“I have to make a new costume for coyote,” said Michelle Lassaline, holding a piece of caramel-colored linen she picked up in Portland. In her tiny, sky-lit studio in the attic of an arty bungalow, she pointed to a few hand-stitched costumes hanging on the wall. Her garment making style, she said, came into being many years ago when her aunt asked for a drawing to hang on her wall. She drew a portrait of the lead character from Petrushka, Stravinski’s 1911 opera, in which clown-like puppets come to life.
“They look old,” Lassaline says, standing in front of a blue, pajama-like hand-stitched suit and a striped pinafore that could have come from a storybook. “But back then, they looked avant-garde.”
Along the adjacent wall hang papier-mache heads of a fox, a goat, a cow and the critter that's about to get a new suit, Frances the French Coyote. The heads are sized so Lassaline can wear them, and their shapes and painted-on details are as realistic as could be, save for one feature.
“Simba eyes,” she calls them. “The kind-of-Disney, a-little-bit-big eyes” to make each creature seem more approachable. “I definitely humanize them,” she said.
Lassaline, who grew up in Carson City inspired by animal-themed stories such as Where the Wild Things Are, The Velveteen Rabbit and The Jungle Book, graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2014 with a fine arts degree. Since then she's won two awards from the City of Reno Art BLAST, a grant from Sierra Arts Foundation, and a commission from Artown. Later this year, her work will appear at Oats Park Art Center and in the annual Wild Women exhibit, and she'll travel to Switzerland for an artist's residency.
In July, she'll perform during Artown as part of the Taeuber Troupe, dressing up as Frances the French Coyote, traveling on a 5-foot-wide stage towed by a bicycle, and drawing portraits of people as their favorite animal. Nate Clark, her boyfriend and collaborator, will pedal the bike, and sculptor Mike Burke is currently working on welding the stage.
“The way I interact is I give people art for free,” she explained. At Dave Eggers' talk at the Nevada Musuem of Art in May, she and five volunteers suited up as animals, ushered people into the auditorium, and gave away animal sketches that were pre-drawn on joss paper. At a Holland Project event, she once gave out fortune cookies.
“When I performed at Holland Project, I gave out the fortunes. That's when I found out I liked giving a gift for free, because it's embarrassing for people to interact with something that's going to call attention to them, so I try to minimize that kind of shock value. I'm not interested in the shock value. I'm interested in the real connection and direct experience.”
Lassaline is inspired by the early Dadaists from pre-1920. “Those are kind of my art saints,” she said, during what happens to be their 100th anniversary year. In particular, she likes work of Dadaist puppetmaker, seamstress and teacher Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose namesake her performance team borrows.
“She was my ideal predecessor,” Lasslaine said, in part because Taeuber-Arp's work was more accessible than Dadaist work tended to be. “I've definitely always been set on making work that is for a really wide audience. I have a huge family. They're not necessarily trained in the arts, but they're really important to me. That's always been really essential.”
She mentioned the cynicism and irony that's been a prevalent streak in contemporary art for a while, and said, “I'm interested in doing the opposite of that: single entendres.”