BRILLIANT DISPLAY Thompson’s Bird #1.

The owl-falcon smiles with demonic, googly-eyes and a wide, maniacal, fanged grin. Bird #1, as Providence Cody Thompson calls his creation, is an array of rainbow-hued sequins and beads that he stitched to a bright magenta cloth bordered with blue and gold ribbons and blue fringe. The bird raises its wings in a brilliant display of flower-shaped sequins.

"Witch Doctor," Thompson's terrific exhibit of beaded and sequined banners at Craftland (235 Westminster Street, Providence, through June 11), takes its inspiration from traditional Haitian voodoo (or vodou) banners, with hints of '80s glam. The Haitian creations usually arrange sequins to depict African deities, Catholic saints, and charged symbols that come from the tradition's brew of African and European faiths. Thompson adapts this vibrant look to depict his own sparkly scenes.

In the past, Thompson has stitched together dolls — like those in the "Boys of Summer" exhibit at Craftland in 2009 — including cute, soft, morbidly witty flower-petal head figures, Hindu deities, a leather-clad bondage dude, an astronaut, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a woman with a cracked head laying in a pool of blood, and a naked guy suckling at a she-wolf based on the founding Roman twins Romulus and Remus. You could unzip some of them and remove the soft fabric organs inside. The dolls were by turns charming and alarming, like rascal Muppets run deliciously amok.

Here Thompson evidences the same level of skill, while adopting a more cosmic outlook. One banner features blue and black sequined pyramids shining under a blue and white sequin moon and bead stars. Another banner shows the moon in sparkly green and silver sequins on a blue velvet night sky.

VIBRANT Detail from Bird #2.

A misstep is a jokey banner showing a ring of eight planets with the Disney cartoon dog Pluto in the center. And some may be rubbed the wrong way by a pair of dolls that are caricatures of "savages" with rings around their necks and grass skirts.

When he's on, Thompson uses the Haitian banner style to turn mundane things fabulous, as in Victory, which shows a mouse dead in a Victory brand trap. But mostly Thompson makes fabulous things more fabulous like an owl shimmering under the sequined slogan "remember," or a quartet of white mice circling a poisonous orange, black and yellow coral snake coiled in an interlaced pattern.

Traditional handcraft has become of the most vital strains of fine art today. It arises out of the ashes of the end of mainline Modernist art in the 1960s and '70s. Minimalism pared down art to its elemental essentials. Then Conceptual art dematerialized art altogether in favor of ideas. Meanwhile, the past generation has grown synthetic as more and more artists turn over the creation of their works to assistants and outside contractors.


In the art world, you can begin a crafty lineage with the soft fabric Pop art sculptures of the '60s, which were among the first works to push traditional women's crafts — sewing, quilting, weaving — into the center of the art world. At the end of Modernism, artists were craving a return to imagery and beauty and wildcat energy. And Modernist artists have, of course, long mined art outside the precincts of "fine" art for raw energy — Gauguin posed as a Tahitian naïf, Picasso borrowed from African masks, Jackson Pollock fancied himself a Native American shaman, and Pop artists ripped off comic books.

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