The Exquisite Caterpillar on the STRUTT runway.
Photo by Lauren Garbutt Photography

When the Niagara Artists Centre decided to expand STRUTT, its annual wearable art show, into a two-day event, they asked Swizzle Studio for help.

In 2008, Christine Cosby had curated a project called (The Return of) 3-D Exquisite Corpses, in which textile artists created imaginative three dimensional body parts, which were then mixed & matched to create new exquisite corpse creatures (Exquisite Corpse is the surrealist parlour game in which a folded piece of paper is passed around a table with each participant drawing a head, a body, or legs without knowing what the previous person has drawn).

NAC wanted Swizzle to do an Exquisite Corpse as a piece of wearable art, with multiple actors joining up to form a giant figure. Initial ideas for an upright figure were rejected after we assessed the likelihood of electric wire entanglements and injurious falls.

Vertical exquisite corpse idea rejected because of injury risks.

Creating something exciting on a horizontal plane was a challenge. We didn’t want to appropriate a Chinese lion, and we wanted something with more variety than a snake. Christine and I realized that a caterpillar, with its strange marking and defensive features, would be a perfect template for the project.

Exquisite Caterpillar concept drawing.

Christine spent an afternoon visiting St. Catharines hardware stores talking with the staff about the project and trying to come up with solutions. Everyone was excited about the challenge and offered lots of great ideas. We ended up building the body segments out of snow fence, plastic molding, and pipe insulation tubes.

How an Exquisite Caterpillar segment works
(instructional drawing for artists and actors)

The segments of the Exquisite Caterpillar were to be decorated on the Friday afternoon before STRUTT as part of the Downtown Strutters Ball. Given how busy everyone in the local arts community was getting ready for STRUTT the next day, attendance was low. A few people stopped by and added some innovative flare to the caterpillar, but at 25 feet long, this creature needed a lot of flare.

Thankfully, NAC member and teacher Dan Brown brought in a class of boys who really took to the project. They tackled the enormous piles of shiny material, paper plates, and party favours that Christine had collected as potential coverings and completely reimagined them. The kids combined technical skill (I expected them to love the hot glue gun,  but these boys could sew too) and enormous creativity to turn our snow fence skeletons into amazing skins.

Students giving the Exquisite Caterpillar its colourful skin.

The kids had to return to school evnetually, so Christine and I were left with the head to finish. We were unable to bring the caterpillar to the Friday night party portion of the Downtown Strutters Ball as originally planned, and spent much of Saturday working on the head. While I had originally envisioned a much more Sid and Marty Krofft sort of head for the caterpillar, it ended up being influenced by its segments. With a huge lop-sided grin, pie plate eyes and multi-panelled skin, the head fit its riotous body.

STRUTT’s emotional conclusion, in which the
Exquisite Caterpillar emerges as a symbol of creativity.
Photo by Lauren Garbutt Photography

At Saturday night’s STRUTT, held in the huge WS Tyler building, we saw our creation on the runway. We had no idea why director Deanna Jones had insisted that caterpillar be happy, but now we understood. The 25-foot long creature emerged at the very end of the extremely theatrical production, ushered on stage by the driving music of Old World Vulture and the Niagara Symphony string section. At this point in the production’s plot, the World of STRUTT had been been snuffed out, and it was the caterpillar who symbolizes the return of creativity. The Exquisite Caterpillar: all goofy grin, and crazy quilt child-imagined skin, and brought to life by a bunch of enthusiastic actors. I will admit that Christine and I got a little choked up by the whole spectacle.

Brian Yungblutt shot a series of photos of the Caterpillar segments just before they hit the runway, which you can see below. All of Brian’s backstage photographs of the 50+ pieces of wearable art can be found at: