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For one month, Nicola Vruwink lived like Martha Stewart (um, except for the highly remunerative approach to equity trading). She made the homespun crafts; she cooked the elegant desserts. She stored her little fitness kit—weights, workout mat, etc.—in a wicker basket on the back porch. She did whatever Martha Stewart Living (on Channel 5 every morning at 10) told her to do. Now the fruits of her efforts are neatly laid out in her Beacon Hill living room, awaiting transfer to a Bumbershoot exhibition space, where they'll be displayed as art.
There's a throw pillow made from a blue shirt; a set of oilcloth place mats; little candy jars accented with crepe paper flowers; belts made from ribbons; "fancy pants" jeans with custom embroidery; a patriotic garland of red, white, and blue stars; several little holders for "air" plants, constructed out of seashells and tied twigs; among other items.
"If you actually start doing her projects, you realize they're impossible," says Vruwink. "I mean, I'm a pretty crafty person—and none of this stuff looks as good as the stuff she makes. It's so unsatisfying."
Holding up one particularly pointless Martha-mandated creation—an eyeglass strap strung with beads—Vruwink says: "I almost wonder if she's running out of ideas." A small crisis ensues when the strap unfastens and dozens of teeny beads spill to the floor. "Poor workmanship," Vruwink scolds herself, tongue in cheek.
The lure of the unattainable ideal, especially when it comes to traditional notions of femininity, has been a recurring theme for the 32-year-old artist. Her work has played off a self-confessed ambivalence: She sees the false promise of the frilly and the fairy tale; yet is drawn to it and longs for it nonetheless. For a solo show earlier this year at the James Harris Gallery, she created 6-inch figurines of herself and placed them on rotating pedestals in little party dresses, the arms outstretched—worshipping, embracing, maybe giving up. "I look very girly but also rather lost," says the artist. For another piece, now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, she installed a video camera behind a two-way bathroom mirror and minutely recorded herself applying makeup, plucking eyebrows, fixing smudges.
"It's always been a tug-of-war for me," says Vruwink. "My work is definitely about a search for happiness in a consumer-driven world," she says, "and how you're influenced—if you just buy this or that, you'll be happy, you'll be perfect; if you drive a nice car, or if you wear this outfit, or if you stay fit and thin and you have your hair done, if you present yourself as the perfect woman, you'll be happy. And realizing, as an intelligent person, that that's not the answer—it's a very empty pursuit, and yet wanting it and still trying to hold it all together."
Vruwink certainly can play the part: with Am鬩e eyes and ironed blond bangs (the rest faintly streaked with red), Vruwink welcomes her interviewer to her adorable home wearing a spotless lime green striped apron and light-purple Martha-style work shirt, beautifully groomed boxer at her side. A wedding-day photo in the living room shows her in a full-on white gown, her husband in formal tuxedo. "Once I started planning a wedding, it was really hard to escape the whole wedding package," she says. "Originally I was like, I'm going to wear a Bj�swan dress." The photo is now housed in a hand-decorated picture frame, thanks to the Martha project.
At Bumbershoot, the frame and the rest of Vruwink's bric-a-brac will be laid out on four tables, each representing one week of Martha-ism. (The exhibition is called "Living.") Video monitors will display footage of the artist creating the week's more perishable items, such as a lemon mousse that Vruwink says took about five hours to complete. "I was so sick of it," she recalls. "By the end I was like, 'I don't even want to eat this anymore.'" The dollar cost of all this self-reliance will also be displayed.
Of course, Martha herself—allegedly—has a particular talent for financial management, as we've learned. Says Vruwink: "I just hope she doesn't go to prison before my project's done."