Day Treatment program at the Children's Hospital Colorado, makes her own Nick Cave-inspired suit after touring the "Sojourn" textile art exhibit, July 25 at the Denver Art Museum. According to Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for Children's, Cave's playful exhibit was a perfect fit for the patients because "a lot of what we do at the Children's Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that." (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Just don’t tell that to Daniel Minor, 10. During his trip to the museum last week, Minor gazed at the oversized outfits from the vantage of his wheelchair with wide eyes and an even wider smile.

“They look awesome, they just look like they would be comfortable,” Minor said, not at all put off by the long stretches of hair, buttons and fur that seemed to cover any kind of usable eyehole in many of the suits. “I think there’s a patch to see through.”

There has to be. Performers have donned the suits created by Cave during art shows and exhibitions. During these performances, elaborate light shows and loud music accompany exaggerated dance moves by the volunteers in the elaborate outfits.

That’s the thing about Cave’s art — it’s meant to be seen, heard, felt and simply experienced. “Sojourn,” the artist’s current exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, consists of about 40 new pieces that are about the magic, lure and possibility of textiles. The note of experimentation in Cave’s work is part of what drew a class of about 40 children from the hospital to the museum last week. The visit was part of a larger partnership between the museum and the hospital that kicked off last year.

The field trip was part of the hospital’s Medical Day Treatment Program, a collaboration between Children’s and the Aurora Public Schools district. The program is for K-12 students who are frequently hospitalized or who have had major absences due to chronic illness. The fall features a more traditional school schedule in terms of classes, but the program’s summer sessions have featured a wide variety of field trips.

“It’s nice to have that community piece and doing activities that a lot of these kids would otherwise not do,” said Emily Edlynn, the clinical director of the program. “The tie-in here is art as a part of life.”

Indeed, this excursion held a different kind of appeal than the bowling alleys and swimming pools the children visited earlier this summer. Like the program’s art classes held throughout the year, this collection of textiles offered the opportunity for catharsis and inspiration.

“I’m always looking for shows that might be interactive and engaging for the kids,” said Heidi Huisjen, arts coordinator for the Children’s Hospital Colorado. “This one just seems like a perfect fit.”

That’s not just because the exhibit includes a workshop where visitors can conduct their own experiments with fur, buttons and other textiles. According to Huisjen, the artist and the Medical Day Treatment’s art program have similar goals.

“I was watching the video that Nick put together. He said, ‘This is my playground,’” Huisjen said, referring to a film focused on the artist. “A lot of what we do at the Children’s Hospital is helping kids cope with pain. I feel like play is an integrative part of that.”

There’s definitely a note of playfulness in this exhibit. The collection includes dense thickets of found objects — beads, porcelain birds, glass lights and other baubles are a unifying element here. Those objects come crammed together in a mass that hangs above a plastic dog in one piece, or strung around wooden stands in another piece. Whether it’s thousands upon thousands of buttons lining one of the gallery walls or the massive four-panel, 24-foot-long tableau of found objects simply titled “Painting,” Cave’s style is downright baroque.

Cave, a professor of fashion and garment design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, offers a grandiose sense of release in his work. Even the fantastical “soundsuits” originally stemmed from an urge to escape. Cave created his first suits in 1992 as a means to get away from the horror, injustice and social strife that arose in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

The therapeutic power of this show ties into the unique mission and structure of the day program at Children’s. Along with the art classes themselves, the students submit original works for an exhibition hall on the hospital’s main floor. For these kids dealing with chronic health issues, the power of creativity is a regular means of recovery.

“Because they’re with us almost the entire year, we work with them when they come in session for school. They get music, they get movement, yoga and art every week,” Huisjen said. “It is about the therapy component. It’s helping them to resolve the things they have going on in their lives, and a lot of artwork is aligned with that.”

As the students wandered through the rooms full of found objects, outrageous costumes and bold artistic experiments at the Denver Art Museum, their artistic palettes seemed to grow.

“I expect that some of what they see today will come back and be a part of the conversation,” Huisjen said. “My background is in textiles. This helps them realize that you don’t just have to use paints to express yourself, you can use found objects and mixed media. From a kid’s perspective, it’s good to have them start thinking outside of the box.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or agoldstein@aurorasentinel.com

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