Artist’s pipe-cleaner sculptures are a hit in Shanghai

It may sound like an unlikely combination — a California artist known for cartoonish pipe-cleaner sculptures and the French luxury brand Hermès, known for high-fashion accessories — but this summer, Don Porcella’s “Creatures in Wonderland” have transformed the windows of Hermès’ flagship store in Shanghai, China and attracted admiring viewers.

Porcella’s work might be considered outsider art, but he’s hardly an outsider. Born and raised in Modesto, California, he’s the son of a fiber artist renowned for her weaving and quilting, and a physician father who taught him to love the natural world. A graduate of UC San Diego, he has a BFA from California College of Arts and Crafts, an MFA from New York’s Hunter College, and is the recipient of a number of arts grants and prizes whose work has been exhibited here and abroad.

Porcella began working with chenille pipe-cleaners as a grad student in New York City. “I was travelling a lot, and they were portable, something I could work with on the Staten Island Ferry,” he said.

For his MFA exhibition, he invented a way of weaving pipe-cleaners together to make three-dimensional sculptures that were eye-catching and structurally sound. One of them caught the eye of a Paris-based art dealer who asked to represent him. “For about 10 years, she didn’t do much,” Porcella said. “Then she started showing my sculptures at Parisian art fairs, and last year, some people from Hermès saw them and said: That artist would be perfect for one of our store windows. Do you think he’d want to do it?”

Fast rewind: In 2014, Porcella had spent three months at an artists’ residency in Shanghai, courtesy of Swatch. “I’d been collecting Swatches for years,” he said. “Their interchangeability — different watchbands with different faces — was actually an influence on how I made art. And I got all my materials from China, so the Swatch residency seemed perfect, a chance to find a factory I could deal with directly and an Asian audience for my work.”

He applied, was accepted, and then his wife, Ginger Shulick Porcella, was offered the position of Executive Director of San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. He gave up his Brooklyn studio, they moved from New York to Lemon Grove, and a month later, he was off to Shanghai.

When Hermès heard about his Shanghai connection, they asked Porcella to fill the four windows of their new Shanghai store, including items from their 2016 summer collection. Inspired by the dioramas at New York’s Museum of Natural History, Porcella came up with the idea of four seasons, each featuring a different animal in its environment. Since 2016 was the Year of the Monkey, he knew he’d do monkeys, and bring along his studio mascot, Harry, a full-size pipe-cleaner chimp.

Months of back-and-forth communication followed. Porcella submitted sketches and created tiny models of flamingos (spring), monkeys (summer), deer (fall) and penguins (winter). He would make and ship the animals, and a Shanghai-based Japanese company, Hacienda, would build the environments to his specifications.

In January, he flew to Shanghai with detailed designs and drawings; in June, a week before the windows’ unveiling, he flew back again, carrying a few not-quite-finished creatures to complete in his hotel room.

Every night, from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m., dozens of people worked on the installation, in four different languages — French, Chinese, Japanese and English. On June 8, Hermès had the unveiling, with about 100 people looking on.

“They raised the curtain, and it was a real moment,” Porcella said. “There were all these people in the street, gasping. Traffic stopped. It’s turned out to be their most successful window display, because it’s not just a design, it’s a narrative. I sought to communicate with my audience to help them recognize and reconnect to our common beginnings. I designed the installation to help us see ourselves in nature.”

What’s next for Porcella? Maybe more Hermès windows, on Madison Avenue, or in Mexico City. And this fall, he’ll be part of a group show in Indianapolis, featuring the hottest fiber artists.

“I basically gave up my New York career and landed in this incredible spot,” he said. “This year, I had a show across the street from where I live, and then I went clear across the world to China. This has turned out to be a wonderful story.”