Wednesday, July 28, 2010 | 5:31 p.m.
Onscreen, Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" accompanies a message about saving innocent animal lives. Images of the victims scroll past, giving way to a woman in a living room, cradling one of the needy. But this is no ASPCA commercial, that woman isn't Sarah McLachlan* — and that's no cuddly animal she's got bundled up. It's blobby, blind, and sports giant pinchers. It's Grub-Baby, the larval version of a derobrachus beetle. And apparently, it needs your donation.
The video, and Grub-Baby, are the creations of Jesse Smigel, a Vegas-born artist and inventor. His home, nestled in a Downtown neighborhood where some buildings date back to 1946, is a monument to his eccentric imagination. In his backyard is his pet chicken, Fatty, and an 8-foot-tall lawn gnome Smigel made himself. Inside, random artwork hangs on the wall, including a shadow box featuring warning labels cut from European cigarette boxes, which rotate around to reveal Smigel's additions to the dire messages, such as: "Smoking is the reason your children hate you." A trip to the bathroom tempts nosy guests to discover one of his homemade booby traps: Peek into the medicine cabinet and a beetle will swing at your face. Smigel will proudly present his collection of preserved insects, including grubs, adult derobrachus and black widows—but you probably don't want to ask about the collection of taxidermied cats.
By day, Smigel acts as master carpenter and scenic artisan for the Judy Bayley Theater at UNLV, designing and creating props and sets for theater productions, most recently A Midsummer Night's Dream. Creative, sure. But it's on his own time that his imagination goes in the most bizarre directions.
He created Grub-Baby partially because he identified with the insect's tragically brief life: Born underground, it spends three to five years blind and alone before emerging as the derobrachus beetle, with the sole purpose of finding a mate—only to die three weeks later. "They're doomed to be these hopeless romantics," Smigel says. The connection is also why Smigel refers to the insect as one of his spirit animals (the other is a snow leopard).
Smigel is obsessive. His stuffed-cat collection spawned from his quest to carry on his late cat's memory. As for his own feline, it had to settle for being commemorated in art. A photography piece, titled "Sour-Puss," features a snapshot of his late companion with an ornery expression on its face and a lemon wedge strapped to its head. The frame picks up cues from the photo: Fur lines the outside, and the inside liner is painted yellow and textured to feel like lemon skin.
"I'd like to think I'm working with the rapidly blurring lines between novelty, aesthetic function and fine art, and with a dark, abject sense of humor," he says.
Indeed, humor is important to his work. "I would rather appeal to the child inside of everyone," Smigel explains. "I'm not trying to give anyone a downer about oil spills or politicians."
Smigel shows off one of his latest inventions: "Cat-Cactus," a rubber cactus that features strips of fake fur where prickles should be. Pet it and the device immediately shakes—or, for this purpose, purrs. Smigel's plan is to get "Cat-Cactus" picked up by Spencer's Gifts stores, feeding the entrepreneur in him. (He's already got money coming in from ads on his YouTube channel, TheStyrofoamBorg, where his videos have received, at last count, more than 170,000 views.) Again, he treads the line between art and novelty.
"If a Big Mouth Billy Bass were about twice its size and in the [Museum of Modern Art] 20 years ago," he says, "it would be considered amazing artwork. But sell it for $9.99 in a sporting-goods store and it becomes novelty."
One of his more infamous pieces is "Bloodhammer," a giant Styrofoam hammer with the guts of a SuperSoaker inside. Pump it and it sprays … water, not blood. He created it as a prop for one of his other side projects: performing onstage with his brother, Jacob, a musician. Jesse plays the evil Dr. Bloodhammer, who, wearing a Styrofoam skull mask, menaces the audience until he is allowed to sing one of his own songs—about fluffy kittens.
No matter how weird or quirky his work gets, serious people have taken notice. St. Jude Hospital asked Smigel to create a Styrofoam piece for the patients to paint and auction at a fundraiser. The work turned out so well, one of its representatives decided she'd rather have it put on display in the corporate home office. Smigel also receives commissions to create work for everything from art galleries to children's bedroom decorations (a dinosaur headboard, for example).
At the heart of many of his pieces is contradiction. Smigel loves to entice and confuse simultaneously. Take the "Cat-Cactus": It combines one thing that ordinarily discourages touching with another that invites stroking. Or Grub-Baby—you don't see it in the video, but the bug's lower half sprouts infant human legs. Another mismatch is Smigel's popcorn bucket, "Push for More Butter." When you push the red button for more butter, it releases a spray of coffee stink. The scent was chosen for shock value—by releasing the strong, bold scent of coffee when the nose is ready to inhale "delicious, buttery popcorn," Smigel explains, a sensory assault is inflicted.
Smigel himself is a contradiction. An artist whose inventions range from the extremely strange to PG enough for a children's hospital. His greatest creation may just be himself.
* Shameless plug: The Sarah McLachlan look-alike actually is Weekly art critic Danielle Kelly.