Shrinky Dinks but not rinky-dink: Big-name artists are put to the test

There's nothing quite like the Annual Shrinky Dinks Invitational Art Auction, where a children's craft toy wraps Seattle's top artists in humility.
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Shrinky Dinks art by James Jaxxa, to be auctioned this week at the Sixth Annual Shrinky Dinks Invitational Art Auction in Seattle.

There's nothing quite like the Annual Shrinky Dinks Invitational Art Auction, where a children's craft toy wraps Seattle's top artists in humility.

Bryan Yeck, the man behind Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle's Pioneer Square, is the epitome of a busy guy. Not only does his café stage a monthly art show, music evenings, and movie screenings, Yeck also disseminates his design aesthetic - a synthesis of shining wood, vintage signage, and high-tech lights - to coffee emporia from downtown to Capitol Hill, West Seattle, and Fremont. He helped design the International District's Panama Hotel Tea House and its just-opened MoMo boutique.

Nevertheless, Yeck makes time for small things, too - most famously Zeitgeist's Annual Shrinky Dinks Art Invitational. Almost every year, during a First Thursday gallery-walk showcase, Yeck invites artists to make pieces out of the retro toy medium called Shrinky Dinks. The sheets of blank plastic can be drawn upon, colored, painted, Xeroxed, printed on, and cut into forms. Placed in a hot oven, they will shrink to a third of their size in seconds. At his Invitationals, begun in 1999, each tiny work is auctioned off, with proceeds going to charity. Recipients have included Home Alive, the Richard Hugo House, the Langston Hughes Cultural Center, and SafeFutures; this year's auction benefits Sanctuary Art Center.

The exhibition started as a joke between Yeck and a writer-barista, Sarah Polle Ocampo. Both had vivid memories of drawing, cutting, and coloring, only to watch each tour-de-force shrivel melodramatically. Says Yeck, "We just thought it would be a funny concept, telling artists they had to use this weird kids' material. We had no idea they would take it so seriously."

Yeck stages the event with the Shrinky Dinks co-inventor: Betty J. Morris, who, for 34 years, has run a Wisconsin company selling the craft. She developed Shrinky Dinks with a neighbor, Katie Bloomberg, as a project for their sons' Cub Scout group. When local kids clamored to get in on the shrinking, the moms realized they had stumbled on a powerful niche market. They launched their own company, K&B innovations, in 1973 at a local mall. Within a year, K&B was commanding a nationwide fad, one that continued well into the 1980s. As children used their plastic to create charms and earrings, toy giants such as Mattel and Milton Bradley bought in.

In 1985, Bloomberg left the firm (she become the mayor of Brookfield, Wisc., for 16 years). Morris, however, is still selling Shrinky Dinks and remains a staunch supporter of the Invitational. "A lot of artists from all over use our sheets. But some of the pieces those Seattle artists make are awesome. It always blows my socks off!"

Zeitgeist gives each artist K&B's Frosted Ruff N'Ready, an opaque, textured plastic Betty Morris created herself. "Our first sheets," she says, "were totally transparent; the concept then was 'trace on one side, color on the other.' But by using sandpaper, I came up with a better surface: one that could hold freeform marks made by almost anything. Except that then, in every package, we had to say, 'Dust off your sheet!' and, at work, my desk was completely covered in powder." The concept was saved by her packaging manager, Jules Namowitz, who designed a small machine to roughen up their plastic in bulk.

Seattle's Shrinky auction is a miniaturized spectacular, one that features lanterns, dioramas, shrines, portraits, charms, tattoos, ornaments, photographs, magical insects, mobiles, tiaras, three-dimensional flora, pinhole cameras, and mock Chihulys. Says local painter and participant Cait Willis: "Artists really take it as serious challenge. This year, I heard that someone's making a chandelier."

Certainly, the fierce competition is surprising, given that millionaires collect many of the contestants. Printmaker and painter Richard Hutter, for instance, shows his work in four places: Lisa Harris Gallery and Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, the Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, and Brooklyn's trendy Pierogi Flatfiles. Yet he is still sweating it out in front of his oven. "Your first year," he says, "you transpose your usual work and you shrink it. You deliver your little square and then, at the show, you are humbled."

Hutter has become a good example of the serious shrinker, waxing lyrical about the medium's properties. "Of course it shrinks incredibly, so you take that into account. The plastic's also pliable for a few seconds just as it cools. So you can have curvaceousness - and you can totally fry your fingers. With a copier that uses heat-fused toner, you can Xerox on it. Plus, you can cut it into shapes if you pre-think an armature."

While some artists favor their kitchens for the shrinking, other will swear by the electric toaster oven. Painter Deborah Bell is one of them. "I get very excited when I'm finally ready to shrink. Because you can't predict what will happen. I've had happy accidents and I've had disasters."

Bell has contributed to every Invitational, and her works attract some of the liveliest bidding. She sees her Shrinky Dinks as echoes of her (much) larger art, which can be seen in Seattle's SAM, San Francisco's Andrea Schwartz Gallery, and Sopa Fina Arts in Kelowna, B.C. But, she confides, "I've developed a system. I have a whole bag of personal Shrinky Dinks tricks."

For some who have left Seattle, Shrinky Dinks provide an offbeat tie to the local art scene. Artist James Jaxxa moved to New York six years ago; he now shows at numerous galleries, and his art is documented by the New York Public Library's Art Collection. But he always sends a Shrinky Dinks FedEx from his Chelsea studio. "This show forces you to re-think how you use materials. Plus, it's a way to remain connected with Seattle. Those are the people who first embraced my art."

"We have similar things in Manhattan," he adds, "but they're not the Shrinky Dinks show. People may see it as this quirky oddball thing. But I see it as adventurous in a really Seattle way. There's a lot of great art there - just like there's plenty of bad art here."

Down on South Jackson Street, Yeck is suffering "party anxiety." "Every year I give out over 200 packets of plastic, knowing maybe half of those artists will come through. One year, it was two days before the show and I didn't have a single Dink in the house. I was totally losing my mind! Then, around 3 or 4 p.m., the floodgates opened. It was absolutely nuts; we could hardly serve the customers."

In the event, he took 800 bids, broke the bank for beer and wine, and handed that year's charity a check for more than $4,000.

With only days to go, however, the atmosphere was mounting; a stack of plastic sheets had been stashed behind the doughnuts. Says Yeck, "The week before is actually kind of weird. People suddenly want to make a piece in 24 hours. Or they make some terrible goof and race in here for extra plastic. Still, our baristas will always cheer them on. They compliment any artist with bandages on their fingers."

The Sixth Annual Shrinky Dinks Invitational Art Auction begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, during the First Thursday Gallery Walk, at Zeitgeist Coffee, 161 S. Jackson St. in Seattle. It benefits Seattle's Sanctuary Art Center, which provides a safe artistic center for homeless and at-risk youth.


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